The Hell Itch passed. By the time I got on the flight from Houston to Santiago it seemed like an insane dream. During the night, we flew over Nicaragua, and I tried to recognise places I’d been. The Milky Way was bright, and there were thunderstorms flickering on the horizon.
Articles tagged with "oceania"
After the helicopter flight, I had a few hours before my flight back to Honolulu. I drove to Pahoa, which had seemed to be on the verge of being wiped out in February, when a new lava flow from Pu’u O’o headed towards the town. But they had a lucky escape – the flow stopped on the very edge of town. I drove out to the recycling station, half a mile from the town centre, where the lava had finally stopped.
This video shows the flow when it was active. About four and a half minutes in there’s a view of what it looked like from where I stood six months later.
We flew back towards Hilo, over the forests where the lava is currently flowing. In the day time it’s not possible to see the glow of the lava, but we could see where the flow fronts were from the steam created as they flow into the forest.
There aren’t many lava lakes in the world – only five or six, and Kilauea has two of them. I saw the second one as we flew over Pu’u O’o crater.
I’d hiked across Kilauea Iki crater a few days earlier and now we flew over it on our way between the caldera and Pu’u O’o.
I drove back to Hilo. On my final morning in Hawaii I took a helicopter flight over the volcano. I got very lucky with the weather – the pilot said it was the kind of day they get once a month. Often when they fly over the caldera they can’t see too much because of clouds and fumes, but today we could see down into the crater to the lava lake.
I drove around the island. I didn’t have any particular plan and I ended up randomly at Ka Lae, the southernmost point of Hawaii.
It had been totally clear when I started climbing but clouding over during the morning. By the time I got to the top it was starting to rain. I was going to go to the very highest point, but there was a sign asking people not to, so I didn’t.
I was planning to walk back down again but then it started hailing. Two tourists from New York were there, they had a car and they offered me a lift down. It was a better option than three hours walking in the hail.
It was a great hike up the mountain. But it was pretty weird to arrive at the top after a few hours in the wilderness to find all the telescopes there. It was like I was arriving for work, and I felt like I should be checking the daytime calibrations and working out the schedule for the night.
After acclimatising at Hale Pohaku, I headed back to Mauna Kea early the next morning for the actual climb. The trip to Hale Pohaku had definitely helped – I had felt a little bit out of breath walking around the day before, but I felt fine today and climbed quickly. There were fantastic views of Mauna Loa, with all the old lava flows clearly visible.
In this photo, you can see the glow of lava from the summit crater and also, in the distance, the glow of lava from another lava lake in Pu’u O’o crater.
I could have spent a month on the Big Island and still not got bored of going up to the crater every night to see the glow of the lava.
I spent a lot of my time around Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting since 1983. The lava lake in the summit crater looked awesome at night, and the Milky Way overhead made the crater’s edge a pretty stunning place to be.
After the conference, I headed straight for the Big Island, and hired a car to travel around there for a week. I wanted to climb Mauna Kea, and I thought a little bit of acclimatisation to altitude would help, so I drove to Hale Pohaku, 2800m above sea level, and spent a couple of hours there.
I had wanted to go to Hawaii for years and years. It’s a common place for astronomers to go to, as it’s got one of the world’s best locations for observatories on top of Mauna Kea, but I’d never had a chance to go there. This year the opportunity finally came, when the IAU General Assembly was held there. Thousands of astronomers converged on Honolulu and spent a week sharing their research. I didn’t see much of the city – my time was taken up by preparing my own talks, giving my talks, and listening to other people’s talks. But I stayed in a hostel right by the beach so I went there a few times.
The day after the Tongariro Crossing, we drove to Whakapapa, and stopped for a coffee with a good view at the Chateau Tongariro.
From Red Crater we headed down. If we’d have been coming this way in summer there would have been colourful lakes on the way but they were all frozen and buried under snow.
