Friday, 4 January 2013

Caving with Kids in Hawaii: Kula Kai Caverns

Look closely and you can see the paws of Bert the Caving Canine
A giant room in Kula Kai Caverns
For the adventurous parent, finding non-beach activities you can do with kids while vacationing in hot spots can be a problem. Which isn't to say that I don't like beach activities. A couple days ago we got back from the Big Island of Hawaii sporting tans and swim suits that needed the sand washed out of them. We spent entire days in the hotel pools and the beach, went snorkeling and SNUBA (yes, SNUBA) diving, saw a couple humpback whales from the snorkel boat, and even spotted baby dolphins jumping out of the ocean while we took off our mask and snorkels. Any day you see baby dolphins jumping is a good day.

But going to the top of 4,200 m/13,800 ft Mauna Kea to take in what's reported to be the world's best star gazing? Nope. They don't allow kids under 14 to the top due to the altitude. Ocean kayaking? My 8-year-old was too young. Then I came across a brochure for the Kula Kai Caverns, which allows 8-year-olds on their 2-hour lava tube tour.

Descending deeper into the lava tube
Located on private land a 2-hour drive south of our hotel on the Kohala Coast, I booked the tour on our last day on the island. Our flight didn't leave until 7:30 p.m. and we needed something to do. We arrived half an hour early, and expected wait until our tour started. Instead, we were welcomed into the thatch-covered yurt for an orientation of the lava tubes we'd be exploring and fitting of helmets, gloves and knee pads. Then the three of us, Michael (8), Mack (12) and myself were led outside and down into the best tour on the island. Led by Rick and Rose, a husband and wife team of spelunkers that have spent the last two years mapping the caverns, the tour was an authentic, non-touristy trek into a 30-mile network of lava tubes below Mauna Loa.

As an outdoor experience, the caving felt more like a trip you'd find posted on the calendar of the Calgary Outdoor Recreation Association. Rick and Rose are clearly passionate about the lava tubes they've mapped and documented, and shared its geologic and archeological history with us in terms an 8-year-old could understand. They showed us stone rings used to hold water-collecting gourds before Captain Cook landed on the island, along with the remnants of torches ancient Hawaiians used to light their way through the tubes. We sat in giant underground rooms formed by flowing lava, turned off our head lamps, and sat in total, complete darkness.

For over two hours, all three of us were completely engaged. A month earlier I had actually watched a volcano erupt in the distance from just below the summit of Ecuador's 5,700 m Antisana, and here I was totally in awe of what I was experiencing under a volcano in Hawaii. I was expecting something like our hikes in the mountains, when I get to re-experience their mystery and beauty through 8- and 12-year-old eyes. Instead, I got to share a totally new experience with those eyes. And if walking under an active volcano with kids doesn't bring out the inner kid in you, I don't know what will.

For more info, go to:
Crawling through a tight squeeze in the Kula Kai Caverns

The lava tube entrance Mack (front), Michael (middle), Rick (behind)

Exiting the lava tubes

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