Day off in Kona

Onboard the GV
On board the GV

When people who work in their offices hear that we flew to Hawaii for work they usually react as “Lucky dogs! I wish I could…”. But very few actually would think about it for a minute: when all vacationers are hanging out on the beach or leisurely stroll to the bar in early afternoon we would have gotten up at 5:30 am, hastily ate breakfast and rushed to the airplane, worked there in the heat of the day for 6-8 hours without going for lunch and finally went back to the hotel, wishing not for beach time but to lay down and pass out.

However, some days we can take off. More precisely, one day every week, meant to prevent the rebellious crew of the Gulfstream from going totally and completely nuts. This time such a day off happened to be in Hawaii. The fine Anchorage FAA folks who were so very kind to work with us there sarcastically shook their heads, not willing to believe that this was a pure coincidence. I assure you it was. Well, maybe almost. We like Anchorage and would have as well taken a day off there but it just so happened when the schedule was being written. Huh.

In any case, we took Sunday off and spent it doing touristy things. Some might have in mind a vision of a beach or a cool blue pool; or a swim-in bar with translucent mai tais served by a smiling island beauty. Well, what could be more touristy for a bunch of science types than to visit one of the most famous climate monitoring observatories in the world? So we went to Mauna Loa.

Forrest Mims III
Forrest Mims III talking to us on Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa is a mountain on the Southern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. It is over 13,600 feet high and while it was 88 degrees on the coast, it was a comfortable 57 degrees at the observatory, which is located at the 11,141 feet elevation. A front of clouds was churning above the Saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, some 5,000 feet below us, while we bathed in the sunshine and listened to the story of the observatory and enjoyed the tour of the measurements presented to us by none other than the famous Forrest Mims III. Forrest is a wonderful person whose enthusiasm ignites those he talks to, and very knowledgeable about the observatory and the measurements that are carried out on it.

The observatory has a rich an complex history, defined by the mixture of politics and amazing  personalities of scientists who sometimes dedicated their entire lives to protecting and improving the observatory. The Mauna Loa station remains one of the prime reference locations in the world for long term monitoring of CO2 and other green house gases.

The road to the observatory and back deserves a word all by itself. Tracking through desolate lava fields, the single lane road winds precariously, dotted by potholes threatening to take the wheels off your car unless you are driving a military 6×6. The lava on the sides can be black, brown or purple, and is sometimes smooth, or other times, scarily rough, with abrasive-looking spires protruding from the fields of jagged black debris. Driving fast is not recommended, and if you don’t understand why, you shouldn’t drive there at all. Several gravestones stand on the road sides, somber reminders of the motorcyclist who missed the turn and shredded himself on the unforgiving lava, and others that perished on the treacherous road. A trickle of white paint can be seen along the middle of the road and its purpose may not be clear to visitors. You will immediately know what it is for if you drive on the road at night: the lava surface reflects almost no light from the headlights and one could easily drive off the road had it not been for the thin white streak down its middle, made at some point by pouring white paint from a punctured paint can out of the back of a slowly driving pickup truck.

Fern on wall in lava tube
Fern on the wall in lava tube

The lava fields may look monotonous from the car, but if you are there, pull over and walk around. You will want sturdy shoes and sunscreen but if you do get out, you will be rewarded. The flows are never the same, they change texture and color. Plants cling to the rough walls of lava tubes, surviving on the minimal nutrients and will to live alone. The snowy zeolites fill the cracks and caverns. The lava crust cracks and settles under your feet. Lava tubes gape open, inviting you to visit their shadowy depths. We visited, being very careful not to fall: just move your hand over lava surface and you will know why you don’t want to fall, the lava feels like knife blades sticking through very rough sandpaper.

Entrance to the Underworld
Entrance to the Underworld

But the landscape is fascinating and one could easily spend the whole day wandering about the lava fields. Make sure to have a partner along, don’t go by yourself unless you are an experienced outdoors person. Even then, the treacherous lava crust can break under your feet, resulting in an injury.

If you are considering a hike from the Observatory visitor parking to the top of Mauna Loa, remember that it takes 4 hours one way; thunderstorms form extremely quickly and unexpectedly on the Southern side of the mountain that you can not see, and rush over it in an instant, pummeling the mountain with lightning and hail; and that in July, the night temperatures are below freezing. Rescue helicopters will not find you at night, so don’t head up unless you are prepared and leave plenty of daylight to get back to your car.

After you make it back to the paved Saddle road, it will take you back to the Western shore of the island, winding its way through the older lava flows, covered with vegetation. Some areas are lush green, with grasses billowing in the wind like horse manes, and trees lean westward, showing that this place answers to only two forces of Nature: Fire and Wind.

Closer to the coast, the beautiful jacaranda trees are blooming, showing off their light purple flowers against the fresh green of leaves, with the backdrop of the hazy foothills of the massive Mauna Kea. In the end, this was a wonderful day off on the Big Island of Hawaii.

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