An Ironman Swimming with Dolphins

More than one year is over since my last trip to Central Asia and still no new extraordinary destination or crazy adventure in sight? Of course not! Now that my personal triathlon season is over, I have the pleasure to accompany my good friend and training partner Felix to the legendary Ironman World Championship on Hawaii. Together with his family we will give our best to support him during the last week of preparation and especially on race day, but we will as well take the opportunity to make some tourism and explore Big Island while Felix is riding his bike countless hours through the infamous lava fields… Compared to my previous journeys, we won’t travel “on a shoestring” like the classic backpacker’s style who just uses public transport, hostels or couchsurfing (I don’t know whether this is possible in Kailua-Kona anyway), but we’ll take the liberty of living in a nice holiday home and most notably renting a car. I believe the latter to be almost inevitable if you want to be able visiting Hawaii appropriately, the only alternative left would be to book excursions from local tour operators – definitely not a cheaper option besides loosing most of your flexibility. So certainly this trip will be more expensive than my previous ones (whereas the high price level in general plays yet the most important role), but retrospectively I can say that I pretty much enjoyed the extra freedom of driving where you like to when you like to and the small luxury of having a house for our own. In some kind this can also be seen as “travelling independently” ;-)

To be honest, at the beginning I did not know exactly what to expect from this whole journey. Even if I had heard of many experiences and read a few reports from people who had been there in the past, I was not sure if this competition is still a very special one or if Hawaii indeed offers such incredibly varied nature and landscapes. In short, I was not at all to be disappointed. Concerning the Ironman you can really feel the Myth behind this event. The almost reverent atmosphere is omnipresent and each local person seems to be somehow involved in the trappings throughout the weeks and days preceding the cannon shot announcing the start to world’s most famous triathlon. Particularly during race week the number of IM participants increases everyday, in the morning the pros and who-is-who from the triathletes’ scene show up at the pier for an early swim workout, cyclists overrun Queen K Highway while their relatives try to cadge any gadgets or free gifts at the merchandising village, and the whole hubbub overcrowds every café along Alii Drive, watching athletes running back and forth up into the night (of course topless and not slower than 4 min/km).

On a personal level, despite that obviously I was not a participant at the world championship, and although I can hardly imagine the actual pain and challenges you have to endure in order to reach the finish line, I am glad to have experienced a small glimpse at what the IM Hawaii is all about. I suffered from heat and humidity while running in notorious natural energy lab area (and the sun was not even shining), I participated at the prominent underpants run and we watched the entertaining parade of nations. But the morning swimming session in Kailua-Kona Bay on the official course was definitely what I enjoyed most. The nice underwater views with coral and colorful fish make you almost forget that you are not inside an aquarium but actually training. Occasionally quite a huge amount of dolphin families swam next to us which gave us some great company. They never seemed to be frightened of you, on the contrary we heard them whistling under the surface and watched them doing crazy jumps or spins out of the water. Once we even had an encounter with a reefshark, which apparently was neither dangerous nor interested in us but looked pretty scary though – yet I preferred the dolphins by far.

To conclude with the sporty side of this report, Felix eventually achieved an unbelievable performance: he became third in his age-group (48th overall) and his finish time was 9:12:48 hours :-)

Luckily for us supporters, apart from October’s annual competition Big Island has way more to offer. Sure, given that indeed we stayed on a “big island”, it isn’t such a big surprise that most of our activities had to do with and happened in or around the ocean. I guess that every possible tastes and interests can be satisfied there: we went to several white and black sands beaches, we could snorkel with sea turtles and eels at Kahaluu Beach, we did SUP (stand-up-paddling), we listened to the relaxing sound of knocking stones moved by waves at Pebble Beach, we walked over lava rocks next to the waves towards Arch City at Honaunau Bay, and last but not least we got our adrenaline-kick by jumping from over 12 meters into the ocean at the cliff diving spot “the end of the world” (nomen est omen?).

Further, a few activities were rather out of the common or left us with a deeper impression, so they are probably worth a little more detailed mention. Not far south of Kailua-Kona lies tranquil Kealakekua Bay with nearby Captain Cook Monument, commemorating James Cook’s landfall on the archipelago’s largest island in 1779. After having been first considered as some divine figure by the natives, tensions and quarrels arose between Europeans and Hawaiians and poor Captain eventually was “cooked” by the Polynesians. Nowadays the area is best known for its awesome snorkeling spot. With its visibility of up to 100 feet, its amazing coral reefs and abundant multicolored fish colonies, Kealakekua Bay truly deserves to be regularly ranked as one of the top snorkel places of the world.

