The Log Book
Tales of an Artist Afloat
Lava flows and escaped boats
Does offbeat and off-grid mean off your rocker? I was going to find out when we decided to take a few more days away from Prism and visit Puna, a sprawling region in the south of Hawaii. It’s where people go when they reject the groove of Hilo and want to find a new rhythm entirely. The locals are collectively known as Punatics, and Jim was itching to meet them. I fancied the arty vibe, yoga classes, hot pools and snorkeling, so we set about trip planning.
The first thing we learned is that being a hippie is expensive, at least if you’re travelling spontaneously. We wanted to find somewhere to stay on the coast, but the place with the home-built huts was full, the one with the shared bathrooms and hot tubs was ridiculously expensive and the clothing-optional one just seemed weird. We ended up booking another Air BnB at Black Sands- which is not a beach at all, but an off-grid development up the hill from the coast. Our room was delightful, with views over the rainforest and a happy population of bright green day geckos outside. Our lovely host, Susan, was very welcoming and it was worth the steep cycle and interesting bus journey to get there.
We’d taken the bus from Hilo to Pahoa, popping our bikes on the rack on the front. I’d watched the world out the window, whilst Jim broke the cardinal rule of public transport- Do Not Make Eye Contact. He spent the one-and-a-half hour bus journey being regaled with the near-death experiences of an aging musician whose brains seemed pickled by too many illegal substances. Getting off the bus and on to the bikes was quite a relief!
The scent of marijuana hung over most of Pahoa. There wasn’t much to the town- a health food store, a few restaurants, some shops selling second hand books and tie dyed clothes. It seemed like smoking was all there was to do. We had lunch at a bar, and got chatting to a glass blower named Tom who seemed very sane, then hopped on the bikes and took on the rolling hills to Black Sands.
Kalapana used to be a village. Then the lava came, slowly burning down forest and destroying homes. The flow is still active today, and people cling to the edges, making the most of the fact that the authorities don’t care what you build on land which could become a lava field in a couple of years. Potholed roads can be a worthy exchange for freedom if you’re happy with tank water and solar power. Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar has turned its end-of-the-road location beside the old flow into a thriving business. There’s a market there every Wednesday, full of local vendors selling everything from clothes to woodwork, jewelry and glass. There are also dozens of food stalls and a live band. We grazed our way through green papaya salad and watched some hula dancers take to the floor for an impromptu performance. Then the band turned to classic rock and roll, and even Jim’s ankles wanted to get moving. The clientele were a fun blend of tourists and locals, the atmosphere was amiable and the coffee cake was amazing. Outside there was fire dancing, and that unmistakable scent again.
Jim and his ankles don’t like walking, but he was willing to give it a go to stand on the edge of the lava flow. The viewing here is totally unregulated- once you get past all the warning signs, you are on your own. No signs, no barriers, no path. The landscape here is still being born- always changing as the flow switches direction and changes in intensity. The start is a moonscape, though houses have already begun springing up, their unique architecture reflecting the quirky personalities of their owners. With no soil, gardening is impossible, though tubs of grasses or hydroponic arrangements gave splashes of green.
The rock beneath our feet was iridescent in places, covered in shimmering gold or patterned with rainbow strands. It was also sharp and brittle. We had to take care not to fall- no mean feat on the tortured ground. Lava had hardened in rope like coils and enormous domes, often shattered in the middle. Some areas were smooth and others looked like they had been bulldozed. What on earth could turn huge chunks of rock over like that?
The temperature rose as we got closer to the flow. Between the lack of path markers and the uneven ground, taking a direct path was impossible. Some walkers returned having never found the flow, others pointed us in the right direction. Steam vents became more frequent and the air stank of sulphur. And then- finally- we found the lava.
It was constantly in motion, red-hot syrupy rivulets. One cascade would harden and new one would start to run. Cracks glowed and grew; hardened patches were pushed aside as the pressure increased behind them until a new wave of molten rock bowled them out of the way. The landscape behind us began to make sense as I watched it being formed. I was mesmerized.
I had the flow to myself for a while, perched on a very solid slope a few feet away. The ground was still too hot to sit on, and a melted shoe nearby reminded me to keep checking the soles of my trainers. Jim soon joined me and we must have spent half an hour watching the earth being born. A group of tourists came, venturing beyond the slope and walking on the flow, treading on rock that had been liquid a few minutes before. Not the safest place for that Instagram-worthy selfie. We left them to it, and Jim had great fun complaining all the way back to our bikes (it gave him something to do).
The wind howled all night, and in the morning Jim called the harbourmaster to check up on Island Prism. Good job he did- her anchor had dragged and night security found her up against the university dive boat. Details were vague- she’d been moved and the fire brigade may have been called. They thought everything was ok- but our heads filled with thoughts of damaged stanchions and gouges in expensive dive boats.
Our hostess Susan leaped to our rescue and drove us all the way back to Hilo. We found Prism tied up securely against the strong winds which were sending whitecaps over our previously calm little anchorage. Tom, who works on the University boat, joined us to inspect them. Both vessels seemed scratch-free, and we thanked him for his help the night before as he’d been called in the early hours to wrangle our misbehaving yacht. We moved Prism, with two anchors out this time, glad that no expensive boats were damaged and our home was ok.
We’ll never be sure exactly why Prism dragged. Our Bruce anchor is twice the weight it needs to be, we let out 20 metres of chain in the 3 metre deep anchorage and most of the seabed in Radio Bay is mud, which offers good holding as the anchor digs in well (it’s also a pain to clean off the chain when you haul it up). We always reverse the boat to set the anchor, and try again if we’re not sure it worked. All I can think of is that the bed may actually be a mix of mud and rock- once we hauled up the second anchor and it was suspiciously clean. It’s possible we were just resting on hardpan, rather than being dug in. Or maybe the strong gusts were simply enough to move the boat despite the heavy anchor and extra chain. Perhaps Prism just had abandonment issues and wanted a hug from the dive boat. Thankfully no harm was done and everybody was remarkably nice about it.
Our Puna adventure cut short, we decided it was time to think about moving round to the west side of the island. Another boat came to join us in Radio Bay for the last few days- Mahina Tiare, owned by John and Amanda, who cruise the world training up blue water sailors. Their numerous circumnavigations have given them a host of fascinating stories, and we were lucky enough to catch up with them for coffee before we left.
Then it was time to raise the anchors and head up and over the north of the island, to the sunny side of Kona.
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An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.