The Saddle Road across Hawaii, the Big Island

The Big Island of Hawaii immediately felt different from O’ahu to me. Yes, it was quieter and less crowded just as I hoped and expected, but it was also bigger. Everything felt a bit more wild and expansive and even the air smelled different here.

We stayed a bit off the beaten path in Captain Cook on the west coast. On our first day, we drove eastward and upward past Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to Hilo in the east on what is known as Route 200 or the Saddle Road. It was absolutely breathtaking as we passed through a myriad of landscapes and environments.

In Captain Cook on the slopes of Mauna Loa, we were in lush rainforest where frogs sang a chorus by night and geckos clambered up our hotel walls and enjoyed leftover mango jam at our breakfast table. The ocean looked calm in the near distance, quite unlike the big waves and strength of the sea on O’ahu. There was a beautiful tranquility about this place that crept into your soul, where life seemed to move a little bit slower, but was a little bit more savoured. Birds sang in the trees but chickens clucked and roosters cawed at the early morning light, reminding us of man’s imprint on this place. This place felt much more like a place to be lived than one to be visited.

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Looking west from Captain Cook, Hawaii

The road was steep out of Captain Cook, climbing up through rainforest and past small towns until the landscape changed, passing through grasslands until we found ourselves in an arid desert 6,000 feet up. The landscape was almost bizarre when I thought about where I came from just a couple hours earlier. There were scrubby bushes reminding me of the deserts of the American Southwest until I saw the cinder cones and dark, craggy lava beds dotting the landscape. The strange burning smell I couldn’t put my finger on, but first detected on the wind in Captain Cook was more prominent here. I presumed it was related to the volcanoes in some way.

Maybe most bizarre of all were the signposts to watch out for nēnē, the native Hawaiian goose. I just couldn’t understand how a goose could live in such an environment and I may have once slammed on the breaks on sighting a bird only to find out they were turkeys when I turned around.

According to the Pocket Guide to Hawai’i’s Birds and Their Habitats (by Pratt and Jeffrey) I picked up, the nēnē live so high up in volcanic rocks because it is where they found safety from human and introduced predators.

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A view of the Saddle Road, Hawaii

We passed more lava beds as we descended back into the coastal greenery on the windward side of the island and visited a few waterfalls, something we missed out on in O’ahu. We stopped to buy some locally-grown tropical fruit at a road stand and continued our way north, taking Highway 19 north toward Waimea before heading back around the west coast to Captain Cook.

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Rainbow Falls, Hawaii
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Rainbow Falls, Hawaii
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Akaka Falls, Hawaii

Just north of Hilo on our way north, we paused for a mid-day walk at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. It was well-worth the stop as we explored a myriad of plant species, many of which I’ve hardly seen before from coffee plants to banana and coconut trees, to every colour and kind of orchid and bromeliad imaginable.

After filling my senses with the wonders of the botanic garden, we drove back north as the sun fell in the sky and found amazing views of the coast below as the ocean battered volcanic rock, lava flows cut across grass and gained a great appreciation for the volcanoes that make up this island. The view driving south down the west coast truly put into perspective just how huge these volcanoes are, so unlike any others I’ve seen. Their slopes seem to go on endlessly and at angles that, to me, defied logic. I have never seen land that sloped quite like that before. There was so much to see on the Big Island, we could have spent more time there. The next big stop we made was at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The sun and sea in O’ahu, Hawaii

Way back in October last year, I went on a trip to Hawaii for the first time. It was also my first time travelling anywhere that can properly be considered tropical. Beforehand, I felt both excitement and trepidation as someone who does not enjoy or cope well with hot weather. Hawaii was never really at the top of my list of places to visit, but a good friend of mine was getting married, so it was time to go. Sure enough, when I first set foot outside Honolulu Airport, I felt like I’d set foot into a sauna! But I think after a few days, I began to adjust.

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Honolulu seen from Diamond Head

With the wedding on the North Shore and not being city people, we opted to skip Honolulu and Waikiki and stay part-way up the east coast. Overall, as we began the drive out of Honolulu and east along the coast, the landscape and greenery reminded me a little of New Zealand (particularly the North Island), but not quite.

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Lighthouse viewed from Diamond Head
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Sailing the Pacific Ocean

We hiked up Diamond Head (Le’ahi) the first thing to stretch our legs after the flight. Getting out of the city was  relief; everywhere was green and blue. From the top of Le’ahi’s tuff cone, there are views of Honolulu to the west, the endless ocean below and the lush mountains in the background. There is an information display near the trail-head about the loss of native species and the introduced species who have unfortunately taken over much of the habitat around Hawaii. And despite all the new (native and invasive) birds there were, I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) at those that were familiar including Rock Doves, Mallards and House Sparrows.

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The Red-vented Bulbul is just one of many examples of invasive species in Hawaii.
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Mongoose – ridiculously cute, ridiculously invasive and intentionally introduced. The first one I saw scared and surprised me as I nearly ran it over while driving on the highway. I was later told by a few people I should have run it over, but I’m just not comfortable intentionally killing something, even if its harmful to the native wildlife.
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Native and endangered – the Hawaiian Gallinule or the ‘alae ‘ula.

This hike was about all we had time for day one, besides getting dinner and arriving at our accommodation for the next two nights for some much-needed sleep. I found myself exhausted after our early morning flight, the heat, the hike and driving in the dark. It was a strange thing for my to experience such an early sunset during summer weather. I’m used to the long southern days of the temperate latitudes, not the 12-hour days of the tropics.

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View looking east from the Kualoa Ranch

The next day, I visited Kualoa Ranch as part of the wedding festivities, something I had mixed feelings about. It was not the type of thing I would normally do and in fact, would probably avoid as a tourist trap especially considering its film fame, though it also appears to be a working farm and nature preserve. Regardless, the Kualoa Valley was undeniably beautiful. As a big fan of Lost, it was neat to recognise some of the spots filmed in the show but the best part was seeing little sea turtles popping up from below the water’s surface on a boat ride and slowing down to learn more about Hawaiian culture and history.

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Kualoa Valley – have you ever see anywhere more green?
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Looking west back towards O’ahu’s iconic mountains
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Beautiful hibiscus – one of my favourite things in Hawaii

On Day three, we had free time to slow down and explore on our own. I’d read this before going, but it was tricky to find good day hikes that weren’t too short or too long. Given the island’s steep topography, it can be difficult to find a middle-level hike suited to our energy-levels and time commitment for the day.

However, we found a nice loop hike at the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve just north of the Waimea Valley and while it still turned out to be a bit longer and more strenuous than we anticipated it, I really enjoyed soaking in and exploring the jungle and having the chance to do so. There were so many new plants to see and smell. I continued to smell a strong pepper scent and though we tried, we weren’t sure where it came from. This was the furthest we journeyed from the ocean so far, too, but there were still small glimpses of it from the top.

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Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve
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A fragrant tree at the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve

After that, it was pretty full on spending time reuniting with old friends and enjoying the wedding with a bit of time for the beach, exploring banyan trees and relaxing before we headed on to Hawaii, the Big Island to explore more new landscapes. Though I enjoyed our time on O’ahu and the beaches were beautiful and the people friendly, I was looking forward to the quieter atmosphere of the Big Island.

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Enjoying the shade of the banyan trees at the beach
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Palm trees at the shore
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Sunset at the North Shore.