4.30am on the big island of Hawaii. Not a good time of the morning for me, although I sometimes have fantasies of: this would be the time to wake, drink warm water, do yoga for an hour, write for an hour, then I am free to live my life. But at 4.30am, the bed is too comfy, the mattress too loving, the dreams too bizarre and frantic to drag myself out of them.
Nevertheless, 4.30am is wake up time to drive half an hour in the dark to the boat ramp in the Pahoa area.
I’m glad The Excellent Husband (TEH) is driving, even though he drives below the speed limit at all times, and it’s crazy-making for me. I’m glad I’m barely awake, and have no judgement.
In the darkness, as we drive, I have a strong sense of someone-something in the back seat of the car, behind TEH. I don’t turn around. I had jokingly said to TEH, as we set out from Kalani (yoga resort down past Pahoa): “If you see an old woman by the side of the road, make sure you pick her up. If you see a woman with a little white dog, or a young woman, any woman at all, pick her up. It’s Madam Pele. We don’t want to anger her.”
Along the Oceanside road, and suddenly an owl flits high overhead, across the road, in front of the car. High enough that TEH, concentrating on the road, doesn’t see it. I do, though, and I know that the owl is one of the animals sacred to Pele, volcano goddess.
I say nothing. I don’t turn around.
The feeling of ‘something/someone’ dissipates when we arrive at the small parking area near the boat ramp.
A group of us, maybe thirty people, gather at the fourth lamp-post. We are the dawn boatload of people going out to see the current lava flow pour into the ocean.
A loud-voiced man gives clear instructions, but some of the group don’t speak English. He calls for all those 60 years of age and older to board the boat. The non-English speakers, all in their twenties and thirties, follow him like imprinted ducklings. They jostle to climb the metal ladder.
“All those fifty and over!” the captain calls, and I step forward. A young family with children are pushing to board ahead of me.
“Everyone will get a good view of the lava!” the captain shouts.
They don’t care. They want a good seat, the best seat.
“Fifty and over, huh?” I crack, not too quietly.
A young couple who have been pretending not to speak English now pull back from my shoulder, and he says: “Please go first.”
“Thankyou,” I say.
I’ve heard it’s cold out on the water. I have ¾ length yoga leggings, with a long summer skirt over them, sports socks, and runners. I wear a singlet, my travel wrap, and my rain jacket. I am a vision in purple hues, catching the edge of my shoes on my skirt as to scramble up the ladder.
“Plenty of time,” says the Hawaiian man holding the ladder.
I don’t feel like there is. People are crowding behind me and the captain has already said we are running behind schedule to see the lava in the dark, and then the sunrise behind us.
My stretchy skirt, released from tension, flips up around my thighs, and I look like a bag lady as I climb inelegantly into the boat.
“The front of the boat is the rockiest,” says the captain. “The first three rows are the bumpiest.”
I change from the third to the fourth row, because that will make all the difference, and park my bum on one of the metal benches. PB slides in beside me.
No, no arm around me. His arm pushes me forward, and I don’t want to be hunched. My body hurts enough from jetlag and the early morning. I am on my way to see something holy, too. I will see lava from the home of Madam Pele pour into the ocean, and go to war with the spume from her sister Namakaokahai, the ocean goddess.
I will be seeing that which drove Pele from her family home of Havaiki. She fought with her sister, and, taking her baby sister Haiika into her heart, she borrowed an canoe from one of her brothers and set out to find her true home. She came to the Hawaiian islands, the northernmost first, and each time, she dug and dug with her digging stick, but found that none of these were her permanent home. Down through the island chain she travelled, until she came to Hawaii itself, and the volcano of Kilauea. There, in the caldera, she made her home, to play with lava and fire, and create the land around her. The gouges of her digging stick can be seen throughout the islands, and the marks of her journeys, as volcanos erupted, then became dormant.
She lives in Kilauea, but sojourns occasionally to Mauna Loa, where the world’s biggest shield volcano, and tallest mountain(from sea base) erupts with fast-flowing, particularly runny pahoehoe lava.
Pele is a goddess close to my heart, from childhood, when I first read about her. Before that, though, I had a fascination for volcanoes, and the deep molten underworld.
Now, in the boat, as I prepare to see Madam Pele at work, I cannot be touched. Inside, I am in sacred space. While I put on my chatty, tourist face, and reassure TEH that I am happy, okay, that he is doing A Good Job, inside I am dangerously open to the natural world around me
I hold this balance with difficulty.
The boat slides backwards into the sea, and meets head on with three big waves as it exits the tiny shelter of rocks. Boom boom boom! Passengers squeal around me.
The captain has assured us of three things: we will get jolted around, we will get wet, we will see lava.
We have been warned, but still people carry on as though the jolting waves are news, and who knew the ocean had waves, gosh, wow, wooooo!
