Monday, October 3, 2016

Hawaii revisited – September/October 2016

Our second visit to Honolulu, Oahu, has been supplemented by a side trip to the ‘big island’ of Hawaii where everything is indeed BIG!  But more about that later. 
On arrival at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel our first of many ‘gob-smack’ vistas was not in any of the guide books.  Floating off Waikiki Beach and well out to sea was an enormous pillared structure topped by a giant white ‘golf ball’.  We had to do a double take to make sure we were not seeing things or suffering vapours or jet lag ... but numerous photographs and a Google search soon determined that this was a part of the star wars defense system for America, originated under Ronald Reagan in 1983.  Within and below the spherical colossus is some of the world's most advanced radar and computer technology whose aim is to rapidly detect the speed and trajectory of an approaching intercontinental missile and then predict the exact re-entry location so it can be intercepted and vaporised.  As the concept was carried through, and over two billion dollars spent on the recycled Norwegian oil platform … yet the concept has been plagued by problems and the machine is under repair here in Hawaii more often than being deployed near or facing Russia, North Korea or other potentially hostile parties.  A local air hostess told me that she sees it in the Pearl Harbor area frequently.  As it was on the horizon from our hotel room window one estimate is that it would have been 11km away. 
Star wars radar afloat off Waikiki Beach 

During our trip there were numerous 'firsts' for me including seeing my own sign of the zodiac, Capricorn.  Even from country Australia the Sea Goat is very hard to see, yet in the tropics at this time of year the constellation is high in the sky as a distinct triangle of multiple stars.  Likewise, adjacent Pisces and Aquarius are hard to see, neither having even one prominent star.  At least Virgo has Spica, a bright sentinel star, while most of the other stars of The Maiden are very dim.  Our star gazing was a part of a guided sunset tour to the summit of Mauna Kea where the famous Keck Telescope is located, along with numerous other observatories.  Happily for our better viewing it was near new moon which is therefore the first of the month in Jewish. Islamic and other lunar calendars and purely coincidentally this year the New Year for both Semitic religions as well!).   While the North Polar Star and 'Little dipper' were new to me, I was able to point out a few southern constellations for our Northern colleagues (German, Dutch and  Portuguese).  These included Pisces Austranis and the Eye of the Fish (Fomalhaut) along with Grus the crane. 
Milky Way atop Mauna Kea (from NYT)
 Summit Mt Mauna Kea - sacred trail to spot where man meets the Gods. Note most clouds are below us.
This entire island archipelago was formed by under-sea volcanoes, evidence of which is to be found everywhere.  Dotting the landscape are craters new and old, lava beds and flows, lava tubes, peaks, gulches, ridges and more.  Some volcanic features are new and obvious while others are in partial states of weathering or in advanced decay, like the huge crater walls on the east of Oahu.  Some active regions seem to have a long constant grade or slope which may go on for many kilometres.  Mauna Loa means ‘long mountain’ in Polynesian, for the vast slopes it has created.  I recall some similarities with the wonderful Kintamani / Mt Batur volcano in Bali, happily long extinct.  The Bali road goes through town after town, each rising up in altitude until reaching the rim or the giant crater at the top, some now creating an inland sea of sorts. 
Eastern vent of Kilauea which has been erupting since 1983

Lava meets seawater.

Mauna Kea from Saddle Road.
We have been afforded the luxury of seeing many of the most dramatic features of these incredible islands in a user-friendly, pain free and economical fashion.  One learns about volcanoes, lava and telescopes ... yet nothing could have prepared us for many of the sights, experiences and vistas from this trip.  Apart from palms, the islands were tree-less when Polynesians first arrived over 1000 years ago.  Banyan fig trees introduced from India in the 1800s grew in some high rainfall areas to become some of the largest on earth.  Likewise, the Monkey pod tree or Saman has a unique habitus, being like a giant umbrella with pink spidery flowers on its high extremities.  The Royal Hawaiian Hotel has grand examples in its gardens which are a focus of attention for many private and public events in Honolulu since its opening in 1927 (the first was the Moana adjacent, built in 1901).  We attended the awards ceremony for the Islands' best restaurant and 15 entrants provided samplers of their signature dish.  Quite a treat for our arrival. 
Banyan in downtown Waikiki (INSIDE) and shopping centre!

