Despite the Anglophone name, as we explore the Big Island's vast interior, we almost forget that we're on an island.
Saddle Road winds from Hilo on the east coast to 2021 meters from its highest point. It punishes the engine of the car that we go through in low gears and a noisy effort.
Some time ago, local rent-a-car companies banned drivers from any adventures on the R200 (its official title), then considered one of the most dangerous of the world, due to the slope, the many one-way bridges, the poorly paved areas and their combination with frequent fog and rain.
However, local authorities have revamped the route. Only the irresolvable problem of the slope remained to be overcome. They continue to advise the climb to Mauna Kea on guided tours. Independent visitors quickly realize that nothing prevents them from moving forward on their own.
The Rise of the Mauna Kea Volcano, the Highest Mountain, from the Bottom of the Sea
That's what we do, renewing the suffering of the small utility vehicle that crawls up the mountain.
A few dozen turns later, we take a break to give you a break. We are faced with the strange sight of clouds invading the valley near the base of a colony of small craters reddened by the sunset.
At 2700 meters, we find the Visitors Centre, given to various Japanese excursions that meet the minimum acclimatization hour required by the summit.
The Second Half, after the Break for Acclimatization at the Visitors Center
Some sunbathe outside, others complete their astronomical training by examining the maps, videos and multimedia pieces displayed there. Still others discover the Japanese and Hawaiian roots of Ellison S. Onizuka, one of the astronauts sacrificed in 1986 by the Challenger shuttle explosion.
From the Visitors Center onwards, the asphalt gives way to a little beaten earth that makes the rest of the route dusty, as well as getting steeper.
Above 3.600 meters, the mountain reveals itself as a domain of extraterrestrial appearance, based on an ocher and red volcanic soil, devoid of vegetation but with new inactive craters projecting.
Once one of the last curves has been overcome, lost in the inhospitable landscape, the first white domes that house the telescopes are revealed.
The Astronomical Metamorphosis of Mount and Volcano Mauna Kea
In 1950, due to the lack of a road above 3.700 meters, only the neighboring island of Maui hosted observatories. Ten years later, the Chamber of Commerce began to encourage the astronomical development of Mauna Kea and to promote the mountain's unique potential.
At that time, NASA activity was intense, such as the dispute for partnerships between several universities in the United States. It justified, as never before, the installation of new observatories.
Several tests recorded the unique conditions of the roof of Hawai'i (Big Island) to house them. Beyond the simple location - in isolation in the high interior of the island and in the Pacific Ocean -, the dryness and stability of the atmosphere above the volcano top, which remains almost always above the clouds, enveloped in a darkness however protected by law.
In the mid-60s, NASA allocated funds to the University of Hawaii. They were intended to develop the local astronomical project. In 1970, this institution installed on Mauna Kea the UH88, the seventh most powerful optical/infrared telescope in the world, measuring 2.2 meters in diameter.
Other North American groups – such as the US Air Force and the Lowell Observatory – joined the colonization of the Mauna Kea which, soon after, was opened to foreign entities.
In 1973, Canada and France installed their CFHT, measuring 3.6 meters in diameter. Since then, individual and international projects have followed involving the United Kingdom, the Japan, Argentina, Australia: Brazil and the Chile, in a total of thirteen telescopes of different types.
It is, even today, the largest astronomical station in the world.
Lush Sunset Below Mauna Kea Volcano That Unveils Space
The sun fades over the horizon. The temperature immediately drops to freezing levels. obliges the slaves of photography at the top taking refuge in more layers of clothing.
At the same time, the cloud floor turns lilac and purple and the sky above is painted yellow and orange. These tones also dominate the top of the mountain and take over the domes. But it's not just the scenery that takes your breath away.
More because of the rarefaction of the air at an altitude of 4205 meters than because of the cold itself, any sudden or tiring movement requires long inspirations and, at best, takes a long time to recover.
Or it causes nausea and distressing headaches - not to mention occasional pulmonary and brain edemas – in those who ignored the necessary habituation or forgot their portable oxygen.
We are not aware of such drastic cases. Well prepared, even better equipped, the small assistance on the summit lets itself be dazzled by the sunset. Meanwhile, scientists at the observatories complete yet another night of astronomical contemplation. They rotate the tops of the domes, and point the telescopes in the desired spatial direction.
When twilight ends, some visitors return to the base of Mauna Kea and then to Hilo, Kona and other places in the Big Island. Others, the privileged, enter the huge observatories, ascend to the upper floors, settle down and study the firmament.
New summit telescopes are planned, including a revolutionary new Pan-STARRS system (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) – which will monitor the celestial vault at full time and the gigantic Thirty Meter that will make observations possible with ten times more spatial resolution than that guaranteed by Hubble.
Both projects raised a huge controversy between the traditionalist population of Hawaii and the environmentalists.
If, in 1960, the gods were ignored, it would be difficult for humans to stop this unbridled race for the vision of Space.