“Would you like to experience total darkness?” asks Harry Shick.
I’m standing about 50 feet below ground inside a lava tube on his property in east Hawaiʻi Island. I click off my utility flashlight and Shick does too. It truly is pitch black. I instinctively put my gloved hand in front of my face. Nothing. Despite the lack of light, I feel tranquil. The only sounds I hear are the water droplets falling to the cave floor and sometimes atop my hard hat. After a few moments, we turn our lights on and the cave’s obsidian walls come back into view. Shick has been offering tours of parts of this lava tube popularly known as Kazumura Cave since 1996. At just more than 40 miles long and more than 3,600 feet deep, it is the world’s longest and deepest of these geological phenomena.
Shick learned the land he purchased with his parents in 1995 had a lava tube underneath it when the previous landowner unceremoniously informed them of the fact. He found a cave entrance hidden in a thick forest, began exploring, and researched the geological phenomenon. What he learned is that lava tubes are created when a river of lava flows downslope, cooling and hardening from the outside in and eventually forming solid walls, a floor, and a ceiling.
There are thousands of lava tubes beneath Hawaiʻi Island’s surface. Kazumura Cave was formed approximately 400 to 600 years ago and originated from Kīlauea Volcano’s Iki crater. Erupting for roughly 60 years, the flow of which it was part was named ʻAi Lāʻau, after the fire and volcano god, whose name means “forest eater.” The voluminous eruption helped create what is now east Hawaiʻi Island’s Puna district, where Shick lives.
Kazumura Cave got its modern-day moniker in the 1960s when the government surveyed and designated one of the cave’s entrances as a fallout shelter. Shick says the surveyors likely named the lava tube after the owners whose property contained the cave entrance, the Kazumuras.
The property, located about 40 minutes from Hilo, is secluded. My car rumbles along gravel roads for a couple miles before finally reaching Schick’s unmarked driveway. I meet him in his carport, which doubles as the beginning point for his tours. It took him and his father about six months to prepare the cave for visitors, clearing a path to the entrance and built rudimentary ladders out of PVC pipe and rebar. Shick tells me his neighbors don’t mind his caving business.
Dressed in camouflage pants, a green fleece jacket, and sturdy boots, his long salt-and-pepper hair tied up, Shick looks the part. He provides gloves, hard hats, and flashlights for everyone on his tours and begins with a quick orientation: the cave floor is uneven, don’t touch anything, keep your helmet on. Our destination is one mile inside the cave, to what Shick has dubbed the Pit Room, a 25-foot by 35-foot hole in the cave’s floor. “We’re only exploring 1/40th of the cave,” he says, pointing to the mauka section of the cave on a large weathered map of Kazumura Cave. “The main passage is 25 miles long.”
To get to the cave entrance, we follow a short trail through dense underbrush, sprawling ferns, and ʻōhiʻa trees. Fed by generous windward rains, the lush foliage obscures centuries of simultaneous destruction and creation below its surface. Once inside, we enter what seems like a different world. The cave winds and turns like an empty underground riverbed. Its walls narrow and widen as they transform from a nearly smooth, metallic-black surface to bristly to grooved. I look up to see petrified lava drips hardened in place, giving the ceiling a texture like lemon meringue pie. Our boots crunch with each step as we walk on ʻaʻā, a jagged type of solidified lava that forms when the flow is moving quickly. Then our boots stop making a sound; the sharp, pebbled lava has unwrinkled into pāhoehoe, a type of lava whose name means “smooth, unbroken.”
As we walk, occasionally going up and down ladders and over lava boulders that have fallen from the ceiling, Shick provides a well-rehearsed presentation of the cave’s features. He talks about the types of lava-flow patterns, bacteria growth on the walls, and the history of this particular cave. “I always had an interest in caves,” says Shick, adding that he’s originally from Pittsburg, “but I never pursued it until we bought this land.” Since then, he says he’s explored about 60 percent of the cave.
He also keeps his own data on the lava tube, noting new cracks, organism growth, and the critters who call the cave home. He stops and pulls out a yellow notebook from his pocket not much bigger than his hand. Inside are photos he’s taken of insects found inside the cave including crickets, millipedes, centipedes, even spiders. “They can get as big as this notebook,” he says, dryly. He’s joking, though.
After nearly four hours, we reach our destination, the Pit Room. It’s a huge crater formed by the lava tube collapsing, revealing another level. “When I first saw it, I was in the cave by myself,” Shick says. “It made me stop in my tracks. I couldn’t see the bottom.”
It is safe to walk around, and even inside, which I do. It’s a bizarre experience to stand in the middle of a giant underground hole that was created centuries ago. “It’s all frozen in time, it tells you a story,” Shick says. “And it’s OK if you don’t get all the details the first time. It’ll still be here.”