I felt like I’d been hiking for days, although according to my watch, it had only been 40-minutes and the sun wasn’t due to rise for another hour and change. Off in the distance, you could see the glow of our destination: The Kupapa’u ocean entry, where molten lava from Kilauea exits lava tubes, slowly enlarging the Big Island of Hawai’i.
It had been nearly seven years since I had trekked out across the flow from the Pu’u O’o vent – GPS in hand – to get up close and personal with Madam Pele’s molten creation. At the time, it was a four-plus-mile trek to the official viewing area, plus another mile and change to get to the lava entry… after sneaking past Mr. Ranger.
Make no mistake, fresh flowing lava is mesmerizing, but it’s also extremely hot (as in over 1,100-degrees F) and dangerous to boot: On that trip, I came across a skylight – basically a crack in the lava tube where you can see the lava flowing. I walked up as close as I dared (about 10-feet) and shot away, unaware that lava, due to its viscosity, flows in waves. Soon enough, portions of the ground beneath me started to glow, and it got very hot very fast. It was Pele’s way of giving me a hot foot.
This trip was a whole different ball game. Hooking up with Bruce Omori and Tom Kuali’i, owners of Extreme Exposure (an incredible lava-centric gallery in Hilo), and a couple of the coolest guys on the planet, we hiked out from the back side – Kalapana – to shoot the lava entering the ocean and a couple of breakouts a bit inland.
Bruce and Tom can best be described as lava junkies. Their passion for the molten earth flows as hot as yellow/orange-hot stuff flows in a well-insulated lava tube. And they’re pretty much out on a weekly basis. Tom knows the route so well; he never even consulted his GPS unit.
Getting to the lava entry point well before sunrise, we had lots of time to find the best (and safest) shooting location on the bench, allowing me to setup my Canon 5D MARK III for shooting a time lapse with a 24-105mm lens, and the 7D with my Sigma 70-200mm lens mounted in the gimbal slot of my Acratech GV2 ballhead for detail shots. We spent the next two hours listening to the hiss and watching the explosions, as ocean waves clashed with the temperature differential of the lava. Cameras clicked away as rivers of lava made their way towards the sea, the top layer crusting over, then tearing away as the flow fell over the edge of the bench.
With the sun rapidly rising, and the battle of refracted light through the steam clouds increased, we packed up our gear and headed inland in search of breakouts: lava that literally breaks through a lava tube, flows and crusts over, then breaks out again, slowly covering the terrain in its relentless march towards the ocean.
It wasn’t long before we came across a breakout, with fresh pahoehoe oozing from small breaks, inching over a previous flow and slowing building the island. I grabbed the MARK III, clamped on the Sigma 70-200 and shot the ever changing formation – the initial burst of lava from the weak point; capturing the extrusion as it changed shape rolling downward before pooling in a crevice – all the while continually retreating from the heat of Pele’s forward march.
Eventually, with over 100GB of images shot, it was time to pack the gear for the long hike out. Slinging my 45-lb pack onto my shoulders, I looked across the vast black terrain, noting the heat waves coming of the landscape where lava lay underfoot. We began our journey out, following a trail from Bruce and Tom’s memory. With a few breaks to rest and rehydrate ourselves, we finally returned to civilization, sore, exhausted, and a little dehydrated, but with lots of photos, and even more memories, courtesy of Madam Pele. I can’t wait or the next trip.