The Hawaiian Archipelago:
Six months amongst the palm groves, coral reefs, and volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands
By Isabella L. Bird, 1875



A Moonlight Start—Native Hospitality— Native Luxury—A Council of War—The Rainy Season— The Melithreptes Pacifica — Prospects Darken—A Freshet—A Dialogue under Difficulties—A Swim for Life—The "Scotchman's Gulch"

Hilo, Hawaii

There is a rumour that the king is coming as the guest of Admiral Pennock in the Benicia. If it turns out to be true, it will turn our quiet life upside down.

We met with fearful adventures in the swollen gulches between Laupahoehoe and Onomea. It is difficult to begin my letter with the plain prose of our departure from Waipio, which we accomplished on the morning after I last wrote. On rising after a sound sleep, I found that my potted beef, which I had carefully hung from a nail the night before, had been almost carried away by small ants. These ants swarm in every house on low altitudes. They assemble in legions as if by magic, and by their orderly activity carry away all that they do not devour, of all eatables which have not been placed on tables which have rags dipped in a solution of corrosive sublimate wound round their legs.

We breakfasted by lamplight, and because I had said that some of the viands reminded me of home, our kind host had provided them at that early hour. He absolutely refused to be paid anything for the accommodation of our party, and said he should be ashamed of himself if he took anything from a lady travelling without a husband.

It was a perfect morning. The full moon hung over the enclosing palis, gleaming on coffee and breadfruit groves, and on the surface of the river, which was just quivering under a soft sea breeze. The dew was heavy, smoke curled idly from native houses, the east was flushing with the dawn, and the valley looked the picture of perfect peace. A number of natives assembled to see us start, and they all shook hands with us, exchanging alohas, and presenting us with lets of roses and ohias. D. looked very pretty with a red hibiscus blossom in her shining hair. You would have been amused to see me shaking hands with men dressed only in malos, or in the short blue shirt reaching to the waist, much worn by them when at work.

I rode my mare with some pride of proprietorship, and our baggage for a time was packed on the mule, and we started up the tremendous pall at the tail of a string of twenty mules and horses laden with kalo. This was in the form of paiai, or hard food, which is composed, as I think I mentioned before, of the root baked and pounded, but without water. It is put up in bundles wrapped in ti leaves, of from twenty to thirty pounds each, secured with cocoanut fibre, in which state it will keep for months, and much of the large quantity raised in Waipio is exported to the plantations, the Waimea ranches, and the neighbouring districts. A square mile of kalo, it is estimated, would feed 15,000 Hawaiians for a year.

It was a beautiful view from the top of the pali. The white moon was setting, the earliest sunlight was lighting up the dewy depths of the lonely valley, reddening with a rich rose red the huge headland which forms one of its sentinels; heavy snow had fallen during the night on Mauna Kea, and his great ragged dome, snow-covered down to the forests, was blushing like an Alpine peak at the touch of the early sun. It ripened into a splendid joyous day, which redeemed the sweeping uplands of Hamakua from the dreariness which I had thought belonged to them. There was a fresh sea-breeze, and the sun, though unclouded, was not too hot. We halted for an early lunch at the clean grass-house we had stopped at before, and later in the afternoon at that of the woman with whom we had ridden from Hakalau, who received us very cordially, and regaled us with poi and pork.

