HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK — It's Hawaii without the grass skirts, surfboards and hula. Instead, calderas steam in vast fields of lava, punctuated by specter trees rising stark and lifeless from their brittle base.
Macbeth's witches would feel right at home here in the surreal landscape that seems a long way from the other side of paradise, a landscape decorated by Hawaiian goddess Madame Pele in her favorite color--basic black.
Yet not far in any direction, the lush vegetation of Hawaii blankets the earth in the verdant carpet of a tropical terrain. This is our most explosive national park. Those who would like a visit to another small planet without the astronomical cost of a space shuttle would do well to see this park on the youngest and largest of these Islands, the Big Island, Hawaii.
The rocky terrain of the mountain park is indeed an alien world. But this is a friendly alien with temperate weather, wind orchids and ohelo berries to welcome guests.
Nor do Hawaii's volcanoes have the nasty temper of a Mt. St. Helens. Hawaii's are shield volcanoes, a type that erupts in a manner suitable to paradise. Instead of fleeing from the lethal fiery cloud of composite and cinder cone volcanoes, thousands flock to Hawaii to watch the eruptions of its volcanoes.
For visitors who miss one of the eruptions, movies and exhibits at the Visitors Center provide a graphic substitute for a ringside seat at the building of a mountain.
The best place to begin a visit to the park is at the Visitors Center, which is at 4,200 feet next to Kilauea caldera. There you can see films of a lava fountain as high as the Empire State Building. Or you can watch fat, lazy-looking lava as it oozes its way downhill like fiery-hot fudge.
When the lava meets the sea, it makes a fury of steam. According to legend, Hawaii's volcanic activity is controlled by Madame Pele, eater of trees, maker of mountains, router of war gods. The feisty goddess was briefly married to Kamapuaa, god of war. It may have been a match made in heaven, but its duration was short and violent.
In a rage, Pele routed Kamapuaa from her crater of fire and chased him with streams of lava into the sea.
Madame Pele's union with the National Park Service is a good deal more friendly. She obliged them by placing a kapu (taboo) on taking any lava from the park. A central exhibit at the Visitors Center chronicles the woes of those who break the kapu .
With his returned lava, one such visitor wrote:
This purloined chunk of black basalt
Has stirred your wrath.
It's all my fault.
I hate to contemplate its cost;
The airline tickets that we lost;
Six pairs of shorts dyed purplish-blue
When laundered with my wife's muumuu ...
The kitchen sink that stopped up tight
As guests arrived the other night.
Are we forgiven, Pele?
Good Lord--a six-point-seven quake!
A chat with park personnel such as chief naturalist Tom White provides an excellent orientation to the wonders that lie outside the Visitors Center. According to White, the center seeks to excite visitors' curiosity about the park and give them a basic understanding of the natural and cultural history of the area.
Explaining the park wonders is important because for the 2 million people who visit the 229,177-acre park each year, the average stay is only two hours; many whiz past the spectacular scenery in tour buses.
White points out that in many of our parks interpreters talk about a natural process that happened hundreds of thousands of years ago, but in this park these processes may be happening as he speaks.
In 1984, lava gushed from Mauna Loa and Kilauea at the same time, and on Nov. 13, 1985, Kilauea began a spectacular seven-hour performance.
In such explosive times, the park maintains a hot line: (808) 965-7977. But White warns those who wish to rush to the park to see an eruption that many are very brief; airlines book almost instantly when Madame Pele is in action.
Visitors Center displays also show the park's flora and fauna. The displays include a lesson in what happens when man meddles with nature. The original Hawaiians brought with them pigs that ate the eggs of ground-nesting birds. The bad-guy pigs also routed out basins in trees.
When mosquitoes bearing a strain of malaria fatal to many native birds arrived with Western man, the rainwater that collected in the basins formed breeding areas for the mosquitoes.
So special and fragile is the native flora and fauna of Hawaii that half of the species on the endangered species list are found only in Hawaii.
Displays also give a sense of an island culture that flourished long before Capt. James Cook sailed into Kealakakua Bay in 1778 and claimed the Sandwich Islands for Britannia.
Dressed in Hawaii's version of the National Park Service uniform--a muumuu--interpreters such as Candy Hoopii show visitors how Hawaiians used native plants.