The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter XXIX. 31

Crater House, Kilauea. June 4th.

Once more I write with the splendours of the quenchless fires in sight, and the usual world seems twilight and commonplace by the fierce glare of Halemaumau, and the fitful glare of the other and loftier flame, which is burning ten thousand feet higher in lonely Mokua-weo-weo.

Mr. Green and I left Hilo soon after daylight this morning, and made about “the worst time” ever made on the route. We jogged on slowly and silently for thirty miles in Indian file, through bursts of tropical beauty, over an ocean of fern-clad pahoehoe, the air hot and stagnant, the horses lazy and indifferent, till I was awoke from the kind of cautious doze into which one falls on a sure-footed horse, by a decided coolness in the atmosphere, and Kahele breaking into a lumbering gallop, which he kept up till we reached this house, where, in spite of the exercise, we are glad to get close to a large wood fire. Although we are shivering, the mercury is 57 degrees, but in this warm and equable climate, one’s sensations are not significant of the height of the thermometer.

It is very fascinating to be here on the crater’s edge, and to look across its deep three miles of blackness to the clouds of red light which Halemaumau is sending up, but altogether exciting to watch the lofty curve of Mauna Loa upheave itself against the moon, while far and faint, we see, or think we see, that solemn light, which ever since my landing at Kawaihae has been so mysteriously attractive. It is three days off yet. Perhaps its spasmodic fires will die out, and we shall find only blackness. Perhaps anything, except our seeing it as it ought to be seen! The practical difficulty about a guide increases, and Mr. Gilman cannot help us to solve it. And if it be so cold at 4000 feet, what will it be at 14,000?

KILAUEA. June 5th.

I have no room in my thoughts for anything but volcanoes, and it will be so for some days to come. We have been all day in the crater, in fact, I left Mr. Green and his native there, and came up with the guide, sore, stiff, bruised, cut, singed, grimy, with my thick gloves shrivelled off by the touch of sulphurous acid, and my boots nearly burned off. But what are cuts, bruises, fatigue, and singed eyelashes, in comparison with the awful sublimities I have witnessed today? The activity of Kilauea on Jan. 31 was as child’s play to its activity today: as a display of fireworks compared to the conflagration of a metropolis. THEN, the sense of awe gave way speedily to that of admiration of the dancing fire fountains of a fiery lake; NOW, it was all terror, horror, and sublimity, blackness, suffocating gases, scorching heat, crashings, surgings, detonations; half seen fires, hideous, tortured, wallowing waves. I feel as if the terrors of Kilauea would haunt me all my life, and be the Nemesis of weak and tired hours.

We left early, and descended the terminal wall, still as before, green with ferns, ohias, and sandalwood, and bright with clusters of turquoise berries, and the red fruit and waxy blossoms of the ohelo. The lowest depression of the crater, which I described before as a level fissured sea of iridescent lava, has been apparently partially flooded by a recent overflow from Halemaumau, and the same agency has filled up the larger rifts with great shining rolls of black lava, obnoxiously like boa-constrictors in a state of repletion. In crossing this central area for the second time, with a mind less distracted by the novelty of the surroundings, I observed considerable deposits of remarkably impure sulphur, as well as sulphates of lime and alum in the larger fissures. The presence of moisture was always apparent in connexion with these formations. The solidified surges and convolutions in which the lava lies, the latter sometimes so beautifully formed as to look like coils of wire rope, are truly wonderful. Within the cracks there are extraordinary coloured growths, orange, grey, buff, like mineral lichens, but very hard and brittle.

The recent lava flow by which Halemaumau has considerably heightened its walls, has raised the hill by which you ascend to the brink of the pit to a height of fully five hundred feet from the basin, and this elevation is at present much more fiery and precarious than the former one. It is dead, but not cold, lets one through into cracks hot with corrosive acid, rings hollow everywhere, and its steep acclivities lie in waves, streams, coils, twists, and tortuosities of all kinds, the surface glazed and smoothish, and with a metallic lustre.

Somehow, I expected to find Kilauea as I had left it in January, though the volumes of dense white smoke which are now rolling up from it might have indicated a change; but after the toilsome, breathless climbing of the awful lava hill, with the crust becoming more brittle, and the footing hotter at each step, instead of laughing fire fountains tossing themselves in gory splendour above the rim, there was a hot, sulphurous, mephitic chaos, covering, who knows what, of horror?