Monkey pod tree (Saman) in a cemetery north of Hilo.
Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Oahu.
We have been struck by the number of world records, especially on the big Island of Hawaii which consists of 5 volcanoes in various states of activity.  Kilauea is the most southerly mountain.  After many years of inactivity it erupted in 1983 and has been spewing lava, smoke and ash ever since.  Even today the central bubbling ‘caldera’ and surrounding enormous volcanic crater are partly off-limits at certain times, especially the south side since the prevailing winds are usually from the north and the fumes contain sulphur and can be very dangerous.  The sight of this 3x4km chasm is awesome indeed, and it is a comfortable 45 minute drive from Hilo. 
Making up the bulk of the island are Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both just over 4000m high.  The latter has been estimated to contain 75,000 cubic kilometres and is said to be the most massive mountain on earth, so much so that it dents our planet’s mantle.  Mauna Kea would be even taller than Mt Everest if one counts from its base in the Pacific Ocean.  Mauna Loa erupted several times in the 20th century while Mauna Kea has seen no eruptions since ~2400BC, the Egyptian pyramid age (and maybe no coincidence!).  It seemed like a safer bet to place astronomical observatories on Mauna Kea, at least for the moment.  The island is free of heavy industry, there is little light pollution, it lies near the equator for viewing of both northern and southern skies ... furthermore, the elevation is usually above the cloud line where the air is much thinner, making images far clearer than from sea level telescopes. 

The summit is a sacred site for locals and there is a current dispute about the new 30 metre telescope which hopefully will be resolved soon (perhaps with the removal or resiting of other facilities). 
Andrew in front of Kilauea 'caldera'.
A guided tour up Mauna Kea is recommended although private vehicles are permitted on the access road, as long as they have four wheel drive.  At sunset the observatories can be seen to be opening but they are not open to the general public without prior academic introductions.  The tour starts from either coastal towns of Kona on the dry west side of the island or Hilo on the east.  The latter boasts amongst the highest rainfalls in the US at 180 inches yearly.  Both towns have regular flights to Honolulu and occasional flights direct to the West Coast of the United Stages. 
The climate changes from humid tropical to arid alpine in less than 2 hours.   The summit is almost completely devoid of life and is so like a lunar landscape that this is where NASA tests some of its equipment including the Apollo and Martian rovers. 
Hawaii is an incredible foment of our angry earth, much of it still visible and active.  On our last full day on the big island we drove to Waimea in the north followed by a loop back across the 'saddle' road between the two enormous mountains Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.  For the first time near Waimea we had an uninterrupted view of Mauna Kea which is rather rare as it is usually shrouded in clouds ... and we could even see several of the observatories right on the pinnacle we had been standing on ourselves just one day earlier! 
Andrew and Allan at 700 year old 'fish pond' on Oahu.
Lava fields, steam vents and 'new' road partially destroyed. This is the newest land on earth.
 Land where eastern vent of Kilauea continues to pour lava towards the sea.
In some areas the forest was spared with lava going on each side. 
A private botanical garden just north of Hilo afforded a viewing of hundreds of orchids, antheriums, palms, spathophyllums, impatience, ginger flowers and much more besides. 




Gecko lizard camouflaged.

Blow-hole calm

 Blow-hole 'blowing'

Some excellent food was sampled on both Oahu and Hawaii islands.  We had the privilege of attending the annual "Hale 'aina" awards held in the lush gardens of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  15 categories of food allowed 15 stalls for restaurants to provide samples of their signature dish for the (paying) guests.  We also ate well at our 'local' near our guest house in Hilo: The Moon and Turtle Café/Restaurant.  They had a small but adventurous menu including this fried 'akule' fish (a type of mackerel or 'big-eye scad). 
Type of local mackerel at Moon and Turtle care in Hilo - highly recommended.  

