The only way to ex­pe­ri­ence the feisty Ki­lauea vol­cano, is on a he­li­copter, sans doors.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY BARRY STONE

The only way to ex­pe­ri­ence the feisty Ki­lauea vol­cano, is on a he­li­copter, sans doors.

Ire­cently be­came aware of a phrase I’d never heard be­fore. And it’s a real cracker. In the tech­ni­cal ver­nac­u­lar of the sea­soned he­li­copter pi­lot, a ‘doors-off’ flight isn’t some vanilla com­pro­mise where a he­li­copter’s doors might actually still be some­how at­tached after take-off but are maybe left open or placed some­where out of the way. ‘Doors-off’ means what it says. They are taken off, phys­i­cally re­moved prior to the flight, not present to be called upon should a pas­sen­ger at some point de­cide to to­tally freak out.

On a re­cent flight to see Ki­lauea vol­cano on Hawaii’s Big Is­land, the youngest and most ac­tive of all Hawaii’s vol­canos, I experienced it first­hand, and once the Par­adise Heli­copters chop­per took off, there was nothing ex­cept a sub­stan­tial down­draft be­tween me and po­ten­tial obliv­ion. And to think I paid ex­tra for this priv­i­lege.

Thoughts of obliv­ion were no match for the cas­cad­ing lay­ers of sen­sory over­load I was about to ex­pe­ri­ence.

Fly­ing over the ex­traor­di­nar­ily vis­ceral land­scape that

Ki­lauea (a Hawai­ian word mean­ing “spew­ing”) has been pa­tiently build­ing over the past 275,000 years in­spires only won­der. And what’s more, it doesn’t rest on its lau­rels. Erupt­ing con­stantly since 1983, it has been in a state of

“dual erup­tions” since 2007, both from the lava lake at its sum­mit and also from the Pu’u O’o vent on its East Rift Zone.

The flow from Pu’u O’o takes a south­east line, largely un­seen through sub­ter­ranean lava tubes, and re-emerges to en­ter the ocean in what vul­ca­nol­o­gists call a “fire hose”

– a cylin­dri­cal river of molten lava – that tum­bles over a cliff fall di­rectly into the Pa­cific Ocean on the is­land’s south­ern coast­line at Kamokuna. Un­til re­cently the fire hose was only a spo­radic event, its flow in­ter­rupted by the sea cliff the lava it­self has been so as­sid­u­ously cre­at­ing.

But all that changed on 31 De­cem­ber, 2016 when 10.5 hectares of ac­cu­mu­lated sea cliff and lava delta col­lapsed with­out warn­ing into the ocean. In just min­utes, the only im­ped­i­ment to the Pu’u O’o lava flow as it made its molten jour­ney to the south­ern edge of Hawaii’s largest is­land was spec­tac­u­larly re­moved. Now there is nothing on or be­low the water line to hin­der this mes­meris­ing window onto our Earth’s hid­den man­tle.

And there won’t be a hin­drance ei­ther, at least un­til suf­fi­cient amounts of so­lid­i­fied lava be­gins to ac­cu­mu­late into a new delta. And the size of the break­away seems to have been so great that the sea be­neath the out­fall is deep enough to guar­an­tee it con­tin­ues for some time yet. Just how long, no one knows. But mean­while it’s an on­go­ing event that has ev­ery­one very ex­cited. Espe­cially the pi­lots.

Perched over the door rails of a he­li­copter as it sud­denly banks sharply to your side be­cause some­one squeals they’ve spot­ted a lava trail is more thrilling than any thrill ride. New vis­tas ap­pear, the whole world re­volves be­fore you. Hori­zons van­ish. I wanted to say “Tighter, bank tighter!” I swear, I was point­ing my Canon 6D al­most straight down at the planet in an al­most ver­ti­cal line past my feet, with ei­ther the ocean or the seis­mic beauty of Ki­lauea with its pal­ette of min­er­alised shapes and colours en­gorg­ing the viewfinder. It was so spec­tac­u­lar that the fact that there was nothing be­tween me and that lava apart from a seat belt did not even reg­is­ter.

