Pele’s islands

October 1 – Pele’s islands

Long before geologists discovered the volcanic action that created the string of Hawaiian islands, legends told of the struggles between the fire goddess Pelehonuamea and her jealous ocean sister, Namakeskaha’i. Each time Pele formed an island with her flowing fire, Namaka would try to destroy it with violent storms.

The sibling rivalry continues. On the big island of Hawaii we witnessed Pele’s current work. Since this was my first visit, we opted for a ship’s tour that would take us along a path of Kilauea Volcano’s paths of “frozen fire”.

Nani, our guide, was one of five van drivers to shepherd a group of cruisers on the tour. On a Hawaii map, our route was into the bulge south of Hilo that ends in a massive lava flow that wiped out over 180 homes in 1996 and kept flowing until Father’s Day, 2007.

Pele was only taking a breather. On March 7, 2008, she began sending more ribbons of fire down into the sea. Heading toward this East Rift Zone, we stopped at Lava Tree State Park to see a much earlier flow. One of the photos Robin took shows a tree growing out of a lava tube.

Philodendron grow everywhere, their leaves much larger than the variety that cover so many walls back home
Philodendron grow everywhere, their leaves much larger than the variety that cover so many walls back home
First moss, then plants transform cooled lava into a lush landscape - in this photo a tree has taken root atop a lava needle
First moss, then plants transform cooled lava into a lush landscape - in this photo a tree has taken root atop a lava needle

As hot lava surrounds a tree, it climbs the trunk. The tree’s moisture slows the burning just enough to form a needle of porous stone, the interior of which is hollow once the tree has been completely consumed. Moss is the first plant life to begin transforming the blackened landscape. As it forms a surface inviting to seedlings, other plants take hold and gradually turn the lava into rich soil. In Robin’s photo a tree has taken root on a moss-covered lava needle.

What looks like a stony conversation are needles of lava that formed around trees
What looks like a stony conversation are needles of lava that formed around trees

The road to MacKenzie State Park took us along a pathway for Menehune.

At Ahalanui Warm Springs, the nearby lava flow heats beach water to bathtub temperature
At Ahalanui Warm Springs, the nearby lava flow heats beach water to bathtub temperature

Nani told us one of the things these ancestors insist on is reverence for the land. One camper whose site was not up to their standards was visited by a ghostly couple. The camper tidied his space and slept peacefully, unlike a less responsive neighbour, who ended up fleeing in terror.

Our favourite stop of the day was the massive lava flow that wiped out most of the homes of Kalapana. It will be centuries before the land on this dry corner of Hawaii will support much plant life, but already some of the intrepid islanders whose homes were destroyed are building off-grid homes right on the lava.

People are already re-building on the Kapoho Lava Flow
People are already re-building on the Kapoho Lava Flow

They are lit by generators and watered through catchment (large metal cylinders that catch rainwater). They still consider the land theirs, in spite of Pele’s fiery raid.

As you can see from Robin’s photo of smoke rising

Where Pele's fingers of fire meet the sea, plumes of toxic gases billow
Where Pele's fingers of fire meet the sea, plumes of toxic gases rise in billows

where lava flows into the sea, their new homes are not far from the trench down which Pele continues to send fire. Nani figures the family that lives in a bus has the right idea. If molten lava heads their way, they can drive their home out of the path.

Walking over the massive lava flow, we saw hundreds of coconut palms taking root. Nani told us these and other trees (such as tea leaf, banyan, and noni) are being planted by Uncle Robert, his children, and his friends. A revered elder in the Kalapana community, Uncle Robert, was one of the few whose home Pele spared.

As rock gives way to soil and sandy beaches, the trees that thrive will eventually provide shade along a stretch of black sand beach.

Driving out of the flow area, we passed Mango Joe’s. Nani told us the shipping containers that dotted the place were his home. In mango season he harvests the fruit of the trees around his containers and sells them at the farmer’s market. A satellite dish seemed an incongruent touch, but Nani says it keeps him current.

We had a grand day with Nani but will probably not become fans of one of her favourite foods—Spam. We will give the local cookbook, a hundred ways to cook Spam, a pass. Poi will never become a substitute for my peanut butter or Robin’s Vegemite. On the other hand, the islands’ fresh fruits and plentiful fish are bounty for the many islanders who struggle to make a living in a state where many jobs are dependent on the inconsistent tourist trade.

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