COURTESY JEFF REGO
The Big Island Kazumura lava tube system stretches more than 36 miles from Kilauea Volcano to the ocean.
Kazumura lava tubes run deep
Mother Nature created a sculpture garden in the 36 miles of the world's largest system
Dark places can illuminate our view of the world. There's no better example of this than the Kazumura lava tube system, a subterranean labyrinth that, according to an April 1997 report in the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, stretches more than 36 miles on the east coast of the Big Island, from Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the ocean along the Puna Coast.
Kilauea Caverns of Fire
» Place: Meet near the mouth of the lava tube, about 10 miles south of Hilo off Highway 11, between Mountain View and Kurtistown. Directions will be given at time of booking.
» Time: Daily by appointment, with maximum of 15 people per tour. Participants must be at least 5 years old for the Scenic Walking Tour and at least 14 for the Adventure Tour.
» Cost: $29 ($20 kamaaina) per person for the Scenic Walking Tour; $79 ($69 kamaaina) for the Adventure Tour. The tours go into different areas of the Kazumura system.
» Call: (808) 217-2363
» E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
» Web site: www.kilaueacavernsoffire.com
» Notes: Wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes. Long pants are required for the Adventure Tour. The terrain is rocky and uneven in some areas of the lava tube. Flashlights, hard hats and gloves are provided. Group tours for a minimum of 18 people can usually be accommodated at any time, but a week's notice is appreciated.
It holds the distinction of being the world's longest and deepest lava tube system despite the fact that, for the most part, it doesn't extend more than 60 feet underground.
"The depth of a lava tube is measured from its highest altitude to its lowest," explained Phil Carollo, a guide with Kilauea Caverns of Fire, which offers two tours of the mammoth system.
"Kazumura starts at Kilauea and goes down to sea level, so even though it's usually only about 60 feet below the surface at any given point, its depth is listed in scientific journals as 3,600 feet."
Geologists believe the system was formed between 500 and 700 years ago during an eruption of the Kilauea Iki crater that lasted 60 to 150 years. Channels appeared as molten lava flowed at speeds approaching 35 mph. Levees built up on the sides of these rivers of liquid fire, and "crusts" developed atop them, creating Kazumura's complex network of tubes.
The crusts cooled and hardened as the magma beneath them continued to flow. Insulated from the cool air, the lava maintained temperatures of between 1,600 and 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit.
"As the lava moved along with the consistency of wet concrete, it gouged out deeper and wider tubes," said Carollo, who holds a geology degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "Each time a flow was hindered by rocks or other barriers, it created a new route or pushed its way over the obstructions, creating a 'layered' effect."
Thus, an intricate honeycomb of tubes -- and tubes within tubes -- fans out from Kazumura's central corridor. Some of the chambers measure 80 feet high and 100 feet wide.
To date, cavers have mapped about 50 miles of passages in the system, but hundreds of smaller tunnels, entries and exits have not yet been explored.
Said Carollo, "The system is safe and walkable, but blockages at numerous places require you to backtrack and re-enter at different spots. Our tours cover sections where you don't have to do this."
The 75-minute Scenic Walking Tour is a fun, easy option for anyone who can tread on uneven terrain and climb a short flight of stairs.
You must be in top physical condition, however, to complete the three-hour Adventure Tour, whose challenges include jumping from boulder to boulder, climbing into and out of the skylights and crawling on your stomach for 30 feet through 24-inch-high spaces.
COURTESY JEFF REGO
A tour of the Kazumura lava tubes involves strolling through spacious chambers to crawling on one's belly through the tightest spaces.
BOTH TOURS take you into spacious chambers where temperatures range from 65 to 70 degrees. Said Carollo, "You'll see amazing structures that resulted when molten lava dripped, piled and oozed in the tubes, including stalactites, stalagmites and columns that were created when stalactites and stalagmites met."
The formations resemble those found in limestone caves on the mainland such as New Mexico's famed Carlsbad Caverns, but there is a major difference.
"Rushing and dripping water created the limestone formations over eons," explained Carollo. "Kazumura is at the most 700 years old. It would take that long for a stalactite in a limestone cave to grow one inch, whereas in a lava tube system it could be created in a matter of minutes."
Like a prolific artist, molten lava left intriguing sculptures everywhere in Kazumura's tubes; shapes resemble roses, fish, oak trees, a bat, a unicorn, a pig wallowing in mud and even the Madonna and Statue of Liberty.
Catching the eye in one area is a "pond" with circular ripples. "It must've been created when a heavy rock fell into molten lava," said Carollo. "The nub in the middle is what splashed back. Everything hardened very quickly."
Bands of different colors on the walls provide clear records of different flows in the Kazumura system. In Hawaii, Carollo asserts some of the best examples of such "banding" -- which is akin to determining a tree's age by examining the rings in its trunk -- can be seen during Kilauea Caverns of Fire's tours.
"We get a good look at red, yellow, orange, silver, black, brown and iridescent blue and blue-purple layers stacked up nice and pretty," he said.
"These variations in color come from the types of minerals that mixed with the magma before it hit the surface. They indicate about 10 different flows, each of which used to be on the surface of the island at one time."
Most people probably wouldn't give such phenomena a second look, but to Carollo they're sources of endless fascination. "I could come here every day and see something different," he said. "There's so much we can learn from lava flows and lava tubes. A good portion of Hawaii's history is literally written in stone."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.