I have always been fascinated by volcanoes. The awesome power of an eruption, the history attached with major events such as Pompeii and Krakatoa, and most of all the beauty of red hot lava as it breaks from the earth's crust and sprays, flows or explodes above the ground.
We visited Hawaii in 2001 with the primary purpose of seeing an active volcano. Kilauea had been erupting for over 20 years, so it seemed a safe bet! On arrival at the National Parks Service visitor centre, we saw a video outlining 10 reasons why you should not walk on the volcano. But at this point nothing was going to deter us. We arrived at the viewing point early next morning and spoke to the ranger on-duty. He again read us the list of warnings. We reassured him that we: had water; had food; had a first aid kit; were experienced hikers; would keep away from the shore line (liable to sudden collapse).
He looked at us again and then changed his approach. "Ok" he said, "if you are going, here's what you need to do". He then proceeded to give a route across the lava field to reach the active flow area. It would be around 4 hours hiking each way. We must avoid all signs of vegetation, as it was liable to explode at any time (methane build-up). He asked us to report back to him before sunset to let him know we were safe.
So off we went. It was hard going, as the ground is very jagged and unforgiving. The rock edges can cut the skin with even fairly light contact. We didn't see any exploding trees (shame) but after around three hours we saw a faint red glow on the distant ground. As we moved closer the air became hotter and soon we could see the flow of lava sweeping down the hillside.
And very soon after, we were there: standing still, looking at a slow but constant movement of earth, red hot and changing shape as it flowed, and right there in front of our eyes.
It's quite strange to keep lifting your feet and checking the soles of your hiking boots every few moments to make sure they are not melting. But then nothing is normal standing on a volcano. If we had a stick, we would have poked the red liquid flowing less than a metre from our feet. It would have burnt instantly. Standing there, without another soul in sight, was one of those moments I knew we had to savour as a lifetime highlight. Only the drone of helicopters overhead broke the silence. What would those visitors taking pictures from above make of the two little dots standing by the centre of their attention?
We were getting low on water so started making our way back, slowly and carefully. It was a punishing hike, but made entirely bearable by the sight we had just experienced.
We could barely hide our enthusiasm at the ranger's post. We told him everything, and while he listened he did tell us to quieten down and not publicise our hike too openly. We were, after all, contradicting the message the National Parks Service had been putting across!
I don't know the current access situation at Kilauea; it changes weekly as the lava flow changes course or intensity. But if you ever have the opportunity to see such an incredible spectacle, it is something you will never forget. Were we irresponsible? I don't think so, but you might disagree. We were very safety aware, took every necessary precaution, and were used to hiking long distances. Yes there was still a residual element of risk (a UK risk assessment would have stopped us, for certain!) Sometimes you have to take a risk to experience the best things that life has to offer.