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



The Princess Keelikolani—The Paradise of Maui—An Island Sahara—The Dead Volcano of Haleakala—Cloud Scenery —Maui Hospitality

Ulupalakua, Maui, May 12th


It is three weeks since I left the Hawaiian Hotel and its green mist of algarobas, but my pleasant visits in this island do not furnish much that will interest you. There was great excitement on the wharf at Honolulu the evening I left. It was crowded with natives, the king's band was playing, old hags were chanting meles, and several of the royal family, and of the "upper ten thousand" were there, taking leave of the Governess of Hawaii, the Princess Keelikolani, the late king's half-sister. The throng and excitement were so great, that we were outside the reef before I got a good view of this lady, the largest and the richest woman on the islands. Her size and appearance are most unfortunate, but she is said to be good and kind. She was dressed in a very common black holoku, with a red bandana round her throat, round which she wore a le of immense oleanders, as well as round her hair, which was cut short. She had a large retinue, and her female attendants all wore leis of oleander. They spread very fine mats on the deck, under pulu beds, covered with gorgeous quilts, on which the Princess and her suite slept, and in the morning the beds were removed, breakfast was spread on the mats, and she, some of her attendants, and two or three white men who received invitations, sat on the deck round it. It was a far less attractive meal than that which the serene steward served below. The calabashes, which contained the pale pink poi, were of highly polished kou wood, but there were no foreign refinements. The other dishes were several kinds of raw fish, dried devil-fish, boiled kalo, sweet potatoes, bananas, and cocoa-nut milk.


I had a very uncomfortable night on a mattress on the deck, which was overcrowded with natives, and some of the native women and two foreigners had got a whisky bottle, and behaved disgracefully. We went round by the Leper Island.


I landed at Maaleia, on the leeward side of the sandy isthmus which unites East and West Maui, got a good horse, and, with Mr. G ___, rode across to the residence of "Father Alexander," at Wailuku, a flourishing district of sugar plantations. Mr. and Mrs. Alexander were among the early missionaries, and still live on the mission premises. Several of their sons are settled on the island in the sugar business, and it was to the Heiku plantation, fifteen miles off, of which Mr. S. Alexander is manager, that I went on the following day, still escorted by Mr. G ___. Here we heard that captains of schooners which had arrived from Hawaii, report that a light is visible on the terminal crater of Mauna Loa, 14,000 feet above the sea, that . Kilauea, the flank crater, is unusually active, and that several severe shocks of earthquake have been felt. This is exciting news.


Behind Wailuku is the Iao valley, up which I rode with two island friends, and spent a day of overflowing, satisfied admiration. At Iao people may throw away pen and pencil in equal despair. The trail leads down a gorge dark with forest trees, which then opens out into an amphitheatre, walled in by precipices, from three to six thousand feet high, misty with a thousand waterfalls, plumed with kukuis, and feathery with ferns. A green-clad needle of stone, one thousand feet in height, the last refuge of an army routed when the Wailuku (waters of destruction) ran red with blood, keeps guard over the valley. Other needles there are; and mimic ruins of bastions, ramparts, and towers came and passed mysteriously: and the shining fronts of turrets gleamed through trailing mists, changing into drifting visions of things that came and went in sunshine and shadow, mountains raising battered peaks into a cloudless sky, green crags moist with ferns, and mists of water that could not fall, but frittered themselves away on slopes of maidenhair, and depths of forest and ferns through which bright streams warble through the summer years. Clouds boiling up from below drifted at times across the mountain fronts, or lay like snow masses in the unsunned chasms: and over the grey crags and piled up pinnacles, and glorified green of the marvellous vision, lay a veil of thin blue haze, steeping the whole in a serenity which seemed hardly to belong to earth.


