Legend has it Pele destroyed whole coastline in a rage


1801 lava flow

The unique and dramatic lava landscape that stretches north from Kona International Airport to Kiholo Bay is dominated by a series of lava flows, the most recent being produced by Hualalai in 1801. Visitors can park at the scenic overlook near Kiholo Bay on Queen Kaahumanu Highway (mile marker 82) for a good look at the Kaupulehu flow’s pathway. Another fine viewing spot is on Hawaii Belt Road (Highway 190) near mile marker 27, closer to the upper vent from which the Huehue flow emerged and poured into the sea at Keahole Point. These two eruptions are commonly called the 1801 lava flow.

Hualalai, because of the vegetation sparsely sprinkled over it, looks as if it had been quiet for ages, but it has only slept since 1801, when there was a tremendous eruption from it, which flooded several villages, destroyed many plantations and fishponds, filled up a deep bay and formed the present coast. The terrified inhabitants threw living hogs into the stream, and tried to propitiate the anger of the gods by more costly offerings, but without effect, until King Kamehameha, attended by a large retinue of chiefs and priests, cut off some of his hair, which was considered sacred, and threw it into the torrent, which in two days ceased to run. This circumstance gave him greatly increased ascendancy, from its supposed influence with the deities of the volcanoes.

This vivid description was written by author Isabella Bird in 1873 during her famous six months’ sojourn in the Sandwich Islands. The chief “deity of the volcano” not named by Bird was the volcano goddess Pele, who, according to Hawaiian tradition, could appear as fire, a wrinkled hag, a child or a beautiful girl.

Legend says Pele was hungry for the fish in Paaiea, Kamehameha’s largest fishpond on the North Kona coast. When her request for some fish was denied — the unwitting overseer did not realize the old woman in front of him was a goddess — she destroyed the entire coastline in a rage.

Until recently, much of the land covered by the 1801 flow remained barren. Until the completion of Kona International Airport at Keahole in 1970 and Queen Kaahumanu Highway in 1975, access to the coast was impossible except by boat, on horseback, on foot and later by four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Visitors should remember that the 1801 lava flow is evidence that volcanic eruptions, unpredictable and destructive, are an inescapable part of life for Kona’s people. Volcanologists warn that Hualalai is still an active volcano with fireworks long overdue.

Copyright 1998 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.