Sunday, August 7, 2011

Twenty Four – The Longest Day

The chopper hovers thirty feet above the rim as the blazing volcano spits fire twenty feet into the sky. Bright red lava flows in a river down the mountainside and pours into the steaming ocean below. It’s incredible, it’s unbelievable, it’s …a video. I’m still standing in front of the concierge desk and Amanda the expedia rep is trying to talk me into the helicopter tour.
“After the earthquake that hit Japan a plug formed, blocking the top of the volcano. On Wednesday that plug fell in, and there’s now lava spewing out of the side. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see it”
“But my friends and the guidebook recommended I take the tour on Kauaui instead”
“Yes, but Kauai doesn’t have an active volcano and after the volcano you get to see the scenic valleys and waterfalls, just like Kauai. It’s so good at the moment that people are flying across from the other islands for the chance to see the lava flow and there’s only a couple of slots left.”
“What the hell. I’ll take the 2 hour flight”
But with a cheeky question from Amanda to the tour operator she gets me a free upgrade to the 3 hour tour including a valley landing, still at a discount to the 2 hour price, and says:
“You must have good Karma”
I don’t know about that, I’d settle for a good car. The Sebring’s brake pads are definitely on the way out, and the hard seats are uncomfortable as I head for the airport at oh crikey hundred the next morning.
Actually since this is 24 I should probably be writing:
Ker-chunk, Ker-chunk, Ker-chunk
The helicopter takes off and slews alarmingly to the left. We straighten and fly up the rise between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea (which roughly translate as Big Mountain and Frickin’ Big Mountain), passing observatories and weather stations. The pilots commentary is battling with the effect of air pressure on the eardrops in my dodgy ear, and the other earpiece ain’t working. A quick self-repair to my cans and I’m binaural, though the open talkback with the Hungarian family sharing the chopper makes me wonder if I’d have been better off breaking the good side.
The first 20 minutes is basically commuting to the good stuff, and the reason you need to book a long flight on the Big Island. But soon we’re approaching the Volcanoes National Park. Danny, our pilot, is happy to announce that the weather on this side of the island is clear, and we can already see smoke spewing from the Kilauea caldera, where I stood on the rim on Wednesday, cut off from the excitement down the road.
Black lava is oozing it’s way down the hill towards us. Rain clouds are forming in the distance over Hilo, America’s wettest city, but here we have a clear view of the eruption.
Except eruption is probably the wrong word. It’s more of an oozing. The crater is hundreds of feet wide, but the vent is more like tens of feet. It’s hard to get a sense of scale from several hundred feet in the air, but safety first means we can’t get closer. Mind you, we can feel the heat from this height, so perhaps melting the electronics at ten feet and crashing into a lava-field wouldn’t be too clever a way to go(but very cool!)
It’s only bright red at the very edges of the vent, we circle the giant crater, and see the black lava oozing away down the slope. Danny throws in some S turns, so we get a great view from every seat, and we stick around for several laps, dodging the other choppers full of gawping people, until it’s time to go and see some waterfalls.
This is 24, so first we fly past Jack’s house. A local nutcase has a house in between the lava fields. The roads have all been wiped out so he has to trudge in and out for supplies, and every eruption he prays to the Volcano gods for safety. I’m not sure if Danny is kidding when he says you can stay with Jack for a hundred bucks a night!
We fly on past the waterfalls of the East coast, where tourists flock for pictures, but Danny ain’t stoppin’.
“Pah! They’re only a coupl’a hundred feet tall”
So we admire the cliffs of the coastline, then tour the valleys to the north, which are inaccessible by road.
This is more like it. Danny takes the chopper into the valleys and fights the updrafts to hold her steady so we can capture the view. The waterfalls here are thousands of feet high. They fall from the tops of the cliffs to the valley floor, broken up by pools, carved into the cliff. Because this is one of the wettest places in the world the valleys are lush green. We’ve still got the weather gods on our side (maybe Jack had a word) and the waterfalls are glistening in the sunlight.
After touring a few valleys Danny takes us into the one we can land in. This will be the one with the football-field-sized landing strip at the bottom no doubt. But peering around all I can see is trees, a small hut and a river. Danny heads for the river. As we’re below a hundred feet a small rocky ledge emerges, Danny’s aiming for it. He has the chopper completely under control, and hovers incredibly slowly down the last few feet before touchdown.
