The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter XXIX. — Continued.

Kapapala, June 8th.

The fleas at Ainepo quite fulfilled Mr. Gandle’s prognostications, and I was glad when the cold stars went out one by one, and a red, cloudless dawn broke over the mountain, accompanied by a heavy dew and a morning mist, which soon rolled itself up into rosy folds and disappeared, and there was a legitimate excuse for getting up. Our host provided us with flour, sugar, and dough-nuts, and a hot breakfast, and our expedition, comprising two natives who knew not a word of English, Mr. G. who does not know very much more Hawaiian than I do, and myself, started at seven. We had four superb mules, and two good pack-horses, a large tent, and a plentiful supply of camping blankets. I put on all my own warm clothes, as well as most of those which had been lent to me, which gave me the squat, padded, look of a puffin or Esquimaux, but all, and more were needed long before we reached the top. The mules were beyond all praise. They went up the most severe ascent I have ever seen, climbing steadily for nine hours, without a touch of the spur, and after twenty-four hours of cold, thirst, and hunger, came down again as actively as cats. The pack-horses too were very good, but from the comparative clumsiness with which they move their feet they were very severely cut.

We went off, as usual, in single file, the guide first, and Mr. G. last. The track was passably legible for some time, and wound through long grass, and small koa trees, mixed with stunted ohias and a few common ferns. Half these koa trees are dead, and all, both living and dead, have their branches covered with a long hairy lichen, nearly white, making the dead forest in the slight mist look like a wood in England when covered with rime on a fine winter morning. The koa tree has a peculiarity of bearing two distinct species of leaves on the same twig, one like a curved willow leaf, the other that of an acacia.

After two hours ascent we camped on the verge of the timber line, and fed our animals, while the two natives hewed firewood, and loaded the spare pack-horse with it. The sky was by that time cloudless, and the atmosphere brilliant, and both remained so until we reached the same place twenty-eight hours later, so that the weather favoured us in every respect, for there is “weather” on the mountain, rains, fogs, and wind storms. The grass only grows sparsely in tufts above this place, and though vegetation exists up to a height of 10,000 feet on this side, it consists, for the most part, of grey lichens, a little withered grass, and a hardy asplenium.

At this spot the real business of the ascent begins, and we tightened our girths, distributed the baggage as fairly as possible, and made all secure before remounting.

We soon entered on vast uplands of pahoehoe which ground away the animals’ feet, a horrid waste, extending upwards for 7000 feet. For miles and miles, above and around, great billowy masses, tossed and twisted into an infinity of fantastic shapes, arrest and weary the eye, lava in all its forms, from a compact phonolite, to the lightest pumice stone, the mere froth of the volcano, exceeding in wildness and confusion the most extravagant nightmare ever inflicted on man. Recollect the vastness of this mountain. The whole south of this large island, down to, and below the water’s edge, is composed of its slopes. Its height is nearly three miles, its base is 180 miles in circumference, so that Wales might be packed away within it, leaving room to spare. Yet its whole huge bulk, above a height of about 8000 feet, is one frightful desert, at once the creation and the prey of the mightiest force on earth.

Struggling, slipping, tumbling, jumping, ledge after ledge was surmounted, but still, upheaved against the glittering sky, rose new difficulties to be overcome. Immense bubbles have risen from the confused masses, and bursting, have yawned apart. Swift-running streams of more recent lava have cleft straight furrows through the older congealed surface. Massive flows have fallen in, exposing caverned depths of jagged outlines. Earthquakes have riven the mountain, splitting its sides and opening deep crevasses, which must be leapt or circumvented. Horrid streams of a-a have to be cautiously skirted, which after rushing remorselessly over the kindlier lava have heaped rugged pinnacles of brown scoriae into impassable walls. Winding round the bases of tossed up, fissured hummocks of pahoehoe, leaping from one broken hummock to another, clambering up acclivities so steep that the pack-horse rolled backwards once, and my cat-like mule fell twice, moving cautiously over crusts which rang hollow to the tread; stepping over deep cracks, which, perhaps, led down to the burning fathomless sea, traversing hilly lakes ruptured by earthquakes, and split in cooling into a thousand fissures, painfully toiling up the sides of mounds of scoriae frothed with pumice-stone, and again for miles surmounting rolling surfaces of billowy ropy lava — so passed the long day, under the tropic sun, and the deep blue sky.

