The biggest island in the Hawain chain is called “The Big Island“. Why? Well, obviously because it is the biggest, but also because it is called The Island of Hawaii, and since the state is also called Hawaii, this causes no end of confusion. So, everyone simply calls it The Big Island.
How big is The Big Island? One can drive its circumference in less than a day and from one side of the island to the other between the two mountains, Manua Loa and Manua Kia, across the Saddle Road, in about two hours. Big, but not that big.
Though over the years I have vacationed in Hawaii a number of times, on Maui, Oʻahu, and Kauaʻi, I had never been to The Big Island (or TBI as I’ll now call it).
TBI has the usual tourist beaches and golf courses but they are mostly restricted to the Kona coast. The Hilo coast (both cities have their own airports) is where one goes for the adventure and photography side of the island. This includes a visit to the summit of Manua Kea, where the astronomical observatories are located at just under 14,000 feet altitude, and to Volcano National Park.
In late December, 2014 my friend Shaun Amy, an avid photographer and an astronomer by profession, spent a week photographing together on The Big Island. One of our goals was to visit the observatories on the summit of Manua Kea, at 14,000 feet. We were thwarted by a blizzard with 100 MPH winds that closed the summit road for five days, but we finally made it to the top on our last full day on the island.
We also visited Volcano National Park, and worked with local photographers Bruce Omari and Tom Kuali, who are experts in shooting the beauty of active lava flows, and who run a terrific photo gallery. Bruce and Tom operate Extreme Exposure, with their gallery right in downtown Hilo. Both are extremely good photographers who specialize in photographing volcanoes and lava, and both are very familiar with the island and the photographic opportunities available there. Consider contacting them to have them help you arrange a photography tour.
The Guide Book
For the adventure traveller (actually, all visitors) there is one and only one guide book to the Big Island that is worth having, and that’s The Big Island Revealed. Forget the others. This is the one that tells you of the great back roads, the out-of-the-way places to eat, and the cool spots to explore. It is not a photographic guide per-se, but has excellent tips on how to get around and what to see.
From Hilo it’s about a 90 minute drive to the Visitors Center at 9,000 feet. The photography along the way can be excellent, especially as you will be above the coastal cloud layer once you get on the observatory road. This can produce some arresting landscape images, especially early in the morning and in the late afternoon.
If you intend on ascending to the summit, then you really need to stop at the Visitors Center for at least an hour to acclimate to the altitude. The summit, where the observatories is located, is at 13,750 feet (4,200 m). At this altitude, especially if you’ve just come from sea level a couple of hours before, people are succeptable to altitude sickness, which can lead to black-outs, nausea, vomiting, and disorientation.
In addition to taking your time heading up the mountain, drink lots of water. LOTS OF WATER. Also, taking a couple of aspirin prophilacticly is said to help. Keep your exertion level low. Simply walking from your car to a point 200 feet away can case shortness of breath. Carrying a camera backpack increases fatigue. Be attentive.
Note as well that a 4WD vehicle is required to proceed to the summit after the visitors center. You can rent one from Harper’s Car Rental in either Hilo or Kona. They are not inexpensive, but they are the only company to allow their vehicles to be taken to the top of Manua Kea.
Also, check the road and weather forecast. The Rangers will close the road to the summit if the winds rise above 50MPH, which the do often, especially during the winter. The week that we were there in late December, 2014 the road was closed for 5 days straight because of a blizzard. The winds were as high as 100 MPH. Meanwhile there was typically warm and humid weather along the coast, less than 90 minutes below.
Located at the summit of Manua Kea are a number of astronomical observatories, both optical and radio telescopes. The reason for the location is that the summit is one of the darkest and driest locations in the Northern Hemisphere. “Seeing” is better than 1 arc second resolution and the low water vapour in the clear air is vital for radio astronomy.
The domes are closed to the public, though the Keck dome is open one day a week to visitors. A Google search will provide current information.
