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



Incidents of Travel—A New Light—Tropical Cold—A Hawaiian Desert—A Mountain Sheep Station—Mauna Kea and its Tufa Cones


Kalaieha, Hawaii


My departure from Ulupalakua illustrates some of the uncertainties of island travelling. On Monday night my things were packed, and my trunk sent off to the landing; but at five on Tuesday, Mr. Whipple came to my door to say that the Kilauea was not in the Lahaina roads, and was probably laid up for repairs. I was much disappointed, for the mild climate had disagreed with me, and I was longing for the roystering winds and unconventional life of windward Hawaii, and there was not another steamer for three weeks.


However, some time afterwards, I was unpacking, and in the midst of a floor littered with ferns, photographs, books, and clothes, when Mrs. W. rushed in to say that the steamer was just reaching the landing below, and that there was scarcely the barest hope of catching her. Hopeless as the case seemed, we crushed most of my things promiscuously into a carpet bag, Mr. W. rode off with it, a horse was imperfectly saddled for me, and I mounted him, with my bag, straps, spurs, and a package of ferns in one hand, and my plaid over the saddle, while Mrs. W. stuffed the rest of my possessions into a clothes-bag, and the Chinaman ran away frantically to catch a horse on which to ride down with them.


I galloped off after Mr. W., though people called to me that I could not catch the boat, and that my horse would fall on the steep, broken descent My saddle slipped over his shoulders, but he still sped down the hill with the rapid ”racking” movement of a Narraganset pacer. First a new veil blew away, next my plaid was missing, then I passed my trunk on the ox-cart which should have been at the landing; but still, though the heat was fierce, and the glare from the black lava blinding, I dashed heedlessly down, and in twenty minutes had ridden three miles down a descent of 2,000 feet, to find the Kilauea puffing and smoking with her anchor up; but I was in time, for her friendly clerk, knowing that I was coming, detained the scow. You will not wonder at my desperation when I tell you that half-way down, a person called to me, ”Mauna Loa is in action!”


While I was slipping off the saddle and bridle, Mr. W. arrived with the carpet-bag, yet more over-heated and shaking with exertion than I was, then the Chinaman with a bag of oddments, next a native who had picked up my plaid and ferns on the road, and another with my trunk, which he had rescued from the ox-cart; so I only lost my veil and two brushes, which are irreplaceable here.


The quiet of the nine hours' trip in the Kilauea restored my equanimity, and prepared me to enjoy the delicious evening which followed. The silver waters of Kawaihae Bay reflected the full moon, the three great mountains of Hawaii were cloudless as I had not before seen them, all the asperity of the leeward shore was softened into beauty, and the long shadows of bending palms were as still and perfect as the palms themselves. And there was a new sight above the silver water, for the huge dome of Mauna Loa, forty miles away, was burning red and fitfully. Horses and a servant awaited me, and we were soon clattering over the hard sand by the shining sea, and up the ascent which leads to the windy table-lands of Waimea. The air was like new life. At a height of 500 feet we met the first whiff of the trades, the atmosphere grew cooler and cooler, the night-wind fresher, the moonlight whiter; wider the sweeping uplands, redder the light of the burning mountain, till I wrapped my plaid about me, but still was chilled to the bone, and when the four hours' ride was over, soon after midnight, my limbs were stiff with tropical cold. And this, within 20° of the equator, and only 2,500 feet above the fiery sea-shore, with its temperature of 80°, where Sydney Smith would certainly have desired to ”take off his flesh, and sit in his bones!”


I delight in Hawaii more than ever, with its unconventional life, great upland sweeps, unexplored forests, riotous breezes, and general atmosphere of freedom, airiness, and expansion. As I find that a lady can travel alone with perfect safety, I have many projects in view, but whatever I do or plan to do, T find my eyes always turning to the light on the top of Mauna Loa. I know that the ascent is not feasible for me, and that so far as I am concerned the mystery must remain unsolved; but that glory, nearly 14,,000 feet aloft, rising, falling, ”a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night,” uplifted in its awful loneliness above all human interests, has an intolerable fascination. As the twilight deepens, the light intensifies, and often as I watch it in the night, it seems to flare up and take the form of a fiery palm-tree. No one has ascended the mountain since the activity began a month ago; but the fire is believed to be in ”the old traditional crater of Mokuaweoweo, in a region rarely visited by man.”