Towards afternoon, clouds heaped themselves in brilliant snowy masses, all radiance and beauty to us, all fog and gloom below, girdling the whole mountain, and interposing their glittering screen between us and the dark timber belt, the black smoking shores of Kau, and the blue shimmer of the Pacific. From that time, for twenty-four hours, the lower world, and “works and ways of busy men” were entirely shut out, and we were alone with this trackless and inanimate region of horror.

For the first time our guide hesitated as to the right track, for the faint suspicion of white smoke, which had kept alive our hope that the fire was still burning, had ceased to be visible. We called a halt while he reconnoitred, tried to eat some food, found that our pulses were beating 100 a minute, bathed our heads, specially our temples, with snow, as we had been advised to do by the oldest mountaineer on Hawaii, and heaped on yet more clothing. In fact, I tied a double woollen scarf over all my face but my eyes, and put on a French soldier’s overcoat, with cape and hood, which Mr. Green had brought in case of emergency. The cold had become intense. We had not wasted words at any time, and on remounting, preserved as profound a silence as if we were on a forlorn hope, even the natives intermitting their ceaseless gabble.

Upwards still, in the cold bright air, coating the edges of deep cracks, climbing endless terraces, the mules panting heavily, our breath coming as if from excoriated lungs — so we surmounted the highest ledge. But on reaching the apparent summit we were to all appearance as far from the faint smoke as ever, for this magnificent dome, whose base is sixty miles in diameter, is crowned by a ghastly volcanic table-land, creviced, riven, and ashy, twenty-four miles in circumference. A table-land, indeed, of dark grey lava, blotched by outbursts, and torn by streams of brown a-a, full of hideous crevasses and fearful shapes, as if a hundred waves of lava had rolled themselves one on another, and had congealed in confused heaps, and been tortured in all directions by the mighty power which had upheaved the whole.

Our guide took us a little wrong once, but soon recovered himself with much sagacity. “Wrong” on Mauna Loa means being arrested by an impassable a-a stream, and our last predecessors had nearly been stopped by getting into one in which they suffered severely.

These a-a streams are very deep, and when in a state of fusion move along in a mass 20 feet high sometimes, with very solid walls. Professor Alexander, of Honolulu, supposes them to be from the beginning less fluid than pahoehoe, and that they advance very slowly, being full of solid points, or centres of cooling: that a-a, in fact, grains like sugar. Its hardness is indescribable. It is an aggregate of upright, rugged, adamantine points, and at a distance, a river of it looks like a dark brown Mer de Glace.

At half-past four we reached the edge of an a-a stream, about as wide as the Ouse at Huntingdon Bridge, and it was obvious that somehow or other we must cross it: indeed, I know not if it be possible to reach the crater without passing through one or another of these obstacles. I should have liked to have left the animals there, but it was represented as impossible to proceed on foot, and though this was a decided misrepresentation, Mr. Green plunged in. I had resolved that he should never have any bother in consequence of his kindness in taking me with him, and, indeed, everyone had enough to do in taking care of himself and his own beast, but I never found it harder to repress a cry for help. Not that I was in the least danger, but there was every risk of the beautiful mule being much hurt, or breaking her legs. The fear shown by the animals was pathetic; they shrank back, cowered, trembled, breathed hard and heavily, and stumbled and plunged painfully. It was sickening to see their terror and suffering, the struggling and slipping into cracks, the blood and torture. The mules with their small legs and wonderful agility were more frightened than hurt, but the horses were splashed with blood up to their knees, and their poor eyes looked piteous.

We were then, as we knew, close to the edge of the crater, but the faint smoke wreath had disappeared, and there was nothing but the westering sun hanging like a ball over the black horizon of the desolate summit. We rode as far as a deep fissure filled with frozen snow, with a ledge beyond, threw ourselves from our mules, jumped the fissure, and more than 800 feet below yawned the inaccessible blackness and horror of the crater of Mokuaweoweo, six miles in circumference, and 11,000 feet long by 8,000 wide. The mystery was solved, for at one end of the crater, in a deep gorge of its own, above the level of the rest of the area, there was the lonely fire, the reflection of which, for six weeks, has been seen for 100 miles.

