This was definitly one of the highlights of our trip. Picture going from 10,023' to sea-level in 38 miles and only a few hours! That is what you get when you take one of the downhill mountain bike tours on Haleakala.
Our oddessey begins at about 4 a.m. This may sound bad, but if you are mainlanders like us, we are still four hours ahead of Hawai'i time (Central Standard Time), so it only seems like 8a.m. They recommend visitors to do this early in the trip to take advantage of this effect before you become acclimated.
The tour company, Maui Mountain Cruisers, came and picked us up in a van and took our orders for breakfast. We didn't get to eat until afterwards, but they wanted to have everything ready for us when we were done. They took us to their office location to pick up the trailer with all our bikes and equipment, and gave us a coffee/roll break. Then we were off again.
It seemed like a long drive, but before long were at the summit of Haleakala. On the drive up, I started having problems with my ears; the same I have when flying in a plane. I tried to be studious in maintaining equal pressure (doing the valsalva, etc.). At the top, we piled out and were suddenly surprised at the temperature... It was COLD! Can you imagine, Hawai'i cold? By all accounts, it can be as much as 40° colder than the bottom. The crew started passing out foul-weather gear in the dark.
I donned the pants and hooded jacket and gladly slipped my hands into the provided ski gloves. I was freezing, and shivvering to keep warm. I'm sure I wasn't the only one. In fact, there were many other groups starting out this morning. In the dark, we found our way over to the Haleakala visitor center next to an overlook (which we couldn't see down yet). Then we waited. Towards the east, we could see some lights in the distance. This turned out to be Kona, on the neighboring island of Hawai'i. The stars above were gorgeous! A little farther up the slope of the volcano, we could see the lights of the Observatories. I even saw a meteorite or two.
Still, we waited, frozen to the bone, for the sun to rise. We were after some time rewarded to see the sky slowly brighten on the horizon in the east, and clouds started to form, obscuring our view of the big island. It took a while, but the sun rose. We snapped pictures at the summit, and kept hopping about to try and warm up before we filed back down to the parking lot. It took a little time for it to soak in that we were above the clouds! While we were gawking at the sun, our bike crew had been unloading bikes from the trailer. At the overlook, you could see all the way down into the crater. The rocks and gravel were this rusty-pink color as the sun slowly crept higher into the sky.
We stood there for quite a while, taking in the view. The sun didn't do much to warm us up, but we at least had the promise of a nice day on our trip downhill. The higher the sun got, the more of the interior of the crater we could see. Contours became clearer, and we were able to see more color. They often describe the crater of Haleakala as a "moonscape", but with the reddish color I can more picture it to be the face of Mars. Looking out over the rail, you can look straight down into the pit.
With anticipation, we began to gather near the van, waiting for the inevitable. One of our guides pointed out a silversword plant well outside the range of the lot guard rails, that was barely a distraction; I had been hoping to see a Nene goose, but never saw one. Looking down the slope of the volcano, you could barely see west Maui, and the islands of Lanai and Molokai behind it; you could also view the shadow of the volcano. We were each handed a helmet and given a bike, which was adjusted for our height. We were given helmets, too... safety first. After a short spin around the parking lot, we were asked to line up and wait our turn. We had been instructed to keep pace with the group. Did you know we can get speed tickets for going too slow? I didn't really think so, but was resolved to keep up all the same. The speed limit was 35.
While we were waiting, our guide went through all the hand signals he would use in keeping us safe. Slow, stop, speed up, pull to the side... We were advised to pay attention to what we were doing, and to keep our eyes on the road. The danger of being is such a beautiful place is driving off into thin air... and I mean it. There is the danger of following your eyes right off a cliff. We would have time to stop and look at things later.
Finally, we got our turn to leave. Shaky after not having been on a bicycle in years, I pushed off and found that all I had to do was coast.... coast all the way to the bottom! The first leg I believe was nicknamed "The Fabulous 29". I may be wrong. I thought that this was because of the numerous switchbacks on this leg of road. I honestly didn't take the time to count them, since I was gripping my handlebar brakes so tightly.
As we rolled along, I tried to think. Just why was I here? Well, the chance to try something new was one idea that entered my mind. The wheels hummed as we leaned one way or the other in approaching the switchbacks. The temptation was great to look at the awesome scenery over the edge of the road. From time to time, I succumbed... however, I was mindful not to stare. Other than paying attention to the line of bikes in front of me, and watching for hand signals (as well as approaching vehicles), I can't remember much more than the rocks, asphalt, cold wind, and the sound of the wheels rolling on the road.
