If you’re going to the Big Island, and if you have any fascination with the night sky, you won’t want to miss Mauna Kea. Home to the world’s largest observatory and nearly 14,000 feet above sea level (and above most cloud layers), you won’t see more beautiful stars, especially if you live anywhere near a metropolitan area. And for a photographer? Just, wow.
You might notice an odd yellow hue to Hawaii’s dim streetlights. These are an effort to cut down on light pollution – detrimental to viewing faint stars. These LEDs are energy-efficient, directional, and shielded, designed to light the roadways and nothing else. Hawaiians are spoiled with their magnificent night skies.
We relaxed the morning away on a beach just outside a resort on the Kona side. In fact, we were only a few miles away from where Aaron and I originally honeymooned seven years ago. After all the excitement with Waipio, South Point, and chasing down pukas, it was a breath of fresh air to simply chill on the sand with a good book (Children of the Mind) and do nothing for an hour or two.
Once we got closer to the evening, we started our trek up the mountain. Hawaii provides a unique situation: you can be snorkeling at sea level in the morning and at 14,000 feet by the afternoon. But this drastic change can be quite dangerous, so it’s imperative to take it slowly and hydrate well.
We had lunch at the Big Island Brewhaus (Hawaii’s highest brewpub at over 2700′) (be sure to get the fried fish bites (gluten-free!!); they were simply to die for) before continuing the ascent. We spent about an hour at the visitor center (9200′) to allow ourselves to get acclimated to the elevation. Despite my Rocky Mountain upbringing, I was already feeling it, though not as badly as Aaron. Water helped, but time helped more. I don’t remember having as much trouble during our honeymoon.
There were many tour buses at the visitor center. I was happy to see so many Japanese hanging out, eating their adorable bento meals. Signs were also in both English and Japanese; I felt a twinge of nostalgia for Japan…
It was also significantly cooler at that height. It seemed impossible that we’d consider warm coats by the evening when we were still sunburned from Two Step and in shorts that morning.
But our temporary misery was all worth it. The road was a bit difficult for our rental vehicles (you’re technically not supposed to bring them up to the summit), but we made it. And once the sun touched the highest clouds, we were frantically scrambling from spot to spot to capture all the perfect angles.
Personally, I ran away from the crowds, down the road to bring the sun more in line with the observatory in the foreground. I loved the sunstars I got from positioning the sun right on the edge of the building. But the sun didn’t sit still, so neither could I. I spent the duration of the sunset chasing that sunstar back up the hill… and my body reminded me I wasn’t used to 14,000′. I felt lightheaded and weak, but the excitement of the scene drove me forward. I could pass out after I got the shot!
The conditions were perfect, and I had so much fun getting just the right capture (needless to say, I remained conscious). What an amazing evening! I was glad for the much-improved equipment and experience from the previous time I shot from that summit (though, to be fair, I was more focused on the experience than the photography during our honeymoon).
We were done shooting for the time being, so while the tour groups were packing up, our friend took the opportunity to photobomb the Japanese’s group shot. He managed to time it perfectly, and they seemed to get a real kick out of it.
Next: we waited. We wanted to get some star shots from this spectacular vantage. Add to it the unique foreground of the observatories, and we were looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. We learned the hard way that rangers go around just after sunset and kick everyone off the mountain. I suspect this is so that headlights of visitors leaving at sporadic times don’t interfere with the astronomers.
We later learned that we can make arrangements ahead of time and get permission to shoot after sunset. Oh well. We were disappointed, but we were also a bit cold, and our dull-headaching brains begged for more oxygen. I managed one quick shot before we left, though it would have been better with less residual dusk.
We also stopped partway down to just marvel at the millions of tiny points in the dark canvas of sky. I couldn’t help but feel small.
It was late, but the returning oxygen was invigorating. It’s a very odd feeling, indeed, to be both exhausted and jazzed at the same time. I was pleased with the evening. Next time, though, we’ll plan ahead and get those stars!