Nearly opposite us, a thing of beauty, a perfect fountain of pure yellow fire, unlike the gory gleam of Kilauea, was regularly playing in several united but independent jets, throwing up its glorious incandescence, to a height, as we afterwards ascertained, of from 150 to 300 feet, and attaining at one time 600! You cannot imagine such a beautiful sight. The sunset gold was not purer than the living fire. The distance which we were from it, divested it of the inevitable horrors which surround it. It was all beauty. For the last two miles of the ascent, we had heard a distant vibrating roar: there, at the crater’s edge, it was a glorious sound, the roar of an ocean at dispeace, mingled with the hollow murmur of surf echoing in sea caves, booming on, rising and falling, like the thunder music of windward Hawaii.

We sat on the ledge outside the fissure for some time, and Mr. Green actually proposed to pitch the tent there, but I dissuaded him, on the ground that an earthquake might send the whole thing tumbling into the crater; nor was this a whimsical objection, for during the night there were two such falls, and after breakfast, another quite near us.

We had travelled for two days under a strong impression that the fires had died out, so you can imagine the sort of stupor of satisfaction with which we feasted on the glorious certainty. Yes, it was glorious, that far-off fire-fountain, and the lurid cracks in the slow-moving, black-crusted flood, which passed calmly down from the higher level to the grand area of the crater.

This area, over two miles long, and a mile and a half wide, with precipitous sides 800 feet deep, and a broad second shelf about 300 feet below the one we occupied, at that time appeared a dark grey, tolerably level lake, with great black blotches, and yellow and white stains, the whole much fissured. No steam or smoke proceeded from any part of the level surface, and it had the unnaturally dead look which follows the action of fire. A ledge, or false beach, which must mark a once higher level of the lava, skirts the lake, at an elevation of thirty feet probably, and this fringed the area with various signs of present volcanic action, steaming sulphur banks, and heavy jets of smoke. The other side, above the crater, has a ridgy broken look, giving the false impression of a mountainous region beyond. At this time the luminous fountain, and the red cracks in the river of lava which proceeded from it, were the only fires visible in the great area of blackness. In former days people have descended to the floor of the crater, but owing to the breaking away of the accessible part of the precipice, a descent now is not feasible, though I doubt not that a man might even now get down, if he went up with suitable tackle, and sufficient assistance.

The one disappointment was that this extraordinary fire-fountain was not only 800 feet below us, but nearly three-quarters of a mile from us, and that it was impossible to get any nearer to it. Those who have made the ascent before have found themselves obliged either to camp on the very spot we occupied, or a little below it.

The natives pitched the tent as near to the crater as was safe, with one pole in a crack, and the other in the great fissure, which was filled to within three feet of the top with snow and ice. As the opening of the tent was on the crater side, we could not get in or out without going down into this crevasse. The tent walls were held down with stones to make it as snug as possible, but snug is a word of the lower earth, and has no meaning on that frozen mountain top. The natural floor was of rough slabs of lava, laid partly edgewise, so that a newly macadamised road would have been as soft a bed. The natives spread the horse blankets over it, and I arranged the camping blankets, made my own part of the tent as comfortable as possible by putting my inverted saddle down for a pillow, put on my last reserve of warm clothing, took the food out of the saddle bags, and then felt how impossible it was to exert myself in the rarified air, or even to upbraid Mr. Green for having forgotten the tea, of which I had reminded him as often as was consistent with politeness!

This discovery was not made till after we had boiled the kettle, and my dismay was softened by remembering that as water boils up there at 187 degrees, our tea would have been worthless. In spite of my objection to stimulants, and in defiance of the law against giving liquor to natives, I made a great tin of brandy toddy, of which all partook, along with tinned salmon and dough-nuts. Then the men piled faggots on the fire and began their everlasting chatter, and Mr. Green and I, huddled up in blankets, sat on the outer ledge in solemn silence, to devote ourselves to the volcano.

The sun was just setting: the tooth-like peaks of Mauna Kea, cold and snow slashed, which were blushing red, the next minute turned ghastly against a chilly sky, and with the disappearance of the sun it became severely cold; yet we were able to remain there till 9.30, the first people to whom such a thing has been possible, so supremely favoured were we by the absence of wind.

