Between the Volcanoes

by Gregory Von Dare


Mention Hawaii and people think of swaying coconut palms, breathtaking sunsets, foaming surf and lissome hula girls. Of course, all this is true. But, with its orchid jungles, rugged cane roads and roiling lava fields, Hawaii provides some of the best scenic drives and day-trips available anywhere. Plus, when you're done for the day, there's always that beautiful beach to collapse on, and the above mentioned hula girls.

One untamed stretch of road on the big island of Hawaii can take you to some exceptional adventures. Known as the Saddle Road, it is a rugged ribbon of semi-paved blacktop that will challenge your smarts and endurance, but master it and you can glimpse the very outskirts of heaven. Well, almost...

While the main highways of Hawaii circle the costal perimeter, our journey veers inland. This twisting, humpy, deserted sixty-mile strip of coarse asphalt connects the east and west sides of the island. The Saddle Road is shunned by tourists and many locals because it runs directly between two of the largest volcanoes on earth, one of which is still active! For those who crave an adventurous drive and surroundings of the most awesome beauty, the Saddle Road is a must.

To give you a better idea of our locale, the big island of Hawaii was formed over the last three million years by the continuing eruptions of five adjoining volcanoes, including two outsize "shield" volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Measured from their origins on the ocean floor, those giants each soar to a stunning 32,000 feet of altitude, nearly two miles taller than Mount Everest. From sea level alone they reach close to 14,000 feet at their summits.

Chrysler and the folks at Dollar Rent-A-Car agreeably provided us with a late model, four-wheel drive Jeep Wrangler for our assault on the Saddle Road. Despite a pesky loose strap holding the canvas awning top in place, we quickly bonded with our fire-engine-red Jeep, naming it Holo-holo, which in Hawaiian means a gadabout or, to Hawaiian teens, a "player." In a region as thick with humidity and the heady scent of Plumeria as a tropical rainforest, our open Jeep seemed the perfect transportation.

My wife, Mary, and I began this memorable trip from a plush seaside hotel (the former Kona Hilton) on the west or Kona side of the big island. The Kona coast is celebrated for its savory coffee, blow-your-mind snorkeling and world-class sport fishing. From Kona's lava roughened shore, you take highway 11 West to the 190 North, aiming toward the rain-washed, inland town of Waimea, the center for cattle ranching on the big island. Also, the home of administrative offices for the astronomical observatories located at the very top of Mauna Kea - but that's another story. About five miles before Waimea, a sign directs you to the turn-off for Hawaii 200, the Saddle Road.

As you sweep around to the right, entering Saddle Road eastbound, more signs warn you to expect bumpy and dangerous conditions for the next sixty miles, while smaller placards urge that you turn on your headlights. Yes, even in daylight. Most of the Saddle Road is one semi-paved lane in width, broadened by two rough hewn shoulders, even though it passes for a two lane byway. There's enough room for two vehicles to edge past each other, yes, but the locals advise you to drive down the middle of the Saddle Road, where it's smoothest. You return to your own lane only when you encounter an oncoming vehicle. Thus the need for headlights - to see those approaching vehicles at the greatest distance.

Taking Saddle Road from the western side of the island, it appears at first to be little more than a country back road wandering through verdant Parker Ranch land. Parker Ranch is the largest privately owned cattle ranch in the USA and occupies close to a quarter million acres of big island upland. We breeze past herds of stout cattle and stands of tall eucalyptus trees planted long ago as windbreaks for the cattle against tropical storms and hurricanes.

Even Holo-holo is challenged by the coarse, splotchy paving along the Saddle Road. It's as though lumps of blacktop have been indescriminately dumped on the road and left to harden with no attempt to smooth or pack them down. I can feel the muscles in my neck tighten up as they take a beating from the capering road surface. Mile after mile of land unrolls before us. In the far distance, we glimpse the cloud-shrouded tops of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. On this perfect island day, the two giant volcanoes are as silent as eternity.

Closer to us is a rolling savanna dotted with cinder cones of micro-volcanoes, now asleep and covered with yellow-green prairie grass like mossy zits on the cheek of the Green Giant. Although the road dips up and down like a crazed roller coaster, it constantly rises toward its maximum elevation of 6000 feet - at about the halfway point.

With the Jeep's fuel-injected 4.0 liter straight-six purring steadily, we enter a spacious, broadly curving plain, the arched saddle land between the two gigantic volcanoes. This is the Hamakua district, about an hour into the drive. In this place it's hard not to feel like Jack, having jumped off the beanstalk, tiptoeing around the Giant's house, hoping not to wake him. Yet there is a sense of elation here as well. The air is so clear and pure, so rich in oxygen, it's intoxicating. The day is so beautiful, cloud shadows make impressionist art on the mountainsides. Even the immensity of the volcanoes seems benevolent. This is, in part, an illusion. Mauna Kea is considered dormant, but Mauna Loa is quite active. To this day it spews molten lava from its distant opposite slope by the ton into a frothing ocean. You traverse this road with the knowledge that at any moment you could be in the midst of rock so hot it flows like crankcase oil.