So far as we could judge, the level of the lake had sunk to about 80 feet below the margin, and the lately formed precipice was overhanging it considerably. About seven feet back from the edge of the ledge, there was a fissure about eighteen inches wide, emitting heavy fumes of sulphurous acid gas. Our visit seemed in vain, for on the risky verge of this crack we could only get momentary glimpses of wallowing fire, glaring lurid through dense masses of furious smoke which were rolling themselves round in the abyss as if driven by a hurricane.

After failing to get a better standpoint, we suffered so much from the gases, that we coasted the north, till we reached the south lake, one with the other on my former visit, but now separated by a solid lava barrier about three hundred feet broad, and eighty high. Here there was comparatively little smoke, and the whole mass of contained lava was ebullient and incandescent, its level marked the whole way round by a shelf or rim of molten lava, which adhered to the side, as ice often adheres to the margin of rapids, when the rest of the water is liberated and in motion. There was very little centripetal action apparent. Though the mass was violently agitated it always took a southerly direction, and dashed itself with fearful violence against some lofty, undermined cliffs which formed its southern limit. The whole region vibrated with the shock of the fiery surges. To stand there was “to snatch a fearful joy,” out of a pain and terror which were unendurable. For two or three minutes we kept going to the edge, seeing the spectacle as with a flash, through half closed eyes, and going back again; but a few trials, in which throats, nostrils, and eyes were irritated to torture by the acid gases, convinced us that it was unsafe to attempt to remain by the lake, as the pain and gasping for breath which followed each inhalation, threatened serious consequences.

With regard to the north lake we were more fortunate, and more persevering, and I regard the three hours we spent by it as containing some of the most solemn, as well as most fascinating, experiences of my life. The aspect of the volcano had altogether changed within four months. At present there are two lakes surrounded by precipices about eighty feet high. Owing to the smoke and confusion, it is most difficult to estimate their size even approximately, but I think that the diameter of the two cannot be less than a fifth of a mile.

Within the pit or lake by which we spent the morning, there were no fiery fountains, or regular plashings of fiery waves playing in indescribable beauty in a faint blue atmosphere, but lurid, gory, molten, raging, sulphurous, tormented masses of matter, half seen through masses as restless, of lurid smoke. Here, the violent action appeared centripetal, but with a southward tendency. Apparently, huge bulging masses of a lurid-coloured lava were wallowing the whole time one over another in a central whirlpool, which occasionally flung up a wave of fire thirty or forty feet. The greatest intensity of action was always preceded by a dull throbbing roar, as if the imprisoned gases were seeking the vent which was afforded them by the upward bulging of the wave and its bursting into spray. The colour of the lava which appeared to be thrown upwards from great depths, was more fiery and less gory than that nearer the surface. Now and then, through rifts in the smoke we saw a convergence of the whole molten mass into the centre, which rose wallowing and convulsed to a considerable height. The awful sublimity of what we did see, was enhanced by the knowledge that it was only a thousandth part of what we did not see, mere momentary glimpses of a terror and fearfulness which otherwise could not have been borne.

A ledge, only three or four feet wide, hung over the lake, and between that and the comparative terra firma of the older lava, there was a fissure of unknown depth, emitting hot blasts of pernicious gases. The guide would not venture on the outside ledge, but Mr. Green, in his scientific zeal, crossed the crack, telling me not to follow him, but presently, in his absorption with what he saw, called to me to come, and I jumped across, and this remained our perilous standpoint. 32

Burned, singed, stifled, blinded, only able to stand on one foot at a time, jumping back across the fissure every two or three minutes to escape an unendurable whiff of heat and sulphurous stench, or when splitting sounds below threatened the disruption of the ledge: lured as often back by the fascination of the horrors below; so we spent three hours.

There was every circumstance of awfulness to make the impression of the sight indelible. Sometimes dense volumes of smoke hid everything, and yet, upwards, from out “their sulphurous canopy” fearful sounds rose, crashings, thunderings, detonations, and we never knew then whether the spray of some hugely uplifted wave might not dash up to where we stood. At other times the smoke partially lifting, but still swirling in strong eddies, revealed a central whirlpool of fire, wallowing at unknown depths, to which the lava, from all parts of the lake, slid centrewards and downwards as into a vortex, where it mingled its waves with indescribable noise and fury, and then, breaking upwards, dashed itself to a great height in fierce, gory, gouts and clots, while hell itself seemed opening at our feet. At times, again, bits of the lake skinned over with a skin of a wonderful silvery, satiny sheen, to be immediately devoured; and as the lurid billows broke, they were mingled with misplaced patches as if of bright moonlight. Always changing, always suggesting force which nothing could repel, agony indescribable, mystery inscrutable, terror unutterable, a thing of eternal dread, revealed only in glimpses!

