If the summit of Mauna Kea looks like another planet, then Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, also on the Big Island, looks like the Earth turned inside out.
The park covers the Kilauea volcano, which is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Many of the lava fields in these pictures are very recent, the oldest ones are from about five hundred years ago and the most recent ones are just a few years old.
I remember seeing the lava fields for the first time in Iceland. They have this unique look of viscous liquid that froze or solidified. But the Icelandic lava flows I have seen are much older and are covered with moss. The more recent flows on the Big Island are completely barren, and you can feel that the geological and the human scale converge here.
Remarkably, people also manage to live on these brand new lava flows. There used to be a subdivision near the shore called Kalapana Gardens that got devoured by the lava flows in the 1990s. Those lots can still be bought, and the prices are bargains considering that you get an ocean view. And because many original owners live on the mainland and simply abandoned their properties, squatters settle in, too. Some of these houses are even listed own Airbnb. But living there is extremely tough: there is no electricity apart from what you can generate from wind or sun, no fresh water apart from what you can collect from the rain, and no soil apart from what you can haul in. And you are in constant danger of having your house destroyed by the next lava flow.
Unfortunately, as we were passing through Kalpana Gardens on our way to see the active lava flows, I did not stop to take any pictures of this surreal community, as we were trying to get to the active flows by sunset and had to fight with our rickety rental bikes. But I found this 2012 article from Honolulu Magazine that has some pictures and profiles of people who live there, to convey some perspective of what the life there is like.
The summit of Mauna Kea feels like another planet. The air is thin. Nothing grows there. The cinder cones, remnants of past eruptions, seem to float in the sea of clouds. The sterile white domes of the observatories look decidedly futuristsic. The only things detracting from this feeling are the tourists and the cars that brought them.
Full Gallery • Flickr Album
But the summit of Mauna Kea does not just look like another planet. It is the closest you can get to the environment of another planet anywhere on Earth. In fact, the astronauts of the Apollo program trained there for their work on the surface of the Moon. And an experiment is currently under way near the summit of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea’s sister mountain, simulating humans living on Mars.
And the observatories on Mauna Kea are links to other planets as well. For example, significant time at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) is devoted to studying planets in our solar system, and the W. M. Keck Observatory, shown in the first picture on this page, has been used to discover many exoplanets.
You may have noticed that I have shared a few photographs from St. Martin* on social media lately. For my wife and me, it is one of our favorite destinations. We have been there several times and loved every minute of it, so it has been very hard to follow the recent news about the devastation hurricane Irma wrecked on this wonderful island.
One quintessential St. Martin experience was to watch the airplanes land at Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM). The airport is large for such a small island, so it serves as a busy transportation hub for several nearby islands, handling everything from small island-hopping turboprops to private jets to large long-haul airliners. The best spot to watch the airplanes was Maho Beach, located just a few yards from the end of the runway. The bar there even posted flight schedule on a surfboard. But a special treat was the arrival of Boeing 747, the Queen of the Skies, appropriately adorned with a crown on its tail fin by its owner, the Dutch airline KLM. On our first visit, we were able to watch it land twice and I took pictures from different vantage points. It was an unforgettable experience.
Earlier this year, KLM’s Boeing 747 landed and took off from the island for the last time, following the worldwide trend of withdrawing 747s from service. It was bittersweet news: a passing of the past icon to give way to a technically superior but characterless replacement. I realized we were witnessing history when we watched those flights land in 2013, when I took the pictures above.
Then came hurricane Irma, Maho Beach was washed away, and Princess Juliana Airport suffered substantial damage, greatly hampering relief efforts. But as soon as basic repairs to the airport were made, KLM’s blue and gray Queen of the Skies was back in St. Martin, bringing in much needed relief supplies and taking back evacuees, and it may visit the island a few more times in the coming days. Apart from their enormous importance in the relief effort, these last 747 flights are fitting symbols of closing the glamorous jet age chapter in St. Martin’s history as a new one, terrifying but hopeful, begins.
* The island is commonly referred to by several names. The geographical island is called Saint Martin, but as it is split between France and the Netherlands, it is called Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten in the respective language. Here, I use St. Martin to refer to the whole island.