There are three ways you can see this pri­mor­dial land­build­ing event for your­self. You can take boat tours that some­times bat­tle heav­ing seas but do their best to give guests up-close views even though there are of­ten thick blan­kets of steam, the re­sult of a con­stant se­ries of pul­sat­ing lit­toral ex­plo­sions. You can rent a bi­cy­cle and make your way seven kilo­me­tres along a gravel road from the Kala­pana side of the event to a small promon­tory a cou­ple of hun­dred me­tres to the east of the out­flow, ped­alling through a lava-filled land­scape it­self the re­sult of a pre­vi­ous erup­tion. Or you can fly.

Each ap­proach has its ad­van­tages. Cy­cling 30 min­utes to the promon­tory at Kamokuna is by far the cheaper option (bi­cy­cle rental US$20; he­li­copter US$299; boat from US$180) and best done just prior to sunset so you can stay and see the lu­mi­nous lava after dark. But you’ll have to con­tend with be­ing a hun­dred me­tres or more fur­ther away than you’d like behind a roped-off perime­ter thanks to the pres­ence of sul­phur diox­ide and hy­drochlo­ric acid in the steam, not to men­tion the (all-but neg­li­gi­ble) pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing hit by fly­ing de­bris or com­ing into con­tact with minute vol­canic par­ti­cles.

Un­for­tu­nately, even pos­sess­ing a rea­son­ably sized zoom lens failed to over­come hav­ing to stay at this safe pre­scribed dis­tance – the fire hose and other smaller out­falls around it were never more than sliv­ers of flu­o­res­cent red. A boat will get you the clos­est – around 50 me­tres or closer de­pend­ing on con­di­tions. But heav­ing seas can, and do, rise up along this coast­line and tours can be can­celled with lit­tle warn­ing.

Fly­ing over it all does get you closer than rent­ing a bike (min­i­mum fly­ing height over the vol­cano is 152 me­tres, dis­tance of the roped-off promon­tory 275 me­tres), and it also provides one cru­cial in­gre­di­ent that the oth­ers lack – con­text. Seeing Ki­lauea from above al­lows you to mar­vel at the myr­iad vol­canic tex­tures and fea­tures. Its en­tire Eastern Rift Zone is laid out be­fore you: fis­sures, pit craters, cin­der cones, lava fields, so­lid­i­fied lava tubes, and of course the real treat – those tan­ta­lis­ing views of flow­ing lava on its in­ex­orable, in­evitable jour­ney to ex­tinc­tion in the wa­ters of the Pa­cific.

Prior to lift­ing off the tar­mac at Hilo In­ter­na­tional Air­port in my door-less fly­ing ma­chine you’d never seen so zeal­ous a pro­moter of seat­belt safety. (Did you know a strip of 48 mil­lime­tre-wide polyester web­bing has a ten­sile strength of three met­ric tonnes?)

By the time we re­turned to Hilo 45 min­utes later, the Hughes 500 was a part of me. I trusted it and the in­stincts of its pi­lot im­plic­itly. Fly­ing ‘doors off’ seemed all of a sud­den nat­u­ral, ob­vi­ous, de rigueur. If I’d only had Wag­ner’s Ride of the Valkyries on my playlist . . . .

Now, re­gard­ing the fire hose, don’t be com­pla­cent.

It’s guar­an­teed to come to an end when enough of a new lava delta is even­tu­ally built up. Rea­son enough to take a fresh look at your cal­en­dars. And whether it’s a he­li­copter, a boat, or a bi­cy­cle isn’t any­where near as important as sim­ply get­ting there.

Even after 275,000 years, ge­o­logic time is still of the essence. •

From top: The ‘fire hose’ – where the lava merg­ing with the sea sends up clouds of steam © Mandy Beer­ley/Un­splash; The molten lava is like a crea­ture from a hor­ror film.

Open­ing im­age: Fly­ing over Ki­lauea with Par­adise Heli­copters – boots and all. From top: Lava siz­zles into the sea of the Big Is­land © Buzz An­der­son/ Un­splash; Seat­belts work­ing over­time on a ‘doors-off’ flight.

Clock­wise from left: The red-hot glow of lava; The weird and won­der­ful shapes of cool and hot lava from above; This is what you call close to the action, on a tour with Par­adise Heli­copters.

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