KULA KAI CAVE
Ann Bosted checks out a pink rock slab atop a large rock pile in Kula Kai Cave. The cavern complex is reached on tours ranging from a half-hour walk to half-day excursions.
Truly hidden Hawaii seen by lava-tube crawling few
Relaxing it is not, but spelunking on the Big Island is a real trip
VOLCANO, Hawaii » About the time jagged edges started poking through my T-shirt as I wormed my way through a tight spot in a lava tube, I began to wonder: What am I doing here?
We could have been relaxing on the famous Green Sand Beach at South Point of the Big Island of Hawaii. But in the spirit of adventure, we were instead exploring the world underground.
I had convinced my husband that it would be neat to go hiking to see flowing lava at the Kilauea Volcano on the first night of our weekend getaway, and then get up early the next morning to go caving in 1,000-year-old lava tubes.
He was agreeable, even after twisting his ankle on the initial hiking excursion, which lasted past midnight. Once we got back to our cabin at Volcanoes National Park, we understood why each room had a Jacuzzi.
But we weren't about to let our sore muscles get the best of us. Watching the orange glow of waxy-looking lava hiss into the ocean had intoxicated us. We wanted to see tunnels formed by the molten stuff.
So we caught just enough sleep to wake at the crack of dawn and drive to South Point in search of a labyrinth of lava tubes at a place called Kula Kai Caverns.
To get there, we punched in a pass code and entered a remote neighborhood built on lava rock. Then we saw our guide's landmark, a thatched hut that looked like something out of "Gilligan's Island."
Our tour guide, Kathlyn Richardson, led us into the yurt and handed us spelunking helmets, lights, gloves and knee pads to gear up. We looked like coal miners without the soot, and we were about to go on a two-hour spelunking tour. So she tested us a little. Would we like to try shimmying up parts of the cave and crawling around in tunnels?
We were game.
Let me just say my previous experience in caves was limited to a guided tour years earlier on a heavily traveled pathway at Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. While it is considered the granddaddy of American caves -- and the longest cave in the world -- I saw only the easy-access "tourist" part of it. No shimmying through narrow passageways was involved.
And I'd seen Thurston Lava Tube, a major attraction on the drive around Crater Rim Drive at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But that was just a peek into a cave-like shell.
I'd never seen much of caves, or been able to explain the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. Somehow the idea of exploring a pitch-black volcanic cavern still appealed to me.
And that's just the kind of tourist that Kula Kai Cavern founder Ric Elhard wants to educate.
"I started crawling around in caves when I was 12 years old," said Elhard, a California native who bought property on the Big Island because he knew there were caves underneath it. He and other cavers have since mapped out miles of lava tubes that crisscross the area.
"We're not doing big numbers, but we saw huge potential," Elhard said. "We want to be more of an educational tour. We want people to learn and understand about the archaeological aspects of caves."
He and other guides lead small groups, even children as young as 5, through parts of the caves on tours that last from easy half-hour strolls to more challenging half-day explorations. When my husband and I were there, it was just the two of us, following Richardson into a braided maze she knew by heart, and getting a taste of massive chambers and small spaces formed by volcanic gases rising through cooling magma 1,000 years ago.
KULA KAI CAVE
Spelunkers, as cave explorers are known, get a tour of a double passage in the Eli section of Kula Kai Cave in South Point.
A national park tour it is not. It's a fledgling operation that's loosely organized, and sometimes the battery-powered lights on the well-used equipment go out. But it's definitely an adventure tour.
We broke a sweat, despite the cool 68-degree temperature inside the cave, and had to watch our footing navigating craggy rocks that seemed to grow out from above and below. One of the most interesting parts was when we turned off our head lamps and sat in the dark, listening closely to dripping water and the sound of ourselves breathing.
I'll admit I liked climbing and scrambling over loose rocks much better than belly-crawling through the tight spots. The crawling part made me think about being swallowed by hot lava as I tried to untangle myself from its pointy fingers.
But squirming around on my hands and knees gave me a feeling not just for overcoming claustrophobia but for looking at a volcanic island from a different perspective.
I thought about the cave dwellers who must have used the spaces for shelter.
I wondered how long the kukui nuts, which contained oil that Hawaiians used to light like candles, had been left on the rock shelves that we passed. I pictured the lava flowing through the walls I could now touch.
The tour captured my imagination.
Yes, I could have spent the day relaxing on the beach. What I did instead made me feel like an explorer. And to me, discovering a world I'd never seen before made the vacation feel complete.
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If You Go...
KULA KAI CAVERNS AND LAVA TUBES
Location: Off Highway 11 in Ocean View, Hawaii
Phone: (808) 929-7539
Cost: Tours by appointment, ranging from $15 half-hour walking tours to $95 half-day tours. The two-hour spelunking tour is $65. Discounts for Hawaii residents and groups. Wear a T-shirt, long pants and sturdy shoes.
On the Net: www.kulakaicaverns.com
WHERE TO STAY
For the full Kilauea experience, stay in a B&B in Volcano Village or in a cabin at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
» Carson's Volcano Cottages: www.carsonscottage.com or (800) 845-5282 or (808) 967-7683. B&B accommodations from one-room spaces to family cottages with kitchens and storybook cottages nestled in the tropical rain forest. Breakfast is served in a dining room beside the fire. Rates range from $115 to $170 a night.
» Volcano House: (808) 967-7321. This historic hotel sits on the edge of a crater, and the rooms are heated by volcanic steam. Hotel rooms range from $95 to $225. Its $50 cabins are among the few available in the park, but the rooms are a bit worn.
» Kilauea Military Camp: www.kmc-volcano.com or (808) 967-8333. A joint services recreation center in Volcanoes National Park, open to military members and Department of Defense workers and retirees. Rates are based on rank, and accommodations range from dorms to cottages with fireplaces.
WHERE TO EAT
After a spelunking tour, drive to the Kona side of the island for food.
» The Coffee Shack: (808) 328-9555. A Casual coffeehouse with a sweeping view of the ocean just off Highway 11 south of Captain Cook. The staff is friendly, the Kona coffee is good, and the portions are big. We had huge salads and splurged on apple-cinnamon pie.
» Cafe Pesto: (808) 969-6640 in Hilo Bay; (808) 882-1071 in Kawaihae Harbor. Whether you're in Kawaihae near the harbor on the scenic South Kohala coast, or in historic Hilo on the Big Island's east side, find this restaurant. It has gourmet pizzas, an assortment of pasta and seafood and things such as "wine flights" -- three 2-ounce tastings of wine. It's the best place to dine in Hilo. Most items are around $10.
» Ken's House of Pancakes: 1730 Kamehameha Ave., (808) 935-8711. OK, there really is another place to go in Hilo if you're hungry. Ken's is like a local Denny's, and the tables are a little sticky. But they'll bring a carafe of coffee and leave it at your table, and the omelets hit the spot. Most important, it's open 24 hours a day. Most items cost less than $7.