Back when Seven and I lived on Oahu we were much too broke to go touring around so we never visited any of the other Hawaiian Islands. This time we thought we should do better, and we decided to go to the Big Island because our friends Ann and Joel — with whom we have for several years spent a week in August on Cuttyhunk Island in Buzzard’s Bay (a little closer to home) — have family on the Big Island they were planning to visit. So we thought we’d catch up with them there for the very last leg of our long voyage.
My reasons for choosing the Big Island had therefore little to do with what I thought I might learn there (though, of course, every island is interesting to me) with the consequence that I was quite unprepared and absolutely amazed by what I saw. Like, for instance, these fantastic petroglyphs!
Not all of which may be terribly old. Apparently the site is still used (or was recently) by Hawaiians who, like many Polynesians, bury a new baby’s pito (or umbilicus) somewhere special to ensure a long and good life. Some of these markings have to do with that practice (the circles and divets, particularly), and I have no way of knowing which are recent and which might be old. Still the turtles and figures and even, I thought, a stylized canoe, were all extremely cool.
But the Big Island is amazing for so many reasons, not least because it is a window on an earlier geological stage of many of the islands we’ve been visiting. As I found myself saying over and over: This is what all the islands must have looked like when they were young. All the other high islands I’ve seen are remnants of volcanoes, shards of the cone or the crater’s edge worn down by millions of years of wind and rain. But what’s amazing about the Hawaiian chain is, of course, that it includes an island that is still in the process of being formed!
I have to report that we did not quite make it to where the hot lava is flowing into the sea, but it hardly mattered since there are distinct and obviously comparatively recent lava flows everywhere you look: A’a lava — the sharp, broken kind that is supposedly called a’a because that’s the sound you make when you walk on it (I wonder if this is etymologically correct, it is what everybody tells you…):
and pahoehoe lava, which is smooth and sometimes almost shiny:
Here is a photo of yours truly sitting at the edge of what I think was the 1992 flow in the National Park that reached the ocean and cut off the road.
We also paid a visit to the volcano goddess Pele’s home: the Kilauea crater, which was emitting large clouds of poisonous gas and steam (which were blowing away from us fortunately)….
…and glowing magnificently red and orange at night!
There were also more marae (or heiau as they are called here). This is the one at Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook’s career came to an abrupt and unexpected end:
Cook was killed by Hawaiians who had mysteriously welcomed him not long before. (Note to those who are interested: for a fascinating debate on the meaning of these events see Marshall Sahlins v. Gananath Obeysekere; other interesting writers on the subject are the anthropologists Nicholas Thomas and Anne Salmond and, for sheer elegance of storytelling and prose, the British historian Glynn Williams.)
But, for me, the absolute high point, and indeed one of the most moving moments of this entire trip, was the glimpse I got of the Hokule’a, the first Polynesian voyaging canoe to have been built in perhaps 800 years and a vessel I have been reading about for years. It would be hard to overstate the significance of this canoe; it was the one that sailed from Hawai’i to Tahiti on the first attempt to re-enact the ancient voyages and thereby demonstrate experimentally how it might have been done.
Here she is being towed out of the harbor,
and here is another canoe called the Makali’i which was tied up nearby:
We were particularly pleased to see this one because Makali’i — in its Maori form as Matariki — is Dani’s middle name; it’s a widespread Polynesian name for the Pleiades. Hokule’a, incidentally, is Arcturus, Hawai’i’s zenith star.
4 thoughts on “The Big Island is Amazing”
I knew aa wasn’t onomatopoeic, but I couldn’t remember the etymology. I stumbled upon this site, which looks to be an outstanding Hawaiian language resource:
The volcano goddess Pele’s “home” is very beautiful at night. And the carefully constructed marae (heiau) makes a lovely contrast against the greenery. Great voyaging boat photos and lava pix!
Thankyou for writing about Hawaii. I am in Honolulu at the University of Hawaii right now and teaching in the English department. Also writing about my place in this part of the world. Pam Brown referred me to your blog. you might remember me from your Meanjin days.
Hi, Adam, of course I remember you. I just met some very nice members of the English Dept., John Zuern and Laura Lyons, when we were in Honolulu recently, if you know them give them my regards. Meeting them reminded me how much I longed for a job in that department back in then 90s, but it was not to be. I’m now editing Harvard Review and living in Lincoln, where I grew up; it’s not Hawaii, but it’s very nice in a New Englandy sort of way.
Why don’t you send me some work at my HR address — email@example.com — we’re always looking; and give my best to Pam. I heard from Laurie Duggan out of the blue when we were on the road too and even from Alan Wearne! What a treat. Cheers, C.