After being invited to teach some courses in Honolulu I recognised the opportunity to add on a trip to Mauna Kea on The Big Island. I booked my Mauna Kea Sunset and Stargazing tour with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures who kept me well-informed with friendly and helpful emails, even reminding me of the itinerary the day before the tour.
Pickup was at 1.30 pm only a 10 minute walk from my hotel. The special bus arrived promptly and we 13 passengers loaded up. I was lucky enough to sit in the front passenger seat beside the driver for part of the trip until I offered it to another young woman travelling alone. I felt the good fortune should be shared around.
Our driver was very informative, offering all kinds of commentary on the local landscape and customs as we drove. After quite some time, and some tricky driving through fog on the Saddle Road, we reached the Visitor’s station about half way up Mauna Kea, where we stopped for a delicious, though early, hot dinner the driver had brought along.
A few metres from the picnic tables was an enclosure with a few of the now rare Silversword plants (photo below) that were once common on the Big Island. They didn’t stand a chance though against the herbivores the various settlers introduced.
I bought a coffee mug at the Visitor’s Centre: The Mauna Kea tour was the one thing I had specially wanted to do in Hawai’i, and I thought a mug would be a more lasting memento than a T-shirt or star chart.
Next the bus carefully climbed to a lookout point around half way up. We had risen above most of the clouds. One photo below shows me with Mauna Loa (I think) in the background rising above the cloud layer. It was cool up there, but not too chilly.
With these mountains being former volcanoes, and Mauna Kea having been glaciated at some point, the landscape was barren. There was only lava, lava and more lava.
Our driver pointed out one area near the summit known as Moon Valley as NASA has sometimes taken astronauts there to train for landing on the moon.
It’s a curious feeling to be up at 4,000 metres where life does not naturally exist. There were no plants, birds, nor any signs of anything living, apart from humans.
As sunset came around we were up at the top, by the many telescopes. We couldn’t actually visit any, of course, as they’re busy with expensive and serious research, but we walked around the outside of a couple as they opened up. Then we watched the sun set.
Fortunately the tour company had provided us with extremely warm Arctic jackets and gloves. I’d taken the precaution of bringing along some warm silk clothing, but needn’t have bothered.
As soon as the sunset had faded we boarded the bus again and drove carefully down the mountain, back to the level of the Visitor’s Centre. There are very strict ‘light’ laws around the mountain, and in fact across the Big Island so our driver was driving on a very dark road, with lowered lights. Luckily it was almost full moon, and so not as dark as it might have been.
We stopped in a clear, flat area where the guides for our 2 buses set up a couple of 11 inch Celestron guided telescopes and pointed out some astronomical features to us.
There was passing cloud, and that bright moon, so I didn’t get quite the dark sky experience I might have liked, but that’s just the luck of the draw. The next tour was cancelled for bad weather that left 5 inches of snow on the summit!
After some enjoyable viewing we boarded the bus again and made the return trip. I was back at my hotel by around 10.30 pm.
I really enjoyed the tour, and was very glad I’d chosen a guided tour rather than perhaps attempting to make the trip under my own steam. I wouldn’t recommend visitors try to visit Mauna Kea without expert guidance. Many of the roads were very tricky, and of course you’d miss out on learning about the local landscapes and history.
This was a great tour, and was the highlight of my whole trip, just I had expected it to be.