Living in Lava Land on Hawaii’s Big Island


The recent Kīlauea Volcano eruption offers a chance to feel the pulse of Hawaiian culture, somewhere between creation and destruction.

To outsiders, arriving in Hawaii has become something of a cliché. Admit it: You’re already thinking about mai tais, strolling barefoot on white–sand beaches and getting lei’d by smiling locals in brightly coloured shirts plastered with botanicals.

But the island of Hawaii also welcomes me with something older and more severe. Though the tropical trappings are there, I can’t take my eyes off the black scabs of lava scarring the landscape. They appear as soon as you land at the open–air airport in Kailua–Kona and fan out in fingers many kilometres long. There are two kinds of terrestrial lava flows, and I’m speeding past both on my way up the west coast: fast–moving a‘a, which hardens into churned, broken chunks, and slower–moving pahoehoe, which looks like the chocolate swirl of just–baked brownies cooling in a pan.

A‘a and pahoehoe: The Hawaiian language gives geologists the technical terms for lava because there is no better place to observe the geological violence that creates new land. The Hawaiian islands are exposed summits of undersea volcanoes rooted to the ocean floor. Some of them remain active, like slowly developing blemishes that erupt where the mantle breaks through the Earth’s crust, spewing lava that cools into rock. At under a million years old, the island of Hawaii is the newest island – for now. Just 35 kilometres offshore, Lō‘ihi rises to 975 metres below the Pacific. Someday – it could be in 10,000 years, or 100,000 – it will break the surface to become the ninth major Hawaiian island.

February 1, 2019
View of Hawaii and volcanic lava from the air.
Lava from the 2018 Kilauea eruption pushes into a residential area of Pahoa.

Or it could eventually join the island of Hawaii, which began as five long, wide volcanoes. They boast some impressive stats: Measured from the sea floor, 10,210–metre Mauna Kea would be the highest mountain in the world, while Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the U.S. — and perhaps the most dangerous. This was made clear in May 2018, when an eruption drained the lava lake in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and spewed ash 10,000 metres into the air. Toxic vog (that’s volcanic smog) and laze (steam made of hydrochloric acid and glass created when molten lava hits seawater) filled the sky, and neighbourhoods were inundated with lava that sizzled all the way to the sea. By the time the eruptions ceased three months later, more than 700 homes and the islands’ largest freshwater lake had been destroyed, thousands of people had been displaced, and Kapoho Bay, a popular snorkelling spot and important agricultural area, had been swallowed by smoking lava flows. In its place, the island now has nearly two kilometres of new coastline.

Kanoe Yomes ignites the torches
Let there be light: Kanoe Yomes ignites the torches to signify the end of the day at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.
Hōlei Sea Arch in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
Hōlei Sea Arch in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

While some mainlanders viewed the eruptions as a terrifying Armageddon, in many ways they’re part of a greater Hawaiian story of resilience. Whether surviving European and American colonialism or the spectre of sudden landscape–changing natural events, Hawaiians have a way of transforming unimaginable dangers into sources of cultural strength. Fire is simply the oldest and most mystical of those dangers, present from the beginning and foreshadowing the end.

In the vast pantheon of Hawaiian gods and goddesses, Pele – goddess of fire and creator of the islands – is among the most important. It can be difficult for outsiders to grasp her full complexity: She is both destroyer and nurturer, a primordial force from within the Earth who stirs up violent explosions by swirling her stick in her firepits, but also provides the magical soil that grows everything from coffee beans to koa trees to papayas.

And Pele is a trickster who thinks nothing of toying with the tourism industry that sustains nearly a third of private–sector jobs on the island. (In 2017, the national park alone brought in US$166 million from more than 2 million visitors.) After Kilauea erupted, bookings dropped during the all–important summer vacation season. And just as clueless mainlanders like me realized this was a once–in–a–lifetime opportunity to see Madame Pele’s catastrophic handiwork in person, she shut off the tap in late August.

Visible craters in the ground through Volcanoes National Park.
Magma mia! The Chain of Craters Road weaves through Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

“Nobody wanted to come to the Big Island in May, June, July, August – it was the lowest we have seen in tourism,” says Koa Akau, a native Hawaiian born and raised in Waimea, on the island’s north side. “Now that everyone is coming here, I tell them, ‘You’re a couple months too late for the lava!’”

