Thursday, 25 May 2017

Helicopter Over Hawaii: Blue Hawaiian's Big Island Tour

Geologists in the 19th century identified 14 different climate zones across the earth, and on the Big Island, you can find a whopping 10 of them concentrated across a space of 10 000 square kilometres. Exploring on foot is good fun, but there's nothing like going on a helicopter ride to see how the land changes from one breath to the next: the rocky red soil of Mauna Loa (So similar to Mars it hosted a year-long simulation of space exploration) giving way to lush tropical rainforest, or snow-capped mountains tapering off to turquoise water just perfect for snorkelling in. 

It's a truly magical experience, and one that DT very generously wanted to share with J and me, inviting us to join him and N on a tour over the Big Island. We arrived in Hawaii just as Hurricane Lester left it, but lingering storm clouds meant that on the day of our original booking, Blue Hawaiian wouldn't clear their choppers to fly the route we were meant to be on, for safety reasons. The nice thing about an unstructured holiday is the flexibility it provides in situations like these, and DT picked out an alternative date that wound up boasting utterly perfect weather for our flight.

Once we were all kitted out with life vests and safely ensconced in the surprisingly roomy cockpit, introductions were made by our pilot. As us helicopter ride-newbies identified ourselves with waving arms and whoops over the in-flight communication microphones, he chuckled. "Your first time in a helicopter huh? Mine too. But don't worry, I YouTubed it this morning - we should be ok!" punctuating the punchline with a steady lift-off into a seemingly endless expanse of blue sky. The pilots on Blue Hawaiian are all State of Hawaii licensed tour guides, and it seems part-time comics as well. The jokes are a little corny, but if you're anything like us, you'll find yourself in an elevated mood (ha!) and more inclined to laughter than usual. 

The tour isn't just one-way witty commentary though. The state-of-the-art communication system and aerial-quality Bose noise-cancelling headphones that we were armed with, provides guests with the chance to ask their pilots absolutely anything and everything that strikes them. If you're so inclined, you can find out more about the history of Hawaii, its culture, the best places to eat around the island, or the geological forces that created the natural landscape below. 

My first question was this: Who picks the music coming over the headphones?

As it turns out, our pilot did. After all, in the grand tradition of road trips everywhere, driver picks the music. And so it was in the chopper, where we were treated to a delightful soundtrack of slow jazz, traditional Hawaiian tunes, and the theme to Mission Impossible on one memorable occasion, all personally selected to add to the experience. A couple of weeks before our tour, he had piloted a music producer in LA, who promised to send over a curated mix of "better stuff". I don't know if any other playlist could strike the same balance of vaguely-cheesy yet stunningly appropriate crowd-pleasers, but I'd be interested to hear it. 

DT made sure J and I got the plum spots in the front of the chopper, where we were able to gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows for a better than bird's eye view. 

One of the many highlights of our flight was going along the Volcano National Park Coastline, and following the bright orange trails oozing its way from Kilauea to the sea, dipping close enough to get a large whiff of sulphur. It's a space that's very much in flux as the volcanoes continue to alter the landscape, but the snapshot we got to witness was incredible. Watching the creation of new land unfold in front of our eyes made it seem like we'd travelled back in time to when the continents were new. Hot rocks spew into the air, and the water froths and steams where it meets the molten ribbon of lava careening off the cliffs. The coastline is closed off and inaccessible by land, and while boat tours also go out for an up-close view, the only way to get a truly panoramic look is by air. 

Incredible as the lava flows were, I have to say that my favourite part of the tour was over and around the best spots along the lush Kohala Coast. We'd saved the very best scenery for last, flying so deep into the jungle you think you could just reach out and touch a waterfall. This is where scenes were shot for Jurassic Park, and as we flew alongside it, I felt what I imagine is the same thing that drives people to seek out new worlds: that instant of discovering something greater or more beautiful than you'd ever seen before, and your heart is full to bursting with the joy of it. I wanted to crystallise that moment and make it last and last, but that being impossible, I did the next best thing, squeezing J's hand tight. 

After whizzing over undulating rivers and topography laden with every possible shade of green, we stopped for a while at Blue Hawaiian's exclusive landing pad at the base of Punalulu Falls, which for about ten minutes was our own private slice of paradise. J and I clambered over rocks to sit by the pool at the base of the fall, far enough not to feel the spray, but close enough that the air felt refreshingly cool, looking up and up and up to where the mouth of the falls looked like it was coming down from heaven itself. 

But soon enough we were ushered back to the helicopter, which did an extra loop around before ascending through the valley, lifting just high enough to clear the cliff face and heading back to the heliport at Waikoloa, and the rest of our lives. Before that though, one last look back, to imprint in my memory: 

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