“Lava tours – up close and personal”, read the handmade sign outside the small café at the end of the road.
It was literally end of the road. The winding highway ran along the coastline, through lush green vegetation filled with chirping birds and croaking frogs. Once in a while, you could catch the glimpse of the raging Pacific swells and the surfers who had given a whole new identity to Hawaii as surfer’s paradise.
The road ended abruptly, overrun by a vast expanse of grey lava bed. The change of scenery was dramatic – almost as if the dense volcanic ash rainforest was transported millions of years to meet its raw and stark origin. The small café was guarding the boundaries between the two times.
Not too long ago, Kalapana was a quaint little fishing town in south eastern coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Pretty houses lined the undulating ocean front and tourists flocked to see its black sand beaches. Then one day, about twenty years ago, Mount Kilaluea claimed the town, burying it under thirty feet of lava. What was left of the Village were a few houses at its western edge and the small café offering up close and personal lava tours.
‘Aloha!’ a tall, thin man sitting behind the counter with the handmade sign greeted me as I looked transfixed at pictures of red flowing lava that were scotch taped on the countertop.’It is the only way you can see Lava flow from ground’ the man said as I looked up at his strangely distant eyes.
I wanted to see the raw fury of mother earth – especially since I was in the most volcanically active area in the world. The aerial tours were too expensive and there was no lava flowing into the ocean currently, ruling out the boat tours. I had also checked with the park rangers that lava flow was not visible from the viewing area designated by the civil defense department.
‘But the park rangers said that there is no lava flowing currently ...’I voiced my concern.
‘I know a bit more than the rangers. I used to live where the lava flows today’, the man replied with a polite nod.
So the deal was struck. It was a hundred dollars for an “up close and personal” tour. ‘I will pick you up from your hotel at nine PM. It is a full moon night and the view will be incredible … ‘ , he said as the distant eyes continued to haunt me,” And please wear proper shoes – the ground gets pretty hot near the lava flow.”
‘I used to live where the lava flows today’, Tim, the Lava guide’s words continued to echo in my ears as I was wrapping up a light dinner in preparation of the after dinner trek.
I was no stranger to how it felt to be uprooted from one’s home. Back in India, my grandfather and his family were uprooted from their home in Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh. Dhaka had become part of East Pakistan after the partition of undivided India. My grandfather enjoyed telling me stories about his life in Dhaka.
‘Tell me about the life in Dhaka before the partition’, I used to often ask my grandfather.
‘We lived in a huge house. Ten times bigger than this one. My father – your great grandfather was a landlord‘, he would say. ‘We owned a lot of land. Standing on the terrace of our mansion, as far as eyes could see – all that and beyond was all our land’
‘Why did you move so deep inland ?’
‘I was taking no chances ... I wanted to move to a place so deep inland that there was no chance to be uprooted by another partition ’, my grandfather had replied breaking into a laugh as I joined him.
Apparently, my Lava guide had a different approach to life than my grandfather as he hung around the border of destruction - taking tourists on a hike to show them the place where his home once existed.
We drove through a narrow winding unpaved road adjacent to the lava field. Vast expanse of grey solidified lava extended as far as the eye could see – right up to the base of Mt Kilauea near the horizon. There were all type of formations, mostly crests and waves - almost as if an evil sorceress had turned the ocean into stone.
A corroded sign lay twisted near the ground – the sign posted by the department of civil defense warned the travelers of the dangers of the corrosive Volcanic fumes. As we travelled through the dirt road, signs of “Private Property – Trespassers will be prosecuted” shone occasionally in the headlight of the sturdy truck. As I was thinking about the overtly ironic signs that were protecting the barren gray lava covered expanse from imaginary intruders, we took a turn into the lava field, just after another sign warning the trespassers. The truck’s engine died down amplifying the silence around us.
‘This is my property ‘ Tim said as we got out of the truck and turned our flashlights on. “We had a vineyard here - five acres of it - as far as your eyes can see”, as he pointed to the distant horizon of the gray lava bed shining ominously in the moonlight.
‘ Stay close to me’ , Tim said as we walked towards Mt Kilauea which stood towering ahead of us, its slopes dotted with specks of orange light that were emanating from areas of active volcanic activity. I could already feel the heat in the air as moon shimmered through the vapor rising through the immense lava bed. I could see an orange glow in the lava bed ahead of us – almost like the glow from a large barbecue pit. The glow became brighter as we approached a big mount of solidified lava with a gaping orange crack across it. A faint smell of burnt sulfur hung around in the air.
‘Don’t go any closer’, Tim warned me as he emptied the content of his water bottle – pouring it on the lava bed ahead of us. The water sizzled and evaporated as a cloud of steam reflecting the orange glow of the lava crater rose into the moonlit night. The steam vanished in the night sky leaving us engulfed in an ironic silence as I stared at earth’s raw rage through the narrow crack on the lava bed.
‘You know – it had been quiet for more than twenty years ...’, Tim eyes were shining in the orange glow of the lava. ‘People had started moving back … and then the flow started again last year..’
‘That used be a house a month ago‘ , Tim said after a pause pointing at a mangled iron mesh sticking out of the gray lava bed shining dimly in the moonlit night. ‘The lady who lived in the house had gone out to get coal briquettes for her barbecue grill. When she came back, the house was on fire and shortly run over by the lava flow.’
‘Look at that’ , Tim pointed on another mound of solidified lava about thirty yards ahead of us. On the top of the mound, in stark contrast to the vast lava field around it , was a barbecue grill with its legs fused in the lava bed !
‘The Lava carried the grill out thirty yards before it solidified’. As I stared alternatively at the barbecue grill and Tim’s face , wondering about the stings of ironic settings I was encountering today, Tim broke out into a smile – for the first time since I had met him.
‘This is what we call Lava Surfing in Hawaii’, Tim said breaking out in a laugh. I joined in.
‘Tell me how was life here before the lava flow?’ I asked after we stopped laughing.