When the sun had set, and the brief red glow of the tropics had vanished, a new world came into being, and wonder after wonder flashed forth from the previously lifeless crater. Everywhere through its vast expanse appeared glints of fire — fires bright and steady, burning in rows like blast furnaces; fires lone and isolated, unwinking like planets, or twinkling like stars; rows of little fires marking the margin of the lowest level of the crater; fire molten in deep crevasses; fire in wavy lines; fire, calm, stationary, and restful: an incandescent lake two miles in length beneath a deceptive crust of darkness, and whose depth one dare not fathom even in thought. Broad in the glare, giving light enough to read by at a distance of three-quarters of a mile, making the moon look as blue as an ordinary English sky, its golden gleam changed to a vivid rose colour, lighting up the whole of the vast precipices of that part of the crater with a rosy red, bringing out every detail here, throwing cliffs and heights into huge black masses there, rising, falling, never intermitting, leaping in lofty jets with glorious shapes like wheatsheaves, coruscating, reddening, the most glorious thing beneath the moon was the fire-fountain of Mokuaweoweo.

By day the cooled crust of the lake had looked black and even sooty, with a fountain of molten gold playing upwards from it; by night it was all incandescent, with black blotches of cooled scum upon it, which were perpetually being devoured. The centre of the lake was at a white heat, and waves of white hot lava appeared to be wallowing there as in a whirlpool, and from this centre the fountain rose, solid at its base, which is estimated at 150 feet in diameter, but thinning and frittering as it rose high into the air, and falling from the great altitude to which it attained, in fiery spray, which made a very distinct clatter on the fiery surface below. When one jet was about half high, another rose so as to keep up the action without intermission; and in the lower part of the fountain two subsidiary curved jets of great volume continually crossed each other. So, “alone in its glory,” perennial, self-born, springing up in sparkling light, the fire-fountain played on as the hours went by.

From the nearer margin of this incandescent lake there was a mighty but deliberate overflow, a “silent tide” of fire, passing to the lower level, glowing under and amidst its crust, with the brightness of metal passing from a furnace. In the bank of partially cooled and crusted lava which appears to support the lake, there were rifts showing the molten lava within. In one place heavy white vapour blew off in powerful jets from the edge of the lake, and elsewhere there were frequent jets and ebullitions of the same, but there was not a trace of vapour over the burning lake itself. The crusted large area, with its blowing cones, blotches and rifts of fire, was nearly all visible, and from the thickness and quietness of the crust it was obvious that the ocean of lava below was comparatively at rest, but a dark precipice concealed a part of the glowing and highly agitated lake, adding another mystery to its sublimity.

It is probable that the whole interior of this huge dome is fluid, for the eruptions from this summit crater do not proceed from its filling up and running over, but from the mountain sides being unable to bear the enormous pressure; when they give way, high or low, and bursting, allow the fiery contents to escape. So, in 1855, the mountain side split open, and the lava gushed forth for thirteen months in a stream which ran for 60 miles, and flooded Hawaii for 300 square miles. 33

From the camping ground, immense cracks parallel with the crater, extend for some distance, and the whole of the compact grey stone of the summit is much fissured. These cracks, like the one by which our tent was pitched, contain water resting on ice. It shows the extreme difference of climate on the two sides of Hawaii, that while vegetation straggles up to a height of 10,000 feet on the windward side in a few miserable blasted forms, it absolutely ceases at a height of 7,000 feet on the leeward.

It was too cold to sit up all night; so by the “fire light” I wrote the enclosed note to you with fingers nearly freezing on the pen, and climbed into the tent.

It is possible that tent life in the East, or in the Rocky Mountains, with beds, tables, travelling knick-knacks of all descriptions, and servants who study their master’s whims, may be very charming; but my experience of it having been of the make-shift and non-luxurious kind, is not delectable. A wooden saddle, without stuffing, made a very fair pillow; but the ridges of the lava were severe. I could not spare enough blankets to soften them, and one particularly intractable point persisted in making itself felt. I crowded on everything attainable, two pairs of gloves, with Mr. Gilman’s socks over them, and a thick plaid muffled up my face. Mr. Green and the natives, buried in blankets, occupied the other part of the tent. The phrase, “sleeping on the brink of a volcano,” was literally true, for I fell asleep, and fear I might have been prosaic enough to sleep all night, had it not been for fleas which had come up in the camping blankets. When I woke, it was light enough to see that the three muffled figures were all asleep, instead of spending the night in shiverings and vertigo, as it appears that others have done. Doubtless the bathing of our heads several times with snow and ice-water had been beneficial.