A few days ago I was so fortunate as to make the acquaintance of Mr. W. L. Green (now Minister of Foreign Affairs), an English resident in Honolulu, a gentleman of wide scientific and literary culture, one of whose objects in visiting Hawaii is the investigation of certain volcanic phenomena. He asked me to make the ascent of Mauna Kea with him, and we have satisfactorily accomplished it to-day.


The interior of the island, in which we have spent the last two days, is totally different, not only from the luxuriant windward slopes, but from the fiery leeward margin. The altitude of the central plateau is from 5,000 to 6,000 feet, there is not a single native dwelling on it, or even a trail across it, it is totally destitute of water, and sustains only a miserable scrub of mamane, stunted ohias, pukeawe, ohelos, a few composite, and some of the hardiest ferns. The transient residents of this sheep station, and those of another on Hualalai, thirty miles off, are the only human inhabitants of a region as large as Kent. Wild goats, wild geese (Bernicia sandvicensis), and the Melithreptes Pacifica, constitute its chief population. These geese are web-footed, though water does not exist. They build their nests in the grass, and lay two or three white eggs.


Our track from Waimea lay for the first few miles over light soil, destitute of any vegetation, across dry, glaring, rocky beds of streams, and round the bases of numerous tufa cones, from 200 to 1,500 feet in height, with steep, smooth sides, composed of a very red ash. We crossed a flank of Mauna Kea at a height of 6,000 feet, and a short descent brought us out upon this vast tableland, which lies between the bulbous domes of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai, the loneliest, saddest, dreariest expanse I ever saw.


The air was clear and the sun bright, yet nothing softened into beauty this formless desert of volcanic sand, stones, and lava, on which tufts of grass and a harsh scrub war with wind and drought for a loveless existence. Yet, such is the effect of atmosphere, that Mauna Loa, utterly destitute of vegetation, and with his sides scored and stained by the black lava flows of ages, looked liked a sapphire streaked with lapis lazuli. Nearly blinded by scuds of sand, we rode for hours through the volcanic wilderness; always the same rigid mamane (Sophora Chrysophylla?) the same withered grass, and the same thornless thistles, through which the strong wind swept with a desolate screech.


The trail, which dips 1,000 feet, again ascends, the country becomes very wild, there are ancient craters of great height densely wooded, wooded ravines, the great bulk of Mauna Kea with his ragged crest towers above tumbled rocky regions, which look as if nature, disgusted with her work, had broken it to pieces in a passion; there are living and dead trees, a steep elevation, and below, a broad river of most jagged and uneven a-a. The afternoon fog, which serves instead of rain, rolled up in dense masses, through which we heard the plaintive bleating of sheep, and among blasted trees and distorted rocks we came upon Kalaieha.


I have described the ”foreign residences” elsewhere. Here is one of another type, in which a wealthy sheepowner's son, married to a very pretty native woman, leads for some months in the year, from choice, a life so rough, that most people would think it a hardship to lead it from necessity. There are two apartments, a loft and a ”lean-to.” The hospitable owners gave me their sleeping-room, which was divided from the ”living-room” by a canvas partition. This last has a rude stone chimney split by an earthquake, holding fire enough to roast an ox. Round it the floor is paved with great rough stones. A fire of logs, fully three feet high, was burning, but there was a faulty draught, and it emitted a stinging smoke. I looked for something to sit upon, but there was nothing but a nigh bench, or chopping-block, and a fixed seat in the corner of the wall. The rest of the furniture consisted of a small table, some pots, a frying-pan, a tin dish and plates, a dipper, and some tin pannikins. Four or five rifles and ”shot-guns,” and a piece of raw meat, were hanging against the wall. A tin bowl was brought to me for washing, which served the same purpose for every one. The oil was exhausted, so recourse was had to the native expedient of a jar of beef fat with a wick in it.


