Lava sledding in Hawaii

Reviving an ancient pastime


 

I’m on the island of Oahu doing something that seems, on the surface, ridiculously un-Hawaiian. It’s an activity that begs for the worst kind of road rash—sledding on lava rock.

That’s right: I’m barefoot and assuming a surf stance on a four-metre-long sled handmade from a native hardwood called kauila. The sled is about two hand-widths wide. I look warily at my instructor, legendary Hawaiian surfer Tom “Pohaku” Stone, who says, casually, “Go for it, man.” The sled’s rails are greased with coconut oil and it glides surprisingly well on the crushed lava stone. To my delight, I manage to remain upright for an entire run down this practice slope that Stone built just behind Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore.

Though most people rightfully associate Hawaii as the birthplace of ocean surfing, lava sledding, or he’e holua, has origins dating back thousands of years. Stone, a native Hawaiian cultural ambassador and university professor, took up lava sledding in the early 1990s and is almost singlehandedly responsible for resurrecting this long-lost extreme sport of the Pacific.

“It likely began as a way to get timber out of the forest and then evolved into a competition as part of worshipping Pele, the goddess of fire,” the burly Hawaiian tells me before hopping on for another ride. According to Stone, ancient Hawaiians feared Pele’s wrath and saw riding down steep mountainsides of hardened lava as a way to appease her. The beginner’s rock slide I try is child’s play. Real lava sledders hurtle down courses hundreds of metres long, reaching speeds of 100 km/h. Stone has also tested the limits of this sport, without helmet or shoes, and he’s got the scars to prove it.

 

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