It’s one of the most awe-inspiring sights I’ve ever seen: molten lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean. From our front-row seats near the edge of a cliff, we watched in wonder as Pele, the volcano goddess of the ancient Hawaiians, performed spectacularly.
We had to work for the prime position, though.
Our quest to rendezvous with the fiery deity had begun earlier in the evening when we met up with a guide from Poke a Stick Lava Tours on the Big Island. Our group of about a dozen adventure-seekers set out on a 2.5-mile hike across a lava field in Kalapana. Cold, hard, black volcanic ash stretched far and wide, remnants of Pele’s past endeavors.
We trekked briskly and carefully across the uneven surface, which sounded like broken glass crunching beneath our feet—and just as sharp, as one of our fellow hikers found out when a sliver slipped into his shoe. As we paused for a break and to take a closer look at the swirling patterns left when the lava cooled, our guide recalled a previous eruption that had sent him racing to help a friend rescue possessions from a house in Pele’s path.
We knew we were getting close to the action when heat began to radiate from the surface. The solid, long-dormant lava we had hiked for miles gave way to a living, breathing, blackish-gray substance that oozed across the landscape. Embers glimmered beneath the surface.
Our tour company wasn’t called Poke a Stick for nothing. Wielding the long branches they had given us to tote along, we braved the intense heat and prodded the soft blacktop until red liquid emerged—a harbinger of what was to come. When we had enough photos of ourselves poking a stick in the lava and playing with fire, we continued a short distance to the coast for the main event.
Bright, thin streams of lava trickled down a steep rock face into the ocean, pooling on the wet sand before being washed away by the waves. If there is one thing we’ve learned on our extended travels, it’s that Mother Nature can’t be commanded. We doubted Pele could be, either, and we were pleased—and grateful—with the view.
As dusk turned to darkness, we sat on the rocks and watched the show, entranced, as minutes ticked slowly by. Our patience was rewarded when Pele came through with an even more impressive spectacle. On the hillside above, a lava shelf broke, sending a robust stream of molten rock pouring forth and making way for the sea.
All too soon, we had to turn our backs on Pele. There’s a reason lava flow seekers aren’t supposed to set out on their own, and it quickly became apparent why as we headed into the pitch-black night for the return trip. To our inexperienced eyes, there was no discernible path across the open expanse. But even with his GPS on the fritz, our guide expertly led us back across the lava field. Forming a sort of human caterpillar, the members of our group stuck close to one another, each armed with a flashlight that we shone on the heels of the person in front of us to see where they stepped. Although it was arduous going, neither that nor the rain that drenched us could lessen our euphoria after what we had just witnessed.
Make no mistake about it, however, this goddess can be fickle. Since our summer visit to the Big Island, where we witnessed her might in action, lava has since stopped flowing into the ocean. Mahalo, Pele, for putting out so magnificently while we were there to see it.