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High on Hawaii

“Ready for rebirth?” His camp drawl echoed through the half light, accompanying a pot heavy pipe offered through swirling steam.

“This one’s very uteral, the other’s much more vaginal,” continued the Midwife cuckoo.

As I inhaled a sensory soup of sulphur and skunk weed, the earthen womb closed in on our foetal regression!

But what of the accidental tourist stumbling across potential sub-crust cruising?

“Well they’ll get a whole new meaning to the word ALOHA!”
Waikiki! Why bother? Top end tourist markets 70’s mistakes! Repetitive cartoon backdrops selling tat after rat a tat tat! Five star Towers of Babel badly collaged onto a paradise picture postcard, polluting the volcanic majesty of Diamond Head – a jewel in a concrete crown. Honolulu’s saccharine mask smiles trashily alongshore from Pearl Harbor, a more sobering reminder of  humankind’s ability to forget it is caretaker and not controller!

Oahu has beauty and style, innocence and attitude, beaches, bums and surf second to none. For a wholly more quirky and spiritual experience however the traveller should escape onto the ‘Big Island’ Hawaii.

From the air, even the landscape is more welcoming and laid back, its profile much smoother against the horizon, one of the youngest landforms on spaceship Earth.

The lack of a public transport system means that jeep hire is a must for the short break and once on the road there is no stopping in Hilo as there is little, if anything there. Travelling north takes us to the oldest end of the island and the extinct grandmother Kohala. Virgin rainforests breathe from the land, rivers slowly scour spectacular valleys from a lost world and create stunning waterfalls, including the breathtaking Akaka Falls which leaves the viewer feeling giddy and insignificant.

This however is only the start of a journey, one which can take the traveller back to the very beginnings of time, to visit ancestry not considered and instil a hope in continuing genesis!

For a real Hawaiian sunset one must dare the summit of Mauna Kea. The 13,796ft peak hosts the world famous Mauna Kea Observatories and is simply startling. The un-insurable drive to the top should only be made in the official 4WD bus! However, those foolish enough to ignore the warnings are in for a hazardous white-knuckle drive, which will leave skid marks on more than the unsealed road and a relief on arrival only hampered by a realisation of the impending return by night! Rattling gas cap and panting gearbox are accompanied by near molten brake pads hissing with relief in sub zero temperatures. The experience is other worldly, heightened by an atmospheric pressure drop of 40% and a distinct lack of oxygen that leads to the onset of mountain sickness and general delirium.

Purple shadows pool and flood gently across deep orange from yawning bulbous cloudforms 5000ft below. Silver domes glint and shine in the dying light, waiting to open under the heavenly canvas.
The observatories are part of the Very Long Baseline Array, which by working together with ten telescopes ranging from the Virgin Islands to the Caribbean forms the world’s largest full time astronomical instrument, with an effective light-harvesting diameter of 5000 miles.

NASA is obviously here looking as far as it can, but more poignantly so are a collaborating Britain and Argentina. Perhaps most thought provoking of all though, is Japan, who helped put our neighbouring island on the map for different reasons. Together with others they are all working, watching, learning, respecting.

After a pants-wetting descent pushing nerves and mechanics to the limit, a welcome recovery point is the Visitors centre at 9200ft, where a warming coffee will restart circulation. The inspired novice can gaze skyward, assisted by 11- to 16-inch telescopes, available with expert guidance nightly.

It is here that one can take stock of the immensity and beauty of what is happening. Observing a Globular cluster of 1000 000 stars attracted to each other 24 000 light years away or an eerie ring nebula 10 000 years old, one feels the reality of looking into infinite pasts still being played out for us, our ancestral origins awaiting discovery.

Even our nearest celestial neighbour inspires questions of creation, collision or separation, our dead moon still influencing cycles of life on Earth. No wonder our experts all seemed so spaced out!

Hawaii still holds more secrets and once charged by the astronomical mission one must explore its living volcanoes.

The Volcanoes National Park encompasses the still active Mauna Loa and the still erupting Kilauea at the southern end of the island. The visitor’s centre and art gallery inform on suggested walks within the park and offer guided talks on the geology and botany of this tainted Eden.