After a stretch... I couldn't tell you how long... we stopped at an overlook which was little more than a wide spot on the side of the road. Over the edge, it dropped off. From this spot, we could see what I would describe as "the waist" of Maui. This is the stretch of low land between east and west Maui (misnomers, since they don't use cardinal directions in Hawai'i). On the left, we could see Kihei and Maalaea Bay; on the right was Kahului Bay (and of course, Kahului and neighboring towns). The land was a patchwork of fields, since this part of Maui is mainly farming and ranching. It was amazing that we could see all of it from just this place. Certainly, we could see the volcanic remains of west Maui, too. Nowhere on Maui can you not see them! This was our lone photo opportunity while on our way down the volcano.
After we started off again, we soon were down into cattle country. The roads were not nearly as steep, and we were obliged to roll over three cattle grates. Fortunately we had been warned about these, as they present a hazard to the uninitiated. The weather on the volcano is rather unpredictable; frost can form on the pipes of the guard, making them slick. The tip: roll over them, but don't apply the brakes! That can be hard when you are admonished for not following the person ahead of you close enough. If they don't mind what they are doing, a collision can occur (almost happened to me). We see trees and a lot more grass. Obviously, we are in for a beautiful morning.
Still coasting, we reached a point on the downhill where we stopped to strip down to our clothes. Handing back our foul-weather gear and stretched. It was still a bit cool, but it was still early morning and the sun was clearing the volcano to shine down on us. I can still pretty well remember the dew on the grass, and recall how green everything was. The road twisted back and forth in front of us, but was gradually flattening out.
On the next leg, we were obliged to get off our bikes and walk them up a hill. We were told that this was required by law at this point, I suppose because of the limited sight distance. That was okay with me, altough I was still used to coasting. I don't know what I had been expecting on this ride, but we only had to pedal three times... the rest was easy! The march up the hill only hightened the pain I was feeling in my hands. A couple of hours of brake gripping was making them ache.
After a brief ride through the country, we entered Makawao. This was reportedly a Hawaiian "cowboy town". The road sloped down through here, and we did get off our bikes to push them across a street crossing. There were many shops, and it looked like the area had gotten a rennovation. We didn't stop, but pushed on through so we could get to Paia about five miles away.
When we reached Paia, we stopped in a small car park in front of a house. Across the street we could see a church, and we were encouraged to go and visit while they collected our bikes and gear to load onto the truck. This was Holy Rosary Catholic Church and school; it was one of the oldest churches on Maui, built in 1926. The nave had beautiful stained glass, I recall, but I didn't take any pictures (I'm sorry for it now). I was just too tired at the time, and wasn't thinking clearly. They had a display about Father Damien, the priest who came to Hawai'i and eventually went to Molokai to minister to the lepers.
We piled back into the van, and drove to Kahului, to have breakfast at Sam Choy's. Our guides gave us all sorts of touristy information. For instance, did you know the cheapest place for souveniers is K-Mart? There is this huge Super K-Mart in Kahului, and when it opened, all the locals on neighboring islands came and camped out just to see what mainland prices were like. There was a big fuss, but when all was said and sifted they hardly made a dime on the grand opening. I thought that was amusing. We also learned about harvesting sugarcane. We kept driving through fields of them, even between Kahului and Kihei, and now we knew what was going on: to harvest the cane, they set fire to it. That is to help crystallize the sugar; then the clear-cut the field. It is pretty hard work. At any rate, there won't be any sugar or pineapple growing in Hawaii after too long, since it is cheaper to do it in other parts of the world. Hawaii is moving towards producing macadamias and coffee, which are more profitable for the amount of land that the take.
Sam Choy's is a rather interesting place. Lee and I actually went back and had lunch one other time when we were shopping in Kahului at the mall. It is nicely decorated (sort of a hawaiian art-deco), and very busy. I had something called Mojo, which was basically a salsbury steak on rice with an egg, gravy, and onions on top. I rather liked it, even though it wasn't quite what I expected. Everything was served with rice, and plenty of it. I found that the coconut syrup (on the table) was pretty good over rice, too. I am told that standard fare in Hawaii is an entré, like kalbi ribs, with rice and macaroni salad. For example, I had terriaki chicken at lunch and it came with rice and macaroni. It is rather a cross of a number of cuisines: polynesian, chinese, japanese, and korean to name a few.
I'd have to say, the trip was worth it. If you get a chance, go!
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