Norman Miller goes lava hiking on the slopes of Kilauea in Hawaii

Pele is not a name you would expect to hear in the middle of the Pacific, but when you do, it doesn't mean the Hawaiians have gone gaga for football. It's just that they are, rightly, worried about fire and destruction. For Pele is Hawaii's fire goddess, a temperamental demi-deity who is not only credited with being the creator of the island, but is changing it still with lava flows, that battle it out with tsunami (tidal waves) to see which can batter the island most.

Pele is not a name you would expect to hear in the middle of the Pacific, but when you do, it doesn't mean the Hawaiians have gone gaga for football. It's just that they are, rightly, worried about fire and destruction. For Pele is Hawaii's fire goddess, a temperamental demi-deity who is not only credited with being the creator of the island, but is changing it still with lava flows, that battle it out with tsunami (tidal waves) to see which can batter the island most.

Pele is also at the very heart of Hawaii's famous spirit of aloha, welcome, thanks to her penchant for putting her human subjects to the test. Usually appearing as an old woman, Pele would walk the island to choose what she would let survive and what would perish. Those who treated her kindly would be spared by her lava. Those who failed to show the proper welcome would be wiped out.

Hokum? Two of Big Island's five volcanoes currently have their "ON" buttons lit, and most locals can tell you of a place - a house, a hill, a forest - mysteriously spared by a lava flow that wiped out everything around it. The most famous is the lighthouse at Kumukahi, where a 1960 lava flow split in two to bypass it, after wiping out the nearby town of Kapoho.

The island of Hawaii is known as Big Island, not just to avoid confusing the tourists, who actually mean Oahu (home to Honolulu's skyscraper hotels) or Maui, when they talk of Hawaii but also because you could fit all the other (132) islands and atolls into it with room to spare. Despite its size, however, Big Island has been more scarred by lava than tourism, and its mainly rural community and "country-style" towns are a throwback to an older, unsullied Hawaiian way of life.

Many visitors spend most of their time on the drier leeward side of the island (international flights deposit them at Kona), but apart from the luxury resorts, it's a mystery why. Not only is the opposite windward side home to Hilo, the island's charmingly ramshackle capital - as pleasantly low-rise as it is laid-back thanks to the ever-present threat of tsunami - but also the stunning Volcanoes National Park, the gorgeous 50-mile Hamakua coast, the 450ft Akaka Falls (just one of several waterfalls in the region) and the backwoods towns of the dope-growing region of Puna, centred on Pahoa, a rural Pacific take on 1960s Haight-Ashbury, where New Agers rub shoulders with time-warped hippies. Even the best beach on the island is, for my money, Hilo-side - the gorgeous "clothing optional" black-sand beauty at Kehena.

But for the main attraction on Big Island, you'll have to head for the slopes of Kilauea. In continuous daily eruption since 1983, Kilauea ranks as the world's most active volcano. Nothing really prepares you for a major volcanic caldera. Inside a depression big enough to drop central London into, all eyes are still drawn to the two mile-wide hell-hole that is Halemaumau Crater, home of Pele and where Hawaiians still cast their offerings to the goddess - Madame is particularly fond of gin, should you wish to keep her sweet. Though currently dark and quietly menacing, when Mark Twain came here in 1866, Halemaumau was a lake of molten lava whose "unapproachable splendour", he said, was "like gazing at the sun at noonday".

An hour later, I'm walking along the Devastation Trail. Once, lush forest stood here, but now only a shadow of it remains after a 1959 eruption turned everything to cinder, with only a few sun-bleached logs and straggling bushes punctuating the desolation. I'm glad to leave, heading down the steep, winding Chain of Craters Road to sea-level where, at the place where the lava has set up a permanent roadblock, the hike really begins.

All around us, signs warned us off: "LAVA HIKING IS DANGEROUS" proclaimed the most simple, while others reeled off deadly hazards, from instant cremation to inhaling glass from the vitreous spray created when red- hot lava meets cool blue ocean. Still, this is America - however much many Hawaiians wish it wasn't - and if you wanna hike out there, buddy, you go ahead.

Lava is as vicious as it's beautiful. "Even the smooth stuff is sharp," warned our guide Patrick, drumming into us the lava-hiking rules: don't move without checking what's under your feet; if you want to look around, stop walking.

As the late-afternoon sun battled to inject a hint of colour on to the lava rocks - weird black swirls - Patrick upped the pace in order to get to that day's surface flow by nightfall, and conversation lapsed as we stomped across an alien land. Two hours after starting, as the sky darkened in harmony with the lava, I saw the first glints of red among the bulging black slabs of rock, and felt Pele's hot breath burn my cheeks.

Nothing seems quite right here. I'm standing on a thick rock slab glowing with strange red underlighting, while the surface of rocks nearby seems to be peeling. All round there's an eerie tinkling sound, crystal shattering in a spooky earthsong. Even though the heat of the rock has now worked its way through the thick soles of my boots, I can't drag myself away, no matter how worried I am about what standing a few yards from thousand- degree molten rock is doing to my complexion.

No one speaks. Suddenly, a pool of lava breaks out of a crevice, widening as it starts creeping towards us, and we realise it might be smart to heed Patrick's suggestion about heading back. As we start back through the moonless night, my world shrinks to the dim halo of a torch beam. Zen masters concentrating on grains of sand were nothing to this malarkey, with the added frisson that any lapse in concentration could mean breaking something, miles from any help (mobiles don't work out here). I was never happier to hear the sound of cicadas that meant we were nearing living land again.

Suddenly, without warning, I stumbled on to flat tarmac. The road! I was very tempted to fall on my knees and kiss it in the darkness, but stopped when I realised that I might not get up again.

Having provided a vision of hell, it was only fair that Big Island should offer a vision of heaven. The next day, I was scrambling up to the summit of Mauna Kea to get a view that would take away what breath I had left at 13,000ft. A simple Hawaiian heiau (shrine) sat at the pinnacle of the islands' highest mountain, whose red cinder glowed in the setting sun. In stark contrast, 100ft below stood the white domes of the dozen or so observatories, taking advantage of some of the clearest skies on Earth. As the night descended, so did I, a few thousand feet to the outdoor viewing centre where, above us, 90 per cent of all the stars visible from Earth spread out for our amazement.

A telescope provided cosmic echoes of the previous day, asteroid craters on the Moon replacing volcanic ones on Earth, and a close-up of searing red lava swapped for white-hot stellar clusters millions of light-years away. I felt suddenly rather small here, on the Big Island, but very happy.

Getting there

United Airlines (tel: 0845 8444 777) fly twice daily to Kona, Big Island, via Los Angeles, with return fares from £ 766 (including taxes). Tailor- made holidays are available from United Vacations (tel: 0870 606 2222).

Alternatively, there are numerous airlines, such as British Airways, Air New Zealand, Virgin, American Airlines and Continental that fly more cheaply (from around £ 550 return) to Honolulu (on Oahu island), from where Aloha Airlines (www.alohaair.com) or Hawaii Airlines (www.hawaiianair.com) fly to both Kona and Hilo on Big Island from around $60 (£ 42) one-way.

Where to stay

Arnott's Lodge (tel: 00 1 808 969 7097 / info@arnottslodge.com), a couple of miles south-east of Hilo, offers a wide-range of accommodation and runs adventure tours from $45 to $90 each - see www.arnottslodge.com for details.

Further information

The Hawaii Visitor's and Convention Bureau (tel: 020 8941 4009; net: www.gohawaii.com)

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