Hawai'i. The name sounds like a sweet song and my inner eye sees gorgeous girls in hula-skirts moving slowly to tinkling ukuleles. I think about pristine beaches lined with endless rows of palm trees, daredevil surfers waiting for the perfect wave and the heroes of the Ironman Triathlons. But of course there is much more to the Aloha State.
A tiny road winds up and down through green meadows. In the distance a snowcapped mountain's summit is higher than 13,000 feet, and right before me I see grazing cattle framed by pine forests and crystal-clear creeks. I really have to force myself to realize where I am. Just an hour ago I was riding along the Pacific coastline, right beneath palm and banana trees, and now there is scenery that looks like Wyoming. Our guidebook explains that the Big Island possesses 10 of the 15 different climatic zones on earth, from tropical rain forest to arctic tundra, and the latter is the day's destination on the Saddle Road up to Mauna Kea. At 13,796 feet, it is the tallest peak on the islands of Hawaii. With its base almost 20,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, it is the loftiest mountain in the world, when measured from base to peak. However, this is not going to last forever, as the sea floor is slowly being depressed by the volcano's enormous mass, and sometime in the next few million years the whole island will sink into the ocean.
Up to Mauna Kea
The higher I climb, the less verdant the scenery. On the saddle, the ridge between the two peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, there is nothing but miles of bare lava fields. A cold mist rises from the training fields of the US Army located to the right and left of the street, and I have to admire the ingenuity of the military. Even on Hawaii they managed to find a place where it is freezing cold. At the Mauna Kea Visitor Center (9,200 feet), my personal race to the top comes to a sudden end. This is where the gravel road starts and I really don't feel like pushing the rented V-Rod through potholes and ruts.
Motorcycle & Gear
Instead, I savor the magnificent view over the tops of the clouds to Mauna Loa on the opposite side of the ridge and peer through some of the telescopes set up for public use. Surrounded by thousands of miles of water and with no significant industry venting smoke, Hawaii enjoys unusually clear air. Add the absence of big cities and the special climate creating gentle downdrafts and keeping the mountain peak free of air turbulence at night and you have ideal conditions for astronomic observations. So, it's no surprise that the finest and most expensive telescopes on earth were built on top of Mauna Kea.
At the Visitor Center I wait for Sylvia, who took the Jeep this morning to drive to the summit. After little more than an hour she shows up in a huge cloud of dust. Slightly breathless, she reports on a snowboarder who was artfully carving the slopes of one of the lava cones, which made me wonder how many surf shops in Hawaii stock snowboards too.
From here, the road leads downhill to Hilo, the second-largest town on the Big Island. Brand-new pavement and wide turns make for a rider's feast and within each foot of my descent, the air gets warmer and more humid. Hilo is proud of having more than 270 days of rain a year and all the sights suggest that I will experience one of those days. But the high precipitation also creates an exceptionally thick, proliferating environment. The vegetation along the road quickly changes to a veritable jungle. Every square inch is covered in multiple layers of greens. Flowers are blooming and the wet forest smells blend with the sweet scent of blossoms.