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Hawaii's Hidden Dimension
By Chris McBeath
For Travel Writers' Tales

For many visitors, Hawaii's balmy sunshine, rolling surf and soft sand is the total story but for the curious of heart, the islands' unique and isolated position offers the inquisitive traveler much more.

Ancient Lava Pictographs

New Earth: Nowhere is this better experienced than on Hawaii, the Big Island. Here, tropical jungles edge up to vast volcanic landscapes like hardened molasses that breaks dramatically into the sea. Today, lava flows are still reshaping the coastline creating some of the earth's oldest - and certainly its youngest - landmass. You only have to come across a section of asphalt highway, half swallowed up beneath the once-scorching lava, to realize this land is still cooking beneath your feet.

Hiking Hawaii Lava Fields

Hiking through Lava Forests

Turning Surf into Land Science: Turning the lava bedrock into a ginormous ocean science and technology park, the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) is at the forefront of renewable energy production, marine biotechnology, and aquaculture.

Ohia a Lehua Tree

Occupying 870 acres at Keahole Point, six pipeline systems draw surface and deep seawater from various depths for use by park occupants. With an intake 4,500 feet deep, one pipe is the deepest in the world and so offers extraordinary research and commercial opportunities. Public tours are available for the curious.

Some of the more intriguing tenants include:

  • A seahorse farm. In the face of near extinction, this is the world's only living and breeding gene bank of seahorses and sea-dragons - the primary source for aquariums and the commercial marine industry.
  • Farms producing ogo, edible sea vegetables as well as cosmeceutical and nutritional supplements.
  • Several sustainable aquaculture enterprises involving clams, lobsters, shrimp, reef building corals, abalone, and new strains of fish such as fast-growth and hardy kampachi, a hoped-for substitute for the ever-diminishing ocean stocks of large-fish such as salmon and tuna. Without this kind of replacement intervention, it is anticipated that current big fish stocks will collapse within 30 years.

This park is a lab of discovery.

Halemaumau Crater Rim

Lava across Kalapana Highway

Living Mythology: Hawaii's topography is very much a part of Hawaiin mythology. Hiking over and through the lava fields blends mythology with geology. This is the domain of Pele, the powerful goddess of fire, lightening, wind, and volcanoes. It is wise to offer her a tipple of gin or her favourite food, the O'Helo berry, before crossing her land lest you offend her intemperate nature. After all, this is the tempestuous Goddess who turned her lover, Kamapua'a, the ruler of forests, into a pig. And it is Pele who scorned rejections with a vengeance. One tale tells of how, when the handsome Ohia chose his woman, Lehua, over Pele, the Goddess killed them both in a fit of rage. Filled with remorse, however, she later turned Ohia into a tree and Lehua into a beautiful red flower, thus reuniting the lovers forever. To this day the Ohia-a-lehua tree is found throughout the islands and if ever you see the flower growing away from the tree, rain-the tears of separated lovers-is sure to follow.

Watching Lava Flow

And as you walk, look too, for strands of Pele's hair caught in the rocks and glistening in the sunlight - actually threads of silicone from the steam seeping from the main crater. And don't even think about taking a piece of lava as a souvenir. Every year, the folks at Tourism Hawaii receive packages of rocks from guilty tourists whose subsequent run of bad luck is often attributed to Pele's influence.

Telescope on Mauna Kea

Surfing the Science of Space: The late astronomer Carl Sagan once said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." And sitting atop Mauna Kea, a lofty 13,796 feet (4205m) above sea level, the W. M. Keck Observatory's twin 8-storey tall, 10-meter telescopes seem to prove that every year. Through their multi-angled, hexagonal reflective glasses, Pluto lost planetary status, black holes were discovered in The Milky Way, and observers came to realize the accelerating expansion of the Universe-research that earned the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.

Keeping the temperature inside the insulated domes to exactly the same nth degree as the cold dark air outside is a big task: the volume of each unit is more than 700,000 cubic feet. Giant air conditioners run constantly during the day, keeping the dome temperature at or below freezing.

Although visitors are discouraged from summiting the volcano - the altitude can take its toll there is a visitor's information center at around 9,200 feet (280m) that's well worth the ascent.

Just remember the wrath of Pele. This is her volcano and lava rocks seem to weigh heavier on the conscience than they do in the suitcase.

Volcano crater

PHOTOS all by Chris McBeath unless otherwise indicated:

1. Ancient Lava Pictographs
2. Hiking Hawaii Lava Fields
3. Hiking through Lava Forests
4. Ohia a Lehua Tree
5. Halemaumau Crater Rim: credit Tourism Hawaii
6. Lava across Kalapana Highway: credit Tourism Hawaii
7. Watching Lava Flow: credit Tourism Hawaii
8. Telescope on Mauna Kea: credit Tourism Hawaii
9. Volcano crater: credit Tourism Hawaii

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