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Red-hot lava flows like fiery waterfall

Photos by Esther Chetner

I've always wanted to see fresh, red-hot lava, been intrigued by the emergence of land newer than us. But when you book a trip to Hawaii, getting lucky with lava is like playing roulette. I don't gamble, but I do carpe diem. I searched on the Internet and discovered that our timing was impeccable—this lava only started flowing a few days before we arrived on the Big Island.

We arranged a late afternoon sunset boat trip on a catamaran with 25 people. Locals and visitors, even seasoned observers, were psyched. Captain Dan looked a bit too jovial and casual for comfort but demonstrated his deft maneuvering long before we even got to the hot stuff. We ploughed through five and six-foot waves, often getting doused with spray, holding onto whatever handrails we could find, and bracing our feet as if in stirrups on a horse. The ride was wild. A conceptual precursor to what awaited.  

We zoomed along the shoreline for about an hour, impressed by the crashing waves and intense blue water, inspecting miles of coastal lava and even historically used lava tube caves, black sand beaches and recently obliterated expanses of land. And then voila, we saw plumes of smoke and steam dancing in lines across the slopes in the distance. Dusk was approaching. And then, suddenly, the orange rivulets sliding into the ocean were visible.

The experience was dramatic. It took me a few minutes to get used to this long-anticipated reality, to seeing the molten earth cascading down, like thick glowing cake batter. (Wouldn't want to eat them cupcakes.) Hearing the hissing water mixed with the roaring surf, a cacophony of nature's best—an audible treat. Many ways to absorb the experience. The potentially hazardous sulphuric fumes turned out to be diluted and blowing the other way. A few times, we got about 40 feet from the searing streams, but Captain Dan always had the boat's prow facing seaward, ready to gun it if necessary. Never turn your back on the sea.  Unless you're a passenger with the luxury of facing the fire for a good, long look.
In retrospect, looking at the picture below, it's apparent that the lava is not readily flowing on the surface. Tour guide Pete explained that it's going through lava tubes and emerging through cracks and vents and various channels, coming out at numerous places. And that "mushroom cap" in the centre looks like it's burbling out at a low point, maybe even through the stem of the cap.  

2,000 degrees Celsius—enough to fry a few eggs. Or Gore-tex jackets if you get too close. Amazing, having traveled a distance, quite a few miles from the crater, and it's still close to its original temp. How you figga? (Local pidgin.)
Bubbling out of the crater in the Kilauea Caldera in Volcano National Park, this fiery cocktail travels eight miles to Pu'u O'o Vent, but I think it's mostly all in hiding underground. From there, it's at least about another five miles to the ocean. Sometimes the lava flows overland; but often, as was the case at the time, the upper surface solidifies, causing lava tubes to form. They're like ovens, and keep the heat in, even as the molten material travels for miles. It wasn't dangerously sulfurous, as the wind blows from east to west. Ironically, it's the far west side of the island that suffers from VOG (water vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide), yet the air can be clean just a few feet east of the smoldering stuff.  
Pete offered some layperson's stat on how much lava spews out. My brain was likely addled by the rocking ride and visual focus, so I might have this bit wrong. But I think he said: there's copious lava oozing daily right now, sufficient to fill enough cement trucks to form a continuous ring around the island twice. That does sound like a lot, but when you scan the island's landscape and see nothing but lava for miles, as far as the eye can see and then farther still, you realize—that's many centuries of sporadic spewing. I wonder: when all that lava spills out of the earth's core, what replaces it? Or, are there now empty pockets of internal space waiting to act up some millennium…?
I can see why people devote their professional lives to studying volcanoes. Compelling, fascinating, and show-stoppers to boot. Profoundly awesome.  I have deep gratitude for the good fortune to have seen what we did.
Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, fire, passion and love seems to be expressive. If her eruptions are messages, they sure give me goosebumps.

With chicken skin kine (Hawaiian pidgin for those goosebumps), wishing you all truly invigorating adventures.

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