We were most hospitably received, but the native wife, as is usually the case, was too shy to eat with us, or even to appear at all. Our host is a superb young man, very frank and prepossessing looking, a thorough mountaineer, most expert with the lasso and in hunting wild cattle. The ”station” consists of a wool shed, a low grass hut, a hut with one side gone, a bell-tent, and the more substantial cabin in which we are lodged. Several saddled horses were tethered outside, and some natives were shearing sheep, but the fog shut out whatever else there might be of an outer world. Every now and then a native came in and sat on the floor to warm himself, but there were no mats as in native houses. It was intolerably cold. I singed my clothes by sitting in the chimney, but could not warm myself. A fowl was stewed native fashion, and some rice was boiled, and we had sheep's milk and some ice cold water, the drip, I think, from a neighbouring cave, as running and standing water are unknown.


There are 9,000 sheep here, but they require hardly any attendance except at shearing time, and dogs are not used in herding them. Indeed, labour is much dispensed with, as the sheep are shorn unwashed, a great contrast to the elaborate washings of the flocks of the Australian Riverina. They come down at night of their own sagacity, in close converging columns, sleep on the gravel about the station, and in the early morning betake themselves to their feeding grounds on the mountain.


Mauna Kea, and the forests which skirt his base, are the resort of thousands of wild cattle, and there are many men nearly as wild, who live half savage lives in the woods, gaining their living by lassoing and shooting these animals for their skins. Wild black swine also abound.


The mist as usual disappeared at night, leaving a sky wonderful with stars, which burned blue and pale against the furnace glare on the top of Mauna Loa, to which we are comparatively near. I woke at three from the hopeless cold, and before five went out with Mr. Green to explore the adjacent lava. The atmosphere was perfectly pure, and suffused with rose-colour, not a cloud-fleece hung round the mountain tops, hoar-frost whitened the ground, the pure, white smoke of the volcano rose into the reddening sky, and the air was elixir. It has been said and written that there are no steam-cracks or similar traces of volcanic action on Mauna Kea, but in several fissures I noticed ferns growing belonging to an altitude 4,000 feet lower, and on putting my arm down, found a heat which compelled me to withdraw it, and as the sun rose these cracks steamed in all directions. There are caves full of ferns, lava bubbles in reality, crust over crust, each from twelve to eighteen inches thick, rolls of lava cooled in coils, and hideous a-a streams on which it is impossible to walk two yards without the risk of breaking one's limbs or cutting one's boots to pieces.


I will not weary you with the details of our mountain ascent Our host provided ourselves and the native servant with three strong bullock-horses, and accompanied us himself. The first climb is through deep volcanic sand slashed by deep clefts, showing bands of red and black ash. We saw no birds, but twice started a rout of wild black hogs, and once came upon a wild bull of large size with some cows and a calf, all so tired with tramping over the lava that they only managed to keep just out of our way. They usually keep near the mountain top in the daytime for fear of the hunters, and come down at night to feed. About 11,000 were shot and lassoed last year. Mr. S___ says that they don't need any water but that of the dew-drenched grass, and that horses reared on the mountains refuse to drink, and are scared by the sight of pools or running streams. Unlike horses I saw at Waikiki, which shut their eyes and plunged their heads into water up to their ears, in search of a saltish weed which grows in the lagoons.


The actual forest, which is principally koa, ceases at a height of about 6,000 feet, but a deplorable vegetation beginning with mamane scrub, and ending with withered wormwood and tufts of coarse grass, straggles up 3,000 feet higher, and a scaly orange lichen is found in rare patches at a height of 11,000 feet


The side of Mauna Kea towards Waimea is precipitous and inaccessible, but to our powerful mountain horses the ascent from Kalaieha presented no difficulty.