It is natural to think that St. John the Evangelist, in some Patmos vision, was transported to the brink of this “bottomless pit,” and found in its blackness and turbulence of agony the fittest emblems of those tortures of remorse and memory, which we may well believe are the quenchless flames of the region of self-chosen exile from goodness and from God. As natural, too, that all Scripture phrases which typify the place of woe should recur to one with the force of a new interpretation, “Who can dwell with the everlasting burnings?” “The smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever,” “The place of hell,” “The bottomless pit,” “The vengeance of eternal fire,” “A lake of fire burning with brimstone.” No sight can be so fearful as this glimpse into the interior of the earth, where fires are for ever wallowing with purposeless force and aimless agony.

Beyond the lake there is a horrible region in which dense volumes of smoke proceed from the upper ground, with loud bellowings and detonations, and we took our perilous way in that direction, over very hot lava which gave way constantly. It is near this that the steady fires are situated which are visible from this house at night. We came first upon a solitary “blowing cone,” beyond which there was a group of three or four, but it is not from these that the smoke proceeds, but from the extensive area beyond them, covered with smoke and steam cracks, and smoking banks, which are probably formed of sulphur deposits. I only visited the solitary cone, for the footing was so precarious, the sight so fearful, and the ebullitions of gases so dangerous, that I did not dare to go near the others, and never wish to look upon their like again.

The one I saw was of beehive shape, about twelve feet high, hollow inside, and its walls were about two feet thick. A part of its imperfect top was blown off, and a piece of its side blown out, and the side rent gave one a frightful view of its interior, with the risk of having lava spat at one at intervals. The name “Blowing Cone” is an apt one, if the theory of their construction be correct. It is supposed that when the surface of the lava cools rapidly owing to enfeebled action below, the gases force their way upwards through small vents, which then serve as “blow holes” for the imprisoned fluid beneath. This, rapidly cooling as it is ejected, forms a ring on the surface of the crust, which, growing upwards by accretion, forms a chimney, eventually nearly or quite closed at the top, so as to form a cone. In this case the cone is about eighty feet above the present level of the lake, and fully one hundred yards distant from its present verge.

The whole of the inside was red and molten, full of knobs, and great fiery stalactites. Jets of lava at a white heat were thrown up constantly, and frequently the rent in the side spat out lava in clots, which cooled rapidly, and looked like drops of bottle green glass. The glimpses I got of the interior were necessarily brief and intermittent. The blast or roar which came up from below was more than deafening; it was stunning: and accompanied with heavy subterranean rumblings and detonations. The chimney, so far as I could see, opened out gradually downwards to a great width, and appeared to be about forty feet deep; and at its base there was an abyss of lashing, tumbling, restless fire, emitting an ominous surging sound, and breaking upwards with a fury which threatened to blow the cone and the crust on which it stands, into the air.

The heat was intense, and the stinging sulphurous gases which were given forth in large quantities, most poisonous. The group of cones west of this one, was visited by Mr. Green; but he found it impossible to make any further explorations. He has seen nearly all the recent volcanic phenomena, but says that these cones present the most “infernal” appearance he has ever witnessed. We returned for a last look at Halemaumau, but the smoke was so dense, and the sulphur fumes so stifling, that, as in a fearful dream, we only heard the thunder of its hidden surges. I write thunder, and one speaks of the lashing of its waves; but these are words pertaining to the familiar earth, and have no place in connection with Kilauea. The breaking lava has a voice all its own, full of compressed fury. Its sound, motion, and aspect are all infernal. Hellish, is the only fitting term.

We are dwelling on a cooled crust all over Southern Hawaii, the whole region is recent lava, and between this and the sea there are several distinct lines of craters thirty miles long, all of which at some time or other have vomited forth the innumerable lava streams which streak the whole country in the districts of Kau, Puna, and Hilo. In fact, Hawaii is a great slag. There is something very solemn in the position of this crater-house: with smoke and steam coming out of every pore of the ground, and in front the huge crater, which to-night lights all the sky. My second visit has produced a far deeper impression even than the first, and one of awe and terror solely.

