Where fire meets sea, Kilauea makes the Big Island of Hawaii a bit bigger.
Where fire meets sea, Kilauea makes the Big Island of Hawaii a bit bigger. "How close do you want to get?" she asked. "Close enough to see," he said. (Photos By John Briley)
By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 31, 2006

"The volcano?" our innkeeper says. "My son was down there last week. Saw lava flowing into the sea. Couldn't stop talking about it."

I receive this news on a piney hillside overlooking Waipio Valley, on the Big Island of Hawaii, enjoying one of the most beautiful views I've ever seen. Between three gray-wood guest cottages, fruit trees dot a grassy slope atop a verdant cliff 1,000 feet above Waipio Bay. Across the water, more jungly cliffs rise from the sea.

But now my mind is focused 80 miles south, on the Kilauea volcano and its eruptive drama. I want to be there. Which presents a problem.

My wife, Cathleen, is pregnant, and in preparing for this trip she came across myriad warnings about the health threats that live volcanoes pose to developing fetuses. Something about exposure to sulfur dioxide. Also, she's worried about the fall risk posed by hiking long distances over uneven, hardened lava for a glimpse of a live eruption.

These are reasonable apprehensions -- and, one might think, deal killers -- but we are both torn, having reveled in Kilauea's magic in 2002.

During that visit, we'd found ourselves among hundreds of tourists trudging, at night, up the south slope of Kilauea, which has been erupting continuously since 1983 (mostly in a slow ooze, not a geyser-like fountain). Using headlamps to guide our hiking, we'd joined small circles of people crouched inches from mini-creeks of molten lava globbing down the hillside, spreading out in glowing bulbs, like slow-melting wax, then hardening into a gray crust in the cool night air.

We were mesmerized. Rivulets of lava were emerging all around us, each drawing its own huddle of onlookers. We looked up the hill at one point to see a group of shirtless hippies, wielding shovels and pitchforks (to poke at the lava), silhouetted against the sky by a tree that had caught fire. At one point an underground methane explosion -- a feature of erupting volcanoes -- shook the earth. The scene was biblical, and we stayed well into the wee hours of the morning.

But we'd also seen photos of lava pouring into the ocean and figured that would be the climax of volcano viewing.

For now, though, we are here, above Waipio Valley, in the tiny hamlet of Kukuihaele on the northeast corner of the Big Island -- another natural nirvana. The next morning we drop down Waipio's ridiculously steep access road and park in a pine grove, near where the Waipio River wends out of the valley and into the sea.

Waipio Valley is roughly six square miles of fertile farmland (mostly taro fields), fronting a mile of black-sand beach and horseshoed by severe, waterfall-bridled mountains. The valley itself has no electricity, running water or phone service, but it does boast a handful of hardy residents who farm, fish, surf and wallow in this off-the-grid paradise.

At the river mouth, a burly, shirtless Hawaiian man casts his net into the estuarine currents. A surfer naps on the riverbank, board propped on the rocks.

We pick our way across the shin-deep river and head up the beach. The only other people around are a couple from Los Angeles, Taymour Ghazi, a multi-visit Waipio veteran, and his girlfriend, Lara Vaidya. Tay is energized.

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