In order to avoid the amenities of Bola Bola's we rode thirty four miles, and towards evening descended the tremendous steep, which leads to the surf-deafened village of Laupahoehoe. Halemanu had given me a note of introduction to a widow named Honolulu, and on presenting it we were made very welcome. Besides the widow, a very redundant beauty, there were her two brothers and two male cousins, and all bestirred themselves in our service, the men in killing and cooking the supper, and the woman in preparing the beds. It was quite a large room, with doors at the end and side, and fully a third was curtained off by a calico curtain, with a gorgeous Cretonne pattern upon it. I was delighted to see a tour-post bed, with mosquito bars, and a clean pulu mattrass, with a linen sheet over it, covered with a beautiful quilt with a quaint arabesque pattern on a white ground running round it, and a wreath of green leaves in the centre. The native women exercise the utmost ingenuity in the patterns and colours of these quilts. Some of them are quite works of art. The materials, which are plain and printed cottons, cost about $8, and a complete quilt is worth from $18 to $50. The widow took six small pillows, daintily covered with silk, out of a chest, the uses of which were not obvious, as two large pillows were already on the bed. It was astonishing to see a native house so handsomely furnished in so poor a place. The mats on the floor were numerous and very fine. There were two tables, several chairs, a bureau with a swinging mirror upon it, a basin, crash towels, a caraffe and a kerosene lamp. It is all very well to be able to rough it, and yet better to enjoy doing so, but such luxuries add much to one's contentment after eleven hours in the saddle.

Honolulu wore a green chemise at first, but when supper was ready she put a Macgregor tartan holoku over it. The men were very active, and cooked the fowl in about the same time that it takes to pluck one at home. They spread the finest mat I have seen in the centre of the floor as a tablecloth, and put down on it bowls containing the fowl and sweet potatoes, and the unfailing calabash of pot. Tea, coffee, and milk were not procurable, and as the water is slimy and brackish, I offered a boy a dime to get me a cocoanut, and presently eight great, misshapen things were rolled down at the door. The outside is a smooth buff rind, underneath which is a fibrous covering, enormously strong and about an inch thick, which when stripped off reveals the nut as we see it, but of a very pale colour. Those we opened were quite young, and each contained nearly three tumblers of almost effervescent, very sweet, slightly acidulated, perfectly limpid water, with a strong flavour of cocoanut. It is a delicious beverage. The meat was so thin and soft that it could have been spooned out like the white of an egg if we had had any spoons. We all sat cross-legged round our meal, and all Laupahoehoe crowded into the room and verandah with the most persistent, unwinking, gimleting stare I ever saw. It was really unpleasant, not only to hear a Babel of talking, of which, judging from the constant repetition of the words wahine haole, I was the subject, but to have to eat under the focussed stare of twenty pair of eyes.

My folding camp-knife appears an object of great interest, and it was handed round, inside and outside the house. When I retired about seven, the assemblage was still in full session.

The stars were then bright, but when I woke the next morning a strong breeze was blowing, the surf was roaring so loud as almost to drown human voices, and rolling up in gigantic surges, and to judge from appearances, the rain, which was falling in torrents, had been falling for some hours. There was much buzzing among the natives regarding our prospects for the day. I shall always think from their tone and manner, and the frequent repetition of the names of the three worst gulches, that the older men tried to dissuade us from going j but Deborah, who was very anxious to be at home by Sunday, said that the verdict was that if we started at once for our ride of twenty-three miles we might reach Onomea before the freshet came on. This might have been the case had it not been for Kaluna. Not only was his horse worn out, but nothing would induce him to lead the mule, and she went off on foraging expeditions continually, which further detained us. Kaluna had grown quite polite in his savage way. He always insisted on putting on and taking off my boots, carried me once through the Waipio river, helped me to pack the saddle-bags, and even offered to brush my hair! He frequently brought me guavas on the road, saying, "eat,” and often rode up, saying interrogatively, “tired?” "cold?” D. told me that he was very tired, and I was very sorry for him, for he was so thinly and poorly dressed, and the natives are not strong enough to bear exposure to cold as we can, and a temperature at 68° is cold to them. But he was quite incorrigible, and thrashed his horse to the last.

We breakfasted on fowl, poi, and cocoanut milk, in presence of even a larger number of spectators than the night before, one of them a very old man looking savagely picturesque, with a red blanket tied round his waist, leaving his lean chest and arms, which were elaborately tattooed, completely exposed.

