It’s hard to cap such a wonderful Transit of Venus experience, but visiting Mauna Kea and its observatories has been a personal dream for many years. After the Transit, I spent a few more days in Hawaii. All my contingency plans worked out! In addition to a commercial summit tour (well worth it, incidentally), I got to visit the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and Gemini North. Four summit trips in four days, and I drove myself up for the last one.
For anyone thinking of driving to the summit of Mauna Kea – think twice! There’s a reason rental car companies won’t let you take their cars there: the access road eats cars. There’s only one rental agency on Hawaii that will rent you a four-wheel drive truck you can take up to the summit, and it isn’t all that cheap.
While I was driving up, I passed three cars that just died en route. At points, my truck’s engine was screaming at 4500 RPM while barely making 20 to 25 miles per hour. The scenery’s fantastic, but don’t look too long. The narrow, steep, switch-backed road demands your full attention. Fortunately, I attached a GoPro camera to the windshield and recorded the whole trip. I’d also been up three times before, and could resist the urge. (Barely!)
Driving up is almost easy compared to going back down. You can’t use your brakes in any big way. The air’s too thin to cool them properly, and you’d burn them out in minutes – literally. I just tapped the brakes before downshifting to keep from being thrown into the steering wheel. It’s compression braking all the way, and on the steep sections, speed builds up quickly.
In short, I strongly suggest letting someone else drive while you enjoy the view. I’m glad of the experience, but I was very glad when it was done.