The Hawaiian Archipelago was, for much of the period of its brief existence, an evolutionary oasis with a rich tapestry of life independent of human interference. 1600 years ago, the first Polynesians landed after unfathomable voyages using the sun and stars to guide their 2400-mile journey across open ocean. As well as pigs, dogs and chickens they introduced plant species many of which thrived and choked out many native ones. Indeed, of the 15 varieties of native finch evolved from a single ancestral species, only 6 remain today.

A unique Hawaiian culture developed worshipping gods – Akua, and passing on tradition and history through Mele and Hula (song and dance). In 1778 even this was in turn to be slowly choked by the arrival of Captain Cook and the subsequent circus which would inevitably follow. Natural Human Evolution!

Volcanic activity is surely Hawaii’s number one tourist attraction and there’s no surprise why. Within the National Park there is the 40-mile round trip Chain of Craters Road intersecting the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive. The Visitor can explore the unnerving Thurston Lava Tube and stand on the edge of the resting Halema’uma’u Crater in the dome like Kilauea Caldera, just for the butterflies. As any warden will tell you, she could erupt at any time. Respect is needed for Pele the Volcano goddess and an offering keeps her calm. A bottle of gin is her preferred tipple though this tradition clearly stems from a past political power with a penchant for the same!

Descending 3700 feet to the coast, recent lava flows have created a lunar landscape slowly being re colonised by plants. The drive twists down over a world of hardened treacle until its abrupt end where in 1995 the road was reclaimed by what lies beneath. At this point one is standing on one of the youngest and breakable benches of land on Earth.

On leaving the park, one needs to see another daring sunset!  A drive through Pahoa down Hwy 130 takes us to the recently opened gravel road (again uninsurable!) leading to the sea. As we scramble over glass like lava, clouds billowing on the horizon reveal a more sinister source. On arrival at the sea there is a respectful calm among the gathering crowd, a sense of awe at the power on display. Lava from Kilauea is entering the sea as it has for 18 years and presents a mind-blowing spectacle, the tephra jet.

As waves splash onto the flowing molten rock they explode into a cloud of steam, molten splatter and glass fragments. Pele is present, filaments of molten glass forming her hair. As the sun sets and we are joined by the moon, the steam cloud develops a reddening glow.  Scientists, marshals and tourists with tripods are joined by a chanting crowd from a yogic retreat, hurling flowers to Pele.

Time stands still as the observers contemplate the beautiful ferocity of nature, and the elements sizzle before their very eyes. This mineral rich reaction is surely a reminder of how life may have come to be.

But not all of Hawaii’s volcanic activity is so violent. Along the southern coast of the island there are hot swimming pools, some of which were built to harness the cooling effects of the ocean by the then King of Hawaii.

More bizarre are the natural saunas off Hwy 130. An overgrown pathway flanked by cinder cones leads to a hidden tourist attraction, which clearly has some significance for certain locals with more than a passing curiosity. Bizarre mounds of earth among the trees are actually steam vents encased in lava bubbles, which create a natural vapour trap. On scrambling through the hole in the wall one may well be greeted by a local in search of some rest and recuperation.

Our host was more than welcoming and once we’d breathed and settled in we began to experience the unique wierdness of the experience. Mr Tumnus interspersed conversation with latherings of mud applications and splashes of water on the ground as if offering Mother Earth herself a cooling drink and soon we were transfixed by his stoner philosophies. By the time we scrambled out blinking into the sun it truly was as if being reborn, gasping for a breath of oxygen in this pseudo garden of Eden.

Leaving our Hawaiian Queen changing wombs, we hit the road for a final call to Kahena Beach for a true sense of this pacific dream. The beach of black sand is a short scramble down the cliffs off Highway 137. Families play next to the embracing honeymoon couple. Naked, aged hippies run to and from the surf, while two lesbians compare body piercings in the shade of one of the trees. A young man mingles through the sunbathers offering coconuts picked that morning for nothing more than a “thank you”. A woman asks me to look after her parrot while she goes for a swim with the turtles. A lone surfer teases and escapes the circling waves dancing with the tide’s ceaseless lunar sighs.

This unspoilt pocket on Big Island’s south shore truly is a unique place where human barriers cannot exist. Looking from the beach to the infinite horizon one can begin to contemplate endless possibility and the eternal beauty of now.

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