BY FAR the most OUTSTANDING and unique experience was swimming with manta rays in Keauhou Bay at night. This cannot be done anywhere on the planet although the idea emerged rather by accident: Shining with bright projectors into the dark water attracts quantities of plankton so mantas will concentrate around this place to eat their daily ration. We owe a warm thank you to Leah and her super friendly crew from Hawaii Island & Ocean Tours who do their job professionally and in harmony with protection of the wildlife’s natural habitat. They are passionate about these unbelievable creatures and simply want to share their knowledge and help you discover manta rays in a sustainable manner without unintentionally harming them. And they also provide the necessary confidence and calmness because this night dive is pretty exciting and a bit scary though…

Before you think of Hawaii as an archipelago of flat islands surrounded by marvellous beaches, you should remember that despite its comparatively small size 8 of the 13 different climate zones can be found there. We realized this soon when we drove northwards on the road to Hawi (turn around point for the Ironman bike course). First you pass endless dry lava flows where the last rain is likely to have been seen during Noah’s deluge. But as soon as you start driving up to Pololu Valley lookout point (gorgeous view by the way), the weather gets increasingly humid and the landscapes become wet and green. Heading back via Kohala Mountain Road along lush cattle pastures makes you almost feel like in Ireland. We didn’t have the time to follow Saddle Road all the way up until Mauna Kea, which together with Mauna Loa ranges over 4000 meters above sea level. Apparently in winter you can even go skiing on top of these summits and afterwards take your sunbath on the beach again! And it is said they have some exhausting but great hikes over there (be careful with respect to altitude sickness), yet another thing to add on my ever-growing “to do list”.

Other memorable stops along the Queen K Highway were well-known Hapuna Beach with its paradise-like white sand and turquoise water, besides the boogie boarding here is real fun. However, if I had to elect the most beautiful beach we saw, no doubts I would choose Makalawena Beach. Admittedly the hiking lasts approximately 30 minutes without any shade, but you will be highly rewarded by such a secluded and pristine scenery that you think to have finally found the absolutely perfect location on the planet… closely followed by diverse Kiholo Bay with its turtles, lagoons, mangrove trees, freshwater holes and pools – the artistic and exotic architecture of the Bali House hopefully adds sufficient reasons to take the easy 20 minutes walk to attain this idyll!

Being less than 450,000 years old, the biggest island from the Hawaiian archipelago is as well the youngest one. Even if all islands have been formed by volcanic activity, Big Island is also the unique one with ongoing active volcanoes and continuous eruptions. This can be visited best at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which lies in the southern Kilauea region. Currently there are only little and inaccessible lava flows (at remote Puu Oo Cone), but this situation can always evolve fast and soon in the future and the whole site is notwithstanding highly impressive, so no need to be disappointed at all. Directly after the visitors’ entry you quickly realize that you have attained an uncommon, extremely special place. Nearby Halemaumau Crater inside Kilauea Caldera contains a lava lake, causing plumes of smoke at day and visible glowing at night to be seen from the lookout point, from which you additionally get a nice view over the area. Every now and then you pass by hot steam vents and toxic sulphur banks where you’d better not fall into. The Volcanoes National Park has among the most popular trekking routes where you could easily spend a couple of days. Given that we did not have so much time, we decided to go for the fairly short ones but fortunately it turned out that these were already exceptionally rewarding. We followed the trail going over and directly through Kilauea Iki and took the adventurous, slightly dangerous and unofficial hike to the top of Mauna Ulu where directly below yourself you can feel the incredible power, extreme volumes and masses that emerged from recent eruptions. Driving down the Chain of Craters Road along lots of pit craters all the way down to the coastline is another surreal experience. The multiple lava flows are often younger than yourself and together with the waves offer an awesome spectacle at the shore, where amazingly shaped lava cliffs such as Holei Sea Arch were formed.

After all these outdoor activities, you might think we were not interested in Hawaii’s history and culture. Luckily you do not need to do much but get in touch with the locals in order to get to know their open, calm and slightly laid-back attitude. Things run a little bit slower otherwise and the speed limits on the highways and street are rather considered to be an unreachable upper bound. So sometimes they even have to introduce minimal speed signs instead. Still we visited one truly informative historical site, namely the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. In the 1920s early Japanese immigrants established the foundations and technology that over time led to Kona’s prime reputation for excellent coffee. Today very motivated guides bring the pioneers’ daily work to life with authentic tools and traditional crafts at the historical orchards and original farmhouses. Likewise they are open and keen on answering your questions or willing to explain the art and craft related to the whole growing and production process.

I will conclude this looong novel (*sigh*) with some lessons I learned:

  • in general Americans and Hawaiians are really friendly and relaxed people, but so many of them appear to live extremely unhealthy, obesity indeed is a serious issue in the U.S.
  • the best way to save money here would be to drive a lot by car but to eat few and seldom (there exists a weird relation between costs for transportation and costs for food, furthermore you’d be better off eating fastfood than cooking yourself, at least with respect to the money you spend)
  • cockroaches and geckos exist in every size and shape you can imagine
  • … and, Thomas, please get the bloody diving course certification finished at last!