My first full day on the Big Island of Hawai’i and I had a plan. I was going to get up early so I could hit the road and make my way down the highway some 90-100 miles to the volcanoes. My thinking was “I’ve been there before but it was some time ago and a visit was on my to-do list so I might as well get it over with”. As so often happens with travel – if you’re open to possibilities – my plans changed.
After I was on the highway for 5 minutes or so I saw a sign for a Sunday farmer’s market. It opened at 9 and it was just after 8 so, if I wanted to go, I would have to forego the volcanoes unless I wanted to arrive at Volcanoes National Park much later than I had hoped. Now, a ¼ mile or so before the market, I saw a sign for Kealakekua Bay some four miles down a road to the right so I decided that would be a good way to kill some time before the market opened. It turned out to be a fateful choice.
Narrow and twisting the whole way, the road took me down the side of the mountain (everything seems mountainous around here) to a beautiful bay where the surf was breaking against a beach composed entirely of lava boulders. That didn’t stop some intrepid snorkelers who had found their way out into the water. I envied them but I wasn’t comfortable snorkeling alone in a place with such obviously turbulent waters. It got me thinking though.
So I checked my Lonely Planet guide and, sure enough, it identified the northern end of Kealakekua Bay as a primo snorkeling spot, although it wasn’t exactly easy to access. The choices were being transported there by one of the tour companies or hiking for an hour down the Captain Cook Monument walking trail, a path that drops some 1300 feet from the trailhead to the bay. I was quite pleased actually: I could kill two birds with one hike – get my exercise in and have my first chance to snorkel.
Having come up with a plan, I retraced my route in time to be there when the market opened. I’m glad I went. A great selection of local crafts complemented some produce and a food vendor or two. It was small but worth the time.
From there it was back to the hotel to change and pick up my snorkel gear, all of which put me back at the trailhead at around 10. I parked on the shoulder and headed out.
Just for the record, I am not a hiker, if being one means that everywhere you go you seek out opportunities for hiking. I like a hike every once in a while but I don’t live and breathe it. This, as it turns out, would have to qualify as the toughest hike I’ve ever taken.
The trail begins as a path through rather long grasses. Immediately apparent is the fact that this is a descent. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that no straight and level portions were about to appear. This was going DOWN. 1300 feet, it turns out, is a long drop and the path made that evident. Adding to the adventure was a varied and sometimes treacherous trailbed of loose lava, large boulders, and lava faces with both smooth and jagged surfaces. In some ways, the trip down was harder than the trip back, at least as far as footing went.
Water and the coastline appear after you’ve traveled about halfway. On either side of the trail itself are vast fields of lava. I can’t help calling it a scene of devastation. It’s what I might imagine some alien landscape would look like. Far below is the water and cliffs but, by now, I’m halfway there.
When I finally arrive at my destination, it does not disappoint. The monument to Captain Cook is there, placed by the government of Australia, and the waters are, indeed, calm enough for some good snorkeling. It’s my first time using my underwater camera so that is an extra thrill, but the fish and the coral are the attractions.
Eventually, the time comes to steel myself for the journey back to the top. As it turns out, it is as gruelling as I had feared it might be but I have plenty of water and I stop many times along the way. That may very well be the longest climb I have ever made without any level places to provide relief. It was all downhill on the way and it was very much all uphill going back.