Having slowly meandered along highway 11 south towards Kona side from Hilo, by the time I reached Na'alehu I began to feel I was a long way from the comforting familiarity of the Puna forests. This was a land that had been marked by volcanic activity - a landscape shaped by lava with recent flows still creating new land as the molten rock flows into the sea.
At the foothills of Mauna Loa, the rolling green hills descended all the way down to the stark black cliffs that form the coastline. Like a long dark furrowed brow the black lava rocks spilled into the sapphire blue sea below. Waves crashed against the rocks. This is the only part of highway 11 I had travelled on so far that brushed the coastline so closely.
At the town of Na'alehu, the southernmost community in the USA, the road took a sharp turn westward into grazing and pastureland. I passed the tiny community of Waiohinu - a town so small you could blink and miss it. There appeared to be only one main building with a mural painted on one side reminiscent of colonial times. The road out of the tiny town bordered the Kau Forest Reserve and dense jungle covered the hillsides at the foothills of the volcano. The enormous mountain was still being elusive and not revealing its majesty that lay hidden beneath the clouds. Hand-built rock walls lined the highway as it curved around the lap of the sleeping giant. Mauna Loa is an active volcano responsible for the formation of the Hawaiian Islands and it's last major eruptions that caused fatalities was in 1950. It was hard to imagine that this volcano has been active for at least 700,000 years. Dormant but ready to awaken at any moment, the volcano loomed overhead making its presence felt even though only its foothills were visible.
Travelling west of Na'alehu, I passed the turn-off for South Point, the southernmost point in the U.S. It was already late in the afternoon and I decided I would save that side-trip for another time. If I was to make it to my destination by nightfall I had to press on. The landscape in that part of the island changed so dramatically within the space of a few miles. I crossed more fields of sharp black rock: the map was indicating that it was the 1868 lava flow. The older the flow, the more vegetation had regrown. Like the charcoaled stumps of trees remaining after a forest fire, the rocks had become home again to new growth. A mile down the road I crossed the younger flow of 1907. There was not a single tree in sight, as far as the eye could see it was black lava fields. It was akin to driving on the surface of a black moon.
Sometimes solo road trips feel lonely. This was one of those moments. As the vog closed in and the stark black lava fields seemed to go on forever, I longed for some company. The energy of the place was intense. It was just me and the road and Pele. I drove past some formidable looking statues - against the cloudy sky in the afternoon light they looked quite ominous. They were in a yard by the roadside for sale in the middle of nowhere.
Just as I was beginning to feel a very long way from the friendly familiar faces of the Puna area, the road turned a corner and began to head north along the South Kona coastal district. In the gap between low-lying clouds and ocean, the beautiful light of the sun was beginning to shine through. I felt as though I had been travelling through a tunnel and this was the light at the end of it. It felt so good to see the ocean again. The expanse of blue water before me was framed by the thin strip of sunset light, the setting sun hiding behind the clouds and revealing just a hint of its rays as it descended into the ocean. I was delighted to see it suddenly emerge from the clouds and illuminate the surrounding vista of sea, sky and the green foothills of Mauna Loa. The bright orange ball kissed the sea as it bobbed on the horizon like a vessel. Suspended in time, the sunset sang a silent sparkling symphony, the beauty of the moment captured in a feeling of harmony throughout the land.
I had crossed over the lava fields at the foothills of the giant Mauna Loa, marking a type of 'gateway' between the east and west sides of the island. I felt excited to be venturing into the unknown and to explore the magnificent coastal area south of Kona.