The track from Wailuku to Heiku is over a Sahara in miniature, a dreary expanse of sand and shifting sand hills, with a rare, dismal growth of thornless thistles and indigo, and a tremendous surf thunders on the margin. Trackless, glaring, choking, a guide is absolutely necessary to a stranger, for the footprints or wheel-marks of one moment are obliterated the next. I crossed the isthmus three times, and the third time was quite as incapable of shaping my course across it as the first, and though I had recklessly declined a guide, was only too thankful for the one who was forced upon me. It is a hateful ride, yet anything so hideous and aggressively odious is a salutary experience in a land of so much beauty. Sand, sand, sand! Sand-hills, smooth and red; sand-plains, rippled, white, and glaring; sand drifts shifting; sand clouds whirling; sand in your eyes, nose, and mouth; sand stinging your face like pin points; sand hiding even your horse's ears; sand rippling like waves, hissing like spin-drift, malignant, venomous! You can only open one eye at a time for a wink at where you are going. Looking down upon it from Heiku, you can see nothing all day but the dense brown clouds of a perpetual sand-storm.


My charming hostess and her husband made Heiku so fascinating, that I only quitted it hoping to return. The object which usually attracts strangers to Maui is the great dead volcano of Haleakala, "The house of the sun," and I was fortunate in all the circumstances of my ascent. My host at Heiku provided me with a horse and native attendant, and I rode over the evening before to the house of his brother, Mr. J. Alexander, who accompanied me, and his intelligent and cultured society was one of the pleasures of the day.


People usually go up in the afternoon, camp near the summit, light a fire, are devoured by fleas, roast and freeze alternately till morning, and get up to see the grand spectacle of the sunrise, but I think our plan preferable, of leaving at two in the morning. The moon had set. It was densely dark, and it was raining on one side of the road, though quite fine on the other. By the lamplight which streamed from our early breakfast table, I only saw wet mules and horses, laden with gear for a mountain ascent, a trim little Japanese, who darted about helping, my native, who was picturesquely dressed in a Mexican poncho, Mr. Alexander, who wore something which made him unrecognisable; and myself, a tatterdemalion figure, wearing a much worn green topcoat of his over my riding suit, and a tartan shawl arranged so as to fall nearly to my feet Then we went forth into the darkness. The road soon degenerated into a wood road, then into a bridle track, then into a mere trail ascending all the way j and at dawn, when the rain was over, we found ourselves more than half-way up the mountain, amidst rocks, scoriae, tussocks, ohelos, a few common composite, and a few coarse ferns and woody plants, which became coarser and scantier the higher we went up, but never wholly ceased; for, at the very summit, 10,200 feet high, there are some tufts of grass, and stunted specimens of a common asplenium in clefts. Many people suffer from mountain sickness on this ascent, but I suffered from nothing but the excruciating cold, which benumbed my limbs and penetrated to my bones; and though I dismounted several times and tried to walk, uphill exercise was impossible in the rarefied air. The atmosphere was but one degree below the freezing-point, but at that height, a brisk breeze on soaked clothes was scarcely bearable.


The sunrise turned the densely packed clouds below into great rosy masses, which broke now and then, showing a vivid blue sea, and patches of velvety green. At seven, after toiling over a last steep bit, among scoriae, and some very scanty and unlovely vegetation, we reached what was said to be the summit, where a ragged wall of rock shut out the forward view. Dismounting on some cinders, we stepped into a gap, and from thence looked down into the most gigantic crater on the earth. I confess that with the living fires of Kilauea in my memory, I was at first disappointed with the deadness of a volcano of whose activity there are no traditions extant. Though during the hours which followed, its majesty and wonderment grew upon me, yet a careful study of the admirable map of the crater, a comparison of the heights of the very considerable cones which are buried within it, and the attempt to realize the figures which represent its circumference, area, and depth, not only give a far better idea of it than any verbal description, but impress its singular sublimity and magnitude upon one far more forcibly than a single visit to the actual crater.


I mentioned in one of my first letters that East Maui, that part of the island which lies east of the isthmus of perpetual dust-storms, consists of a mountain dome 10,000 feet in height, with a monstrous base. Its slopes are very regular, varying from eight to ten degrees. Its lava-beds differ from those of Kauai and Oahu in being lighter in colour, less cellular, and more impervious to water. The windward side of the mountain is gashed and slashed by streams, which in their violence have excavated large pot-holes, which serve as reservoirs, and it is covered to a height of over 2,000 feet by a luxuriant growth of timber. On the leeward side, several black and very fresh looking streams of lava run into the sea, and the whole coast for some height above the shore shows most vigorous volcanic action. Elsewhere the rock is red and broken, and lateral cones abound near the base.


