Big adventure on Big Island

Qantas – The Australian Way

We’re hovering directly above a river of viscous molten red rock snaking sluggishly through a scorched brown landscape. I can almost feel the heat rising off the lava flow through the thin glass bubble of the helicopter, so when the pilot twitches the joystick to lurch left I have a heart-stopping moment. Thrills like this don’t occur every day!

Adventure on the Big Island of Hawaii is as amazing as the territory itself. In the morning you can snorkel the azure Pacific and sun yourself on warm resort sands. By evening you can be stargazing from the summit of the world’s biggest mountain. And in between, why not marvel at the spectacular river of lava flowing from the world’s most active volcano?

No sensible holidaymaker to Hawaii would aim to pack this amount of remarkable activity into a single day. But within a few days you can enjoy a range of adventure unparalleled elsewhere, as suggested by the title of the free tourist publication 101 Things to do on Big Island.

The Big Island is called thus because it’s twice the size of all the other islands of Hawaii. It’s also a place of extremes, of astonishing contrasts. It boasts 11 of the world’s 13 climatic zones, ranging from tropical rainforest to sub-arctic tundra. For most visitors this awesome spectrum is distilled to just two; the arid, hot west coast and wetter, cooler east side.

Hawaii’s an extremely twitchy place. Earthquakes occur every day, most of them of less than 3 magnitude although it’s rare a week passes without a quake large enough to be felt somewhere. The most recent big shake, in October 2006, was a 6.7 magnitude trembler which partly damaged the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. The famous golf course was unaffected.

The western Kona-Kohala Coast is a bleak, rugged landscape of solidified volcanic lava flow that, surprisingly, is the location of all the island’s luxury resorts. Each is an oasis of irrigated fertility among acres of naked, baked brown rock. The town of Kailua-Kona is the hub of tourist activities.

In stark contrast, the windward Hamakua Coast has lush forest, deep valleys, waterfalls and fertile green pastures. Hilo is the wettest city in the US yet a town of considerable charm, little spoilt by mass tourism and therefore the best place to sample authentic island lifestyle.

Hot pursuits

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a faintly menacing realm where sulphurous air wafts over calderas, craters, fissures and cinder cones. The park, in the island’s south, is open 24 hours a day, year-round. The information centre, perched on the rim of Kilauea’s summit, is less than an hour’s drive from Hilo.

A short film screened there helps visitors make sense of the surrounding landscape before venturing along the 18 km Crater Rim circuit, the most popular tourist route, stopping to warily inspect smoky fumaroles and lava tubes. You can also drive the 32km Chain of Craters Road to the point where lava has obliterated the round-island highway.

Kilauea is the world’s most active volcano and has been spewing lava continuously for 24 years. Currently, the visible lava flow lies outside the national park below a huge white fume billowing from the vent called Pu`u `O`o, which serves as a large chimney. To see it you need take a helicopter flight, readily available from Hilo Airport. Both helicopter and fixed-wing flights provide exceptional views of the volcano park, the west coast and island interior.

High times

Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, can claim to be the world’s highest mountain, taller than Everest if measured from its base on the sea floor. It rises 4,205m above sea level. The summit is visited during a seven-hour guided adventure which includes hotel pick-up and a picnic in the foothills before driving to the snowbound peak to observe a glorious tropical sunset in sub-zero temperatures.

Mauna Kea’s summit is home to the world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared and submillimeter astronomy, an array of 13 international telescopes. Two gleaming domes protect the twin 10m Kecks, the world’s biggest optical and infrared telescopes. Another dome houses the Subaru Telescope. It’s the world’s largest single-piece mirrored surface and is the only summit telescope open to the public.

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