The mule had been slightly chafed by the gear, and in my anxiety about a borrowed animal, of which Mr. Austin makes a great joke, I put my saddle-bags on my own mare in an evil hour, and not only these, but some fine cocoanuts, tied up in a waterproof which had long ago proved its worthlessness. It was a grotesquely miserable picture. The house is not far from the beach, and the surf, beyond which a heavy mist hung, was coming in with such a tremendous sound that we had to shout at the top of our voices in order to be heard. The sides of the great gulch rose like prison walls, cascades which had no existence the previous night hurled themselves from the summit of the cliffs directly into the sea, the rain, which fell m sheets, not drops, covered the ground to the depth of two or three inches, and dripped from the wretched, shivering horses, which stood huddled together with their tails between their legs. My thin flannel suit was wet through even before we mounted. I dispensed with stockings, as I was told that wearing them in rain chills and stiffens the limbs. D., about whom I was anxious, as well as about the mule, had a really waterproof cloak, and I am glad to say has quite lost the cough from which she suffered before our expedition. She does not care about rain any more than I do.

We soon reached the top of the worst and dizziest of all the pa/is, and then splashed on, mile after mile, down sliding banks, and along rocky tracks, from which the soil had been completely carried, the rain falling all the time. In some places several feet of soil had been carried away, and we passed through water-rents, the sides of which were as high as our horses' heads, where the ground had been level a few days before. By noon the aspect of things became so bad that I wished we had a white man with us, as I was uneasy about some of the deepest gulches. When four hours' journey from Onomea, Kaluna's horse broke down, and he left us to get another, and we rode a mile out of our way to visit Deborah's grandparents.

Her uncle carried us across some water to their cook-house, where, happily, a kalo baking had just been accomplished in a hole in the ground, lined with stones, among which the embers were still warm. In this very small hut, in which a man could hardly stand upright, there were five men only dressed in malos, four women, two of them very old, much tattooed, and huddled up in blankets, two children, five pertinaciously sociable dogs, two cats, and heaps of things of different kinds. The natives are most gregarious, always visiting each other, and living in each other's houses, and so hospitable that no Hawaiian, however poor, will refuse to share his last mouthful of poi with a stranger of his own race. These people looked very poor, but probably were not really so, as they had a nice grass-house, with very fine mats, within a few yards.

A man went out, cut off the head of a fowl, singed it in the flame, cut it into pieces, put it into a pot to boil, and before our feet were warm the bird was cooked, and we ate it out of the pot with some baked kalo.* D. took me out to see some mango trees, and a pond filled with gold fish, which she said had been hers when she was a child. She seemed very fond of her relatives, among whom she looked like a fairy princess; and I think they admired her very much, and treated her with some deference. The object of our visit was to procure a le of birds' feathers which they had been making for her, and for which I am sure 300 birds must have been sacrificed. It was a very beautiful as well as costly ornament,* and most ingeniously packed for travelling by being laid at full length within a slender cylinder of bamboo.

* A small bird, Melithreptes Pacifica, inhabits the mountainous regions of Hawaii, and has under each wing a single feather, one inch long, of a bright canary yellow. The birds are caught by means of a viscid substance smeared on poles. Formerly they were strictly tabu. It is of these feathers that the mamo or war-cloak of Kamehameha I., now used on state occasions by the Hawaiian kings, is composed. This priceless mantle is four feet long, eleven and a half feet wide at the bottom, and its formation occupied nine successive reigns. It is one of the costliest of royal ornaments, if the labour spent upon it is estimated, and the feathers of which it is made have been valued at a dollar and a half for five.

We rode on again, somewhat unwillingly on my part, for though I thought my apprehensions might be cowardly and ignorant, yet D. was but a child, and had the attractive willfulness of childhood, and she was, I saw, determined to get back to her husband, and the devotion and affection of the young wife were so pleasant to see, that I had not the heart to offer serious opposition to her wishes, especially as I knew that I might be exaggerating the possible peril. I gathered, however, from what she said, that her people wanted us to remain until Monday, especially as none of them could go with us, their horses being at some distance. I thought it a sign of difficulties ahead, that on one of the most frequented tracks in Hawaii, we had not met a single traveller, though it was Saturday, a special travelling day.