It was good weather again at the top, and we relaxed in the sun on the edge of Red Crater, which last erupted in 1926.
It had been sunny at first but then we had a complete whiteout for a bit. The sun started to come out again as we were nearing the highest point on the crossing.
Back in Rotorua, we went to Whakarewarewa and saw Pohotu and Prince of Wales Feathers geysers erupting.
White Island was too volcanic for sulphur mining to be viable in the long run. Factory owners probably don’t mind too much if their workers are swept out to sea by pyroclastic flows – workers can be replaced – but if the factory itself keeps getting destroyed, that’s a deal breaker.
There were fumaroles everywhere, steaming and roaring and building up the sulphur deposits that used to be mined on the island.
The island was pretty epic, with lots of geothermal activity in the crater. The volcano had erupted in 2012 and 2013 so it was definitely possible that another eruption was imminent.
We went on a road trip around the North Island, and spent a few days in Rotorua. While we were there we took a trip out to White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano.
The clouds came back in, and although we waited an hour longer to see if they would clear again, they didn’t, so we headed back to the camp. I got up early the next morning to see if it was worth going again, but it wasn’t, so we headed back down to the village of Endu.
In the morning I got a truck to Ulei. Normally there are two trucks, but one of them had gone off the road the previous day and was out of action. It happened that there was a large group of tourists needing to get back to the airport, so some 20 people crowded into and onto the truck. Luckily it went slowly on the rough jungle tracks, and for me clinging onto the outside, the risk of actually falling off was low.
At the airport, a BBC documentary crew was arriving on the island, so I guess Marum volcano will be appearing on British television before too long. It was strange to see a TV presenter with a very familiar face here in this wild place on the other side of the planet.
The hike up to the top of Marum volcano was a whole different experience to the short walk to Yasur. It involved 1000m of climbing through thick forest, and it took us about three hours to get to the edge of the ash plains. My guide, Solomon, told me about the fastest people he’d ever gone up with, and told me that a German woman was the record holder. He wouldn’t tell me exactly how fast she’d gone, so I guess I didn’t match her time, but three hours was pretty good going anyway. Another hour or so took us to the East Camp, and it was another 45 minutes to the crater’s edge.
It was cold and forbidding up there, and the summit was in thick cloud when we got there. Visibility was just a few metres. Somewhere unseen far below was a lava lake but it was looking like I might not see it. Solomon was pessimistic. In the murk I could see a large collection of tents close to the crater’s edge. They turned out to be a New Zealand documentary crew who had camped there for a couple of weeks to be sure of seeing the lava lake.
We waited in the cold and the rain, and we got lucky. The clouds began to thin out, and I caught a glimpse of deep red down in the crater. Then suddenly, just for a few minutes, the weather cleared completely and I got to see one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. To see molten rock frothing and boiling like tomato soup was something unbelievable.
I got a flight to Ambrym, a much less visited island than Tanna. I could see even from the plane as we descended into Ulei that Ambrym was way more remote, with impenetrable jungle covering the whole of the island as far as I could see. Ulei airport was just a clearing in the jungle, and I got a truck from there to the village of Endu, about an hour away, where I could get a guide to show me the way up to Ambrym’s volcano.
It was a nice flight back. The rain had stopped and the skies were clear, and as we approached Efate Island and Port Vila, the sea was stunningly blue. Small reefs off the shore looked inviting, but I was not here for a beach holiday. I had another volcano to go to.
Early the next morning Thomas gave me a lift back across the island to the airport. I’d come here in quite a large plane but for the flight back to Vila, the plane was a tiny colourful Twin Otter with space for 10 people including two pilots.
In the morning I’d had the volcano to myself. In the evening, all the tourists on Tanna converged on the crater’s edge to enjoy the show. About 75 people were on the volcano this evening, and it made for a very different atmosphere. I was glad I’d had the place to myself in the morning. I was also glad that I’d got used to how the volcano is already. The first large explosion triggered brief panic among the tourists, but I was nonchalant. Quickly, everyone got used to it, and later explosions didn’t have the same effect.
