Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Big Island, Part Three: Mauna Kea and Kailua-Kona

Our third foray into the island took us across the waist of the Big Island along the Saddle Road. For many years this road was difficult to traverse by anything other than a 4X4, but recent upgrades have made this a very efficient road to travel in a rental car. We left Hilo early in the morning because we wanted to reach Mauna Kea, the highest Hawai’in mountain - an inactive volcano, ringed with observatories, at 13,796 feet - before the clouds obliterated the views and made driving difficult.

Summit of Mauna Kea looking south

We climbed from sea level to the Onizuka Visitor Information Centre at 9200 feet in just under 2 hours.

Visitor Centre

On the way up we must have passed through several climate zones as the landscape changed from the lush gardens around the sea, into forests, old lava beds and undulating pastureland.

Until the last few miles there was very little feeling of climbing a great height as the slope of the land is very gradual. Just at the turn off to the Visitor Centre we could look back and see miles and miles of prairie-like grassland broken up with giant bouquets of lava rock, old volcanic cone heads, with scattered clusters of cattle.

The road up from the saddle was twisty, steep and narrow in places and I could feel my heart rate accelerating with the altitude. By the time we reached the centre (the farthest you can go without a 4X4), I was experiencing shortness of breath and a bit of nausea. Doug, with his fighter-pilot blood, felt fine.

The original Hawai’ins view Mauna Kea as sacred. They call it “the place between heaven and earth” and believe it is where their original god created humans. The volcanic goddess, Pele’s, sister, Poliahu, resides there and many rituals have taken place over the years. There is a little lake near the summit where the people have placed their baby’s umbilical cords to protect them as they grow. Royalty went to the top to commune with the gods. When you are there and feel the mountain air, there is no doubt in your mind it is a special place.

It was chilly up there and our light clothes were inappropriate. (In fact, it snows on occasion and locals flock up to slide and board when it happens.) We quickly scuttled to the info centre where we found displays explaining the various stellar observatories found at the top, as well as details about the geology, history, flora and fauna of the area. On certain nights, the centre offers star gazing through some pretty serious telescopes we saw put away for the day. There was also a little gift shop. We contented ourselves with watching a short film about the summit and observatories and browsing the displays. If we were more suitably dressed, we could have taken several short hikes around the centre and even taken a tour of the summit. However, once again, we were pressed for time, so opted to continue along to the western coast.

The Saddle Road on the western side of Mauna Kea is well paved, but very narrow and, in many places only a single lane, so we took our time descending. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the sun-dappled landscape far to the south and north where the land seems to just drop into the water.

We arrived at Kailua-Kona, but continued south along the coast highway as far as the village of Captain Cook to view the famous bay there and his monument. The area along here is very steep with houses and gardens literally precariously perched along the cliff sides.

On the coast we arrived at Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park thinking we could park the car and walk to the monument. Unfortunately, we could not figure out how to do it so, instead, took a quick look at the beautiful bay which was busy with many kayak outfitters.

Captain Cook Monument across the bay

Apparently there is good anchorage here, but it was hard to tell from the shore. I could see the monument in the distance and thought about the circumstances that had brought about the death of Cook.

Captain James Cook

Cook first arrived at the Big Island during the four-month Feast of Lono, god of agriculture, when all warlike activities were suspended. Consequently, the people were in a friendly and receptive mood. Some stories say the Hawai’ins thought Cook might actually BE the god Lono and, when you realize he was the first white man they had seen, combined with his otherworldly ships, it was no wonder. At any rate, they feted him, many gifts were exchanged, and the sailors had a field day with the women who would apparently sleep with them for nails (Cook had to make sure his ships weren’t torn apart by his over-eager men!).

After provisioning, Cook continued on his journey, but encountered a storm which brought down one of his ship's masts. He returned to the Big Island, but this time his reception was not as welcoming. As he repairs were made to his ship, relations with the locals went from bad to worse, culminating with the theft of one of the longboats. Cook conspired to hold the local chief aboard his ship until the boat was returned – a ploy he had used successfully several times before. Unfortunately it backfired and, as Cook was enticing the chief aboard the boat, there was a skirmish. In the scuffle, he shot one of the warriors which set off a rampage. Within minutes Cook and his escort were beaten and clubbed to death by the mob.

To say the least, everyone was horrified by what had happened. To make amends, the Hawai’ins wanted to give Cook a burial worthy of one of their kings. Unfortunately, that included carving up the body and placing the parts at various secret locations to keep away bad spirits. You can imagine what the British officers thought about that! They demanded his body back so they could give it a proper burial at sea and apparently, everyone had to compromise, because only parts of Cook could be recovered.

What makes this story even more significant for me is that I had an ancestor who was on one of Cook's ships. Joseph Coleman, born in Surrey, England, in 1751, was signed aboard the Discovery in 1776.  During the journey he became Quartermaster and attained the rank of Petty Officer.  He was aboard when Cook was killed.  Interestingly, George Vancouver and William Bligh were also present on that journey.  I have my Dad to thank for this information.  He wrote a novel based Joseph Coleman's adventurous life at sea, not only on Cook's voyages, but also aboard with Bligh during the infamous mutiny on the Bounty.

After all the morning’s adventures we were VERY hungry and thirsty and, lo and behold, our guidebook indicated there was a micro brewery with a restaurant in Kailua-Kona! If we could have flown there I don’t think we could have got to the Kona Brewing Company fast enough!

We had salad, shrimp toast and pizza along with Fire Rock Pale Ale for Doug and a Lavaman Red Ale for me. Wow!

On tap at the Kona Brewing Company

We sat out on a large patio surrounded by lush plant life.

The place was packed. As we left we stopped off at the growlie and bought a little brown jug of Castaway IPA to share with sailing friends later.

An unfortunate name for beer thirsty sailors

Later we drove along the Kona waterfront lined with cafes and restaurants. The place is geared to tourists and we saw many of them exploring the town and shoreline. Doug wanted to get to the marine store we heard was at the marina at Honokohau Harbour to buy some varnish and see what stock they had. We were disappointed to find there were few sailboat supplies as they mostly catered to fishing boats. We didn’t find what we were looking for but were, however, able to buy a Hawai’in flag courtesy flag. The marina itself is all stern tying and filled with fish boats. We only saw a handful of masts.

Hawai'in Flag

It was getting late again and we still had to traverse the Saddle Road to get back to Ka’sala. We left the west coast at about 4pm and, as we headed back up the mountain, we were soon engulfed in the clouds and we had to pick our way along the narrow road watching out for invisible cows. :)

We burst into sunny skies at the highest point, then descended again into clouds and rain before finding our snug berth on Ka’sala again.

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