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Vol. 17, no. 2
April / May 2014



Story by Sheila Sarhangi
Photos by Elyse Butler

It’s an early September morning at Pu‘u Huluhulu. Yellow-green ‘amakihi dart through puka (spaces) among the snaking koa branches. I’m alone at the hill’s edge with a view of red cinder cones rising from flat, black lava fields. Beside me is a tall ‘ohi‘a tree with blossoms that look like scarlet sea urchins. I hear the crunch of footsteps on lava gravel as Rob Pacheco walks up behind me; the veteran hiker is moving slowly because of what he’s lugging: a forty-pound backpack that has a soccer ball-like green orb rising from the top of it.

“Did you see those nene?” Pacheco asks. I didn’t. “About five just flew overhead. I hope Trekker caught that.” We hike up to the summit plateau from which we watch rental cars zip along the two-lane Saddle Road about 250 feet below. To them Pu‘u Huluhulu looks like a dry, unremarkable hill, not worth a stop. They can’t see what’s on its far side: an oasis of native Hawaiian plants like hulumoa (mistletoe), mamane and ‘iliahi (sandalwood), and forest birds like ‘elepaio, ‘apapapane and the aforementioned ‘amakihi. Thus the reason for its name, which translates to “shaggy hill.”

“Not a lot of people know this place exists,” says Pacheco, and that’s part of the reason we’re here. The technology he’s carrying is similar to what Google strapped to car roofs and drove along roads on all seven continents, capturing panoramic images of everything from the Eiffel Tower to your un-mowed lawn. Google has shrunk that technology so that a human (in this case, Pacheco) can schlep it where no car has gone before. Now they’re loaning Google Trekker out to third-party organizations to photograph places like Pu‘u Huluhulu. Once the images are online, armchair hikers will be able to see 360- degree panoramic views of any place to which Trekker has been trekked.

Last June, Google chose Hawai‘i to launch its loan program and partnered with the Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau. The bureau asked Pacheco to identify which Hawai‘i Island trails should be featured—and if he’d be game to “Trekker” them himself. Pacheco was a smart choice: He knows the Big Island better than many people know their own backyards. Twenty years ago he founded Hawai‘i Forest & Trail, an eco-tourism company whose mission is to connect people to Hawai‘i’s natural and cultural resources. Those lucky enough to hike with the tall, passionate, self-professed bookworm know that Pacheco can’t walk more than five minutes without pointing out a pheasant or sharing the history of an area’s lava flows.

We head back to the car, and when I say “we” I mean “me,” because I’m walking far ahead of Pacheco. The green orb has fifteen cameras positioned to form a globe, like a disco ball. As Pacheco walks the cameras snap an image simultaneously every two and a half seconds, capturing still photos that slightly overlap. I need to stay out of sight to ensure that I don’t wind up in the images. Even if other hikers were to pass, Google’s technology would blur their faces, just as Street View hides license plate numbers. Once a memory card is full —he’s gone through seven so far—Pacheco sends it to Google, where the photos will be stitched together seamlessly. Thus is created a virtual, 360-degree world where anyone can wander by scrolling, zooming and panning. Google Maps will have the first Hawai‘i imagery up this year; it’ll also appear on HVCB’s web site. The bureau hasn’t yet worked out how it will present the fruit of Pacheco’s labor or what data might go with it, such as trail advisories, plant identifications or whether users may add comments. But web or mobile app designers can embed static images on their own sites, so someone could potentially use them to create a Hawai‘i hiking app, for example. The summit’s the limit.