Late in the night it began to rain again. I left the roaring volcano behind, and headed back down to the campsite.
After an explosion which showered the area around the crater with lava bombs, the larger ones shattered into pieces when they landed and then rolled back down into the crater.
I headed down from the crater at about 7.15am and I was back at the campsite by 8am. I slept for most of the day, finally shaking off the mystery illness, and in the afternoon I walked back up the path to spend some more time watching the very insides of the Earth spewing out. As night fell, the deep red glow of the lava came out again.
After the heavy rain of the previous night, there was a lot of steam coming from the volcano. During the night it was lit up by the lava below, but after daybreak, the glow was too faint to see. Occasional changes of wind sent the plume towards me, engulfing me in sulphurous fumes.
I wanted to stay all day and it was very hard to leave. By 7am it was already getting hot, and I was running low on water, but I kept on waiting for the next explosion. The strange illness had completely passed, and I could enjoy the activity without worrying about the possibility of falling unconscious into the crater.
I spent three hours on the crater’s edge and I had the place to myself. In the night, the volcano felt incredibly close and huge, as the lava lit up the steam rising from the crater floor. As day came, the glow faded into the light, and after the sun rose, the volcano seemed much tamer. I’d got used to the violence of the large explosions and stopped wondering if I should hare it down when they happened.
I’d started to feel a bit ill on the journey across the island, and whatever it was got suddenly really bad just after we arrived at the campsite. I was shaking and dizzy as I set up my tent, and I felt like death. Lucky my tent only takes 5 minutes to put up otherwise I might not have managed it. I crawled inside and slept. But I was here to see the volcano, and Thomas said he’d drive me up to the crater at 4am so that I could see it in the night time. So I got up at 3.45am, and fortunately the strange illness was passing. I was still not feeling good but was at least capable of standing.
So we drove up to the crater, and then Thomas led the way up the path to the crater’s edge, and around the rim to a good viewpoint. Then he headed back down and left me alone with the volcano.
It was a mind-blowing place to be. The volcano was unbelievably loud, in the silence of the night, and roared constantly. Within a few minutes there was the first large explosion, and it was breathtaking. The earth shook, the crater roared and glowing boulders shot high into the air.
Vanuatu had been high on my list of places to go for a really long time so I was incredibly excited to finally go there. What I wanted to see was volcanic activity, and so after an early flight from New Zealand to Port Vila, I flew on to Tanna, to go and see Yasur volcano.
The flight to Tanna was short, and it was a hot sunny day when I landed. I met Thomas, the owner of the place I’d booked to stay, which was on the other side of the island from the airport, and we set off on the drive there.
While we were on the way, the weather began to turn. It got cloudy and cold, and soon there were spots of rain. After an hour or so, a torrential downpour started. We made slow progress on the terrible road across the island, and eventually night fell. As the weather began to clear, we suddenly we turned off the road, and drove onto the ash plain which surrounds the volcano to take a short cut. In the dark I saw the looming cone of the volcano looking incredibly nearby, with a bright red glow coming from the top.
We arrived at Thomas’s place in the night, and I set up my tent. We were about 45 minutes walk from the crater’s edge of the volcano. The sky glowed red as the clouds reflected the light of the lava, and I could hear the roar of the explosions throughout the quiet night.
On my last night on the island, I went to Ahu Tahai to see the sun set. Tongariki is the spot for sunrise watching, and Tahai is the spot for sunset. It was a good time of year to be here – the sun set directly behind the statues if you were standing in front of them. It was another amazing sight. It had taken me a while to really feel the magic of Easter Island, but by the end of the trip I was sure I would be back.
