National Geographic : 1975 Mar
I flew over the highway. Below, the road abruptly disappeared under a sheet of gray stone. Farther on it appeared again, van ished, then surfaced once more. A Park Ser vice vehicle still lies buried on one section of that intermittent highway. While Dr. Peterson and his volcanologists probe downward, scientists on another mountain look toward the stars. The mountain is 13,796-foot Mauna Kea. "This is an ideal site for an observatory," William F. McCready, who runs the Mauna Kea facility, told me. "It's the highest major astronomical observatory in the world. It's above 90 percent of atmospheric water vapor -in fact, above 40 percent of the atmosphere itself. The nearest metropolis, Honolulu, is 200 miles away, so there's virtually no light reflection problem and little radio interfer ence. No air-pollution problems either." Ice Storm Hampers Stargazers Are there any drawbacks? Call them in conveniences. A scientist's problem-solving ability slows somewhat in the rarefied at mosphere. Astronomers, to remain acclimated, spend their nights at a halfway house down the slope, rather than returning to sea level. Mr. McCready pointed out another incon venience. "We had an ice storm at the site yes terday-with 70-mile winds. I'll bet you never expected to see horizontal icicles two feet long!" Far below us the Saddle Road traversed the high valley between the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. It is the only road that crosses the center of the mountainous island. Though my car-rental contract stated in block letters that the risk would be mine alone, I drove the Saddle Road. There were dips and bends and teeth-jarring potholes, but I found no other perils. Only loneliness, for signs of man were few. Often the road wound through lava fields of chocolate brown-solidified rivers that had poured down the mountain slopes back in the mid-1800's. Though more than a cen tury had passed, few green things had been able to push through to grow there. Halfway across the saddle, Pohakuloa offered a respite from the desolation. A beautiful, unique species of goose called the nene (nay-nay) was being brought back from near extinction here. Biologists believe that a few migrating Canada or brant geese must have landed on the island hundreds of thousands of years ago and evolved into the nene. Tall, with long legs and abbreviated webs on its feet, the goose lost its migratory urge. Once it was common on Hawaii and Maui. But the nene was too easily caught-and too delicious.* It was breeding time when I visited the area, so I could only peer at the nene from a distance, through the wire of a breeding pen. Perhaps there is more satisfaction from that view, for there were eggs in the nest. The nene is on the way back. I left Pohakuloa and drove on across a sad dle that gradually became less of a barren moonscape. Cactus and scrub grass appeared, and soon lush, cattle-dotted pastures of the *See "Saving the Nene, World's Rarest Goose," by S. Dillon Ripley, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, November 1965. Sunbaked years of picking coffee beans and bananas tint the face of a Filipino Hawaiian, tending his daughter at an art fair.