Climbing down a crooked ladder. Scrambling over moss laden rocks tossed around with no mercy for ankle joints. And then peering into the darkness fore and aft in this 25′ wide hole in the Hawai’ian countryside. This is how I first came to enter the Kazumura Cave, the world’s longest and deepest lava tube.
Formed in multiple eruptions from Kilauea, the tube now extends some 40 miles on land and untold miles below the sea. What used to be filled with 2000 degree Fahrenheit lava (it is known as magma when below the surface and lava when above) is now a prime adventure with such variety in length that a mere three hour tour seems like the ultimate tease.
I was invited by Curtis Hill of Kilauea Caverns of Fire to take a trip below the lush growth on the Big Island’s East side for a trip through rock and history with one of his top guides, Jeffrey. Meeting Jeffrey above ground on the outskirts of Hilo, I’m first give a safety talk. Don’t touch anything. The microorganisms in the cave system are very fragile and I’m given gloves to not leave behind skin oils. Don’t take anything. The caves, while naturally crumbling in areas, are protected to help them remain open for all to enjoy and that means leaving things as they are.
After donning my helmet and checking my light source, we head out through the brush toward one of many openings in the cave system. It’s a sweltering hot day and I’m hoping for relief below the surface as I’ve experienced before at Derek Cave (also a lava tube) in Eastern Oregon. After climbing down a ladder into the cave-in location and tucking back into the dark mouth of the cave itself, I realize there will be little temperature change inside. Jeffrey relates some anthropological history of cave use, including stories of settlers from the Marquesas Islands using the tubes to escape enslavement from the ruling class at the time. In earlier times many regarded the cave to be the sanctum of the fire goddess Pele and as thus, men would never venture inside of caves. The Marquesas used this mythology to their advantage to remain safe while venturing deep inside the caves, with soot deposits from torches telling the tale of their extensive exploration.
Back in present times, Jeffrey and I begin our journey down into the tube. The walls of the cave are not entirely smooth but often appear so. The tube was laid down in many, many flows with each carving out a bit more rock before it eventually ran dry. In places the floor of the cave is littered with what Jeffrey refers to as “corn flakes”. They are disc shaped chunks of rock which at one time rode on top of the flows and, because of their composition, remained solid to the lava below them. When the lava cooled these flakes are left at odd angles on the cave floor and sometimes along the walls.
The tube is never perfectly round as you may imagine. Bending and twisting as it encountered rock more solid (and thus, slower to melt) in the hardened lava, the tube gives me a constant wonder about what’s around the next corner. I soon realize I want more than three hours to explore, there is so much to see! In places the ceiling forms mini lavacilces (yes, I made up that word I believe); a pattern of ripples where the lava cooled in interesting patterns. Water is everywhere, dripping down through cracks and making the rock slipper at times.
As we descend deeper, the cave does begin to cool from the sweat inducing temperatures above ground. Moisture fills the air and is visible in my headlamp, as if walking in a slight fog. Distance becomes harder to judge. Jeffrey tells a story of how the cave was used as a trial of sorts in times gone by. Those who broke certain laws were put deep into the lava tube with no torch or sense of direction. If they made it out they were said to be blessed by the gods and allowed to live. Those who never made it out, never made it out. At one point we shut off our lights to experience what it’s like.
For me, that darkness is the most complete black I’ve ever experienced. Vertigo sets in instantly and I slow my breathing to calm myself. A slight panic wells up and I remind myself that I’m safe, relatively speaking. Jeffrey and I remain silent and after a little while I begin to hear what I’ve been missing. Drops of water sound astonishing loud and non-stop. Beside the sound of our breath, that is all there is. The air has a musk to it and a metallic feel. It doesn’t smell pure but it’s also apparent that even down there, there is movement. Robbed of my eye sight, I feel humbled. What it must have been like to have been left for dead over an hour’s walk from the mouth of the cave, with no sense of direction, time, space, self. It all gets lost in the darkness and is no wonder many never made it out alive.
With our lights back on we begin to move towards the mouth of the cave well beyond many twists and turns. Jeffrey explains more about the formation of the tube, how there are parallel tubes to this one, how hot gases splash against the side walls and get frozen in rock. He’s eager to point out every aspect of tube formation and I soak it all in. And photograph what I can. At one point I ask him to stop at a ritualistic site and humor me as I experiment with some photographs, chronicled here of Digital Photography School’s site.
Our time underground is short and before long we spot the faint glow signaling the end of our journey. Sunlight. A return of the heat. A return to the familiar.
Caves are enchanting places that stir the imagination even in our modern age. Throughout history they have been given mystical places in lore. From the dens of dragons to passageways into other worlds. Exploring the Kazumura Cave helped bring in a little mystery to my Hawai’ian adventure, mystery I would have missed if I had remained with my feet planted only on the surface.
If you’re interested in other grand adventures to be had on Hawai’i’s Big Island, take a look at Uptake.com’s listings complete with reviews from around the web.
NOTE: If you’re curious about cave photography from the standpoint of a beginner, I have written a post entitled 14 Tips For Cave Photography to help get you started if you decide to visit the Caverns Of Fire.