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Helicopter I

The Volcano

Many visitors to the island want to see the volcano, and dither about how to divide their time between it and the Kona/Kohala side of the island.  If they were staying at Kona Village they faced a three hour drive and a night on the Hilo side, and then may be disappointed when they couldn’t see red lava, or when it was rainy, or when the air was unbreathable.  I knew there was an alternative, but I had no first-hand experience. I’d actually been putting off a helicopter tour for a long time, for a number of the usual reasons--it was pricey, it might be risky, it would take all day, and so on.  Finally I said to myself, “Hey! It doesn’t get any cheaper, it’s as safe as an automobile, and you’re not growing younger as the years slip by. Do it!”  I decided that if I were going to go, I’d go first class.  I wanted to sit up front, and I wanted to maximize the chance for a smooth ride by taking the first flight in the morning. (More on that in a minute.)  And of course I wanted to be picked up at the Kona Village heliport, which meant it had to be Sunshine Helicopters. (Guests of KVR who made the reservation through the concierge were not charged for the KVR pickup.)

So at 7:15 AM I was at the Front Office.  Now, the heliport is maybe a thousand feet from there.  We used to walk clear to the end of the runway after dinner to look at stars and settle the

meal. In times past, someone would scoot a guest over to the heliport in a golf cart, but I could easily have walked over.  Ah, how times changed.  The helicopter is based in Hapuna, twenty miles north, yet they sent a car down to KVR expressly to take me from the office to the heliport. It seemed like an extravagance, but it gave Marla, the driver, a chance to brief me on safety procedures and make sure I was at a safe distance as the helicopter came in. In a few minutes the copter arrived, Marla snapped my picture, and we took off.

I noticed that the old KVR landing strip was coming to pieces, except for the helipad in the middle.

My crafty forethought in choosing the early flight was a mistake for a January flight, because the sun was near the horizon and exactly dead ahead until we began to jockey around the volcano.  (I’d have been fine at 9:30, I think, or in summer at 7:30.)  Still, helicopters are fun, especially for someone who had flown a Cessna--back when they had a wheel on the tail--long enough to realize that if I wanted to live a long time I should leave the airplane driving to someone else.  We flew between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, avoiding the air base that lies between.

Madam Pele is a temperamental lady, and while we saw lots of smoke and steam, we didn’t see anything red at all. Yet it was fascinating.  I was blown away by how vast the fields of lava are--miles and miles of black expanse.  When we see pictures it’s always of something-- a crater, or an active flow, or a forest on fire, but there’s no way a picture can convey the expansiveness of the field.

On the left is the Pu’u O’o vent. There are two things to notice: look at the cracks in the cone, and the drop to the cauldron. Then look at the volcanologists and their equipment parked back a little way (arrow).  Frankly, I preferred looking down from a helicopter.

On the right is a remanent of Kalapana, and a graphic illustration that the lava goes wherever it wants to go. It’s eyeopening to see patches of vegetation with a fragment of road running across it and realize that that was once a road to and from someplace--it’s a sad thing.

Jack Thompson lives in the house with the red roof, was spared, and refuses to move.  He commutes by motorbike over the lava flow and receives supplies by helicopter.

Update: Lava finally took the house in March, 2012.

Others who weren’t so lucky are rebuilding on their property.  As a cynical salesman once told me, “They weren’t wiped out--their land is just thicker.” It strikes me as a bit poignant, and a demonstration of strength and determination.

We were  blest that day with sunshine all the way.  Even though I’d grumbled about the sun earlier, it was great to see Hilo sunny and dry.

The Hamakua coast is beautiful, rugged, and rainy. If someone offered me beachfront property here, I’d sure want to see it before investing.

The Waipio Valley is a dramatic sight, whether you are looking from an overlook or from a helicopter.  The trail down is steep and daunting, and going back up it’s steeper and more daunting...or so it seems.

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