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Stargazing on the Big Island of Hawaii

One of the 13 epic telescopes that are based on the summit of Mauna Kea. By Eyleen Gomez

The Polynesian Big Islands of Hawaii, or Hawai’i as it is known in Hawaiian is filled with the most wonderful ‘everythings’, wonderful volcanos, wonderful beaches, wonderful scenery, wonderful people, wonderful food, wonderful music, I could go on.

But for me, two of the most wonderful things about this stunning island, was one on honeymoon with my also wonderful husband, Paul, and two, in the middle of the Pacific on the Big Island of Hawaii, is the summit of Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is Hawaiian for white mountain referring to its summit being covered by snow during winter. It is home to the Mauna Kea Observatories where a staggering millions of pounds worth of large telescopes dot the landscape. It is the world's largest observatory for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy.

The Wrangler Jeep 4x4s park under one of the massive telescopes. By Eyleen Gomez

The Wrangler Jeep 4x4s park under one of the massive telescopes. By Eyleen Gomez

There are currently thirteen working telescopes near the summit of Mauna Kea. Amongst them are four of the world’s most famous telescopes, two Keck, one Subaru and one Gemini. It is also home to the UK’s infrared telescope UKIRT.

It is also the highest island-mountain in the world, rising 32,000 feet from the ocean floor to an altitude of 13,796 ft.

At 45,796feet high, and with Mount Everest a mere 29,029 feet in comparison, many people brag they have summited a mountain higher than Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay did back in 1953.

The people of Hawaii are very proud of Mauna Kea’s height status.

Mauna kea, is also known by its original Hawai’ian name Mauna a Wakea, with Wakea translating to ‘Sky Father’ – the father of the Hawaiian people, and is a sacred place. The summit was forbidden (kapu) to all but the highest chiefs and priests.

Today, the land at the very summit is still preserved for the native people and hence why there is an area at the apex which is forbidden to non-natives.

Land adjacent to the observatories that is a preserved sacred area and kapu/off limits to non Hawaiian people. By Eyleen Gomez

Land adjacent to the observatories that is a preserved sacred area and kapu/off limits to non Hawaiian people. By Eyleen Gomez

The journey to Mauna Kea starts in the afternoon, with a pit stop at the Visitor Information Centre where your tour guide gives you food and a chance for you to acclimatise.

From there it is a half hour drive to the summit, but before you leave you will be given a very warm parka and gloves.

The drive up to the summit is so precarious, with both a four-wheel drive and skills essential, that insurance companies do not cover rental cars.

On the way up you see barren landscapes and clouds that were once above you are now below.

The ground in one section of the mountain is so akin to that of Mars, that the Mars Rover has conducted training exercises there.

On the summit, as you disembark from the bus you are warned not to run around as the air is so thin. It has 40% less oxygen than it does at sea level. This lack of oxygen also means your vision is not as acute as it would be at the visitors centre, meaning you actually see less stars.

However, the summit is not to be missed. Yes it is cold, yes it is windy, yes the air is thin, and ok you might not see the stars as clearly, but the sun setting over the horizon and casting a red glow on all around as it does is a sight you will remember and cherish for a life time.

Once the sun sets, you have about ten minutes more at the summit before you have to legally descend.

Shortly after the sun sets the telescopes start to open. By Eyleen Gomez

Shortly after the sun sets the telescopes start to open. By Eyleen Gomez

Shortly down from the summit, the tour guides set up our large portable telescopes for stargazing.

As the darkness falls, more and more stars start to appear until before your eyes you are witnessing the wonder, splendour and shear awe of the Milky Way.

My husband literally turned to me and said, “I have waited all my life to see the Milky Way.” While I had seen it before, I had never seen it in such beautiful and serene surroundings.

While his highlight might have been the Milky Way, mine was when we had the opportunity to look through the telescopes at various planets and the moment I saw Saturn with her rings.

I had seen Saturn previously, thanks to the Gibraltar Astronomical Society, but I had never seen her rings tilting the way they were before. It was just like the iconic photos I have seen all my life of the planet.

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When one of you is 6ft and the other 5ft3, selfies can be tricky. By Eyleen and Paul Gomez

When one of you is 6ft and the other 5ft3, selfies can be tricky. By Eyleen and Paul Gomez

We also had the opportunity to see Mars, nebulas, constellations and shooting stars, but the Milky Way and the rings of Saturn were the highlight of our time on the stunning Big Island of Hawaii.

Pics by Eyleen Gomez

Are you a keen traveller? Or do you enjoy short weekend breaks up the coast? The Chronicle's weekly travel feature is open to local writers to share their experiences of the places they visit.