Emptiness beckons in Ka’ u

The plan was to get away from it all and calm my mind of overloaded circuits amped up during the holiday.

I had set out to spend a day in the rainforest, treading narrow trails thick with giant ferns and musty smells. Driving there I saw a sign, stopped the car and changed my mind. Yang for Yin. Finding balance now was clear. What better place to get away from it all than the desert? Emptiness beckoned. Ka’u Desert, Mauna Iki trail the sign read.

click on any image to enlarge

The Ka’u Desert (N19.36028° W155.36556°) is on the leeward side of the Big Island of Hawaii and encompasses the southern portion of Volcanoes National Park.  This is not a true desert by definition as it receives over 1,000 millimeters (39 in) of rain per year, however the rain is so acidic after combining with sulfur dioxide from the area that few plants can survive.

In 1790 a volcanic explosion occurred, one of the most devastating in Hawaiian history. The eruption sent ash thousands of feet into the atmosphere where it mixed with moisture and fell back to earth in small gobs and spheres called tephra. Traces and white bands of the material can still be seen, some with footprints. A band of 80 warriors were crossing the desert at the time and were trapped. All perished, suffocating on the poisonous gas and ash as it entered their lungs.

The trail winds in and over twisted sandy gullies the first 15 or 20 minutes of travel. Then the barrenness begins. A landscape bleak and foreign. Alien. The trail is clear and not to strenuous. A word of caution when traversing a lava field, stay on a known or well marked path. Without significant landmarks it is easy to become disoriented. There are dangerous cracks, fissures and what may appear to be solid rock could be a thin crust over a crevasse.

Another thing; wear familiar shoes. I had opted for a pair of sandals from the trunk of the car, thinking the way would be unhampered and dry. Not 5 minutes into the hike my footing not secure, I stumbled, tipping forward, my backpack shifted upward, slow motion falling, palms and knees extended, I waited for the pain. A’a, A’a….A’a.

There is no ancient sandstone, granite, glacial till or metamorphic rock in Hawaii. Only basalt, lava, hardened magma spewed from deep inside the earth. What looks like devastation is not old but new, all new untempered land. Flow upon flow, millennial, building these islands in the sea.

There are two fundamental types of  lava. Geologists internationally have adopted the Hawaiian words to describe these two types. Pahoehoe lava flows (1,100 to 1,200 c) have a  dense fluid core with a congealing surface.  Over flat even ground the lava forms a flat pancake surface, if there are obstacles the form will be bumpy, undulating or even rope like. A’ a lava flows (1,000 to 1,100 c)  form a front and surface of  clinkers that covers the molten core. The loose jagged stones are light weight, spiny, sharp and erratically shaped.

Molten lava will flow downhill much as any other liquid. The amount of volumn at the source and angle of the grade determine much about the flow. It is the temperature of magma and chaos that produce the peculiar show.

A common feature of the islands volcanic landscape are lava tubes. These tubes are formed as a moving river of magma develops a hardened crust like shell. Beneath the thickened surface the river continues moving. When the source is diverted or stops the stream bed drains and what remains are hollow tunnels called lava tubes. The space may be small or large and some tubes extend for miles beneath the earth. In olden times some tubes hidden and remote were used for burial tombs. Sacred sites abound. Ancient Hawaiians would also use the larger caves as shelter and home. Small villages forming when clusters of tubes could be found along the sea.

There are miles and miles of strange and fantastic forms here in Ka’u. Even after several hours walking the other worldly scene entrances. There is a blue metallic glare, an odd reflection from the black stone shapes as far as one can see. The sounds are unfamiliar to. The ground sounds hollow, not quite solid. Footsteps ring like chalk dropped. Rocks knock together clink, clock, clink. Weird.

Late afternoon the temperature dropped and  the wind speed rose. Bits of glass like sand flying into eyes and hair, rasping skin. Clouds were settling lower as I pulled a long sleeve shirt from my pack. Time to turn for home, head down and back track towards the trail head.Back at the vegetative transition zone I paused to rest and transition myself as I prepared to leave this isolated outpost and drive back to the built environment of town and home. My muscles pleasantly ached, my mind was clear and balance was restored. It was a good day, except for the lacerated knee. There would probably be a scar.

This adventure was made possible in part by the efforts of the the United States National Park system. National parks are our treasure to preserve and protect. Elections will be coming soon. Please listen closely as politicians ratchet up the rhetoric. Vote to  save our inheritance. Vote to save the wild places.

About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
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6 Responses to Emptiness beckons in Ka’ u

  1. Gneiss Moon says:

    “..thin crust over a crevasse.” I did not know that…wonderful photos and information of a part of the world I have not seen. Thank you !

  2. McEff says:

    That’s fascinating. Not only has it told me something about a part of the world I know little about, it’s relevant to how my own corner was formed back in the Silurian era. I shall look at my own mountains in a new light, not just as something that survived from a time long ago. I found the bit about the lava tubes being used as burial chambers particularly interesting. Thanks for that.

  3. zaisprecis says:

    Great stuff. Thank you. I just saw Nat Geo’s “Aerial America” featuring Hawaii and they explained that Hawaii (the state) had to go to court since landowners were staking their claim to newly formed areas due to the lava bursts. It seemed funny that people would try to claim this as their own. I will have to check this out on my next trip out there.

    And I will report once I return from Spain in Feb!

  4. Interesting. I didn’t know all that. Great pictures too. Thanks.

  5. Paul says:

    Fascinating. I will definitely make Ka’u a destination on my next trip to Hawaii. Thanks for the guided tour!

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