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Travel: A flow of spirits

When Pele pits her wits against Na Maka o Kaha'i, the result can be cataclysmic. Paris Franz follows the Destruction Trail to the red-hot core of Hawaii's Mount Kilauea
THE SMELL of sulphur is not unpleasant to a sinner, at least according to Mark Twain, and he may well be right. It is best sampled on a full stomach, however, which could explain why there is a cafeteria at the top of Mount Kilauea. The visitor's centre at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is perched on the lip of the caldera of the world's most active volcano, complete with rocks, vents and sulphur clouds, and the sight does wonders for the appetite.

The cafeteria was crowded but the three of us managed to get a table by the window with its panoramic view of the caldera, 10 miles in circumference. Against a background of lively chatter and the dramatic music accompanying a video showing a stately flow of lava, we ordered coffee and began our research.

You don't have to be in the islands long to know that Hawaii is volcanoes. Situated above a hot spot in the earth's crust, the Aloha State owes its existence to the tumultuous forces of nature deep down in the Earth, each island being the product of fiery eruptions over the millennia. As the Pacific Plate moves ever so slowly north-westwards, new islands are formed. The Big Island, geology in action, is over the hot spot now, and it's getting bigger all the time, with the flows of lava adding acres of land to the coast each year. The leaflets picked up in the lobby were full of such information. One advised us that eruptions occur every 11 months, on average; that one flow destroyed houses but changed direction to avoid an ancient temple, or heiau; that violent explosions are rare. That last one was nice to know.

It seems that scientists have combed every square inch of Kilauea. But science isn't all, it turns out, because another leaflet revealed that Mount Kilauea is also the home of Madame Pele. The melter of rocks, the burner of lands and maker of mountains, Pele is to be respected. She lives in Hatemaumau Crater, within the caldera, and she can apparently be a most capricious host. It is said that should you meet her, in whatever form she takes - beautiful young woman, ugly old hag - it's wise to be kind.

This reminded me of a man I had met in Honolulu. He'd told me that a vulcanologist friend of his had a picture of a flaming crater, and there in the middle was a young woman with streaming black hair and an imperious chin. You had to see it in the right light, he said.

Whatever the merits of the vulcanologist's photograph, it's a fact that the local post office regularly receives chunks of rock from previous visitors who are convinced that such souvenirs have brought them bad luck. And offerings are still left on the mountainside. Gin, usually. Well, it can't hurt.

Pele's certainly been busy lately. The current flow was a big one, by all accounts, and worth a look, so we headed back to the car for a drive down the Chain of Craters Road. Passing the Thurston Lava Tube and Devastation Trail, we followed the road to the end, which came suddenly, 25 miles later. A lava flow had cut the road and it was clear we would have to walk from here.

It was a two-mile hike to where the lava entered the sea, but there was no chance of getting lost. A massive plume of steam rose into the air ahead of us, and that was where everyone was headed. We followed carefully. The lava underfoot hardened into whorls and spirals as it cooled, sparkling silver and gold in the afternoon sun. Here and there tufts of stubborn green pushed their way through the cracks, while a withered guard of tree trunks stood entombed in black rock.

There, amid such stark and dramatic scenery, it was easy to imagine the battle that took place between Kamehameha the Great, the first man to unite the islands, and Keoua, a rival chieftain. The bulk of Keoua's forces were overwhelmed by a volcanic eruption, or so the story goes. It was clear whose side Pele was on.

The closer we got to the ocean, the more the wind picked up, the spray falling like rain, the surf pounding hard against the wall of lava below us. This is the eternal battle between Pele and Na Maka o Kaha'i, goddess of the sea. The legend says that Na Maka o Kaha'i has pursued Pele from island to island, and it doesn't look as if she's satisfied yet.

Recklessly, I clambered down on to a ledge. A black cliff rose up behind me, the billowing steam blotting out the sky. Then the wind changed and the steam parted to reveal a river of molten lava, all orange and red, pouring into the sea. A wrenching, cracking sound came from close by, as a big chunk of lava cracked under the strain, falling into the Pacific with a mighty splash.

Score one for Na Maka o Kaha'i. Don't discount Pele, though. She has dug deep and built high on the Big Island, and she's also looking to the future. While the Big Island is still getting bigger, some 20 miles to the south east the Loihi Seamount gets closer to the surface with each eruption. Pele will always have somewhere to go.

Windswept and damp, we headed back to the car and the bright lights of Kailua, with traffic building up as we went. There was some anxiety about driving on the other side of the road, but we got back safe and sound. Who knows, maybe Madame Pele was looking after us.

Hawaii Facts

Getting there: There are no direct flights from the UK to anywhere in the state of Hawaii. It is difficult to reach Hilo on the island of Hawaii with a single change of plane; you will normally have to travel via Los Angeles or San Francisco, and Honolulu. Discount agents such as Quest Worldwide (0181-546 6000) sell tickets for travel on United in June for pounds 671 including tax.

More information: Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2270 Kalakaua Avenue, Suite 801, Honolulu, Hawaii US 96815 (001 808 923 1811)