Sunday, December 18, 2016

A spittin' and a splashin'

The comfort of a Fairmont bed was immeasurably improved by its making no attempt to throw us out of it, though my brain did its best to compensate for that, replicating the motion of the Safari Explorer very convincingly. Since it was raining, all the colour sucked out of sea and sky, we spent the morning cruisin’, as they term it here: just hanging out, reading and listening to the patter of the rain and the regular roar of the surf. It was still warm.

After a while, though, you can have enough of that, so at midday, despite no discernible improvement in the weather, we set off on a (long – on the Big Island, it’s always long) drive to Hilo over on the south-east coast. Had the rain been less torrential, we would have stopped for scenic views along the coast, a colourful wander through a tropical botanic garden, a smoothie perhaps at What's Shakin', and to admire the waterfalls. Actually, there was no need for the latter, since there were torrents of brownish water leaping onto the road along the route.

We persisted, because we had a 5pm tour booked with Lava Ocean Tours, for a cruise along the coast to view the lava pouring into the sea from Kilauea volcano. There were some stern warnings from the greeter – “It’s like Magic Mountain on steroids,” he promised kids who hopefully had no idea what steroids were; and, “Have you ridden any bulls lately?” to a man taking a seat at the front of the boat, who then scuttled meekly to the back where we 60+ passengers were assigned our seating. "Much easier on your backs," we were told somewhat patronisingly, and no doubt with litigation avoidance in mind.
We’d climbed a ladder onto the boat, still on its trailer, which was then very efficiently backed into the water and at once we were away, thumping and splashing along the coast for half an hour, great curtains of spray constantly thrown up on each side and sometimes inside too, to the delight of the shrieking kids up front alongside their long-suffering, teeth-gritting parents.
When we got to the lava flow, at first mostly all we could see were billowing clouds of smoke and steam, warm and smelling of sulphur, though the guide assured us there was no threat of SO2 poisoning. Mind you, as we sat on the surging waves about three metres from the hissing rocks, he did also say, “If the coast guard asks, tell him Half a mile”. Every so often there was a blurry flash of orange through the white. What sounded like rain pattering on the roof was gritty ash falling down. I could see steaming pieces of rock floating in the water. Dramatic stuff: fire meeting the sea, literally.
And then, the clouds parted and we could get momentary glimpses of the brilliant orange of the molten lava, dazzlingly bright in the evening light, splashing into the air and streaming into the water. It was so impressive: the Big Island being made bigger, right before our eyes, in an eruption that’s been continuous since 1983. Even though Cotopaxi was much bigger, it was really exciting, to be so close to it – literally, metres, I have no idea how they get away with it – and much better I think than the helicopter flight would have been.
After about 40 minutes of manoeuvring so everyone got a good view, we slammed and banged our way back along the edge of the lava flow again, the whole tour taking two hours and finishing up at the car park in the pitch dark at 7pm. We drove gingerly through the rainforest along a single-lane road, thousands of coqui frogs peeping away in an invisible but noisy chorus, and followed the long road back to the Fairmont, the rain mostly holding off, our hopes high for a fine day tomorrow.

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