I’ve headed to the northwest coast to meet Akau at Brown’s Beach House restaurant at the Fairmont Orchid, where he is the assistant manager. Like so many Hawaiians, he quickly drops his professional facade to start chatting with me like an old friend. “This is a living island, it’s still growing, you can feel it moving beneath you – that’s the Mana,” he says, using a Hawaiian word that roughly translates to spiritual power and influence. “I’ve travelled the world and I’ve not felt that anywhere else. You see the land and it’s untouched, new. You feel that connecting to the Āina here.” Āina: It’s another Hawaiian word that defies simple translation. It loosely means “the land,” but it’s really a sacred value, a way of co–existing with the natural world.

People relaxing at Two-Step Beach.
At Two–Step Beach near Kona, there’s no need to worry about sand getting everywhere.

I sit down with “Uncle” Earl Kamakaonaona Regidor, who grew up on the Big Island. He helps preserve its language and culture as an ambassador at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, and he’s a master of the Hawaiian art of “talking story” – the passing on of ancestral wisdom through a casual chat. He best exemplifies how Hawaiian mythology is more than legend here: It’s a way of understanding something as complex as geologic time, a way to make sense of a paradise riven with the violent acts of a higher power.

“My mom used to say, ‘Tūtū Pele is the creator of this land. She creates, and she takes back,’” he says. “My heart sank for those who lost homes. But the stories came back to me again. Is there a reason why Tūtū Pele is taking her land back? Is she cleaning house? My mother used to say, ‘Once she finds a place that she can relax, it’ll be okay. It’ll be fine.’”

The north coast of Hawaii.
The north coast’s Pololū Valley offers some of the most spectacular panoramas on the island.

The following day, I drive southeast, crossing the empty interior of Hawaii on my way to the national park. Large swaths of the park remain closed, but I stop to sniff the sulphur at the enlarged Halema‘uma‘u Crater. I drive the Chain of Craters Road to its dead end at a massive lava sea arch carved from centuries of wave action. Hiking into a barren field of lava is disorienting, like dropping into a primordial planet of boiled asphalt. Some of the new rock has an eerie rainbow sheen, like a soap bubble about to pop.

A few kilometres east of where I’m standing, a lava flow in 1990 buried most of the historic fishing town of Kalapana. Today, visitors can hike through to gawk at rusting ruins twisting in the stiff coastal wind and the few brave locals who returned to erect homes in the middle of what can look like a wasteland. A weird pit forms in my gut when I think of trying to explain to a native Hawaiian how I’m not here to feast on their pain, even if I started as one of the rubes disappointed when the lava stopped flowing. I want them to know that I have learned that whatever state you find the island in is a blessing. But then it occurs to me that Hawaiians know more about being close to disaster than I ever will. So I should shut up and listen.

A rainbow in Hawaii, The Rainbow State.
The Rainbow State lives up to its name.
A park ranger feels the heat near a steam vent
A park ranger feels the heat near a steam vent at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

I take to the skies with Paradise Helicopters to catch the Halema‘uma‘u Crater from the air. Pele still hiccups steam and gas we can smell in the chopper while, far below, red–roofed houses on green islands stand out in the middle of black rivers of lava. Our pilot explains how he brought residents back to survey their land. Beyond, the black rivers coalesce into a still–smoking plain where the beach community and tidal pools of Kapoho Bay were. This square kilometre of fresh land juts into the sea: It’s the new easternmost point of the island, too new to appear on Google maps. Soon, the viscous black rock will host plant communities; our helicopter pilot explains it won’t be fully green for 200 years, but he’s flown people out who plan to rebuild their homes in just two.

Even from hundreds of metres above, I see whispers of green furring the edges of new, cakey black lava. It’s here I realize that setting “creation” and “destruction” apart is to miss the point entirely. Hawaiians understand that the two exist in an unbreakable loop, where violent acts birth the landscape – the Āina – that feeds the bodies and souls of locals and visitors alike.

Earl Kamakaonaona Regidor plays music for guests
“Uncle” Earl Kamakaonaona Regidor, manager of the Ka‘upulehu Cultural Center, strikes a chord at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.
Petroglyphs in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
Petroglyphs that rock in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

“Our island has changed; it was so beautiful up there,” Uncle Earl says. “But that’s okay: Maybe there will be another place that’s just as beautiful, or more beautiful. This place is still paradise.”

When visitors leave Hawaii they talk about taking the aloha spirit with them – a sort of personal mandate to align the heart and spirit in an effort to foster mutual respect and understanding among all people. But the Big Island, in all its geologic, unpredictable grandeur, gives even first–time visitors like me the ability to feel the true pulse of Hawaiian culture. Bearing witness to sights of creation and destruction etched in lava old and new is something that goes deeper than any single sensational incident. You begin to see far back into the past and far into the future, the way Uncle Earl and generations of Hawaiians always have, and it calls you home. That’s real Mana.