The ascent from Makawao, though it is over rather a desolate tract of land, has in its lower stages such a dismal growth of pining koa and spurious sandal-wood, and in its upper ones so much ohelo scrub, with grass and common aspleniums quite up to the top, that as one sits lazily on one's sure footed horse, the fact that one is ascending a huge volcano is not forced upon one by any overmastering sterility and nakedness. Somehow, one expects to pass through some ulterior stage of blackness up to the summit. It is no such thing; and the great surprise of Haleakala to me was, that when according to calculation there should have been a summit, an abyss of vast dimensions opened below. The mountain top has been in fact blown off, and one is totally powerless to imagine what the forces must have been which rent it asunder.


The crater was clear of fog and clouds, and lighted in every part by the risen sun. The whole, with its contents, can be seen at a single glance, though its girdling precipices are nineteen miles in extent. Its huge, irregular floor is 2000 feet below; New York might be hidden away within it, with abundant room to spare; and more than one of the numerous subsidiary cones which uplift themselves solitary or in clusters through the area, attain the height of Arthur's Seat at Edinburgh. On the north and east are the Koolau and Kaupo Gaps, as deep as the crater, through which oceans of lava found their way to the sea. It looks as if the volcanic forces, content with rending the mountain top in twain, had then passed into an endless repose.


The crater appears to be composed of a hard grey clinkstone, much fissured; but lower down the mountain, the rock is softer, and has a bluish tinge. The internal cones are of very regular shape, and most of them look as if their fires had only just gone out, with their sides fiercely red, and their central cavities lined with layers of black ash. They are all composed of cinders of light specific gravity, and much of the ash is tinged with the hydrated oxide of iron. Very few of the usual volcanic products are present* Small quantities of sulphur, in a very impure form, exist here and there, but there are no sulphur or steam-cracks, or hot springs, on any part of the mountain. With its cold ashes and dead force, it is a most tremendous spectacle of the power of fire.


* According to Mr. Brigham, the products of the Hawaiian volcanoes are: native sulphur, pyrites, salt, sal ammoniac, hydrochloric acid, haematite, sulphurous acid, sulphuric acid, quartz, crystals, palagonite, feldspar, chrysolite, Thompsonite, gypsum, solfatarite, copperas, rut re, Aarragunite, Labradorite, limonite.


Some previous travellers had generously left some faggots on the summit, and we made a large fire for warmth, and I rolled my blanket round me, and sat with my feet among the hot embers, but all to no purpose. The wind was strong and keen, and the fierce splendour of the tropic sun conveyed no heat, Mr. A. went away investigating, the native rolled himself in his poncho and fell asleep by the fire, and I divided the time between glimpses into the awful desolation of the crater, snatched between the icy gusts of wind, and the enjoyment of the wonderful cloud scenery which to everybody is a great charm of the view from Haleakala. The day was perfect; for first we had an inimitable view of the crater and all that could be seen from the mountain-top, and then an equally inimitable view of Cloudland. There was the gaunt, hideous, desolate abyss, with its fiery cones, its rivers and surges of black lava and grey ash crossing and mingling all over the area, mixed with splotches of colour and coils of satin rock, its walls dark and crowning, everywhere riven and splintered, and clouds perpetually drifting in through the great gaps, and filling up the whole crater with white, swirling masses, which in a few minutes melted away in the sunshine, leaving it all as sharply definite as before. Before noon clouds surrounded the whole mountain, not in the vague, flocculent, meaningless masses one usually sees, but in Arctic oceans, where lofty icebergs, floes and pack, lay piled on each other, glistening with the frost of a Polar winter; then alps on alps, and peaks of well remembered ranges gleaming above glaciers, and the semblance of forests in deep ravines loaded with new fallen snow. Snow-drifts, avalanches, oceans held in bondage of eternal ice, and all this massed together, shifting, breaking, glistering, filling up the broad channel which divides Maui from Hawaii, and far away above the lonely masses, rose, in turquoise blue, like distant islands, the lofty Hawaiian domes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, with snow on Mauna Kea yet more dazzling than the clouds. There never was a stranger contrast than between the hideous desolation of the crater below, and those blue and jewelled summits rising above the shifting clouds.


