HO’OKENA BEACH, HAWAII —One last breakfast, one last swim and then it’s time to vacate our ocean paradise for a fiery national park.

The next time we will use our camping gear will be in New Zealand, so this morning, we spent extra time thoroughly cleaning our tent: We washed bird droppings off the rainfly (think seeds), removed ants and other crawlies from inside the tent and swept out the inside of the tent. With the help of our new friends on the beach, we even tore down the tent without it touching the ground so we wouldn’t get new insects and sand on it. Hope New Zealand immigration and customs appreciates it.

Once on the road, we had planned to drive through to Volcanoes National Park, but we’re too nosy for things to work out as planned. Naturally, our first stop came when we spotted one of our biggest weaknesses: A bakery in Naalehu! We stopped at the Panalu’u Bake Shop for Malasadas. The same bake shop also supplied the sweet bread for our first breakfast in Kona, so it wouldn’t have felt right to not pay it a visit.

Punalu'u black sand beach
The Punalu’u black sand beach.

A little out of town, and about 2000 ft. lower at sea level is the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. It is located in a beautiful bay, but it dawned on me that black sand reflects less light and thus might be hotter. I left my shoes on for this one.

We stayed long enough to take in the scenery and watch turtles come ashore. If you have ever watched turtles, you know that it’s not a fast affair, and these were no exception. One was trying to squeeze by another blocking the easiest beach access, and another tried to climb over a row of rocks to get ashore. It was fun to watch, but turtles definitely live on their own time.

Turtles on Punalu'u beach
Slow but steady: These turtles took their time getting onto the beach.

We got to the park’s visitor center at 1:40pm and saw that there was a ranger-led hike at 2pm. The hike titled “Into the caldera” would take us into an area of the caldera closed to the public . It’s offered only once every month — speak about good timing.

Ranger Dean with the fuming caldera behind him. It’s refreshing to go on a hike with someone who really enjoys what they’re doing.

We had just enough time to get ready (sunscreen, hiking boots, a quick snack, water, go!), and then we were off. The ranger, Dean Gallagher, affectionately known as “Ranger Dean”, looked like Steve Martin and was similarly quick with a joke. A self-professed geek of botany, he had the ability to hold our group’s attention with a quick wit and many interesting stories about plants, animals and the history of the Hawaiian island. On several occasions, kids on the tour didn’t pick up on the joke and were staring wide-eyed at him (when he pointed to a beautiful, ragged cliff face and remarked to not get “too impressed with it, because that’s our hike out”).

We returned from our hike around 16:30  (gotta get used to German time notation) and spent some time freshening up at the campground bathhouse for our dinner at Ohela in the town of Volcano at 6pm. This was our first real dinner on this trip, and it was delicious: Torsten had Shrimp pasta with a cilantro aioli and Beth had their Pesto Pizza with Basil Macademia Nut Pesto followed by a Napoleon with fresh Raspberries.

On our way back from the restaurant, we drove to the Jagger Museum overlook in the park to see the active volcano in the dark. We did not see any lava splattering about, but there was a dark orange glow which illuminated the gas and ash cloud from below — an eerie but mesmerizing scene.

In the caldera at the hike’s turn-around point. At this point, the ranger’s SO2 monitor indicated that going further would be unhealthy.