Friday, March 10, 2017

Maui

Polynesian Argonauts discovered Hawaii between 1500 and 2000 years ago, likely making the multi-thousand kilometer journey from somewhere in French Polynesia in their famous outrigger canoes. The land they found was less than ideal for agriculture, as nearly every more or less horizontal piece of land was covered with golf courses and resort hotels, nearly economically useless, since neither golf nor tourism had yet been invented. Despite these handicaps, they created a complex and vibrant society.

The islands themselves had been there for a while, but not a terribly long while, geologically speaking. From volcanic birth to death is only a matter of a few millions of years for these creations of an oceanic hotspot. The hotspot itself has endured for at least tens of millions of years, but the oceanic lithosphere above it moves on, and without a fresh source of lava, the islands cool, and gradually sink into the sea, leaving behind coral atolls and the chain of subsurface bumps called sea mounts. The Emperor Seamounts, the remains of Hawaiian Islands passed, extend all the way to Alaska, and probably had a prehistory under land in Siberia.

I was in Maui last week. It was the first time I had been there (not counting being aboard a plane that landed there some fifty years or so ago) and I was very impressed. Maui is roughly the shape of a figure eight, and was formed by the merger of two volcanic islands with the younger and larger eastern end consisting of the Haleakala volcano, which is not quite dead, having last erupted a couple of hundred years ago. At 750,000 years, Haleakala is senior only to The Big Island of Hawaii, itself only about 300,000 years of age. The Pacific plate is sliding West and North, so new volcanoes appear in the East and South. Even now, the next island, Loihi, is building east of Hawaii and on track to emerge in another 50,000 years or so.

One geological fact that impressed the heck out of me was the steepness of the mountains, especially on their seaward sides. This is partially due to the fact that they are situated in very deep ocean and the margins are eroded by wave action and collapse into the ocean from time to time, giving rise to enormous undersea landslides and multi-thousand foot high tsunamis. Portions of Haleakala receive several hundred inches of rain per year, which also tends to produce vigorous erosion.

If surfing, snorkel, and even golf are not really your thing, Maui offers some spectacular drives. The first one I tried was up to the summit of Haleakala. The drive from sea level to a bit more than 10,000 feet takes one through several climate zones and a heck of a lot of switchbacks, but the views are terrific. After seven thousand feet, I noticed that a lot of clouds were below me, but some new ones enveloped us on the summit, so the views from their were fleeting. Haleakala doesn't really have a visible crater, but erosion has carved out a steep walled valley which offer views of some small eruptive cones in the bottom.

The hairiest drive I took was around the northwest end of the island. If I had done my homework I would have skipped it, but I was lured into it by a nice road that gradually got narrower and more perilous, with several miles of it consisting of single lane track clinging to steep mountainside without shoulder or guardrail, with either the sea or bottomless valley below. When one met an oncoming vehicle one of you would have to back up to one of the infrequent wide spots where two vehicles might creep by each other with barely sharing paint jobs. The Ford Explorer rental I was driving was far from ideal for such a spot, and one case where I slipped by with only inches between my outside tires and the partially crumbled asphalt above the precipice will remain with me for a while. I probably should have gone parasailing.

My final driving adventure was the road to Hana, at the east end of the island. This is another narrow road with an uncountable number of switchbacks and one lane bridges, but their are guard rails most places and quite a few wide spots where vehicles can pass, as well as stretches of actual two lane road. The north side of Haleakala is a spectacular rain forest of waterfalls, pools and ocean vistas. The ocean near here seems to be more or less a whale throughway, with numerous sites offering ample views.