When an enemy of Hawaiian King Kamehameha the Great tried to sneak up on him with an army across this same plain, Mauna Loa erupted, covering the writhing attackers in a horrible flood of glowing lava. To the Hawaiians, this was a sign from the Gods, and one more reason that Kamehameha became the first man to rule over all the Hawaiian islands.

Now the road flattens out a little, but it adds some treacherous "S" curves to its repertoire of jolts and steep hills. On the right shoulder are a red flag and a sign warning that we're entering the Pohakuloa Military Reservation. It says we're subject to search at any time.

Suddenly, the green grasslands we've been driving through vanish like a magician's assistant. On both sides of the Saddle Road now is a nearly endless brown-black lava flow, perhaps the same one that destroyed Kamehameha's enemy over a century ago. This is the rugged, ragged, jagged lava Hawaiians call a'a. Saddle Road cuts right through the middle of this flow. The brownish lava rock is very hard and, like ocean coral, it's covered with thousands of razor sharp cutting edges. Think of instant coffee crystals magnified a thousand times and you'd be quite close to the look and feel of a'a. After a few miles, we edge into a new lava flow, this one the charcoal black, smooth surfaced lava that looks like elephant's hide. The Hawaiians call this stuff pahoehoe

Curiosity forces us to pull over and examine it. Walking on the lava's surface, you hear the dry crackle of paper-thin layers of stone crunching under your boots. It's an eerie sensation. A few days later, I would walk on a similar lava flow, but fresh and still smoking. Within several steps my Nikes began to melt! 

A few yards off the road we find a deposit of rare greenish-white crystals in a lava cave. This crystalline mass condensed out as the liquid lava cooled. Mary, who grew up in Hawaii, cautions me not to touch “Pele’s diamonds." Pele, the volcano goddess, would be offended and we would have bad luck if I did. Gingerly, I back away. Don't want to offend Pele on her home turf, heck no. For the next half hour we explore lava caves, tubes and the thousands of phantasmagorical shapes made by the oozing liquid stone.

As we press on, a weathered cinder cone on our left is the only marker at the turn onto an access road leading up to a cluster of world-class astronomical observatories at the top of Mauna Kea. That volcano's peak is considered the best site on Earth for serious stargazing and is home to some of the most technically advanced telescopes on the planet, such as the superb 10 meter Keck I and II.

At the brow of the Saddle Road, it's chilly and the wind ripples through the open cockpit of Holo-holo. With the cool white silk of the clouds all around us, it is a different world from the hot and humid upland where we entered this road. Sometimes, the mists graze the roof of our Jeep like the touch of a ghostly hand. With a growing traffic of military vehicles from the Army base, Hummers and heavy trucks, we have to exercise caution when cresting hills and rounding blind corners. But the GIs know the drill and there are no scary moments.

Descending now through ancient lava fields, the temperature slowly begins to rise. Increasingly, exotic, twisted Lihua trees and furry "silversword" plants that grow nowhere else on earth appear at the side of the road, softening the barren view. The jacket we put on a short while ago becomes oppressive and must be taken off.

Now the character of the road changes completely. First it takes a sharp downward tilt, requiring much use of brakes. Then it becomes twisty in the extreme, challenging Holo-holo's high center of gravity. To the north, ancient rivers bring rainwater off Mauna Kea's caldera and sluce it at high speed to the sea. Dragons and monsters are supposed to have lived in this district eons ago. Today they are elsewhere.

All at once, we're in a tropical forest, dense with palms and large primitive ferns. This is the windward or "rainy" side of Hawaii. Up ahead we see the island's largest town, Hilo, curled like a sleeping cat around the shore of a gorgeous blue bay.

Children playing in their yards turn to wave as Holo-holo passes. In minutes, we enter the the business district at the center of town. Quaint and remarkably green, Hilo has the feel of old Hawaii. The local architecture reflects the "plantation" style of the 19th century and looks like the location for a movie about World War II. We park Holo-holo at the Lili'uokalani Gardens in downtown Hilo, tired, battered, gritty and glad to be at our destination.

On foot, we head for the nearby Lihua Bay Restaurant and bar, the best eatery in Hilo. After the long dry route of the Saddle Road, those tall, cool drinks with the paper umbrellas in them taste like liquid gold. Our waitress winks when she asks if we'll have another round. We nod and say, "mahalo nui" -- thanks very much.

That night, we return to Kona by the southern, costal route – slightly shorter as the Hawaiian goose flies. It’s very cool at night, along the shore, in the open Jeep and we get a surprising chill on the way back. But we also get to see a gigantic full moon, bright as a searchlight, slowly rise from the serene ocean and lay a broad silvery road along the waves. One which we decline to follow.





photos (c) by their owners - not for publication under "fair use."

text and HTML (c) by GVD 2005 - ARR