In just 3 hours we experienced the big surf crashing on the black sand beach in the lush Waipio Valley and the icy wind cutting through our light jackets at the snowy summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. My friends Steve, Suzanne and I started the day at the Waipio Valley observation deck before climbing into the pickup truck for the hair raising ride down to the valley floor. The road slopes at a 25% angle so you have to have 4 wheel drive AND good brakes! The view down was spectacular, though for someone who gets vertigo when looking over the side of cliffs, it did get the adrenaline pumping. In the valley, locals (most of them Hawaiian) live a fairly traditional life, on small plots of land where they grow their own food like Taro, used for making Poi and other Hawaiian dishes. While they tolerate the tourists that visit the valley, they don’t necessarily like it. One sign warned “parking for Hawaiians only all others will be towed”, obviously a tongue-in-cheek joke since a tow truck could never make it down and then back up that road, but I’m sure it reflects much of the sentiment of the locals there. We were able to drive through one small stream, but we turned back at an even bigger stream, and made our way to the beach. You really have to experience a black sand beach to appreciate it. It’s just like the soft powdery sand of Waikiki Beach but it is black. So when you sit down in it, just like sand, it sticks to you, so it looks like you are covered in dirt. The view up the cliffs, across the rolling surf, was spectacular. There were a few families spending the day but it was a very isolated and remote beach. The valley is also considered sacred to the Hawaiians and next to the black sand beach is a burial ground with signs all around it warning “Kapu” (forbidden) .
It was still early so we decided to make the drive up to the summit of Mauna Kea. It’s the highest mountain in Hawaii at 13,796ft above sea level, but when you add in the rest of the mountain which is under the Pacific, it is over 33,000ft – about 4 thousand feet higher than Mount Everest. The ride was as wild as any rollercoaster I had been on – very very hilly with hairpin turns, sometimes just over the crest of a hill so you had little time to react I would definitely recommend the drive along Saddle Road, just for the adventure and scenery along, the only problem is most car rental companies forbid you from doing that. We started at sea level at the black sand beach and travelled through every climate you could think of. First was the tropical rain forest, that cleared into the rolling green farm fields that reminded me of the fields around the foothills of central Alberta in Canada. I was adjusting something on my camera and when I looked up the landscape had changed dramatically, and now we were travelling through desert like conditions with very little vegetation, and bare rusted orange earth mounds scattered across the landscape – which of course were dormant small lava domes. That soon morphed into a pockmarked moonscape as we passed through lava fields that had aged into a rocky grey landscape… in the distance you could see the black flows of a more recent eruption cutting across a green hillside. We then began the much steeper climb toward the summit of Mauna Kea… again as we moved higher than the tree line, there was very little in the way of vegetation and once we reached the summit it was nothing but rock and snow. Apparently when the summit gets a large snowfall, locals head up with their skis and snowboards and ride down the steep slopes. The biggest problem, besides dodging rocks, is getting back up to the top, since there are no lifts. (my friend mentioned a sign he saw that said ‘no lifts means no lines’) Apparently one person will ski down one of the larger lava domes and another will drive their vehicle to the bottom, pick them up and drive back up to the top. It’s not a long run but I’m sure it is a thrill. When we stepped out of the vehicle we were hit by a blast of icy cold wind, that hit our face like a thousand needles. It was so unexpected, and a reminder of the cold winter I had left behind. We stayed out in the cold only long enough to take a few quick photos before diving back into our vehicle. We decided to take the route through Hilo back to their home in Laupahoehoe and drove right into a torrential rainstorm. The rain and fog were so thick we could barely see in front of us, but it quickly cleared and we drove into Hilo. You could still see some remnants of the nearby volcanoes, some yards had lava running across them, and some residents had turned that into a garden feature. We stopped at a supermarket to pick up a few things, when I spotted a sign warning shoppers to evacuate immediately to higher ground in the event of a large earthquake because of the risk of a Tsunami. We also stopped for delicious Portuguese Malasadas at a roadside shop, Baker Toms, that came in every flavour from pizza to peanut butter and jelly… oh and try his cheesecake too!
The Hilo side of the island is often overlooked by visitors to the islands, mainly because of its’ country feel, but that’s exactly why it should be a place to see before everyone else discovers it.