Along the side of the island we plough for forty minutes, riding with the ocean swell. This is the Pacific Ocean, which is never pacific. The sky lightens slightly, and nearby cliffs are etched in deep grey. The sea is black, the air full of sea spray and the excited buzz of voices. In the forward seats, a man in a plastic poncho films…who knows what. It’s still night.
The captain shouts that that glow on the far hillside is the lava. I can’t see anything. I stare intently at a light that turns out to be someone’s house.
I have tried to commune with someone’s porch light.
But then, we round another protrusion of lava and there, amongst the steam, is the pale orange glow of lava. The boat slows. It will turn and turn in the water, to give every person more than enough time for scores of pictures.
The man in the seat behind me has nursed a huge camera rig with a lens the circumference of a medium-sized pizza tray. Now, I hear the almost constant whir and click of his camera, as he gets shot after shot.
I hear him tell the woman beside him that he loves to travel, but Hawaii is the only place his wife will come, so the rest he does on his own. He has a website with 125 pictures for sale, but he has 11,000 pictures on his computer. A special file for grandchildren. He might take 300 pictures in an afternoon with them, and he will want to keep maybe three, but his daughter, each time, will want all 300.
I ask him nicely if he will send me a couple of shots, please, because I don’t think my little point-and-shoot will do the job. He takes my email address later, and says sure.
The lava opening is about three feet wide, and a constant stream of fast-flowing lava pours out. As it hits the cold sea water, it sometimes explodes upwards. It’s hypnotic to see scrappy folds of black rock shoot upwards, rimmed by red.
Often, white steam obscures the view, and that is the ocean goddess fighting back.
The captain brings around a bucket of sea water drawn from the back of the boat, fifty metres from the flow. The water is hotter than body temperature, good enough for a hot bath.
Lava flings outwards, and I feel heat shoot past my face. As I instinctively flinch back, there is a skitter of rock on the metal roof of the boat. We’ve been sprayed with lava. Poncho man is on his feet. A tiny pebble of lava has burnt a hole in the plastic of his poncho, and fallen to the deck.
The captain acts quickly, with a broom, sweeping the hot lava, black and scrabbly, along the deck and into the scuppers.
Poncho man is reassured that the hole in his poncho is the only damage.
He asks about keeping the lava as a souvenir. The captain shakes his head. It’s all gone into the scuppers, and back into the sea.
There is a certain amount of chagrin amongst the passengers. Yes, they have all heard the stories of people returning even minute specks of rock to the islands, following a string of bad luck. Madam Pele does not want you taking any part of Her land home with you. But, the passengers would have risked it anyway, for a fresh piece of lava. Something to sit on a shelf and gather dust, and to be thrown away by family who think ‘What’s this old bit of rock anyway? God, Granddad collected some crap.’
The boat is awash with loud talk as people carry on about their near miss.
I keep my eyes on the lava, and then behind me to where the sun nearly about to rise. No point having fifty blurry photos if I’ve failed to see this with my own eyes. I take in the grey-white steam, the orange flow that lightens to yellow and near-white in places, with dark specks of cooling rock. There is a faint roar that has nothing to do with the boat engines. Most of the stars have faded now, except Venus, and the crescent Moon. The Moon is waxing towards full, Full Moon in Leo, a fire sign. It seems appropriate that I am in the land of lava, and will be during a fire moon.
A sliver of yellow sun on the horizon, and immediately half the intensity of the lava colour disappears. It’s time to head back.
This time we are heading into the swell. Sometimes I am bumped completely out of my seat, and only my hand-hold on the rail in front of me keeps me from hitting my head on the roof above. TEH, heavier than I, maintains his seat, and his careful watch on my safety.
Just above the horizon are two layers of cloud, and fingers of light stream through both, like two Japanese fans, one in front of the other.
He is not 100% sure I will not suddenly dive into the ocean and swim back to bathe in the lava. Such is the scary way of life living with a half-crazed witch with anxiety.
Back at the boat ramp, we leave the boat one by one, gratituities in hand. I’ve tucked up my skirt, and tell TEH NOT to take photos as I come down the ladder.
People rush around to take a photo of the boat in sunlight.
There is a dash to the toilets, where the next boatload of people are emptying themselves out. A woman is washing her face with soap, and demands to know everything I saw, so she can ‘be prepared’. She wants to know how I rated the lava flow.
“Um…ah…five out of five? It’s…ah…flowing.”
“Good. I don’t want some half-assed thing.”
I assure her that the lava is not half-assed. Whatever that might be.
The sun is up and strong, although the morning is cold. Above us, the fire of the sun, below us, the fire of the inner earth. Don’t tell me we are creatures of the earth, of clay. We are forged in fire, tempered, shaped, and within us is a spark, a divine dollop of lava, asking us to connect.
Photo: Made by Madam Pele _ Patrick Gower