Adventures from Back of Beyond

Monday, November 13, 2006

Southern Cross

The first time you spot the Southern Cross is said to be special. It sure was for us.

Near the south shore of the Big Island of Hawaii sits Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes. Most people understandably don't want to get very close to the most active part of it. But for those who want a bit more adventure, one can hike beyond the end of the road, through a frozen field of fractured black lava, get right up next to 2,200 degree molten rock, and watch it drop hissing and steaming into the roiling Pacific Ocean.

The best time for this excursion is dusk. A modicum of daylight guides the way over several miles of broken and razor sharp black lava, to the live flow. Then, as night comes, the red glow of the molten rock is more striking as it drops into the sea. The hike back is in the dark by flashlight.

That's what we did one warm and humid summer night. With water bottles and headlamps, we set off to witness new land being made.

The entire hike is within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and the Park Service has set out several numbered beacons, which act as reference points. Finding them during the day is not a problem. It's a bit different in the dark, even though the beacons are lighted.

Compounding the difficulty of the hike are the miles of broken and uneven terrain comprised of cooled and hardened lava. It's easy to turn an ankle or twist a knee. Plus, as the lava cools, the surface splinters into fine, razor sharp spears. Just brush slightly up against it, and you're sliced. One must stay focused constantly on each and every step. Daydream just briefly, and you pay the price in blood.

We crossed the lava field after a tedious hike and reached the flowing lava around dusk, so the timing was good. The molten flow is mostly through a network of tubes just below the recently cooled surface crust. We took great care to find a spot to cross where it seemed safe; we weren't sure exactly where this spot was. We also tried to stay upwind of the poisonous fumes, which we mostly were able to do.

As darkness closed in, we found a vantage point to overlook the the lava cascading into the sea. One must be very careful in choosing a place to observe; fragile lava deltas build up and break off into the ocean with regularity. One observer was killed in 1993 when the bench he was standing on broke off into the ocean.

So with some uneasiness we watched the molten rock dripping into the ocean in great clouds of steam. Every once in awhile the superheated salt water would create a spectacular explosion of whitewater shooting into the air.

We watched this spectacle for a long time. We sat, photographed, pondered the creation of new land. Then it was getting late and time to go.

The return hike through the lava field at night was much more difficult than during daylight. Finding the right path became far more tedious using flashlights and headlamps, and equally more difficult to locate the best ground on which to step without twisting an ankle or knee, and to avoid getting stabbed by the razor sharp lava splinters.

That particular night was mostly overcast. We in fact had some brief rain as we hiked, which felt very refreshing, but we didn't see much blue sky on the way out, nor stars after dark. However, close to half way back there appeared some breaks in the clouds to the left, low to the southern horizon.

It was then and there, on that difficult hike back in the dark across the lava field, on the southern tip of the Big Island, looking south over the vast Pacific, that we first spotted it -- the Southern Cross.

The compact quartet of stars almost jumped out of the clouds at us, so distinct was the small opening the black sky made against the foreground of the misty grey marine layer. Far smaller than the Northern Cross (as Cygnus the Swan is sometimes known), the constellation was very bright, and instantly identifiable even though we'd never seen it before except in photographs.

Most people in the northern hemisphere will never see this icon of the southern sky because it sits beneath the horizon. I hadn't thought about it before, but out on the southern tip of the Big Island we were below 20 degrees north latitude. That was far enough.