Cavern Crawling

The Big Island’s lava labyrinths give visitors a thrill

By: Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

This is the first Image
The Kilauea Caverns of Fire tour takes
visitors underground on the Big Island.
As a child, I was afraid of the dark. As an adult, I developed a pretty bad case of claustrophobia. People like me usually don’t venture into places like Kazumura, the longest lava tube system in the world.

But that’s exactly what I did recently, with Phil Carollo of Kilauea Caverns of Fire as my guide. I figured if I was going to do something outside my comfort zone I’d do it with Carollo, who has been in and out of portions of that 36-mile subterranean labyrinth hundreds of times and holds a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The company’s tours begin at openings in the Kazumura system that are situated about 10 miles south of Hilo on the Big Island. The system was formed between 500 and 700 years ago during an eruption of the Kilauea Iki crater that lasted 60 to 150 years. Molten lava gouged out the intricate honeycomb of tubes that fan out from the system’s central corridor. Some of those chambers measure 80 feet high and 100 feet wide.

About 50 miles of passages in the system have been mapped but, according to Carollo, hundreds of smaller tunnels, entries and exits have not yet been explored.

“The system is safe and walkable,” he reassured my group, “but blockages at numerous places require you to backtrack and reenter at different spots. Our tours cover sections where you don’t have to do this.”

Kilauea Caverns of Fire’s three-hour Adventure Tour is intended only for those who are in top physical condition. Participants should expect challenges such as jumping from boulder to boulder, climbing into and out of the skylights and crawling on their stomach for 30 feet through two-foot-high spaces. However, if your clients can traverse rocky, uneven terrain and climb a short flight of steps they can, like me, easily do the 75-minute Scenic Walking Tour.

Before we entered the lava tube, Carollo outfitted us with hard hats, flashlights and gloves (the oils on our hands, he explained, could wreak havoc on the fragile underground environment). Curious, excited and a bit nervous, we began descending into the darkness, the beams from our flashlights illuminating a wondrous new world.

Every few steps, Carollo paused to point out amazing geological features, including stalactites and stalagmites and columns that were created when stalactites and stalagmites met. It was like browsing in a gallery showcasing nature’s artistry. We marveled at dozens of spectacular lava sculptures in the shapes of roses, fish, oak trees, a bat, a unicorn, a pig wallowing in mud, the Statue of Liberty, the Madonna and more.

We also noticed a metallic sheen on the walls called glazing, which apparently occurred when the temperature in the lava tube got so hot it melted the fascia of the rock.

“It’s like pottery in a kiln,” Carollo said. “Heat turns minerals such as iron, aluminum oxides and silica into different colors, including red, yellow, orange and iridescent blue and blue-purple. The silver glazing is pretty much from basalt, and it’s paper-thin. If I were to poke my fingers into the silver part of the walls, I would break through most of it.”

Contraction cracks formed intricate patterns on the walls, floor and ceiling of the lava tube. When molten lava cooled, it hardened and shrank, leaving behind countless fractures that in some spots were very long and deep. Carollo likened it to the lines that are visible when a mud puddle dries.

“It’s an effect called cleaving,” he said. “The minerals in the rocks cleave or separate in different ways, resulting in designs that are quite dramatic.”

Halfway through the tour, Carollo asked us to turn off our flashlights. There we stood in complete darkness; without sight, our other senses became more acute. I breathed deeply, not identifying any scent, and thought, “So this is real fresh air.” I was aware it was cool (the temperature in the cavern is always 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit), and that water from the rain-soaked soil above us was dripping slowly and methodically nearby.

Stripped of my vision, I thought I’d be scared and panic. Instead, I felt strangely calm deep in the caves of Hawaii’s Big Island.


Kilauea Caverns of Fire

Commission: Starts at 10 percent

Meet off Highway 11 between Mountain View and Kurtistown. Directions will be given at the time of booking.

Tours are offered daily by appointment. Participants must be at least five years old for the $29 Scenic Walking Tour and at least 14 years old for the $79 Adventure Tour. Participants must wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes. Long pants are required for the Adventure Tour.