Kilauea is altogether different from the European volcanoes which send lava and stones into the air in fierce sudden spasms, and then subside into harmlessness. Ever changing, never resting, the force which stirs it never weakening, raging for ever with tossing and strength like the ocean: its labours unfinished and possibly never to be finished, its very unexpectedness adds to its sublimity and terror, for until you reach the terminal wall of the crater, it looks by daylight but a smoking pit in the midst of a dreary stretch of waste land.

Last night I thought the Southern Cross out of place; to-night it seems essential, as Calvary over against Sinai. For Halemaumau involuntarily typifies the wrath which shall consume all evil: and the constellation, pale against its lurid light, the great love and yearning of the Father, “who spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all,” that, “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”


We had a great fright last evening. We had been engaging mules, and talking over our plans with our half-Indian host, when he opened the door and exclaimed, “There’s no light on Mauna Loa; the fire’s gone out.” We rushed out, and though the night was clear and frosty, the mountain curve rose against the sky without the accustomed wavering glow upon it. “I’m afraid you’ll have your trouble for nothing,” Mr. Gilman unsympathisingly remarked; “anyhow, its awfully cold up there,” and rubbing his hands, reseated himself at the fire. Mr. G. and I stayed out till we were half-frozen, and I persuaded myself and him that there was a redder tinge than the moonlight above the summit, but the mountain has given no sign all day, so that I fear that I “evolved” the light out of my “inner consciousness.”

Mr. Gilman was eloquent on the misfortunes of our predecessors, lent me a pair of woollen socks to put on over my gloves, told me privately that if anyone could succeed in getting a guide it would be Mr. Green, and dispatched us at eight this morning with a lurking smile at our “fool’s errand,” thinly veiled by warm wishes for our success. Mr. Reid has two ranches on the mountain, seven miles distant from each other, and was expected every hour at the crater-house on his way to Hilo, but it was not known from which he was coming, and as it appeared that our last hope of getting a guide lay in securing his good will, Mr. G., his servant, and packmule took the lower trail, and I, with a native, a string of mules, and a pack-horse, the upper. Our plans for intercepting the good man were well laid and successful, but turned out resultless.

This has been an irresistibly comical day, and it is just as well to have something amusing interjected between the sublimities of Kilauea, and whatever tomorrow may bring forth. When our cavalcades separated, I followed the guide on a blind trail into the little-known regions on the skirts of Mauna Loa. We only travelled two miles an hour, and the mules kept getting up rows, kicking, and entangling their legs in the lariats, and one peculiarly malign animal dealt poor Kahele a gratuitous kick on his nose, making it bleed.

It is strange, unique country, without any beauty. The seaward view is over a great stretch of apparent table-land, spotted with craters, and split by cracks emitting smoke or steam. The whole region is black with streams of spiked and jagged lava, meandering over it, with charred stumps of trees rising out of them.

The trail, if such it could be called, wound among koa and sandalwood trees occasionally, but habitually we picked our way over waves, coils, and hummocks of pahoehoe surrounded by volcanic sand, and with only a few tufts of grass, abortive ohelos, and vigorous sow thistles (much relished by Kahele) growing in their crevices. Horrid cracks, 50 or 60 feet wide, probably made by earthquakes, abounded, and a black chasm of most infernal aspect dogged us on the left. It was all scrambling up and down. Sometimes there was long, ugly grass, a brownish green, coarse and tufty, for a mile or more. Sometimes clumps of wintry-looking, dead trees, sometimes clumps of attenuated living ones; but nothing to please the eye. We saw neither man nor beast the whole way, except a wild bull, which, tearing down the mountain side, crossed the trail just in front of us, causing a stampede among the mules, and it was fully an hour before they were all caught again.

The only other incident was an earthquake, the most severe, the men here tell me, that has been experienced for two years. One is prepared for any caprices on the part of the earth here, yet when there was a fearful internal throbbing and rumbling, and the trees and grass swayed rapidly, and great rocks and masses of soil were dislodged, and bounded down the hillside, and the earth reeled, and my poor horse staggered and stopped short; far from rising to the magnitude of the occasion, I thought I was attacked with vertigo, and grasped the horn of my saddle to save myself from falling. After a moment of profound stillness, there was again a subterranean sound like a train in a tunnel, and the earth reeled again with such violence that I felt as if the horse and myself had gone over. Poor K. was nervous for some time afterwards. The motion was as violent as that of a large ship in a mid-Atlantic storm. There were four minor shocks within half an hour afterwards.

