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Hawaii: Conquering Kilauea

“If the wind changes, we're as good as dead,” says Jim, a perky, moustachioed former accountant who's been guiding volcano cycling tours for the past six years. “But it probably won't,” he adds with a grin, leaving me wide-eyed with fear of a sudden squall.

Hawaii: Conquering Kilauea
Image: By Brocken Inaglory [Own work] (CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL), via Wikimedia Commons

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I’m standing outside the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. Less than 100 metres in front of me, puffing away, is Kilauea, the most active volcano on the planet.

I’m looking into the Halema’uma’u Crater, home to Pele, the mythical volcano goddess, whose 300ft-wide, spitting and bubbling lava lake has erupting since 1983.

As a result, the Big Island is getting bigger, increasing by over 42 acres a year. It’s like living with a sleeping — smoking — giant who’s constantly gaining weight and has a 2,100C hot line to the core of the earth.

I take one last look at the mushroom cloud and hop onto my hybrid bike to start the downward descent. Anyone who comes here hoping to see a traditional, cone-shaped volcano may be disappointed, as Kilauea, and her active big sister, Mauna Loa, are shield volcanoes, a flatter form that prefer to bubble and spew rather than explode dramatically like the volcanoes in comic books.

It’s 15 miles from crater to coast — a civilised, mostly downhill, ride. Stalled by a sulphurous whiff, we stop to peer into one of her steam vents. “Don’t get too close,” Jim warns. “A few years back one foolish fellow decided to climb into one of these vents to experience a natural sauna and poached himself to death.”

Back on the bikes, we freewheel through the island’s rainforest. The Big Island is a land of two halves. I’m staying two hours away in the Kona District, in the south west, where the barren landscape is formed from huge black clods of solidified magma, churned up like minced liquorice with barely a tree to be seen. This side of the island attracts record-breaking rainfall, meaning an abundance of lush rainforests.

Next stop is Kilauea Iki, a desolate pit crater, where, 60 years ago, lava fountains spurted nearly 2,000ft high to form huge cinder cones. Back on the bikes, we cycle past huge Hawaiian tree ferns before arriving at the Thurston Lava Tube. “Cut the mountain in half and it’s honeycombed with these lava tubes,” Jim tells me. Leaving my bike outside, I venture into the dark, damp caves, where 9ft-high walls are lined with leathery layers of lava that formed half a century ago.

The tour ends with dramatic views of the volcanic Ka’u coastline. As amber molten lava drips like warm honey down Kilauea’s crevices before hissing with a cloud of steam into the Pacific ocean, the Big Island adds another inch to its ever-expanding waistline.