Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Most Misunderstood Island: One of the Most Diverse Landscapes on Earth

Shall we start with a stereotypical Hawaiian beach?
One can certainly be forgiven for thinking that Hawai'i is a group of high-rise hotels next to a wide sandy beach. It isn't as if a string of television shows (Magnum, P.I. and Hawaii 5-0 for example) have spent decades putting that stereotype into our heads. And the majority of tourists never venture beyond the hotel row at Waikiki and Honolulu. A visit to some of the other islands can be a real revelation (and adventure). The Hawaiian Islands, and especially the Big Island, are one of the most diverse landscapes on planet Earth.
The view from Pu'u Huluhulu at Saddle Road summit

Not convinced? Here is a selection of pictures taken over just two days of reconnaissance on the Big Island. How about an African savanna? A lone Koa tree (I think, I'm still learning these!) overlooks the plains along the summit of Saddle Road, a highway that links the two sides of the island. There are even grazing cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats (which are doing terrible things to the natural ecosystems).

Perhaps an archaeological site in the wilds of the Sinai Desert? The great heiaus on the Big Island served a variety of purposes, including refuges, sacrificial sites, and temples. They date back hundreds of years. This one can be seen at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historical Site on the dry side of the island in the rain shadow of the Kohala volcano. Rainfall averages less than 20 inches a year, compared to more than a hundred just a few miles away.

A recovering mesic coastal forest? Not a desert, not a rainforest, but somewhere in-between (mostly on the dry side) We are looking at the Lapakahi State Historical Park on the west slope of Kohala. The original forest was cut down for a number of reasons, but humans lived in this village for hundreds of years.

How about the high plains prairie? One of the largest privately owned ranches in the United States is found on the Big Island (the Parker Ranch). The cattle graze on rich grasslands that cover some of the older volcanoes. When they reach the right age, they fly in a 747 to the mainland. As a guide to Hawaii mentions, they probably enjoy more foot room than the average tourist in coach...

 As can be seen, some of the grasslands are windy.

Big Sur on the Big Island? Sure. This Big Island is not as famed for the coastal cliffs like those in Kaua'i and Molokai, but several tens of thousands of years ago, a large part of the northern coastline of the island collapsed into the sea. It probably produced a mega-tsunami in the local islands that had run-ups amounting to hundreds of feet in elevation.The Pololu Valley and coast is stunning.
The Pololu coast is also known for the gorgeous river valleys that extend into the Kohala volcano ("gorgeous"; Did you get it?). The canyons are hundreds of feet deep, and were once even deeper, but the islands are slowly sinking and the valleys fill with sediment.

I doubt that Sauron would have ever established Mordor in a place like this. These a'a lava flows from Mauna Loa are only a few decades old, and are practically impossible to traverse. Somehow a highway got built across part of it, and there is even a strange housing complex in the immediate vicinity. The few trees are the native Ohi'a, a tree that can grow from coastal environments to as high as 10,000 feet or so. I don't believe there is another tree on the planet that can do that.

And how about glacial environments? Yes, Hawai'i had glaciers during the Ice Ages! The top of Mauna Kea was mantled with flowing ice only a few thousand years ago. There are glacial moraines, and even a small lake that is the third highest in United States. Eruptions happening in the ice produced a glassy form of basalt that was much harder than normal, so the native Hawaiians would climb to the summit of the mountain to gather the rock for tool-making.

And finally, yes, there are rainforests! Beautiful green forests filled with rare and endemic plants found nowhere else on the planet. Don't tell anyone about this, but I see scenes like this and think of the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland! But these forests are real.

There are even more ecosystems and biomes on the island that we just didn't happen to see on our short excursions. Expect to see some more as the week progresses. We've got two more weeks on the islands, and lots of exploring to do!

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