Mauna Kea

  • 12 June 2013
  • Prue Scott

Mauna Kea

Published New Zealand Herald June 2013

A climber planning to ascend Aoraki/Mt Cook will spend months planning, training and working on their fitness. My holiday preparation though amounted to a few mouse clicks, and a  very comfortable bus with heavy down jacket and flip-top mittens included in the price.

I am going up Mauna Kea, the white mountain, on Hawaii’s Big Island. When I stand on her 4,205-metre summit, I will be 451 metres higher than the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook. I am doing it the lazy way – with Hawaii Forest & Trail – and I am going for one reason: to watch the sun sink below the cloud layer in a flaming ball of orange.

As Fodor’s website puts it, “Sunrises and sunsets attract photographers for the simple reason that they produce lots of colour and glory… They also elicit a whole spectrum of emotional responses, from awe to tranquillity to romance.” I am in the awe camp.

The Big Island is full of surprises. The eastern side is rather wet, the western side a desert of heat-reflecting bitter chocolate lava flows. I’m joining the tour at the Waikaloa shopping centre with its spotless outdoor malls, gourmet food, mother and daughter shops, platinum-card brands, the inevitable koi pond and, oddly, a fish and chip shop.

Our driver, Craig, does the trip several times a week but he’s got that happy knack of making it all sound fresh.

Mauna Kea sits over and under the famous Parker Ranch, once America’s largest at 202,342 hectares. It is home to the paniolo, the local Hawaiian cowboys who began life in the 1830s as Mexican vaqueros. John Palmer Parker brought these expert horsemen with their boots, saddles, language, guitars and ukeleles to the island to train the local men. Today, the Parker Ranch is a mere 40,500 hectares, only a handful of paniolo remain and the animals are shipped off to the mainland for fattening in feedlots.

Mauna Kea is a mountain of micro-climates east and west. “It is said the ladies like the wet side because one can grow a very nice garden there. The cowboys like the dry side for the cactus and gravel. It keeps the sexes apart, except for Saturday nights,” says Craig.

The Saddle Road was built during World War II to link the northern port at Kohala with the deep-water port at Hilo on the eastern side. It’s two lanes and sealed, but rental car companies won’t allow you to drive it. Clearly, their collective memory of a gravel road remains.

The facts and anecdotes come thick and fast. Areas with 6-9,000 frogs per hectare, deafening anyone within distance with their 95-decibel songs; fireweed that is poisonous to horses and cows; coal-black wild goats; fences to stop nene birds becoming road kill; and red flag territory.

The US Army trains out here at an ochre-coloured and windswept base of jeeps, trucks, old Quonset huts, a flagpole and buildings behind wire. “They have the Pacific’s largest live firing exercises here,” Craig tells us. “They realigned the Saddle Road so they didn’t have to fire at each other across the road, which caused the traffic to veer suddenly to one side to avoid the shells.”

Cinder cones the size of houses appear and we clamber into our padded jackets and try the flip-top mittens. The old paniolo camp, where we stop for hot stew and cornbread muffins, and very quick visits to the local version of the portaloo, is bitingly cold and damp, and the landscape just beyond the corral is whited out.

This is the third highest road in America and the sign saying “Keep hands and feet inside” is not an invitation to try the opposite: the cold will freeze them in moments.

On to the summit which is above the cloud line, leaving clean, moisture-free air that sends astronomers into raptures.  It’s the same reason we have observatories at Tekapo on Mt John.

On Mauna Kea they go to extreme lengths to keep that air clean. There is no up-lighting and the road is sealed for the last 6.5km to reduce the chance of road dust interfering with the signals. The Big Island uses low-pressure sodium vapour lights to keep those skies at the peak in, well, peak condition.

The result is 300 days a year clear viewing 13 billion light years out with nebulae, new stars, 40 percent of the north hemisphere sky and 80 percent of the southern.

The largest telescope – Subaru – belongs to the Japanese. Subaru is their word for the Pleiades and repeated in the marque if you look at a passing Legacy or Forrester.  Its single piece of glass, 20.3cm thick, took eight years to grind. My 10- megapixel camera takes a decent photo, but just behind me is the world’s second-largest fixed digital camera at 340 megapixels. We stop to marvel at the Keck 1 and Keck 2 dishes, each 10 metres across.

The big names are here – NASA, JPL, NSF, Caltech and the Smithsonian. The astronomers are not. They’re spread worldwide, linked to Mauna Kea by the internet. Astronomers are patient people; they may wait a year to get time. They are also people who need money: a night on the Keck costs S$50,000 we’re told.

The people here are the operational crews, managers and the maintenance teams. They live in a communal building at 2,700 metres where they spend 10 days acclimatising in the thin air before shifts of three days on/four days off.

The Visitor Centre is full of the usual souvenirs, but out back they have snow ploughs to keep the summit road free of snow and ice. “The company supplying them always has a good laugh when the order for Hawaii comes in,” Craig tells us. It’s like an old vaudeville joke, but we still laugh.

Climbing higher, there are red cones that could double for Mars. Oh, they did. They tested the Mars Rover here and astronauts come to test their survival skills.

Just short of 4,000 metres, a vast rock field is peppered with scarves of snow that gives way to a breath-taking slope of bridal white. We have gone from 30C at Waikaloa to snow in less than four hours.

Road signs appear to have been shot through with a small Howitzer but they’re there to ensure the signs remain upright in winds that can top 170kph.

Craig gives us our final warning. Keep the mittens on, the jacket done up and if you bend down, don’t stand up too quickly. Who can resist? I hunker down and try to stand, and over I go. Slow-motion is required.

At 4,205 metres, I am in a car park full of tour buses, cars, SUVs and one hardy soul in a soft-top Jeep Wrangler. Snow and ice crunch underfoot.

Mauna Kea’s normally clear summit is beset with racing strands and billows of cloud and we’ll be lucky to see anything good. But, there it is: the flaming orange sun sinking against an azure sky, clouds swirling. I get my awe moment and photographers get their ahh shots.


Prue Scott paid her own way.

Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure – US$192 plus tax. See

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