We went to see Rano Raraku, where moai were born. They were carved out of volcanic rock at this quarry, and then depending on who you believe they were either rolled across the island on tree trunks, or brought to life by shamanic magic so that they could walk to whichever ahu they were heading for. I liked the shamanic magic theory. It was pretty stunning to see hundreds of moai dotted across the hillside, half out of the ground as if the magic had run out too soon.
I watched the sun set from Maunga Terevaka, and then headed back down the trail. By the time I got back to Ahu Akivi it was getting dark and the stars were coming out. There was no-one else there. I hung around for a while to take some photos.
In the darkness, the moai were quite spooky. I felt like it was somehow slightly sacrilegious to shine my torch on them in the night, but I had to keep checking that they hadn’t moved. It seemed totally possible that they might, and it began to feel like at the very least they were watching me disapprovingly.
But I braved their disapproval to take some photos of the stars shining over them. And then I quickly packed up my things and headed back to Hanga Roa before they could come to life and chase me away.
We decided to climb Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on the island. My four friends went on horseback, but having never been on a horse in my life, and having a somewhat delicate back 10 months after having fragments of a ruptured spinal disc removed, I decided I’d walk up. So I drove to Ahu Akivi, found the start of the trail, and headed up. It was a hot sunny day but there weren’t many people around. In the end, the only people I saw on the trail were my friends coming down – they’d reached the top quite a bit before me.
The summit was amazing. The entire horizon was sea, Pacific Ocean in every direction with no other land except the bit I was on. I couldn’t imagine living on such a tiny speck of land. I felt oppressed by how small it was already and I’d only been here for 4 days.
We got up at 5am one morning to go to Tongariki, the largest group of moai on the island. The sun rises behind the moai here so it’s a popular place to go at dawn. There were 8 or 10 carloads of people here along with us to see the sun come up.
For the first few days I’d been a bit underwhelmed with Easter Island. It didn’t seem to quite live up to its hype. But as time went by I was getting more and more enchanted with the place, and here at Tongariki came the mindblowing moment I’d been expecting. As the clouds began to light up with the approach of dawn, the silhouettes of the 15 massive statues looked incredible. I realised that this really was a spectacular and special place.
We drove up the east coast of the island. All along the shore there are groups of moai but most of them are unrestored. All of the standing moai on the island have been put back up – every single statue on the island was toppled for reasons unknown after the Europeans arrived. I thought the toppled moai were pretty poignant. Some of them were unbroken, which surely must mean they were put down carefully rather than pushed over. Others were broken into pieces. When they were standing, apparently all the moai had red topknots carved from different stone. At the toppled moai, their topknots were lying scattered on the ground.
We drove up to Rano Kau. The rain had cleared and it was hot and sunny. From up here you could see pretty much the whole island. Rano Kau is supposedly long extinct but there’s a photo from 100 years ago showing steam coming out of a hole in the crater wall, so the magma can’t be too far below the surface. Today it was all quiet, no steam, and no people up there except for us.
Easter Island is a long way from everywhere. On planes, I like to look at the map to see which part of the world I’m flying over. But on the journey to Easter Island, the map was empty. Just sea, for two and a half thousand miles from Santiago to the island.
The flight had been overbooked and this had led to me being upgraded to business class. This was very nice, but it meant that I was the first person off the plane, and the airport was small and ramshackle. It was not obvious which building was the terminal building, and I had a moment’s fear that 300 people were going to follow me into a storage shed or something. I was extremely relieved when I picked the right one.
So once my four friends who I was travelling with had found their way off the plane from back in normal class, we headed straight out to see some moai. In Santiago it had barely rained since October but here it was humid and drizzling when we got to Ahu Akivi.
It’s always strange going to places that are so famous. Everyone’s seen thousands of images of the moai and it makes it feel like a weird kind of déjà vu to actually be there in front of some of them. And somehow they weren’t as incredible or mindblowing as I thought they would be. The island has such a mythology about it that I suppose you feel like you’re going to be blown away the moment you see a moai, and it’s hard for anything to live up to that kind of expectation.