Circumstances were singular. It was a strange thing to sleep on a lava-bed at a height of nearly 14,000 feet, far away from the nearest dwelling, “in a region,” as Mr. Jarves says, “rarely visited by man,” hearing all the time the roar, clash, and thunder of the mightiest volcano in the world. It seemed all a wild dream, as that majestic sound moved on. There were two loud reports, followed by a prolonged crash, occasioned by parts of the crater walls giving way; vibrating rumblings, as if of earthquakes; and then a louder surging of the fiery ocean, and a series of most imposing detonations. Creeping over the sleeping forms, which never stirred even though I had to kneel upon one of the natives while I untied the flap of the tent, I crept cautiously into the crevasse in which the snow-water was then hard frozen, and out upon the projecting ledge. The four hours in which we had previously watched the volcano had passed like one; but the lonely hours which followed might have been two minutes or a year, for time was obliterated.

Coldly the Pole-star shivered above the frozen summit, and a blue moon, nearly full, withdrew her faded light into infinite space. The Southern Cross had set. Two peaks below the Pole-star, sharply defined against the sky, were the only signs of any other world than the world of fire and mystery around. It was light, broadly, vividly light; the sun himself, one would have thought, might look pale beside it. But such a light! The silver index of my thermometer, which had fallen to 23 degrees Fahrenheit, was ruby red; that of the aneroid, which gave the height at 13,803 feet (an error of 43 feet in excess), was the same. The white duck of the tent was rosy, and all the crater walls and the dull-grey ridges which lie around were a vivid rose red.

All Hawaii was sleeping. Our Hilo friends looked out the last thing; saw the glare, and probably wondered how we were “getting on,” high up among the stars. Mine were the only mortal eyes which saw what is perhaps the grandest spectacle on earth. Once or twice I felt so overwhelmed by the very sublimity of the loneliness, that I turned to the six animals, which stood shivering in the north wind, without any consciousness than that of cold, hunger, and thirst. It was some relief even to pity them, for pity was at least a human feeling, and a momentary rest from the thrill of the new sensations inspired by the circumstances. The moon herself looked a wan unfamiliar thing — not the same moon which floods the palm and mango groves of Hilo with light and tenderness. And those palm and mango groves, and lighted homes, and seas, and ships, and cities, and faces of friends, and all familiar things, and the day before, and the years before, were as things in dreams, coming up out of a vanished past. And would there ever be another day, and would the earth ever be young and green again, and would men buy and sell and strive for gold, and should I ever with a human voice tell living human beings of the things of this midnight? How far it was from all the world, uplifted above love, hate, and storms of passion, and war, and wreck of thrones, and dissonant clash of human thought, serene in the eternal solitudes!

Things had changed, as they change hourly in craters. The previous loud detonations were probably connected with the evolutions of some “blowing cones,” which were now very fierce, and throwing up lava at the comparatively dead end of the crater. Lone stars of fire broke out frequently through the blackened crust. The molten river, flowing from the incandescent lake, had advanced and broadened considerably. That lake itself, whose diameter has been estimated at 800 feet, was rose-red and self-illuminated, and the increased noise was owing to the increased force of the fire-fountain, which was playing regularly at a height of 300 feet, with the cross fountains, like wheat-sheaves, at its lower part. These cross-fountains were the colour of a mixture of blood and fire, and the lower part of the perpendicular jets was the same; but as they rose and thinned, this colour passed into a vivid rose-red, and the spray and splashes were as rubies and flame mingled. For ever falling in fiery masses and fiery foam: accompanied by a thunder-music of its own: companioned only by the solemn stars: exhibiting no other token of its glories to man than the reflection of its fires on mist and smoke; it burns for the Creator’s eye alone. No foot of mortal can approach it.

Hours passed as I watched the indescribable glories of the fire-fountain, its beauty of form, and its radiant reflection on the precipices, eight hundred feet high, which wall it in, and listened to its surges beating, and the ebb and flow of its thunder-music. Then a change occurred. The jets, which for long had been playing at a height of 300 feet, suddenly became quite low, and for a few seconds appeared as cones of fire wallowing in a sea of light; then with a roar like the sound of gathering waters, nearly the whole surface of the lake was lifted up by the action of some powerful internal force, and rose three times with its whole radiant mass, in one glorious, upward burst, to a height, as estimated by the surrounding cliffs, of six hundred feet, while the earth trembled, and the moon and stars withdrew abashed into far-off space. After this the fire-fountain played as before. The cold had become intense, 11 degrees of frost; and I crept back into the tent; those words occurring to me with a new meaning, “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto.”