We crossed one gulch in which the water was strong, and up to our horses' bodies, and came upon the incorrigible Kaluna, who, instead of catching his horse, was recounting his adventures to a circle of natives, but promised to follow us soon. D. then said that the next gulch was rather a bad one, and that we must not wait for Kaluna, but ride fast, and try to get through it. When we reached the pali above it, we heard the roaring of a torrent, and when we descended to its brink it looked truly bad, but D. rode in, and I waited on the margin. She got safely across, but when she was near the opposite side her large horse plunged, slipped, and scrambled in a most unpleasant way, and she screamed something to me which I could not hear. Then I went in, and

“At the first plunge the horse sank low,
And the water broke o'er the saddle bow:"

but the brave animal struggled through, with the water up to the top of her back, till she reached the place where D.'s horse had looked so insecure. In another moment she and I rolled backwards into deep water, as if she had slipped from a submerged rock. I saw her fore feet pawing the air, and then only her head was above water. I struck her hard with my spurs, she snorted, clawed, made a desperate struggle, regained her footing, got into shallow water, and landed safely. It was a small but not an agreeable adventure.

We went on again, the track now really dangerous from denudation and slipperiness. The rain came down, if possible, yet more heavily, and coursed fiercely down each track. Hundreds of cascades leapt from the cliffs, bringing down stones with a rattling sound. We crossed a bridge over one gulch, where the water was thundering down in such volume that it seemed as if it must rend the hard basalt of the palis. Then we reached the lofty top of the great Hakalau gulch, the largest of all, with the double river, and the ocean close to the ford. Mingling with the deep reverberations of the surf, I heard the sharp, crisp rush of a river, and of “a river that has no bridge."

The dense foliage, and the exigencies of the steep track, which had become very difficult, owing to the washing away of the soil, prevented me from seeing anything till I got down. I found Deborah speaking to a native, who was gesticulating very emphatically, and pointing up the river. The roar was deafening, and the sight terrific. Where there were two shallow streams a week ago, with a house and good-sized piece of ground above their confluence, there was now one spinning, rushing, chafing, foaming river, twice as wide as the Clyde at Glasgow, the land was submerged, and, if I remember correctly, the house only stood above the flood. And, most fearful to look upon, the ocean, in three huge breakers, had come quite in, and its mountains of white surge looked fearfully near the only possible crossing. I entreated D. not to go on. She said we could not go back, that the last gulch was already impassable, that between the two there was no house in which we could sleep, that the river had a good bottom, that the man thought if our horses were strong we could cross now, but not later, etc. In short, she overbore all opposition, and plunged in, calling to me, "Spur, spur, all the time."

Just as I went in, I took my knife and cut open the cloak which contained the cocoanuts. Deborah's horse I knew was strong, and shod, but my unshod and untried mare, what of her? My soul and senses literally reeled among the dizzy horrors of the wide, wild tide, but with an effort I regained sense and self-possession, for we were in, and there was no turning. D., ahead, screeched to me what I could not hear; she said afterwards it was "spur, spur, and keep up the river;" the native was shrieking in Hawaiian from the hinder shore, and waving to the right, but the torrents of rain, the crash of the breakers, and the rush and hurry of the river confused both sight and hearing. I saw D.'s great horse carried off his legs, my mare, too, was swimming, and shortly afterwards, between swimming, struggling, and floundering, we reached what had been the junction of the two rivers, where there was foothold, and the water was only up to the seats of the saddles.

Remember, we were both sitting nearly up to our waists in water, and it was only by screaming that our voices were heard above the din, and to return or go on seemed equally perilous. Under these critical circumstances the following colloquy took place, on my side, with teeth chattering, and on hers with a sudden forgetfulness of English, produced by her first sense of the imminent danger we were in.

Self— “My mare is so tired, and so heavily weighted, we shall be drowned, or I shall."

Deborah (with more reason on her side).—”But can't go back, we no stay here, water higher all minutes, spur horse, think we come through."