Andrew and Allan at the Azure restaurant, beach-side at Royal Hawaiian.

Crimson snapper with sprouts and snake beans.
Panacotta with basil puree, strawberry, sago and meringue pieces.
See red hot lava on right above Pacific Ocean creating huge steam cloud.
We had the good fortune to be invited on a Polynesian tour of the island of Oahu.   Our host Kawika from Done Tours (pronounced Dunn Tours) drove us away from Honolulu through a secluded and pristine valley which unfortunately had become the entry of one of the three cross-island tunnels.  What we saw all around us as we emerged on the other side was the ruined half of a giant crater tens of kilometres across with craggy high walls above us in the unmistakeable circular shape, albeit truncated by eons of weathering.  

We were given a detailed run-down on the Polynesian cultures, each unique but all also related from an origin in Asia more than 2000 years ago.  Recent evidence has disposed of the only alternative theory of South American origins via Easter Island.  Language, myths, food-stuffs, navigation and many other features connect the Maori, Hawaiian, Tongan, Fijian, New Caledonian and many other smaller cultures in the mid-Pacific.  We were told about the five vowels and about a dozen consonants, including the inverted apostrophe in their phonetics.  The Hawaiian language has made a resurgence in recent decades after being discouraged during most of the 20th century.  The ubiquitous accompaniments of the Polynesian people include the yam, chickens, pigs and more.  Hula dancing is taken very seriously although we leaned that the Ukulele was a Portuguese introduction (and means 'dancing fleas' in Hawaiian!).  Debates continue about whether the original people originated in Taiwan where Aboriginal people still use a language related to the Polynesian.  The alternative recent theory is of spread from New Guinea through the Solomon Islands and beyond.  DNA evidence is likely to resolve the issue as has recently been used (with some scepticism) for African Americans to determine their much more recent origins. 

Our guide had lived and worked on the North Shore of Oahu which is home to the best surf in the world, yet very little development has occurred.  There is one large resort called Turtle Beach at Kahuku and a large Mormon settlement with school and sports center.  High above an ancient seaside town, Waimea Bay was  the last site of Royal human sacrifices.  It was said that King Kamehameha I used this site for both sacrifice and warning of war on the last major island which he had not conquered, Kauai.  We were told that one young child was groomed for the purpose and at the right time to appease the gods a sharp wooden knife to the heart would cause instant death.  In addition, the large rectangular site would be heaped with fuel and set alight so that the light could be seen from across the sea and a return fire would indicate the start of a war (which history tells us Kamehameha never prosecuted, guns traded for sandalwood and a treaty agreed with the rules with Kauai’s leader's son being held hostage in Oahu). 

We were then driven to the coast to inspect an ancient ‘fish pond’ but this was no ordinary fish pond.  It was indeed serious ancient aquaculture and probably about 700 years old.  To enable flow of tidal water the wall had to be constructed of rounded river stones and therefore brought from some considerable distance.  Similarly, the stones for the large walled sacrificial space on the top of the mountain were all volcanic rocks brought up from the seaside by the priests who were the only ones allowed to be involved in such sensitive work.  These were both huge undertakings, one very utilitarian in the provision of a regular supply of fish, the other a religious purpose, like the construction of a cathedral in Europe.  I read about the use of these fish ponds remnants of which are found all over the islands.  There is always a balance of fresh water running in from adjacent streams and tidal sea water and a delicate balance allows the growth of particular seaweeds for the numerous species of herbivorous fish popular with Polynesian chefs. 

Driving back across the middle of the island we passed some defunct sugar and pineapple plantations while macadamias are so common that some locals believe that they are indigenous (they are native to northern Australia).  We were told about the enormous numbers of workers who were brought to work the old plantations, from Philippines, Korea, Japan and elsewhere so that now there are many mixed race people and hardly any full blood Polynesians just as full-blood Maoris are hard to find in New Zealand.  We met numerous people who had Japanese, Vietnamese, African American and European mixed with the native Polynesian stock.  And some still speak a Pidgin language developed in the fields.