Sunday, July 17, 2005

There’s a deafening silence inside Haleakala

I’m not in any way learned in geology, so the following is a layman’s explanation of how Maui came to be - based on leafing through a few guide books and brochures.

All of the Hawaiian Islands (about 19 in total) came about as the crust of the earth far beneath the Pacific moved slowly through the eons (plate tectonics) over a “hot spot.” A hot spot is a place where super-hot lava is rising out of the earth – in the case of Hawaii it just happens to be belching its way up underneath the ocean. (Another hotspot is Yellowstone National Park.) As the gigantic Pacific Plate moved northwest across the hot spot during the course of millions of years, the chain of islands was created one by one. The hotspot, I suppose has stayed in relatively the same place all this time, but as the plate moved, it carried the islands with it. So, all of the Hawaiian islands came from the same source – the oldest islands stretching out west, the and newest island being the Big Island which is still growing as Kilauea continues to erupt.

Maui started with a huge mound of lava that made a giant dome. Today that dome is the West Maui Mountains. After the eons of time went by, erosion made huge and beautiful valleys – like the Iao Valley. Later, in fact, a lot later, as the plate moved further, another giant dome was made, Haleakala. The lava flows of these two mountains met in the middle and made the isthmus that is today the middle of Maui.

Haleakala is big. It makes up roughly 75% of the entire island. Like its bigger siblings on Hawaii, Mauno Kea and Kilauea, Haleakala is among the most massive structures on earth – roughly the size of Everest when measured from the bottom of the ocean.

Haleakala is also considered an active volcano, though currently dormant. I was a bit surprised to learn that the last eruption was only about 200 years ago about a dozen years or so after Captain Cook arrived here. We visited the site of this eruption which is well down the mountain on the southwest shore of east Maui – a short drive past Wailea. It’s an amazing giant field on the easy slopes of the mountain filled with these giant reddish brown and black volcanic rocks. Where the fields meet the water the pieces of rock go from pumpkin size to golf ball size – sometimes making a salt and peppery mixture of lava rock and what looks to me like white coral.

When seen from below, the summit of Haleakala was completely covered in clouds during our entire week stay in June 2005. This is apparently a typical phenomenon that gives rise to the remarkable and diverse eco-zones that make up different parts of the island. The trade winds blow from the west toward the east. When they hit Haleakala, the air rises and cools creating clouds. These clouds shroud the mountain up to around 8,000 feet typically allowing the summit to poke through on the top. So, most of the time when one gets to the summit, one would look down upon a huge expanse of clouds. This also gives an eerie and beautiful glow to the famous sunrise on the summit – something we didn’t do. Maybe next time we’ll be more in the mood for the 2:30am wake up call to begin the drive up.

The cloud formation on the east side creates the dense, lush and beautiful rainforest that makes the road to Hana the spectacular drive that it is with and cascading waterfalls coming down most all the time. This side of the mountain can get a whopping 400 inches a year of rain. The west side of Maui lies in the rain shadow of the mountain and remains mostly dry and arid. On that west side is Kihei (where our condo was) and Wailea, the ritzier community down the block with resort hotels and golf courses frequented by the rich and famous. Just one week before our visit, the Maui Film Festival was hosting stars mostly in the swanky Wailea hotels.

The Haleakala summit at 10,000 feet above sea level general drops in temperature about 30 degrees and opens up a huge “crater” that is a both an awesome vista and a lifeless void that looks nothing like the rest of this planet. For me it looked most like the images of Mars from the Mars rover – and sometimes something like the moon. It’s a stunning site.

The crater isn’t a real crater because it was created by erosion, not a volcanic blast. It’s a landscape of black, grey and reddish rocky sand and contains a number of smaller reddish cinder cones within the main crater area which dips down about three thousand feet from the summit. To hike down the sliding sands trail into the crater is to take a serene and mystical trip to another world. During our hike, the crater was shrouded in fog that would blow by us. Occasionally – within a matter of minutes – the fog would clear revealing the colorful and bizarre enormity of the crater. Two minutes later visibility would again vanish.

We were passed by a band of horses taking some tourists up the trail to the top. I remember thinking as I watched them that the inside of the crater was a deafening, still silence. So much so that the voices of the tourists on the horses could be clearly heard while they were still just barely visible coming up the winding trail. We couldn’t help but be somewhat envious of the these horseback tourists (though not the horses) as the climb up is a lot tougher than the climb down. Although the trail is gradual, the altitude makes a big difference.

Within the upper sands of Haleakala are two famous and rare natural anomalies. The beautiful Silversword plant and the Nene goose. The Silversword – which grows only here and on Mauno Kea on Hawaii – is an interesting oddity. It grows with succulent skinny white leaves with a greenish hue that grow out from a common middle and sometimes extend upward on a stalk. They are famous for blooming only once and then dying – something that happens anywhere after four to fifty years.

The Nene are brown geese that probably originated from Canadian geese that arrived on Hawaii after getting way off course in flight south. After a separate evolution on Hawaii they lost most of the webbing in their feet and have become accustomed to the rather harsh climate at the higher levels of Haleakala.

We saw the Silversword but mostly near the observatory center at the top which looked to have been cultivated by the ranger service. Nonetheless, they do occur up there naturally. We saw no Nene – except captive ones in the Kula Botanical Gardens down the mountain.

Click here for my pictures of Haleakala. Also see special instructions.


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