By the way, don’t imagine that astronomers are sitting in the domes looking through eyepieces. Those days are long gone. In many cases the astronomers conducting observing runs are down in Hilo at the various facilities run by the observatories, and in some cases are sitting at their desks half way round the world working remotely.
If you head for the summit, remember that it’s going to be cold, and likely windy. Bring a warm sweater, a thermal jacket, hat and gloves. It may seem silly packing for a Hawaiian vacation as if you’re heading for Antarctica, but trust me – without proper clothing the summit can feel more like winter in Minnesota than Hawaii. It can even snow there in August!
Behind Manua Kea
Thanks to The Big Island Revealed we discovered Mana Road. The name changes along its 44 mile length, but that’s what its called when you get on it, across from mile post 55 on the belt highway coming out of Waimea, along the north cost of the island.
This road travels though the old Parker Ranch, and is one of the most beautiful roads in the interior of the island. While the main Saddle Road curves around Manua Kea on the east side, this road curves around the base on the west side. It travels through lovely ranch land and forest, and with the ever-changing weather and light that TBI is renown for you may find yourself in fog one minute and bright sunlight the next.
The first 18 miles leading to a Ranger Station can be done in a regular 2WD vehicle. It’s dusty and a bit rough, but nothing that should cause any problems so long as there hasn’t been a recent heavy rain. But from this point onward the road is serious 4WD country, and you absolutely should not go further without 4WD, and preferably an SUV with high ground clearance and off-road tires.
Our rental Ford Expedition made it, but as you can see in the snapshot above, there were some challenges. This particular slippery bit of track took about 30 minutes to negotiate because of the slick red mud and our worn highway tires.
The next 5 miles is really a 4WD challenge. There are multiple tracks, created as people have tried different routes, and sometime you need to try one then double back when the track become impassable. The last 20 miles or so aren’t as bad, and the landscape is lovely, but it’s still a serious 4WD road and best driven by someone with some off-road driving experience.
The complete 44 miles until one is back on pavement near the base of Manua Kea to the east took us 8 hours of driving. I would judge that if it had been an ordinary unpaved country road we would have been able to drive it in 3 hours, including our stops for photography. The other 5 hours were crawling along at a snails pace because of the rough terrain. If you do plan on trying Mana Road, leave early in the morning with a full tank of gas, bring plenty of water, and lunch.
Volcano National Park
One of the main attractions on the east side of the island is Volcano National Park. The place to be at sunset and after dark is the lookout at the Jagger Museum. This looks down into the Kilauea Caldera, and while you’ll likely not get a shot much different than anyone else’s, it’s a highlight of the park and not to be missed at sunset. Try and get there early, because the parking lot gets full quickly, and you may end up having to park in the overflow parking about a quarter-mile away and then walk to the overlook.
The park has numerous hiking trails leading to areas with steaming pits and fumaroles. There’s a great deal of online information about the park, as well as found in the guide books. I would suggest not to let the weather get you down. The park is located on the wet side of the island and it rains a lot. Bring a rain jacket and wear water-resistant boots and you’ll be fine.
Lava From Above
On my last morning on TBI, just before boarding my flight back to Honolulu and then home, I took a dawn helicopter ride over the lava flows. This was a pricy but exciting end to the week. Hovering low over the lava flows the heat is quite palpable.
If you’re wondering why the ISO in the shot above was so high, the answer is that I was shooting at 1/4000 sec. Probably a stop or even two faster than I needed to, but I’ve had helicopter shots ruined in the past by using too slow a shutter speed, so I eared on the side of conservatism.
As for equipment on this trip… I had two camera with me, along with a small assortment of lenses for each… the Pentax 645z for tripod based landscape work and the Fuji X-T1 for mostly hand-held work. I did mix it up, sometimes shooting on a tripod with the X-T1 and hand-held with the Pentax, but this proved to be a combination that worked well for a mix of vehicle-based shooting along with some hiking.
January 11, 2015