Editor’s Note: One of the most diverse islands on the planet, Hawaii Island plays host to all but two of the world’s ecosystems, including active volcanoes. GP contributor Will McGough summits Kilauea for a firsthand look inside the Devil’s Kitchen.
As soon as I reached the end of the five-mile hike and approached the moon-like terrain of the volcano, the smell hit me in the face: a burning, smoky scent reminiscent of a smoldering charcoal grill. I looked out over the dark surface, the rising heat creating a blurry visual effect when I looked close enough, but there was no sign of any lava.
As we left the tree line and officially stepped onto the surface of Kilauea Crater, our guide explained that we were standing on day-old rock, formed my small eruptions of lava that harden when they hit the air. Under us, he explained, the Pahoehoe lava flowed at nearly 2,000 degrees. With what I thought to be an obvious question in mind, I tapped him on the shoulder. If there’s lava flowing through these fields right underneath us, should I be worried about, you know, falling through and losing half my leg?
He laughed. “Lava will never sneak up on you”, he said. “If it’s openly flowing, you will burn the hair off your legs and eyebrows before you ever get close enough to step in it.”
That didn’t make me feel better. He put his arm on the back of my neck and pulled me onward. Under us, I could hear the crunching of the hardened lava, or “volcanic glass”, named for its brittle texture that chips away as you walk on it, breaking off in shards sharp enough to cut up your hands, which is why I suited up with gloves, long pants and closed-toed shoes. Volcanic glass is the geological equivalent of meringue — it has a crispy exterior, but an airy constitution overall.
IF YOU GO
For this journey, I was led to lava by the team at Ahiu Hawaii, a dynamic business that specializes in lava flow tours, wild Hawaiian cattle hunts and taxidermy. ahiuhawaii.com.
I always thought staring into a campfire was the most memorizing thing in the world. That changed when I stood ten feet from lava oozing out of the earth. To say it was hot would be an understatement. The heat penetrated my clothes and encouraged me to keep reconfirming that my eyebrows were indeed still there.
When my guide handed me a four-foot long stick and nudged me towards the flow, I approached within about five feet before having to cover my face with my arm. Reaching out with the other and leaning away with my head and shoulders, I submerged the stick into the lava. It was then that I learned how thick and intimidating lava really is, the texture closer to mud than water.
Retreating from the heat of the field, I could feel the shards of volcanic glass lodged in my sock and irritating my skin. Aside from the killer happy-hour story that comes along with the experience, what makes seeing the lava so intriguing is its sheer intimidation and stature, the fact that it seems like it’s from some other planet. There’s also something to its significance and role in ancient history. As I watched it cool and harden, I felt like I was getting glimpse into the construction of the planet as we know it. Now, every time I walk on a volcanic island, whether it’s in the Caribbean or off the coast of Southeast Asia, I imagine the first eruptions that formed the ground on which I’m walking — and I’m reminded that the lava’s still flowing, and the Earth is still changing.