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"Here on Maui's highest peak you find an island in the sky where the clouds spread out below you like a second layer of ocean."

The Hawaiian Islands are merely the tips of gigantic mountains, most of which like icebergs are hidden in the ocean's depths. From fissures in the floor of the sea, a bubbling broth of molten rock oozed out and up and over millennia, layer upon layer of lava molded the mountain that today constitutes most of Maui, the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands.

The massive volcanic mountain on East Maui rises to 3600 metres above the surface of the sea, while below its tremendous bulk descends 9100 metres to the source of its inception, the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

Haleakala Dormant Volcano

Hawaiians named the mountain Haleakala, 'House of the Sun' because of a legend from the lore of Polynesia. Maui, the legendary demigod who gave the island its name, was a mystical, magical, mischievous creature known throughout the Pacific islands. According to this myth, the sun god La was fond of sleeping in, as a result of which it had to race across the sky thereby shortening the days so much that Maui's mother, Hina, was unable to complete her work in the daylight hours.

Maui decided to do something about this. Early one day he lay in wait on the summit where La appeared each morning. As its dazzling rays first peaked above the rim of the crater, Maui using a rope he had woven from coconut fibres, lassooed La and secured the rope to a wiliwili tree. La begged to be freed to which Maui agreed providing the sun god slowed its passage through the sky. La assented and ever since it has saunterd across the summit lest Maui stike again. Hence the name Haleakala.

Fire, wind and water crafted the colossal crater whose gaping mouth, 21 miles in circumference, encloses an expanse of 19 square miles, an area large enough say the brochures to accommodate Manhatten Island. Inside the rim the floor falls sharply away into a 900-metre abyss.

Haleakala Crater

Bleak, dark, desolate, the view inside the summit of the volcano resembles more a lunar landscape than the lush richness one associates with Hawaii. The surface is pockmarked with cinder cones, sculpted by explosive fire fountains whose eruptions hurl ash and vocanic bombs high into the air. The last eruption was in 1790.

Science City

Observation Platform
photo by
G. Wilson

Lookout Point
photo by
G. Wilson

On the very peak of the volcano's ridge one can see the domes of Science City, a collection of observatories which monitor among other things the satellites that circle overhead. Scientists there are involved in lunar, solar and astronomical research projects, one of which involves bouncing a beam of laser light off prisms on the moon, the round trip taking two seconds.

The sophisticated equipment included seismographs that monitor every vibration of the volcano's heaving heart deep in the bowels of the earth. For Haleakala is not dead, only dormant, and could at any moment rouse from its rest as it last did in 1790.

A Maui must for any tourist is cycle down Haleakala. One such ride began for us in the wee hours of the morning with a trip in a van up to the 3600-metre summit. At 5:30 in the morning the temperature at the top was bitterly cold, so on arrival we donned our warmest woolies and yellow vinyl coveralls but still shivered as we waited for the sun to appear.

Undaunted Daredevils

Ever so slowly it finally edged up and over the volcano's rim, its very welcome rays finding then flooding the colossal crater that yawned before us. Within it clouds nestled in deep depressions and here and there black cones poked up through the morning mist. As the sun burnt away the wispy clouds, a great, grey-black, cindery slope appeared streaked with ash and lava flows of muted reds and yellows. Even in this barren bleakness there was life for scattered about the sun-baked surface was the skimpy-leaved kukaoa plant and the rare, exotically striking silversword that somehow found sustenance among the cinders.

Silversword in Bloom

After the sun came our descent, a near-vertical drop of 38 miles. As we waited on top of the world to shove off, we could see far below Maui's tiny towns scattered across the landscape, separated by verdant stretches of sugarcane in checkerboard design. Circumscribing the scene was the curving coastline of white sand beaches washed by the waves of the blue Pacific.

We wheeled away in single file led by the tour guide who controlled the speed of the group and rode most of the way down facing backwards. A van followed the pack to pick up the pieces. We cruised around the curves at a pretty good clip then picked up the pace on the 'straightaways.'

Taking the curves on two wheels.
photo by
G. Wilson

We wound down and around the Mountain Road which contained twenty-nine switchbacks, each twist and turn offering a different view, another vista of the vital island. We passed through seven separate climatic zones that included a lunar landscape, dry desert stretches, a rain forest of fragrant eucalyptus trees as well as market farmland and rolling hills filled with contented cattle.

Swaying at the Switchbacks
photo by

With the breeze at our backs and the sun in our faces we thrilled as we bolted to the bottom. We were forced at various level spots to wait for the more cautious to catch up to the pack leaders who longed for the wild wind of the speedway. Through the whole exhilarating trip we pedalled but a few yards.

Wearily Waiting for the Wary

Hawiians consider Haleakala magical. Now we know why.

Official Haleakala Hero

They gave only one to a family.


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