After crawling along for seven hours, and for the last two in a dripping fog, so dense that I had to keep within kicking range of the mules for fear of being lost, we heard the lowing of domestic cattle, and came to a place where felled trees, very difficult for the horses to cross, were lying. Then a rude boundary wall appeared, inside of which was a small, poor-looking grass house, consisting of one partially-divided room, with a small, ruinous-looking cook-house, a shed, and an unfinished frame house. It looked, and is, a disconsolate conclusion of a wet day’s ride. I rode into the corral, and found two or three very rough-looking whites and half-whites standing, and addressing one of them, I found he was Mr. Reid’s manager there. I asked if they could give me a night’s lodging, which seemed a diverting notion to them; and they said they could give me the rough accommodation they had, but it was hard even for them, till the new house was put up. They brought me into this very rough shelter, a draughty grass room, with a bench, table, and one chair in it. Two men came in, but not the native wife and family, and sat down to a calabash of poi and some strips of dried beef, food so coarse, that they apologised for not offering it to me. They said they had sent to the lower ranch for some flour, and in the meantime they gave me some milk in a broken bowl, their “nearest approach to a tumbler,” they said. I was almost starving, for all our food was on the pack-mule. This is the place where we had been told that we could obtain tea, flour, beef, and fowls!

By some fatality my pen, ink, and knitting were on the pack-mule; it was very cold, the afternoon fog closed us in, and darkness came on prematurely, so that I felt a most absurd sense of ennui, and went over to the cook-house, where I found Gandle cooking, and his native wife with a heap of children and dogs lying round the stove. I joined them till my clothes were dry, on which the man, who in spite of his rough exterior, was really friendly and hospitable, remarked that he saw I was “one of the sort who knew how to take people as I found them.”

This regular afternoon mist which sets in at a certain altitude, blotting out the sun and sky, and bringing the horizon within a few yards, makes me certain after all that the mists of rainless Eden were a phenomenon, the loss of which is not to be regretted.

Still the afternoon hung on, and I went back to the house feeling that the most desirable event which the future could produce would be — a meal. Now and then the men came in and talked for a while, and as the darkness and cold intensified, they brought in an arrangement extemporised out of what looked like a battered tin bath, half full of earth, with some lighted faggots at the top, which gave out a little warmth and much stinging smoke. Actual, undoubted, night came on without Mr. Green, of whose failure I felt certain, and without food, and being blinded by the smoke, I rolled myself in a blanket and fell asleep on the bench, only to wake in a great fright, believing that the volcano house was burning over my head, and that a venerable missionary was taking advantage of the confusion to rob my saddle-bags, which in truth one of the men was moving out of harm’s way, having piled up the fire two feet high.

Presently a number of voices outside shouted Haole! and Mr. Green came in shaking the water from his waterproof, with the welcome words, “Everything’s settled for tomorrow.” Mr. Reid threw cold water on the ascent, and could give no help; and Mr. G. being thus left to himself, after a great deal of trouble, has engaged as guide an active young goat-hunter, who, though he has never been to the top of the mountain, knows other parts of it so well that he is sure he can take us up. Mr. G. also brings an additional mule and pack-horse, so that our equipment is complete, except in the matter of cruppers, which we have been obliged to make for ourselves out of goats’ hair rope, and old stockings. If Mr. G. has an eye for the picturesque, he must have been gratified as he came in from the fog and darkness into the grass room, with the flaring fire in the middle, the rifles gleaming on the wall, the two men in very rough clothing, and myself huddled up in a blanket sitting on the floor, where my friend was very glad to join us.

Mr. Green has brought nothing but tea from Kapapala, but Gandle has made some excellent rolls, besides feasting us on stewed fowl, dough-nuts, and milk! Little comfort is promised for to-night, as Gandle says with a twinkle of kindly malice in his eye, that we shall not “get a wink of sleep, for the place swarms with fleas.” They are a great pest of the colder regions of the islands, and like all other nuisances, are said to have been imported! Gandle and the other man have entertained us with the misfortunes of our predecessors, on which they seem to gloat with ill-omened satisfaction.


31 I venture to present this journal letter just as it was written, trusting that the interest which attaches to volcanic regions, will carry the reader through the minuteness and multiplicity of the details.

32 Since then, the Austins of Onomea were standing on a similar ledge, when a sound as of a surge striking below, made them jump back hastily, and in another moment the projection split off, and was engulfed in the fiery lake.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52