After some time the scene shifted, and through glacial rifts appeared as in a dream the Eeka mountains which enfold the Iao valley, broad fields of cane 8,000 feet below, the flushed, palm-fringed coast, and the deep blue sea sleeping in perpetual calm. But according to the well-known fraud which isolated altitudes perpetrate upon the eye, it appeared as if we were looking up at our landscape, not down j and no effort of the eye or imagination would put things at their proper levels.


But gradually the clouds massed themselves, the familiar earth disappeared, and we were "pinnacled in mid-heaven" in unutterable isolation blank forgotten units, in a white, wonderful, illuminated world, without permanence or solidity. Our voices sounded thin in the upper air. The keen, incisive wind that swept the summit, had no kinship with the soft breezes which were rustling the tasselled cane in the green fields of earth which had lately gleamed through the drift. It was a new world and without sympathy, a solitude which could be felt. Was it nearer God, I wonder, because so far from man and his little works and ways? At least they seemed little there, in presence of the tokens of a catastrophe which had not only blown off a mountain top, and scattered it over the island, but had disembowelled the mountain itself to a depth of 2,000 feet.


Soon after noon we began to descend; and in a hollow of the mountain, not far from the ragged edge of the crater, then filled up with billows of cloud, we came upon what we were searching for; not, however, one or two, but thousands of silverswords, their cold, frosted silver gleam making the hill-side look like winter or moonlight. They can be preserved in their beauty by putting them under a glass shade, but it must be of monstrous dimensions, as the finer plants measure 2 ft. by 18 in. without the flower stalk. They exactly resemble the finest work in frosted silver, the curve of their globular mass of leaves is perfect, and one thinks of them rather as the base of an epergne for an imperial table, or as a prize at Ascot or Goodwood, than as anything organic. A particular altitude and temperature appeal essential to them, and they are not found straggling above or below a given line.


We reached Makawao very tired, soon after dark, to be heartily congratulated on our successful ascent, and bearing no worse traces of it than lobster-coloured faces, badly blistered.


After accepting sundry hospitalities I rode over here, skirting the mountain at a height of 2,000 feet, a most tedious ride, only enlivened by the blaze of nasturtiums in some of the shallow gulches. It is very pretty here, and I wish all invalids could revel in the sweet, changeless air. The name signifies "ripe bread-fruit of the gods." The plantation is 2,000 feet above the sea, and is one of the finest on the islands; and owing to the slow maturity of the cane at so great a height, the yield is from five to six tons an acre. Water is very scarce; all that is used in the boiling-house and elsewhere has been carefully led into concrete tanks for storage, and even the walks in the proprietor's beautiful garden are laid with cement for the same purpose. He has planted many thousand Australian eucalyptus trees on the hill-side in the hope of procuring a larger rainfall, so that the neighbourhood has quite an exotic appearance. Below, the coast is black and volcanic-looking, jutting into the sea in naked lava promontories, which nature has done nothing to drape.


Maui is very "foreign" and civilised, and although it has a native population of over 12,000, the natives are much crowded on plantations, and one encounters little of native life. There is a large society composed of planters' and merchants' families, and the residents are profuse in their hospitality. It is not infrequently taken undue advantage of, and I have heard of planters compelled to feign excuses for leaving their houses, in order to get rid of unintroduced and obnoxious visitors, who have quartered themselves on them for weeks at a time. It is wonderful that their patient hospitality is not worn out, even though, as they say, they sometimes "entertain angels unawares."



Letter 25: Incidents of Travel, A New Light, Tropical Cold, A Hawaiian Desert, A Mountain Sheep Station, Mauna Kea and its Tufa Cones


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