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Hawaii's big island



All is eerily quiet at Hawaiian Ocean View Estates.

Bristling piles of black, volcanic stone are the main feature of this massive, not-quite-realized development in the southwestern corner of Hawaii's actively volcanic Big Island, a quiet corner of the island state that actually begs not to be developed. Tenacious locals have successfully thwarted many proposed resorts here on the basis that they would interfere with their traditional way of life.

So in a state synonymous with large, luxury resorts the southern tip of the Big Island remains quiet and low key, a tiny nook of paradise that locals are determined to keep for themselves.

Quiet, that is, if one can overlook the constant, looming threat of Kilauea, the active volcano whose flanks have been oozing liquid fire since 1983. One would expect the inhabitants of Volcano Village, the tidy little settlement tucked into the misty foliage that services Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, to live in constant apprehension of their unpredictable neighbour.

But they are sitting pretty, upslope from the crater. Kilauea, despite the havoc she has wrought beneath her fiery flanks, could be considered a user friendly, laid back volcano. Visitors can drive right up to her rim, gaze across the vast expanse of her crater and even hike across what was, for parts of the 19th century, a boiling lake of lava. In the distance, a massive plume of steam rises from the depths of Halema'uma'u, what is essentially a crater within a crater, and considered to be the home of Madame Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire.

All is serene here now, the current action taking place at a new site called Pu'u O'o, the volcanic vent that is responsible for entombing the quiet, seaside town of Kalapana as well as burying miles of state highway. But as recently as 1959, after laying dormant for almost a century, Kilauea had a brief temper tantrum, spewing fountains of lava 1,900 feet into the air, shooting, at one point, enough liquid fire to bury a football field 15 feet deep in the stuff every minute!

For 36 days lava continued to burst forth from the bowels of the earth before she quieted into the crusty lake of stone that exists today. Steaming vents flank the hiking trail that traverses the crater reminding visitors that but a few hundred feet below the seemingly solid ground lies a molten lake of fire.

Such fiery displays are rare for now. The Pu'u O'o vent, a mere gash on the volcano's flank has been quietly oozing lava since 1983. The spectacle may be less dramatic, but the results are just as devastating. Completed in 1928, the Chain of Craters Road once formed a loop that descended about 3,700 feet to the sea and continued east to the small town of Kalapana and beyond to the island's lush and rainy Puna district. Today, it is rudely interrupted near the sea, entombed in a solid blanket of shiny black stone, a lava flow from the late '90s, nature's very effective version of a dead end. One can still reach the otherworldly remains of Kalapana, but they must take the long way round.

The Big Island's Puna district, located on its southeastern side, is a quiet haven of lush rainforest and lava, a forgotten enclave of alternative living where the dreadlocked and tie dyed set live in the shadow of an alarmingly active volcano.

Being on the east, the area receives buckets of rain, creating a misty, steaming landscape that teems with jungle-like foliage. Highways are narrow affairs that wind their way through the dense trees dripping with tangled vines and colourful flowers creating a jungle canopy that all but obscures the rain threatening sky. One will not find many mild mannered strips of fine sand here; on the island's east, the Pacific is a raging beast, slamming against the rough volcanic stone that forms the coast, trying with angry futility to break apart a land that is still being actively created. This lush landscape makes the transition to barren lava flow all the more dramatic.

Driving northeast from the national park, then turning south onto the highway that now ends abruptly where Kalapana once stood, one will periodically burst from the dripping rainforest onto barren plains of lifeless lava, old flows that have thoughtlessly ploughed their way over the thriving jungle to the sea. This stark transition between teeming life and sudden death is a common feature of this area, yet surprisingly, one will still find homes peacefully tucked into the forest, seemingly oblivious to the looming threat from above.

The highway ends rather abruptly at an eerie scene of devastation.  Until 1990, a town existed here. A makeshift parking area has been set up for curious tourists wanting to get as close to the current flow of lava as possible.  Only residents can proceed in their vehicles.

Beneath the rolling sea of shiny black stone, Kalapana once was. The devastation is complete, the scene ethereal; otherworldly. A few gravel roads traverse the rocky ground leading to a handful of small homes rebuilt by stubborn locals who refuse to leave their hometown, despite the fact that it is now entombed within 40 feet of hardened lava. Stern 'no trespassing' signs convey a quiet message to tourists. ("This is our home, not a tourist attraction") Some have managed to coax a little life out of the earth, but the dominant feature is stone, an endless sea of swirling blackness that stretches from the mountain to the sea.

There were no deaths. In the late '80s, lava flows began inching their way toward the town, first obliterating the road, a campsite, a subdivision and a handful of beaches and historical sites. Kalapana must have held its breath as the fingers of molten fire oozed ever closer. Then, from April to June of 1990, residents stood back and watched helplessly as the volcano claimed their homes in a fiery scene of total devastation.  Close to 200 houses were destroyed.

Today, at the end of the road, a friendly fellow in a high visibility vest blocks the way. It is not safe to proceed. It is a curious thing to stand on a newborn ground, created but two weeks prior. Not far from here, a huge billow of steam emits from the coast where molten lava is pouring into the sea, giving birth to a new coastline as a handful of mere mortals watch in awe. This is a front row seat to the growing of an island, the creation of the youngest land on earth. A few tourists linger in somber silence, perhaps pondering the awesome power of the earth and the helplessness of those that live upon it.

The State of Hawaii lays claim to all new land created by the volcano. They also offer house insurance to those who build in high risk zones and are unable to procure insurance privately, a somewhat controversial scheme as it makes it possible for folks to construct homes where they perhaps shouldn't. Curiously, people do still build at the foot of the dragon, willing to roll the dice and take their chances. Hawaii is, after all, an expensive place and the volcano has very effectively created an abundance of affordable housing.

Life, in all its uncertainty, goes on at the base of the volcano. As they did millions of years ago, seeds find their way to the lifeless stone, eventually finding their niche and tenaciously beginning the cycle again. Small, scraggly plants that cling to life on the volcanic rock are the beginnings of tomorrow's rainforest. And like the plants, the humans who have made this uncertain corner of Hawaii their home, refuse to be bullied into submission by Kilauea. As homes are built and rebuilt, the staff of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park keep a close eye on the dragon so that they might predict her next move. But the otherworldly moonscape of Kalapana is a somber reminder that she is the undisputed ruler of this part of the island and those who choose to live at her foot are playing a high stakes chess game with an indifferent mountain whose flanks ooze liquid fire.  Kilauea continues to grow the Big Island of Hawaii at all costs, oblivious to the game she is playing, and the people living in her awesome shadow the world's ultimate gamblers.