It may be a rough trail, but the goal is worth it, a relatively recent cave with an array of classic lava tube features. Emesine cave, is found in the 1881 lava flow that threatened to flow into downtown Hilo, but stopped just short of the city. Today, over a century later, the cave is now an excellent example of volcanic action and how life returns to reclaim the land afterwords.
Erupting from a vent high on the eastern rift zone of Mauna Loa, this flow was typical of Mauna Loa flows. There had been a small summit eruption several months earlier, then a series of lava fountains that fed ‘a’ā flows down either flank of the eastern rift zone. The most dangerous phase of the eruption began mid-November 1880, when a fissure opened lower on the mountain that fed a series of lava tubes. Pahoehoe lava traveling down-slope in these well insulated tubes allowed the flows to advance further and faster than the earlier ‘a’ā flows.
The flows did not stop until August 10th 1881, reaching within a few miles of downtown Hilo. Some fingers of the flow crossed the present day Komohana and Kumukoa Streets near the University of Hawai’i at Hilo campus. When the flows finally did stop a number of lava tubes were exposed, including Kaumana caves, a popular tourist attraction above Hilo. Also formed in the eruption was a series of tubes higher on the north flank of the volcano, Emesine cave.
The cave is one of the best lava tubes I have been in, and that includes quite a few examples of lava tubes. The young geologic age, only 130 years, allows exploration of a cave relatively un-weathered by time and water. There are very few fallen sections of cave roof, the floor and walls smooth from the flowing rock. Standing in the cave it is a simple jump of imagination to see in the mind’s eye a river a flowing red rock, to feel the intense heat, to see rock dripping from the ceiling. Here is a place that no mere human could have lived for more than a moment, a place Pele called her own.
The cave is much more welcoming today, cool and moist beneath returning forest. Despite the dry appearance of the lava flow overhead the rainfall of the windward side of the island creates a damp environment underground. Dripping water is everywhere, the near 100% humidity means every breath is a cloud of fog despite the comfortable temperatures.
Curtains of tree roots reach down into the cave from the surface just a few meters above. Twice I come across the final resting places of pigs, a scattering of small bones on the cave floor surrounded by a curious patch of light fungus fertilized by the decaying remains.
One of the most notable features of the cave are the lavacicles. Everywhere the cave ceiling is covered with lavacicles, where the liquid rock dripped from overhead forming small stalactites of stone. These features range from simple drip shaped points to complex shapes where the rising and falling levels of lava in the tube are recorded.
A well developed shelf or curb is to be seen about 1/3 to 1/2 the height of the cave. It shows where the flowing lava only partly filled the cave at some point in the eruption. At that level a crust started to form out from the wall forming a rock shelf that juts up to a foot out front the side of the cave. This smooth and level shelf made a convenient place to put my camera when taking photos of the cave. All I had brought was my little 6″ Joby tripod. But here was a waist high place to put the camera all along the cave’s length.
I spent some time taking photos of the cave. The twilight zone near a cave entrance inspires the use of HDR techniques to capture the wide range of illumination. Even in total darkness can be dealt with using a combination of long exposure, flash and flashlight painting.
Just a few hundred meters downhill a second entrance is to be found. Proceeding down the tube a faint glow can be seen ahead, a welcome sight in the otherwise complete darkness. Coming around the corner a bright garden of ferns and moss appears.
On the return journey I stopped and extinguished my light, taking a moment for the utter blackness to soak into my consciousness. The complete lack of vision is unnerving, not even the darkest of nights on the surface approaches the total lack of visible light in a cave. The only relief is sound, the cave is not silent, a gentle breeze moves past me, the constant drip of water echoes through the dark. It does not take long for the darkness to become troubling, a simple press of a button brings back the light.
There is much more to Emesine cave than the short section I explored, the part accessible from this entry is reported to stretch more than a mile. Additional entries provide access to more than nine miles of cavern following the 1881 flow down the flank of Mauna Loa. The better known Kaumana Cave is possibly part of the same lava tube system.