Self—”But if we go on there is broader, deeper water between us and the shore; your husband would not like you to run such a risk."

Deborah—”Think we get through or if horses give out, we let go; I swim and save you."

Even under these circumstances a gleam of the ludicrous shot through me at the  idea of this small fragile being bearing up my weight among the breakers. I attempted to shift my saddle-bags upon her powerful horse, but being full of water and under water, the attempt failed, and as we spoke both our horses were carried off their vantage ground into deep water.

With wilder fury the river rushed by, its waters whirled dizzily, and, in spite of spurring and lifting with the rein, the horses were swept seawards. I saw Deborah's horse spin round, and thought woefully of the possible fate of the bright young wife, almost a bride; only the horses' heads and our own heads and shoulders were above water; the surf was thundering on our left, and we were drifting towards it “broadside on.” When I saw the young girl's face of horror I felt increased presence of mind, and raising my voice to a shriek, and telling her to do as I did, I lifted and turned my mare with the rein, so that her chest and not her side should receive the force of the river, and the brave animal, as if seeing what she should do, struck out desperately. It was a horrible suspense. Were we stemming the torrent, or was it sweeping us back that very short distance which lay between us and the mountainous breakers? I constantly spurred my mare, guiding her slightly to the left, the side grew nearer, and after exhausting struggles, Deborah's horse touched ground, and her voice came faintly towards me like a voice in a dream, still calling "Spur, spur." My mare touched ground twice, and was carried off again before she fairly got to land some yards nearer the sea than the bridle track.

I then put our saddle-bags on Deborah's horse. It was one of the worst and steepest of the palis that we had to ascend; but I can't remember anything about the road except that we had to leap some place which we could not cross otherwise. Deborah, then thoroughly alive to a sense of risk, said that there was only one more bad gulch to cross before we reached Onomea, but it was the most dangerous of all, and we could not get across, she feared, but we might go and look at it. I only remember the extreme solitude of the region, and scrambling and sliding down a most precipitous pali, hearing a roar like cataract upon cataract, and coming suddenly down upon a sublime and picturesque scene, with only standing room, and that knee-deep in water, between a savage torrent and the cliff. This gulch, called the Scotchman's gulch, I am told, because a Scotchman was drowned there, must be at its crossing three-quarters of a mile inland, and three hundred feet above the sea. In going to Waipio, on noticing the deep holes and enormous boulders, some of them higher than a man on horseback, I had thought what a fearful place it would be if it were ever full; but my imagination had not reached the reality. One huge, compressed, impetuous torrent, leaping in creamy foam, boiling in creamy eddies, rioting in deep, black chasms, roared and thundered over the whole in rapids of the most tempestuous kind, leaping down to the ocean in three grand, broad cataracts, the nearest of them not more than 40 feet from the crossing. Imagine the Moriston at the Falls, four times as wide and fifty times as furious, walled in by precipices, and with a miniature Niagara above and below, and you have a feeble illustration of it.

Portions of two or three rocks only could be seen, and on one of these, about 12 feet from the shore, a nude native, beautifully tattooed, with a lasso in his hands, was standing nearly up to his knees in foam; and about a third of the way from the other side, another native in deeper water, steadying himself by a pole. A young woman on horseback, whose near relative was dangerously ill at Hilo, was jammed under the cliff, and the men were going to get her across. Deborah, to my dismay, said that if she got safely over we would go too, as these natives were very skilful. I asked if she thought her husband would let her cross, and she said “No.” I asked her if she were frightened, and she said “Yes;“ but she wished so to get home, and her face was as pale as a brown face can be. I only hope the man will prove worthy of her affectionate devotion.

