I had booked to go on a tour to the summit if Mauna Kea at 13,796 feet. My ticket was waiting for me in my cabin when I boarded.
There were two groups of eight booked for this tour and we went in two minibuses operated by Arnott's Tours. My guide was Al and there is nothing he doesn't know about Hilo.
After driving through the main business area of the town (which has surprisingly many buildings from the 1940s and 1950s considering that Hilo has had two big tsunamis since 1945) we had a stop to see a waterfall, which looked just like a waterfall, not particularly high or wide or fast flowing. There was a fellow making hats and bowls from palm fronds; I would have bought a hat but didn't, knowing that it was unlikely to get past quarantine inspection back in Sydney.
We all clambered back onto the bus and headed to the interior of the island. After about 25 miles we stopped at an altitude of 5000 feet near a very large lava flow dating from an eruption in 1984 from Mauna Loa, the volcano adjacent to Mauna Kea. Al the guide said that this type of lava is known as Ah-Ah lava; as that is what you say if you step on it before it has cooled.
We then drove in about 20 minutes up to 9000 feet to a visitor centre/shop where we waited an hour so that we could acclimatize to the altitude and watch some videos on astronomical telescopes (of which there are many on the summit of Mauna Kea). The remaining 8 miles to the summit is half dirt road and half asphalt. The dirt road is very heavily rutted and the worst road I can ever remember driving on. When we got on the bus in Hilo and started our drive I noticed that the bus had many rattles; after being on the dirt portion of the road I know why. The road is left as dirt because in the winter black ice will form on asphalt but not on dirt and because the road is so steep it would be even more dangerous than it is currently is if it were covered with black ice. The road is supposed to be graded on a regular basis; we saw the grader but no driver.
We drove above the clouds and all vegetation disappeared; the landscape looked like the photos sent back from the latest mission to Mars.
Al the guide told us that he had oxygen to assist people who were having breathing difficulties, hallucinations, heart palpitations and so on. The only cure for altitude sickness is to go to a lower altitude quickly and really serious altitude sickness can be fatal. When we got out at the top I felt a bit light headed but a quick self-diagnosis confirmed all vital signs within acceptable limits.
The view from the top was breath taking, literally. We were above most of the clouds and could see all the way to the island of Maui, which is about 80km away.
We went into the Keck Observatory; or more correctly one of the two building housing matching telescopes. Each telescope has many large hexagonal mirrors and the mirrors are kept in alignment by tiny electric motors that flex the mirror surfaces so that all the hexagons function as if they were one very large mirror.
After spending about 30 minutes at the summit, where it is warm in the sun but the wind was freezing, we drove back down to the visitor centre and had sandwiches for lunch. We then drove back to Hilo and the ship. If we hadn't stopped for lunch then from nearly 14,000 feet above sea level to sea level could have been driven in about an hour. It was still raining in Hilo when we got back.
I can very highly recommend this tour.
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