In search of lava on the Big Island: Waikiki … Hale Pohaku … Stars and lava … Halema’uma’u … Milky Way over the caldera … Long Mountain … Mauna Kea climb … Tallest mountain in the world … Ka Lae … Kealakekua Bay … Flight over the volcano … Kilauea Iki … Pu’u O’o … Eating the forest … Pahoa … The Hell Itch … Thunderstorms over Nicaragua
I had wanted to go to Hawaii for years and years. It's a common place for astronomers to go to, as it's got one of the world's best locations for observatories on top of Mauna Kea, but I'd never had a chance to go there. This year the opportunity finally came, when the IAU General Assembly was held there. Thousands of astronomers converged on Honolulu and spent a week sharing their research. I didn't see much of the city - my time was taken up by preparing my own talks, giving my talks, and listening to other people's talks. But I stayed in a hostel right by the beach so I went there a few times.
After the conference, I headed straight for the Big Island, and hired a car to travel around there for a week. I wanted to climb Mauna Kea, and I thought a little bit of acclimatisation to altitude would help, so I drove to Hale Pohaku, 2800m above sea level, and spent a couple of hours there.
I spent a lot of my time around Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting since 1983. The lava lake in the summit crater looked awesome at night, and the Milky Way overhead made the crater's edge a pretty stunning place to be.
I could have spent a month on the Big Island and still not got bored of going up to the crater every night to see the glow of the lava.
In this photo, you can see the glow of lava from the summit crater and also, in the distance, the glow of lava from another lava lake in Pu'u O'o crater.
After acclimatising at Hale Pohaku, I headed back to Mauna Kea early the next morning for the actual climb. The trip to Hale Pohaku had definitely helped - I had felt a little bit out of breath walking around the day before, but I felt fine today and climbed quickly. There were fantastic views of Mauna Loa, with all the old lava flows clearly visible.
It was a great hike up the mountain. But it was pretty weird to arrive at the top after a few hours in the wilderness to find all the telescopes there. It was like I was arriving for work, and I felt like I should be checking the daytime calibrations and working out the schedule for the night.
It had been totally clear when I started climbing but clouding over during the morning. By the time I got to the top it was starting to rain. I was going to go to the very highest point, but there was a sign asking people not to, so I didn't.
I was planning to walk back down again but then it started hailing. Two tourists from New York were there, they had a car and they offered me a lift down. It was a better option than three hours walking in the hail.
I drove around the island. I didn't have any particular plan and I ended up randomly at Ka Lae, the southernmost point of Hawaii.
I drove on to Kona and spent a couple of days there. I went snorkelling in Kealakekua Bay, which was totally stunning. I'd never done snorkelling before and I was blown away by how awesome it was to float over the coral with thousands of fish swimming really close to me. And as an added bonus, it was a great hike from Kona down to the bay. Hiking back up was also great but exhausting after the swim. And then as I got to the top it started thundering, and in the downpour I got completely and utterly soaked to the skin.
I drove back to Hilo. On my final morning in Hawaii I took a helicopter flight over the volcano. I got very lucky with the weather - the pilot said it was the kind of day they get once a month. Often when they fly over the caldera they can't see too much because of clouds and fumes, but today we could see down into the crater to the lava lake.
I'd hiked across Kilauea Iki crater a few days earlier and now we flew over it on our way between the caldera and Pu'u O'o.
There aren't many lava lakes in the world - only five or six, and Kilauea has two of them. I saw the second one as we flew over Pu'u O'o crater.
We flew back towards Hilo, over the forests where the lava is currently flowing. In the day time it's not possible to see the glow of the lava, but we could see where the flow fronts were from the steam created as they flow into the forest.
After the helicopter flight, I had a few hours before my flight back to Honolulu. I drove to Pahoa, which had seemed to be on the verge of being wiped out in February, when a new lava flow from Pu'u O'o headed towards the town. But they had a lucky escape - the flow stopped on the very edge of town. I drove out to the recycling station, half a mile from the town centre, where the lava had finally stopped.
This video shows the flow when it was active. About four and a half minutes in there's a view of what it looked like from where I stood six months later.
I'd got horrifically sunburnt while snorkelling at Kealakekua. But two days later when I was flying back to Chile, it was not so bad. I didn't even particularly notice it while I was on the helicopter flight over the volcano, though it was a little bit uncomfortable on the flight from Hilo to Honolulu.
I had two hours there before my flight to Houston, and I was just sitting in the departure lounge doing nothing in particular when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my back. I sat up in surprise and felt another sharp pain. And within a few seconds, it suddenly felt like I was being stabbed repeatedly, all over my back.
I jumped up, unable to comprehend what was happening. It was excruciating and I could hardly breathe. I rushed to a bathroom and put some water on my back but it made no difference. I scratched furiously and it made no difference. I panicked and rushed around the airport trying not to shout in pain and that made no difference either. I was sure I would have to miss the flight - there was no way I could get on a plane in this state. I did not know what to do to stop the pain, and it was really just about the worst pain I've ever experienced.
Finally I ran into a shop, and saw some after sun. I could hardly speak, and I was desperate to put the stuff on, so I just threw down my dollars and didn't even wait for my change. I ran to a bathroom and slathered the stuff on.
For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then, unbelievably, the pain got worse. Then, thankfully, a few seconds later, it got better. I slathered more on. A few minutes later, it was definitely getting better. The relief I felt was huge. When it was time to board, I'd almost entirely returned to sanity, and I could contemplate 8 hours on a plane.
When I got home I googled my symptoms. It had been such a weird and awful experience, but, it turned out, far from unique. If you get burned over a large area, then sometimes, for reasons unknown, two days later you can get a sudden massive inflammatory response which causes the most horrific itch known to humanity. I'd got very lucky though - my panic-bought after sun turned out to be one of the few substances which can help - Ocean Potion instant burn relief ice. For some people, even this doesn't help, but for me, I think it saved my life. Without it I might have had to jump through a window or something.
The Hell Itch passed. By the time I got on the flight from Houston to Santiago it seemed like an insane dream. During the night, we flew over Nicaragua, and I tried to recognise places I'd been. The Milky Way was bright, and there were thunderstorms flickering on the horizon.