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Hilo to Napoopoo 7 April 2013

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Around the South Island

On this day, a Sunday, we took one of everyone's favorite drives, around the south end of the Big Island. We started out amidst a caravan of Iraq War Vets in their muscle cars, but when we turned in at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for a walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, and to visit Kilauea, the vets zoomed onward, happily reunited.

Hilo is on a bay at the most eastward, windward place on the island, where the weather starts. Around it is a tropical rainforest, and orchids are one of its chief exports. At 4,000 feet, the crater rim, this becomes fern forest, an amazing environment noisy with birds.

Kilauea is the Big Island's fourth volcano, the one considered still active. At its top are two craters, Halemaumau and Kilauea Iki.

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The volcano (and her over-prudent keepers, the National Park rangers) have closed Crater Rim drive, the road that circumnavigates the whole of Halemaumau, the most active crater on the Big Island. (Pu'u O'o, where all the present-day flow comes from, is considered a side vent.) Their reasoning: the fumes from the crater are toxic, and on some days some visitors with heart and lung conditions might harm themselves. Can't argue: nobody ever has succeeded in underestimated the stupidity of tourists. Counter-argument: Hawaii is a "personal responsibility" state, meaning that if you hurt yourself doing something stupid, you can't get rich suing the owner of wherever you were when you did the stupid. 

The good effect of the closure is that fewer people come to the park, and so the loudest thing we heard the moment we left our car at the Thurston parking lot was the birds. Sadly, not all good news: the birds are in trouble, mostly due to mongeese, rats, and avian diseases introduced with introduced species. But in the din of the survivors, that's easily forgotten.

A short walk down a sharp decline, and we enter the remnant of a centuries old lava tube -- nobody will say how old, but prehistoric, a few thousand years since Kilauea Iki, Halemaumau's little brother crater, overflowed to the coast using this tube.

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Lava tube dynamics are mysterious, because we don't naturally think about rock in its liquid state. But if we think about it as really hot, heavy water, we can begin to understand. Pardon the following pathetic fallacy, but I think it helps:

The atmosphere wants to cool the lava back down to the ambient, and succeeds with the layer exposed to the air -- and the rain, clouds, and so forth that accompany a lava outbreak. But rock is a fair insulator, and so the flow continues within, and a lava tube is formed. After the first outburst, the lava typically settles into a lesser sustained flow that for days, weeks, months, where there is here a sharply defined upper "bathtub ring." Later, the flow usually lessens until the tube empties, leaving the floor we walk on in the Thurston tube.

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Back out of the tube, there's an easy walk back through the riotously green fern forest, all atwitter with the birds (as long as the tourists, who can't seem to walk without talking, aren't present.) The mosses here may be the same as the ones we see in our temperate rainforest, and the experts say that the flora here is likely one of the most intact on the Islands, because it is so dominant and well-established. 

Now is the time to talk endemism. Of course, nothing (except lava) is precisely endemic to isolated islands like these, and so someone makes a call. This pretty butterfly is the Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, likely imported unknowingly along with some crop sourced in the Southern US. It loves lavender, also imported. Both, like us, think we're in paradise, and thrive.

Elsewhere on the Islands, botanists estimate that 20% or less of the originally endemic flora and fauna survive. And on the extinction front, Hawaii is the world leader, having lost more endemic species in the last 200 years than anywhere else on the planet.

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<p>Back past Volcano House and the...

Back past Volcano House and the Visitor's Center, we finally see the Kilauea's business end, Halema'uma'u. Inset is an image of the koa'e kea, or Hawaiian Tropicbird, taken by Eric VanderWerf. (We weren't close enough for a photo, but we enjoyed watching a pair gliding above the fumes.) Fans of Linnaean names will like this one: Phaethon lepturus. These seabirds fly for weeks without landing, and here make their nests in the crater cliffs (where the rats can't get their eggs.) The ranger who identified them said that no one knows why these birds like the sulfur, but they do. 

Even so, we invasives usurp the power and exercise our dominion, continue to bring "it" whatever that is that amuses us. The old-timers brought foxes, pigs, goats, and mongeese, all of which (knowing they were in heaven) escaped and are doing very nicely, thank you. Likewise coffee (yum), chocolate, vanilla, lettuce, tomatoes -- all with their associated pests. Later came cats, and mosquitoes (they couldn't survive the trip until we had jets.) The battle goes on, with a rogues gallery of hitch-hiker snakes at Honolulu International. Snakes are the only ones whose invasion hasn't succeeded ... yet. 

But here's the punchline: Nature bats last.

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On around the island, lunch of papaya with lime and ka'u orange at Manuka Wayside, and then to our B&B in Napo'opo'o. Heaven! Dinner at Teshima's in Captain Cook is fresh, crisp, local. A great night's sleep on a luscious bed. Vacation has officially begun.

Perhaps worth noting: Napo'opo'o is five syllables; the apostrophe represents a glottal stop. 

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