Snow is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when visiting the lush islands of Hawaii, but there I was, wearing only board shorts, slops and a light windbreaker, ascending the steep gravel road in our rental car as the landscape transformed from a tropical paradise to a winter wonderland.
As I held my hands over the warm air pumping out of the car’s heater, I began thinking how fortuitous my situation was.
I had been in Oahu on vacation when my friend Aaron, whom I was staying with, said he needed to go to the Big Island (Hawaii Island) for a job but it would only take 15 minutes and then we could go do some sightseeing.
With a limited budget, having someone to share expenses with makes a big difference. I jumped at the opportunity and booked the 40 minute inter-island flight to Kona International Airport on the west side of the island.
Flying into Kona is as good as any scenic flight in the world as the plane descends past the ginormous volcanic peaks, along ancient lava flows that once flowed into the sapphire blue ocean water. Looking down I even saw some humpback whales swimming close to the coast.
Once we had picked up the rental car we started contemplating our options for sightseeing the island. The coin-toss was between a night dive with manta rays or driving up to the peak of Mauna Kea for sunset. It was a tough choice but after seeing snow on the peaks as we flew in, we decided to drive to the top of the tallest mountain in the world. Yes, you read correctly. Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano stands 4207m above sea level but is well over ten thousand meters from its base at the sea floor, making it much taller than Mt Everest.
Driving towards the mountain, large tracts of land had been covered by perfectly preserved lava fields that we had seen from the plane. My curiosity had taken over, so we stopped on the side of the road to walk on the sharp lava rock. When lava with the right viscosity flows at a slow speed, beautiful shapes that look like coiled rope called Pahoehoe (pronounced Pa-hoy-hoy) lava occur. Other times the lava rock is sharp and angular and this is called A’a (pronounced Ah-Ah) lava. The vast expanse of the lava flows explains why the volcanic peaks appear deceptively low and flat. The runny lava travels far from the vent creating volcanoes resembling a large shield.
As we stood between the two towering peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, I was struck by uncertainty as a large cloud began to form, covering the peak. Thinking we’d made the wrong decision, but due to time constraints, there was no choice but to carry on. We turned up the service road that leads to Mauna Kea’s summit and were immediately greeted by the remains of a protest against the building of a new $1.4 billion observatory at the peak. The road leads to an information centre half way and then winds up to an observatory at the summit where one can get unpolluted views of the Northern Hemispheres starry night sky.
Approaching the information centre we realised for the first time that we had completely forgotten to pack warm clothes. A group of tourists jumped out of a large four-wheel drive wearing thick coats indicating the temperature at the summit. With no warm clothes and no four-wheel drive we continued up into the clouds.
Skiing in Hawaii?
White, white, white. Driving higher and higher into the dense fog our doubts were overcome with euphoria when suddenly we emerged into sunny blue skies, at the same time, reaching the snow line. It was a wonderful winter land where the landscape was not just peppered but buried deep beneath a layer of snow which reflected brightly in the sunshine. Smaller volcanic cinder cones nearing the summit gave reference to the fiery history of the volcano. We could even see the peak of Mauna Loa in the distance. When we reached close to the summit we picked up a skier who was hitching a ride to the top after his run. Skiing in Hawaii? What a bizarre concept.
With the outside air temperature at -5 Celsius and my poor choice of clothing I took short breaks outside to get some images of the scenery. We drove around to the various observatories which were closed to the public at the time. However, the large white domes facing the sky added a unique sense of scale. It was setting up to be something of a dream sunset below a carpet of white cloud when all of a sudden a wind picked up, the cloud began rising, and the scene went from sunny to golden. For a moment, the sun’s rays reflected off the extra moisture droplets in the air, then white.
Hoping for it to maybe clear up, we huddled in the car, heater on full blast while trying to get blood flow back into my hands. After ten minutes we called it quits and started our descent in the complete white-out.
Arriving back at our hotel back at the coast in the warm balmy breeze, the smell of hibiscus flower intriguing the senses, I revelled in the experience we had just had. Snow in Hawaii… who would have thought?