By George Christopher Thomas, Travel Writer
THE BIG ISLAND, HAWAII – There are certain times in a person’s life when an activity needs to be done. Some would call it fulfilling an item on your bucket list, others just a “must do.” Whatever which way you classify it, the next time you are on the Big Island, definitely go to the top of the mountain.
We chose Mauna Kea Summit Adventures as our tour company. They can pick you up in Kona town, at any of the resorts along the coast, or in Waimea to start this life changing experience. My lady and I had the most fabulous time scaling one of the tallest mountains in the world, and we started the fun in Waimea on the side of the highway. Once we were picked up, our tour guide began the in-depth briefing of Hawaiian history and lore, as well as facts about Parker Ranch and the wildlife we were seeing along the way.
Since we were going to the top of the 14,000 foot Mauna Kea Volcano, it was going to take a few hours. We stopped at the base to get acclimatized and have dinner. Every stage of the tour was very well run, and there was a certain excitement that filled the air. There is more than one company to choose from, but Monte “Pat” Wright and Mauna Kea Summit Adventures were the first to take visitors to the top of the mountain, and they have it down pat, no pun intended. Monte “Pat” Wright started with one four wheel drive vehicle and a dream, and has developed a first class tour experience not to be missed.
So we were off to the top of the mountain, stopping for a nice dinner at base camp and getting ready for the thin air. Growing up, watching specials on Mount Everest, you learn there is less oxygen the higher up you go, and this is true even if you are in Hawaii, which is mostly known for beaches and ocean activities. In fact, people ski and snowboard at the top of Mauna Kea for a good portion of the year, and this diversity is part of the reason the Big Island is so fascinating and magical. Our tour guide warned us that moving around too quickly or running around would not be a good idea. Well, how much different could it really be at the top of the mountain?
After dinner we hopped in our four wheel drive truck for our ascent to the top of Mauna Kea. There are miles and miles that are unpaved, but the road is maintained and the ride is an adventure in and of itself. From the time we left Waimea, I noticed all the changes in the environment, including plant and animal life. It started out beautiful and green and slowly changed to have more of a prehistoric volcanic feel. I was expecting to see a pterodactyl, but last I heard they were extinct. They went the way of the Dodo bird, long before the Dodo bird went that way.
You will also notice how much colder it gets as you travel up the mountain. The tour provides you with heavy parkas and gloves, and there is no doubt you will need them. The goal of the whole journey is seeing the sunset up at the top, and then doing some world-class stargazing. I was very excited, as it would be my first time scaling a mountain, albeit in a four wheel drive vehicle. That is merely a technicality, and I can officially say I have been above the clouds on the top of the world, and the air is thin, and it was cold.
When we got to the top of Mauna Kea, it was the late afternoon and the Hawaii sun was still out and shining. The second I got out, I began to feel lightheaded because of the lack of oxygen. Now I knew what the tour guide meant when she said to walk around slowly, and strictly no sudden bursts of running around or jumping jacks. It felt weird, and I got a bit loopy and pretended I was a people-eating dragon, sent to eat Joanne and only her, starting with her nose. I am kidding, but the thin air definitely has an effect, so be careful.
This is one of the best spots in the world for stargazing, and the word has gotten out about that. There are international observatories sharing the top of the mountain with those of several universities from all over America, as well as the occasional amateur stargazer.
So we hung out and watched the sunset from the top of the world. It was really quite amazing, and to be above the cloud line as the sun went down was great for picture taking and plain old just taking it all in at the very top of Mauna Kea.
After the spectacular event of the sun setting, we drove down the mountain just a bit to start the hours and hours of stargazing. The tour guides bring high powered telescopes, and besides the numerous shooting stars we saw, I got to look at Saturn and her rings up close and personal. It really does look like all those pictures you see from NASA. There was no white light allowed for the entire time we were looking at stars, and we were all given red flashlights so our eyes could still see in the pitch blackness. When you look up, there are millions and millions of stars, and it is one of the most beautiful sights ever.
We must have been there for an asteroid shower, because it was shooting star after shooting star. I felt like I was really quite lucky to get to witness such an event. We continued looking through the telescopes for a few hours, and saw amazing constellations. This really is a must-do if for the stargazing alone. They fed us cookies and coffee, and throughout the entire adventure I had the most excellent time.
The vehicle dropped us off in Kona when it was all said and done, and we didn’t even get home too late. It is an experience I will never forget, and would do it again at the drop of a hat. Next time around, I would do some research and study the stars I was going to see, as it is one of the best places on the planet to stargaze. The next time you are on the Big Island, go watch the sunset and make a wish upon a star at the top of the world. It’s quite a thing to do. (For more information, please visit www.maunakea.com)