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Kaumana Cave Lava Tube

Mauna Loa erupted spectacularly in 1880, illuminating the skies above the sleepy town of Hilo. Fiery jets of gas and lava were launched thousands of feet skyward, and could be seen from afar. Eventually the fountains subsided and were replaced by rivers of pahoehoe, or ropy lava.

For nine months, the eruption continued. The people of Hilo watched helplessly as the ancient forests of Waiakea Uka were consumed, then grew desperate as the lava continued its relentless approach to within one-and-a-half miles of Hilo Bay. A day of public prayer was observed. A stone wall was erected to protect the sugar mill. And a moat was dug around the prison to divert the flow.

Only Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani could placate Pele's fury. Arriving in Hilo on August 9, 1881, she approached the lava at Halai Hill with offerings of brandy, 30 red silk scarves and a lock of her hair. That night, she slept at the edge of the advancing flow as a gesture of faith. By the next morning the flow had stopped. Hilo had been spared.

Kaumana Cave, located 5 miles above Hilo, was created during the 1880 eruption. It was formed as the surface of the pahoehoe cooled and hardened, insulating the molten lava within. A portion of the thin crust later collapsed, creating a skylight through which streams of lava could be seen pouring through subterranean passages. As the eruption abated, the channel emptied, leaving behind an extensive lava tube.

I had the opportunity to explore the cave, descending through the very same skylight created 120 years ago. The entrance opened up into two large caverns and was lushly carpeted with cheery impatiens. The larger fern-draped passage to the right looked inviting, but within 50 feet of entering, we could barely see more than a few feet beyond the beam of our flashlights. The floor alternated between rubble, a'a, pahoehoe and shelves glazed smooth by the waxing and waning lava that once passed this way.

Near the rear of the antechamber I found a small wall of debris, and beyond, a previously unseen inlet to the deeper recesses of the cave. After a few yards of stooping and light clambering, I entered a large, winding tunnel. It was impressive. The ceiling arched 10 to 15 feet above me and the walls still bore evidence of dripping lava. Here and there, shaggy manes of ohia roots dangled from the ceiling.

These roots support an extremely delicate ecosystem of cave-dwelling arthropods. According to Bishop Museum entomologist Gordon Nishida, cave crickets, millipedes, and wolf spiders are among the creatures specially adapted to Hawaiian lava tubes. Many of these animals are pale, with reduced eyes, and live off the plant and animal matter that fall into the cave. The cave system is very fragile, and these unique creatures are endangered. People trampling through caves and littering the surrounding area can have a severe impact on their survival.

It was a strange sensation, being that far into the tube. I was drawn by my curiosity, but slightly disturbed in the close confines and eerie quiet. After a while I decided it would be unwise to proceed without protective gear and an experienced guide.

One such guide is Rob Pacheco. He takes families through Kaumana Cave as a part of Hawaii Forest & Trail's Rainforest Discovery Tour. According to Rob, "kids love the cave. It is adventurous, spooky, yet safe. We climb up into a small side tube that is perfect kid-sized and tell a story or two." Rob insures that the group has plenty of backup lights and batteries before entering. Depending on the group, they will go all the way through the cave, climb out through a skylight, then hike back through the uluhe fern to the parking lot. Rob recommends a minimum age of 6 for Kaumana.

Exploring is fun!

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