We rode on hour after hour in intense cold, till we reached a height where the last stain of lichen disappeared, and the desolation was complete and oppressive. This area of tufa cones, dark and grey basalt, clinkers, scoriea, fine ash, and ferruginous basalt, is something gigantic. We were three hours in ascending through it, and the eye could at no time take in its limit, for the mountain which from any point of view below appears as a well defined dome with a ragged top, has at the summit the aspect of a ridge, or rather a number of ridges, with between 20 and 30 definite peaks, varying in height from 900 to 1400 feet. Among these cones are large plains of clinkers and fine gravel, but no lava-streams, and at a height of 12,,000 feet the sides of some of the valleys are filled up with snow, of a purity so immaculate and a brilliancy so intense as the fierce light of the tropical sun beat upon it, that I feared snow-blindness. We ascended one of the smaller cones, which was about 900 feet high, and found it contained a crater of nearly the same depth, with a very even slope, and lined entirely with red ash, which at the bottom became so bright and fiery-looking that it looked as if the fires, which have not burned for ages, had only died out that morning.


After riding steadily for six hours, our horses, snorting and panting, and plunging up to their knees in fine volcanic ash, and halting, trembling and exhausted, every few feet, carried us up the great tufa cone which crowns the summit of this vast, fire-flushed, fire-created mountain, and we dismounted in deep snow on the crest of the highest peak in the Pacific, 13,953 feet above the sea. This summit is a group of six red tufa cones, with very little apparent difference in their altitude, and with deep valleys filled with red ash between them. The terminal cone on which we were has no cavity, but most of those forming the group, as well as the thirty which I counted around and below us, are truncated cones with craters within, and with outer slopes, whose estimated angle is about 30 . On these slopes the snow lay heavily. In coming up we had had a superb view of Mauna Loa, but before we reached the top, the clouds had congregated, and lay in glistening masses all round the mountain about half-way up, shutting out the smiling earth, and leaving us alone with the view of the sublime desolation of the volcano.


We only remained an hour on the top, and came down by a very circuitous route, which took us round numerous cones, and over miles of clinkers varying in size from a ton to a few ounces, and past a lake the edges of which were frozen, and which in itself is a curiosity, as no other part of the mountain ”holds water.” Not far off is a cave, a lava-bubble, in which the natives used to live when they came up here to quarry a very hard adjacent phonolite for their axes and other tools. While the others poked about, I was glad to make it a refuge from the piercing wind. Hundreds of unfinished axes lie round the cave entrance, and there is quite a large mound of unfinished chips.


This is a very interesting spot to Hawaiian antiquaries. They argue, from the amount of the chippings, that this mass of phonolite was quarried for ages by countless generations of men, and that the mountain top must have been upheaved, and the island inhabited, in a very remote past. The stones have not been worked since Captain Cook's day; yet there is not a weather-stain upon them, and the air is so dry and rarified that meat will keep fresh for three months. I found a mass of crystals of the greenish volcanic glass, called olivine, imbedded in a piece of phonolite which looked as blue and fresh as if only quarried yesterday.


We travelled for miles through ashes and scoriae, and then descended into a dense afternoon fog; but Mr. S___ is a practised mountaineer, and never faltered for a moment, and our horses made such good speed that late in the afternoon we were able to warm ourselves by a gallop, which brought us in here ravenous for supper before dark, having ridden for thirteen hours. I hope I have made it clear that the top of this dead volcano, whether cones or ravines, is deep soft ashes and sand.


Tomorrow morning I intend to ride the thirty miles to Waimea with two native women, and the next day to go off on my adventurous expedition to Hilo, for which I have bought for $45 a big, strong, heavy horse, which I have named Kahele. He has the poking head and unmistakable gait of a bullock, horse, but is said to be ”a good traveller.”



Letter 26: Alone with Nature, a Light Equipment, Kahele, a Garrulous Assemblage, a Paralysed Village and Hilo


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