We emerge from the chopper, there’s no need to worry about the tail rotor. Before you’d get to it you’d fall off the thirty foot drop to the river below. There’s a big rock six inches to the side of each runner, and we have to clamber down a slope to get round the front of the chopper. No wonder Danny brought it down slowly!
With the engine and rotors stopped, we’re in a tranquil valley. Inaccessible by anything but helicopter. Time for a picnic, and time to absorb the journey. I’m very glad Amanda got me on the landing tour.
We’ve 45 minutes in the valley but it feels like three. All too soon we’re taking off, whizzing above the cliffs and heading back to Kona – the sunniest city in the USA.
There’s 13 climactic regions in the world and the Big Island has 11 of them. (My fact’s are probably not spot on but they should be pretty close, and I’m not doing research on my holiday!) So as we fly out of the rainforest, we cross green fields, green hills and then there’s a visible line where the scenery changes to desert.
A quick tour of the posh resorts on the North West coast and we’re back at the airport. I’m a bit dazed. I don’t think I’ve blinked for three hours. Danny asked if it would count as one of the highlights of my trip and I paused.
“Well, it’s outside the top ten, but in the top twenty”
 It was an incredible sight, but that’s all it is. I want my senses to be overwhelmed. I want incredible sights with incredible sounds while being thrown around.
I want to drive down a twisty road through eye melting scenery in a fun car with my favourite music blasting.
So first the car:
Sebrings suck. How we managed 32 states in 23 days in 2004 in a Sebring I don’t know, though I do remember the back aches. So I was very happy when I exchanged my Sebring with the scrapey brakes for a Mustang.
Funny thing, a Mustang on Oahu, after the Camaro SS in Vegas, felt cheap and nasty. This Mustang felt wonderful, I dropped the roof, and I had my stash of CDs ready to go.
Now the road:
Amanda warned us about Saddle Road.
“Don’t drive it. 80 percent of all accidents in Hawaii happen on Saddle Road. It’s tight, twisty, and full of small bridges”
Sounds perfect!
My road trip buddy Craig came here on his honeymoon, and has always regretted not driving Saddle Road, just by it’s reputation. But the rental companies won’t insure you, with specific clauses forbidding driving up there.
Well, that didn’t stop me on Maui, but I read the agreement just to see what risk I was taking. Then I re-read it.
“Thou shalt not drive on unpaved roads.”
…was the only clause, no mention of saddles! I’ll drive to the edge of the pavement, then decide. Probably no fun taking a Mustang off-road anyway.
Half an hour up into the hills and I make the turn. It’s motoring Nirvana, just as described. Screw helicopters looking down from a thousand feet, safely in the hands of a guy paid to take no risks. This is where it’s at, scenery flying by, tunes blasting, sun shining, and my attention fully occupied in making sure I anticipate every sharp turn, blind crest, tight bridge, oncoming innocents, while allowing for that which can’t be anticipated: animals, mechanical failure, fly in the eye!
But suddenly it was all over. With only 5 miles done and 45 to go the fun stopped.
The road straightened out, and widened! Surely some mistake? But that was it. I continued across the island, over the “saddle” between the two aforementioned big mountains, to the soggy city on the other side, but the road was nothing to write home about (What do you mean most people don’t write home about roads?).
I think it’s a conspiracy. Saddle road is the quickest way across the island from Hilo, where the locals live, to Kona, where they work. I think they spread the scare stories to keep the traffic off the road they need to commute down.
I cruised onward up the North East side of the island, cut off from the coast by the secluded valleys, thankful to AC/DC for keeping me awake, sad to have my fun cut short. But the Big Island had an ace up its sleeve. The Kohala Mountain Road doesn’t carry a reputation for being dangerous, but it does for beauty. However the sign at the start warns of “17 miles of twisting mountain road with no shoulders”. Awesome.
A clear road and a clear view. Great bends and great scenery. The V8 bellowing as the Mustang and I climb into the sky, battling for aural supremacy against Brian Johnson repeating the refrain “Well give me highhhhhhhhh……”
Now that’s what it takes, to make the top ten!


  1. And there was me thinking you were hard to please!

  2. That makes me glad that we didn't miss much on Saddle Rd and had the better drive around the island. I agree that it sounds like a local conspiracy.

    Definitely do a helicopter ride on Kauai. It was fab.