Here, though people say it is a most perilous gulch, I was not afraid for her life or mine, with the amphibious natives to help us; but I was sorely afraid of being bruised, and scared, and of breaking the horses' legs, and I said I would not cross, but would sleep among the trees; but the tumult drowned our voices, though the Hawaiians by screeching could make themselves understood. The nearest man then approached the shore, put the lasso round the nose of the woman's horse, and dragged it into the torrent; and it was exciting to see a horse creeping from rock to rock in a cataract with alarming possibilities in every direction. But beasts may well be bold, as they have not “the foreknowledge of death. ”When the nearest native had got the horse as far as he could, he threw the lasso to the man who was steadying himself with the pole, and urged the horse on. There was a deep chasm between the two into which the animal fell, as he tried to leap from one rock to another. I saw for a moment only a woman's head and shoulders, a horse's head, a commotion of foam, a native tugging at the lasso, and then a violent scramble on to a rock, and a plunging and floundering through deep water to shore.

Then Deborah said she would go, that her horse was a better and stronger one; and the same process was repeated with the same slip into the chasm, only with the variation that for a second she went out of sight altogether. It was a terribly interesting and exciting spectacle with sublime accompaniments. Though I had no fear of absolute danger, yet my mare was tired, and I had made up my mind to remain on that side till the flood abated; but I could not make the natives understand that I wished to turn, and while I was screaming "No, no," and trying to withdraw my stiffened limbs from the stirrups, the noose was put round the mare's nose, and she went in. It was horrible to know that into the chasm as the others went I too must go, and in the mare went with a blind plunge. With violent plunging and struggling she got her fore feet on the rock, but just as she was jumping up to it altogether she slipped back snorting into the hole, and the water went over my eyes. I struck her with my spurs, the men screeched and shouted, the hinder man jumped in, they both tugged at the lasso, and slipping and struggling, the animal gained the rock, and plunged through deep water to shore, the water covering that rock with a rush of foam, being fully two feet deep.

Kaluna came up just after we had crossed, undressed, made his clothes into a bundle, and got over amphibiously, leaping, swimming, and diving, looking like a water-god, with the horse and mule after him. His dexterity was a beautiful sight; but on looking back I wondered how human beings ever devised to cross such a flood. We got over just in time. Some travellers who reached Laupahoehoe shortly after we left, more experienced than we were, suffered a two days' detention rather than incur a similar risk. Several mules and horses, they say, have had their legs broken in crossing this gulch by getting them fast between the rocks.

Shortly after this, Deborah uttered a delighted exclamation, and her pretty face lighted up, and I saw her husband spurring along the top of the next pali, and he presently joined us, and I exchanged my tired mare for his fresh, powerful horse. He knew that a freshet was imminent, and believing that we should never leave Laupahoehoe, he was setting off, provided with tackle for getting himself across, intending to join us, and remain with us till the rivers fell. The presence of a responsible white man seemed a rest at once. We had several more gulches to cross, but none of them were dangerous; and we rode the last seven miles at a great pace, though the mire and water were often up to the horses' knees, and came up to Onomea at full gallop, with spirit and strength enough for riding other twenty miles. Dry clothing, hot baths, and good tea followed delightfully upon our drowning ride. I remained over Sunday at Onomea, and yesterday rode here with a native in heavy rain, and received a warm welcome. Our adventures are a nine days' wonder, and every one says that if we had had a white man or an experienced native with us, we should never have been allowed to attempt the perilous ride. I feel very thankful that we are living to tell of it, and that Deborah is not only not worse but considerably better. E will expect some reflections; but none were suggested at the time, and I will not now invent what I ought to have thought and felt.

Due honour must be given to the Mexican saddle. Had I been on a side-saddle, and encumbered with a riding-habit, I should have been drowned. I feel able now to ride anywhere and any distance upon it, while Miss Karpe, who began by being much stronger than I was, has never recovered from the volcano ride, and seems quite ill.

Last night Kilauea must have been tremendously active. At ten p.m., from the upper verandah, we saw the whole western sky fitfully illuminated, and the glare reddened the snow which is lying on Mauna Loa, an effect of fire on ice which can rarely be seen.



Letter 12: “The High Priest of Pele," a Tidal Wave, Kapiolani's Heroism, Lava Flows and Earthquakes


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