Travel Talk|2019/10/06

Family Adventure in Hawaii

Rare, dangerous and spectacular – what’s not to love about lava? Writer Max Anderson takes his twin boys to Hawaii for a red-hot encounter

If your twin 13-year-old boys are anything like mine, they won’t want to go to Bishop Museum in Honolulu to see sacred sculptures and portraits of dead Hawaiian royals. They’ll want to see only one thing.


If you’re anything like me, you’ll threaten your 13-year-old boys that they will go to Bishop Museum or else lose surfing privileges. But luckily for all, the state museum has a new science display where Hawaii’s volcanic legacy is demonstrated daily.

Behind a chain mesh curtain, a man in a silver fire suit attends to a crucible of rock that has been in a furnace for five hours. He tips out a small slick of livid orange treacle. This impresses the boys, especially when it quickly cools and shatters into shards of black obsidian.

If lava is hard to make in a museum, it’s even more difficult to see au naturel. There are active volcanoes all over the globe, but lava breaches the surface very rarely – and usually with such violence that no one has any time for selfies.

Enter Kilauea, an active volcano on the easternmost island which is confusingly called Hawaii, (and more often referred to as ‘Big Island’). Kilauea is one of only half a dozen volcanoes in the world where lava reliably shows, plus it’s sedate and (reasonably) accessible.

We fly from Honolulu to Big Island, getting an eyeful of the magnificent ‘shield volcanoes’ before landing in Hilo. Then we drive an hour to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Kilauea’s crater is a circular depression, exactly as we expect. What we don’t expect is its vastness – a full four kilometres across, and strangely beautiful. 

Perched on the rim is the Jaggar Museum from where we can see a smaller inner crater. This is the active vent, marked by a bulging column of gas and steam. “At night you can see it glowing,” a park ranger tells the boys. “And yes, sometimes it shoots lava. Seismic recorders tell us when that’s likely to happen, but it also makes tell-tale sounds. It rumbles. Sometimes it sounds like the sea.”

The vent is off-limits owing to poisonous gases so the inevitable question is asked: “Where can we get close to lava?”

The next afternoon, we drive two hours south to the town of Kalapana, where we’re told Kilauea’s lava exits via subterranean ‘tubes’ into the sea. We arrive to find Kalapana isn’t what it was: in 1990, the townsfolk watched their houses and gardens get swallowed up as Kilauea’s lava gently probed a new path, encroaching a few metres each day.

But the townsfolk have rebuilt and are happy to greet us – and the hundreds like us – offering to rent mountain bikes from pop-up gazebos. For about $30 each, we’re equipped with bike, helmet, first aid kit, head-torch and water.

The stream of lava pilgrims pushes into the twilight, following a broad track that has been bulldozed through a stark, surreal landscape. The lava field is all monochrome textures, formed from ooze, crumbled and cracked. It stretches away on all sides, up to Kilauea in the far distance. The six-kilometre ride is oddly quiet except for the crunch of fat tires on gravel.

We arrive at a clifftop where a great cloud mushrooms, and then park our bikes. Rangers marshal us to a space cordoned by ropes, 500 metres from a portion of cliff that grinds and steams like a machine.

“Can’t we get closer?” ask the boys, perched on pumice mounds.

I indicate a nearby section of cliff where, a week earlier, nine brittle hectares had fallen into the sea. “No.”

Not that we need to be closer. We can see rock crashing into the water, hissing violently, and as darkness closes, the lava shows as glowing globules being birthed from the island’s boiling guts.

As we’d learned in Bishop Museum, we’re witnessing the Earth renewing. Hawaii’s islands are a long chain of extinct volcanoes. After each volcano was formed by the magma reserve beneath us, the planet’s tectonic plates moved them out into the ocean to cool and die. One day, Big Island will have a new neighbor. It’s forming under the sea and already has a name – Loihi.

For two hours, we sit among hundreds of people in the lava field, watching, entranced by the spectacle, enchanted by the weirdness. We ride back through the night, the beams from our head-torches bouncing off the lava field. Only, we pilgrims sound different now – there are whoops and calls and laughter.

We’ve been lit up by lava.