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Taj, the highly knowledgeable and passionate tour guide for the day, tells us all to turn off our flashlights on the count of three. The group of curious visitors puts their trust in him and as he says the magic number, flashlights click off in unison to complete darkness. It’s the kind of pitch-black darkness that heightens all other senses instantly.
The trickling water underneath our feet suddenly sounds louder, the coolness on our skin somehow feels more intense. Taj lets the moment sink in for a few minutes until he tells us to turn our flashlights back on, revealing once again the Kaumana Cave, a naturally formed lava tube we all just hiked down into.
As the jagged rocks and the round tube come back into my view, I can’t help but think of how the Big Island of Hawaii is full of once in a lifetime experiences.
At the start of the day, bright and early at 10 in the morning, I stood at Hawaii Forest & Trail’s headquarters with no idea that I’d find myself in a lava tube in a matter of hours. As I headed onto the Volcano Tour: Volcano Twilight Adventure, I had no idea what to expect.
As Taj drove the van from one Kohala Coast resort to another, picking up passengers for the tour, it seemed almost impossible to be transported to the summit of a volcano within the day. But once we started our drive away from the fancy resorts, it was clear how quickly and dramatically the landscape of the Big Island could change right before our eyes.
As we drove towards the opposite side of the island, the two most prominent volcanoes in the region, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa stood majestically in view. Taj didn’t waste any time in sharing interesting facts about the volcanoes, as well as traditional Hawaiian stories that quickly made the tour a fun cultural lesson as well.
It was on this stretch of road where we stopped for lunch at Mauna Kea State Park, a great vantage point to see the rugged landscape of the island. Lunch was served at Mauna Kea State Park, where everyone munched on freshly made sandwiches, Maui potato chips, cookies, and tropical Hawaiian drinks such as guava and passion fruit juice. It was a good fueling stop that kept us going for what lied ahead.
As we made our way towards Hilo, the rainiest spot in the United States, it was clear the city was living up to its nickname. Everyone sported rain jackets as we stopped alongside an unknown road, where we then saw a cave created by hot molten rock flowing from Mauna Loa towards the ocean.
After spending some time deep within Kaumana Cave, the energy and excitement of the tour group rose as we realized just how special it was to experience it the way we just had.
The volcano tour continued into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the site of world famous Kilauea. One of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea has been in eruption since 1983 and it can still be seen today. Even with that knowledge, there is hardly any way to be prepared for seeing the sheer size and scope of this volcano in person. Watching as the summit caldera appears when the fog lifts is one memory that can never be forgotten.
The Jaggar Museum is a great spot for the group to learn more detailed facts about the eruptions of the active volcano. Taj takes everyone to some of his favorite exhibits, and gives the group some free time to enjoy the museum at their own leisure. With the caldera just outside the museum’s doors, it’s hard not to gravitate towards the natural beauty of the volcano as the day continues to clear up before our eyes.
Taj leads everyone through the World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Preserve, and takes the tour group on a 1.5 mile hike. With the climate constantly changing from dry to drizzles to full on rain, the hike through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one that shows the diversity of the region through its unique climate and rare vegetation.
Taj seems to know every single leaf and flower that appears in the landscape, which shows how passionate he is about the environment. As we all make our way back to the van, we know layers of information and Hawaiian stories and myths that made the hike much more unique.
Dinner quickly approaches and our appetites are heightened while the tour drives down the coast at sunset. A breathtaking sky opens up to warm colors of gold and tangerine and the vast ocean stretches before our eyes for miles on end. The beauty of the scenic drive almost has me forgetting that I just stood at the summit of a volcano, but I’m quickly reminded that no matter how far the van travels, the volcano is still nearby.
The tour stops for dinner at a picnic area along the ocean, and in the distance Taj points out a remarkable image, the glowing flow of lava as it slides down the side of the volcano. There’s a silence that captures us all as we suddenly understand that most of us will never have a chance to see this again.
It’s hard to pry the group away from the live lava flow, but dinner is served at nearby tables, illuminated by lanterns. A healthy meal of grilled chicken with quinoa and vegetables is available, along with bread and sweet guava bread for dessert. Hawaiian juices and tea are served. As we all finish eating our delicious dinner, Taj makes the tour a little more personal for all of us.
With just the lanterns and his laptop serving as lights, he shows us a slideshow of personal photos and videos he’s taken of the volcano, narrating stories of his adventures along the way. It’s a perfect way to end the evening, underneath a clear sky, with an active volcano erupting far off in the distance.
But the extreme clarity of the night was something no one anticipated, not even Taj. As we drove back up towards the caldera, the bright orange glow of the eruption could be seen from miles away. His excitement was one to take note of considering this type of clear condition rarely happened.
As we all thought the tour was coming to an end, it actually raised to a peak, with the eruption of the volcano grander than any one of us thought it would be. The dark blue sky shined brightly with the help of the moon and a dazzling array of stars, but the main centerpiece was the vibrantly colored volcano as it erupted in shades of orange.
The tour stopped one last time at the summit, and as we all tried desperately to capture the images on our cameras, we knew there was simply no way a single photo could do it justice.
For more information on making a reservation on Volcano Tour: Twilight Volcano Adventure, visit Hawaii Forest & Trail.