We remained in the tent till the sun had slightly warmed the air, and then attempted to prepare breakfast by the fire; but no one could eat anything, and the native from Waimea complained of severe headache, which shortly became agonizing, and he lay on the ground moaning, and completely prostrated by mountain sickness. I felt extreme lassitude, and exhaustion followed the slightest effort; but the use of snow to the head produced great relief. The water in our canteens was hard frozen, and the keenness of the cold aggravated the uncomfortable symptoms which accompany pulses at 110 degrees. The native guide was the only person capable of work, so we were late in getting off, and rode four and a half hours to the camping ground, only stopping once to tighten our girths. Not a rope, strap, or buckle, or any of our gear gave way, and though I rode without a crupper, the breeching of a pack mule’s saddle kept mine steady.

The descent, to the riders, is far more trying than the ascent, owing to the continued stretch of very steep declivity for eight thousand feet; but our mules never tripped, and came into Ainepo as if they had not travelled at all. The horses were terribly cut, both again in the a-a stream, and on the descent. It was sickening to follow them, for at first they left fragments of hide and hair on the rocks, then flesh, and when there was no more hide or flesh to come off their poor heels and fetlocks, blood dripped on every rock, and if they stood still for a few moments, every hoof left a little puddle of gore. We had all the enjoyment and they all the misery. I was much exhausted when we reached the camping-ground, but soon revived under the influence of food; but the poor native, who was really very ill, abandoned himself to wretchedness, and has only recovered today.

The belt of cloud which was all radiance above, was all drizzling fog below, and we reached Ainepo in a regular Scotch mist. The ranchman seemed rather grumpy at our successful ascent, which involved the failure of all their prophecies, and, indeed, we were thoroughly unsatisfactory travellers, arriving fresh and complacent, with neither adventures nor disasters to gladden people’s hearts. We started for this ranch seven miles further, soon after dark, and arrived before nine, after the most successful ascent of Mauna Loa ever made.

Without being a Sybarite, I certainly do prefer a comfortable pulu bed to one of ridgy lava, and the fire which blazes on this broad hearth to the camp-fire on the frozen top of the volcano. The worthy ranchman expected us, and has treated us very sumptuously, and even Kahele is being regaled on Chinese sorghum. The Sunday’s rest, too, is a luxury, which I wonder that travellers can ever forego. If one is always on the move, even very vivid impressions are hunted out of the memory by the last new thing. Though I am not unduly tired, even had it not been Sunday, I should have liked a day in which to recall and arrange my memories of Mauna Loa before the forty-eight miles’ ride to Hilo.

This afternoon, we were sitting under the verandah talking volcanic talk, when there was a loud rumbling, and a severe shock of earthquake, and I have been twice interrupted in writing this letter by other shocks, in which all the frame-work of the house has yawned and closed again. They say that four years ago, at the time of the great “mud flow” which is close by, this house was moved several feet by an earthquake, and that all the cattle walls which surround it were thrown down. The ranchman tells us that on January 7th and 8th, 1873, there was a sudden and tremendous outburst of Mauna Loa. The ground, he says, throbbed and quivered for twenty miles; a tremendous roaring, like that of a blast furnace, was heard for the same distance, and clouds of black smoke trailed out over the sea for thirty miles.

We have dismissed our guide with encomiums. His charge was $10; but Mr. Green would not allow me to share that, or any part of the expense, or pay anything, but $6 for my own mule. The guide is a goat-hunter, and the chase is very curiously pursued. The hunter catches sight of a flock of goats, and hunts them up the mountain, till, agile and fleet of foot as they are, he actually tires them out, and gets close enough to them to cut their throats for the sake of their skins. If I understand rightly, this young man has captured as many as seventy in a day.

Crater House, Kilauea. June 9th.

