Fumes and fury in Pele's playground

lava lookout

The hush of the night was broken only by the growls from the fiery cauldron. I stood under the stars, gazing at one of the world’s most sacred sites, marked only by Nature’s unbridled rage.

Natural wonder: Pu’u ‘O’o vent of Kilauea Volcano. photo by author

It is here, within the deep womb of the Halema’uma’u Crater in Hawaii, that restless Pele, the Polynesian Goddess of volcanoes, fire and lightning had made her earthly abode.

Pele’s kingdom reigns throughout the Kilauea Volcano, of which the crater is but a small part.

As she shakes her matted tresses loose, the Pu’u ‘O’o vent screams out to the skies, billowing thick sulphurous smoke.

One of the world’s youngest and most active volcanoes, the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii’s Big Island, has been raging for 3,00,000 years. One of the most active volcanoes in the world today, Kilauea has erupted 61 times since January 3, 1983.

It was a sunny morning when we left the beaches of Kona in the leeward side of the island, driving past the lush Waipi’o Valley and the bustling town of Hilo to the Hawaii Volcano National Park.

Here, the ever-present smell of ‘vog’ or volcanic smog adds a curtain of mystery to these hills of fire. Vents exhale, scorching vapour through holes on the plains, billowing smoke in columns of wispy white.

Yellowed rocks plastered with sulphurous fumes dot the terrain. Black boulders from an ancient fury lie scattered all over the ground, remnants of several eruptions over the years.

The summit of the Kilauea Caldera houses the sacred fire-pit of Halema’uma’u — the house of the ama’um’au fern. Legend has it that Pele once had an argument with the rain god Kamapua’a, who, angered by Pele’s power to erupt at will, covered the crater with fronds of this fern.

Smoked out, Pele realised the impotence of fire over water and the powerful divinities eventually called for a ceasefire, retreating to different parts of the same island.

Perched in a helicopter, we approached the caldera, circling around the Pu’u ‘O’o vent. Down below us was molten lava gushing along vents visible through what are called skylights. We could see the eerie orange glow even as exhalations rose up in the grey terrain.

Water and brimstone breathed out of the vents with a hiss near the town of Kalapana where Pele eagerly rushes down to the Pacific Ocean to meet her legendary sister Na-maka, Princess of the Waters.

Later, we drove to the Kilauea Iki Overlook and a desolate wasteland stared at us down below. In 1959, the volcano had exploded, hurling 1,900 feet of fury and brimstone to the skies creating a churning sea of molten rock lapping against those tall cliffs. The six-mile hike along the Kilauea Iki Trail took us to the womb of volcanic power.

In this lush tropical forest, red lehua blossoms adorned the ohia trees. Even in those milliseconds of cataclysmic outburst, Pele, the eternal sculptress, had created a work of art in this black canvas. I noticed glistening droplets of lava or ‘Pele’s tears’ scattered all around me. Green specks of peridot glistened in the slanting sunlight.

Exotic as they looked, I didn’t dare pocket any rocky souvenirs. Hawaiians believe that these lava rocks are possessed by strange spirits and Pele treats them as her own progeny — misfortune befalls the hapless one who steals from her playground.

The legend of sacred Pele lives on in these parts. Witnesses narrate sightings of an old woman who walks these bleak grounds with a white dog, begging for food.

She bestows riches and good fortune on the generous, cursing the parsimonious. She wreaks her anger on the ones who turn their backs to her indefatigable spirit.

The parking lot at the Jaggar Museum was busy that night. Seismographs here measure the faintest rumble across several craters from miles away — from those broad scratches on the paper drum, Kilauea seemed the most restless. Peering out from below the stars, I could see the sacred fire pit where Pele was astir.

Deep down in the caldera, lava was gurgling. There would soon be that unknown moment when that goddess would suddenly emerge — something that geologists just cannot foretell despite all those blinking contraptions.

Clad then in fiery red robes, she will one day awaken, destroy and then recreate, as she has always been doing over the centuries in her timeless cadence…

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