“Whoa! What is that?” my son cried as our car turned a corner on Chain of Craters Road. We'd been driving through Hawaiian rain forest, past towering ferns and tall ohia trees. But now there was no vegetation at all. As far as the eye could see, slabs of hardened black lava rose out of the ground at odd angles – some as big as refrigerators, others no larger than a coffee table.
The lava was not smooth like the solid puddles of old flow we'd seen in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. And it wasn't like the rough jumble of baseball-size lava rocks that stretched out for miles like tilled fields in the park and elsewhere on the island. This sci-fi lava landscape looked like a bleak episode of Star Trek, or if you're 7, a pretty cool place to run around. As I tried to keep up with Jack, our Hawaiian guide, Warren Costa, who used to work at the park, told us why it all looked so weird, how a forest had been obliterated by sulphur-gas-rich lava about 40 years ago. The lava had cooled and hardened around tree trunks, and then the ground had sunk, leaving tall black columns, many with hollow cores, where trees used to be.
Jack and I had come to the Pacific Ring of Fire (a volcanic region) to see a real live volcano. The entire state of Hawaii is made up of ancient and newer volcanoes, but it's on the Big Island where you'll find Kilauea, a volcano that has been erupting continuously since 1983 – not in massive, spectacular blowouts (though it has put on a glorious show at times), but in near continuous slow-moving molten flows. Much of it heads to the ocean; along with destroying more than 180 homes and businesses, Kilauea has added 500 acres of new land to the island.
From the moment we landed at Kona International, built on top of 200-year-old lava, the landscape took our breath away. The drive up the Kona coast to our resort is on a two-lane highway that cuts through miles and miles of sharp, chunky lumps of what's called a'a lava. Clumps of dried grass break up the black expanse (as do eye-catching messages “written” with carefully arranged white coral found on a nearby beach), but little else. It's a bleak but fascinating drive, and so different from the lush vegetation we'd see later in our stay. Our resort, the five-star Four Seasons Hualalai, uses the lava to great effect: Its 18-hole golf course was built carefully around the sharp dark rocks. The contrast – green grass, black lava and, in the distance, a white-sand beach and turquoise ocean – is jaw-dropping.
But all that luxury would have to wait – we were headed for hot lava. Jack is fascinated with the science of volcanoes. But no book, nor the kitchen experiments, prepared us for the power of an active volcanic area.
Throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we see and feel steam vents that emit scalding vapour (many are hidden, so don't go off the trail) and smoking sulphur banks give us a whiff of the power below our feet. Then there's the vog (volcanic smog). The sulphur dioxide gas smells terrible and irritates the lungs, and a portion of the park has been closed for four years because of it. But rainy weather keeps the vog down on the day we visit. Hawaii Volcanoes, at nearly 135,000 hectares, covers the summits and rift zones of Kileau and Mauna Loa, two of the world's most active volcanoes. The landscape swings from oceans of iridescent black rock, to lava fields dotted with ohia trees (the first plant to take root after an eruption), to lush rain forest that flourishes in rich volcanic soil hundreds of years after a lava flow.