This morning Mr. Green left for Kona, and I for Kilauea; the ranchman’s native wife and her sister riding with me for several miles to put me on the right track. Kahele’s sociable instincts are so strong, that, before they left me, I dismounted, blindfolded him, and led him round and round several times, a process which so successfully confused his intellects, that he started off in this direction with more alacrity than usual. They certainly put me on a track which could not be mistaken, for it was a narrow, straight path, cut and hammered through a broad horrible a-a stream, whose jagged spikes were the height of the horse. But beyond this lie ten miles of pahoehoe, the lava-flows of ages, with only now and then the vestige of a trail.

Except the perilous crossing of the Hilo gulches in February, this is the most difficult ride I have had — eerie and impressive in every way. The loneliness was absolute. For several hours I saw no trace of human beings, except the very rare print of a shod horse’s hoof. It is a region for ever “desolate and without inhabitant,” trackless, waterless, silent, as if it had passed into the passionless calm of lunar solitudes. It is composed of rough hummocks of pahoehoe, rising out of a sandy desert. Only stunted ohias, loaded with crimson tufts, raise themselves out of cracks: twisted, tortured growths, bearing their bright blossoms under protest, driven unwillingly to be gay by a fiery soil and a fiery sun. To the left, there was the high, dark wall of an a-a stream; further yet, a tremendous volcanic fissure, at times the bed of a fiery river, and above this the towering dome of Mauna Loa, a brilliant cobalt blue, lined and shaded with indigo where innumerable lava streams had seamed his portentous sides: his whole beauty the effect of atmosphere, on an object in itself hideous. Ahead and to the right were rolling miles of a pahoehoe sea, bounded by the unseen Pacific 3,000 feet below, with countless craters, fissures emitting vapour, and all other concomitants of volcanic action; bounded to the north by the vast crater of Kilauea. On all this deadly region the sun poured his tropic light and heat from one of the bluest skies I ever saw.

The direction given me on leaving Kapapala was, that after the natives left me I was to keep a certain crater on the south-east till I saw the smoke of Kilauea; but there were many craters. Horses cross the sand and hummocks as nearly as possible on a bee line; but the lava rarely indicates that anything has passed over it, and this morning a strong breeze had rippled the sand, completely obliterating the hoof-marks of the last traveller, and at times I feared that losing myself, as many others have done, I should go mad with thirst. I examined the sand narrowly for hoof-marks, and every now and then found one, but always had the disappointment of finding that it was made by an unshod horse, therefore not a ridden one. Finding eyesight useless, I dismounted often, and felt with my finger along the rolling lava for the slightest marks of abrasion, which might show that shod animals had passed that way, got up into an ohia to look out for the smoke of Kilauea, and after three hours came out upon what I here learn is the old track, disused because of the insecurity of the ground.

It runs quite close to the edge of the crater, there 1,000 feet in depth, and gives a magnificent view of the whole area, with the pit and the blowing cones. But the region through which the trail led was rather an alarming one, being hollow and porous, all cracks and fissures, nefariously concealed by scrub and ferns. I found a place, as I thought, free from risk, and gave Kahele a feed of oats on my plaid, but before he had finished them there was a rumbling and vibration, and he went into the ground above his knees, so snatching up the plaid and jumping on him I galloped away, convinced that that crack was following me! However, either the crack thought better of it, or Kahele travelled faster, for in another half-hour I arrived where the whole region steams, smokes, and fumes with sulphur, and was kindly welcomed here by Mr. Gilman, where he and the old Chinaman appear to be alone.

After a seven hours’ ride the quiet and the log fire are very pleasant, and the host is a most intelligent and sympathising listener. It is a solemn night, for the earth quakes, and the sound of Halemaumau is like the surging of the sea.

Hilo. June 11th.

Once more I am among palm and mango grove, and friendly faces, and sounds of softer surges than those of Kilauea. I had a dreary ride yesterday, as the rain was incessant, and I saw neither man, bird, or beast the whole way. Kahele was so heavily loaded that I rode the thirty miles at a foot’s pace, and he became so tired that I had to walk.

It has been a splendid week, with every circumstance favourable, nothing sordid or worrying to disturb the impressions received, kindness and goodwill everywhere, a travelling companion whose consideration, endurance, and calmness were beyond all praise, and at the end the cordial welcomes of my Hawaiian “home.”


33 Since white men have inhabited the islands, there have been ten recorded eruptions from the craters of Mauna Loa, and one from Hualalai.

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