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



Alone with Nature—A Light Equipment—Kahele—A Garrulous Assemblage—A Paralysed Village—Hilo


Hawaiian Slopes, May 21st


This is the height of enjoyment in travelling. I have just encamped under a lauhala tree, with my saddle inverted for a pillow, my horse tied by a long lariat to a guava bush, my gear, saddle-bags, and rations for two days lying about, and my saddle blanket drying in the sun. Overhead the sun blazes, and casts no shadow, a few fleecy clouds hover near him, and far below, the great expanse of the Pacific gleams in a deeper blue than the sky. Far above, towers the rugged and snow-patched, but no longer mysterious dome of Mauna Kea; while everywhere, ravines, woods, waterfalls, and stretches of lawn-like grass delight the eye. All green that I have ever seen, of English lawns in June, or Alpine valleys, seems poor and colourless as compared with the dazzling green of this sixty-five miles. It is a joyous green, a glory. Whenever I look up from my writing, I ask, Was there ever such green? Was there ever such sunshine? Was there ever such an atmosphere? Was there ever such an adventure? And Nature—for I have no other companion, and wish for none—answers, ”No.” The novelty is that I am alone, my conveyance my own horse; no luggage to look after, for it is all in my saddle-bags; no guide to bother, hurry, or hinder me; and with knowledge enough of the country to stop when and where I please. A native guide, besides being a considerable expense, is a great nuisance; and as the trail is easy to find, and the rivers are low, I resolved for once to taste the delights of perfect independence! This is a blessed country, for a lady can travel everywhere in absolute security.


My goal is the volcano of Kilauea, with various diverging expeditions, involving a ride of about 350 miles; but my health has so wonderfully improved, that it is easier to me now to ride forty miles in a day than ten some months ago.


You have no idea of the preparations required for such a ride, and the importance which ”littles” assume. Food for two days had to be taken, and all superfluous weight to be discarded, as every pound tells on a horse on a hard journey. My saddle-bags contain, besides ”Sunday clothes,” dress for any ”gaieties” which Hilo may offer; but I circumscribed my stock of clothes as much as possible, having fallen into the rough-and-ready practice of washing them at night, and putting them on unironed in the morning. I carry besides, a canvas bag on the horn of my saddle, containing two days' provender, and a knife, horse-shoe nails, glycerine, thread, twine, leather thongs, with other little et ceteras, the lack of which might prove troublesome, a thermometer and aneroid in a leather case, and a plaid. I have discarded, owing to their weight, all the well-meant luxuries which were bestowed upon me, such as drinking cups, flasks, etnas, sandwich cases, knife cases, spoons, pocket mirrors, &c. The inside of a watchcase makes a sufficient mirror, and I make a cup from a kalo leaf. All cases are a mistake,—at least I think so, as I contemplate my light equipment with complacency.


Yesterday's dawn was the reddest I have seen on the mountains, and the day was all the dawn promised. A three-mile gallop down the dewy grass, and slackened speed through the bush, brought me once again to the breezy slopes of Hamakua, and the trail I travelled in February, with Deborah and Kaluna. Though as green then as now, it was the rainy season, a carnival of rain and mud. Somehow the summer does make a difference, even in a land without a winter. The temperature was perfect. It was dreamily lovely. No song of birds, or busy hum of insects, accompanied the rustle of the lauhala leaves and the low murmur of the surf. But there is no hot sleep of noon here—the delicious trades keep the air always wakeful.


When the gentleman who guided me through the bush left me on the side of a pali, I discovered that Kahele', though strong, gentle, and sure-footed, possesses the odious fault known as balking, and expressed his aversion to ascend the other side in a most unmistakable manner. He swung round, put his head down, and no amount of spurring could get him to do anything but turn round and round, till the gentleman, who had left me, returned, beat him with a stick, and threw stones at him, till he got him started again.


I have tried coaxing him, but without result, and have had prolonged rights with him in nearly every gulch, and on the worst pali of all he refused for some time to breast a step, scrambled round and round in a most dangerous place, and slipped his hind legs quite over the edge before I could get him on.


His sociability too is ridiculously annoying. Whenever he sees natives in the distance, he neighs, points his ears, holds up his heavy head, quickens his pace, and as soon as we meet them, swings round and joins them, and can only be extricated after a pitched battle. On a narrow bridge I met Kaluna on a good horse, improved in manners, appearance, and English, and at first he must have thought that I was singularly pleased to see him, by my turning round and joining him at once; but presently, seeing the true state of the case, he belaboured Kahele with a heavy stick. The animal is very gentle and companionable, and I dislike to spur him; besides, he seems insensible to it; so the last time I tried Rarey's plan, and bringing his head quite round, twisted the bridle round the horn of the saddle, so that he had to turn round and round for my pleasure, rather than to indulge his own temper, a process which will, I hope, conquer him mercifully.


But in consequence of these battles, and a halt which I made, as, now, for no other purpose than to enjoy my felicitous circumstances, the sun was sinking in a mist of gold behind Mauna Loa long before I reached the end of my day's journey. It was extremely lovely. A heavy dew was falling, odours of Eden rose from the earth, colours glowed in the sky, and the dewiest and richest green was all round. There were several gulches to cross after the sun had set, and a silence, which was almost audible, reigned in their leafy solitudes. It was quite dark when I reached the trail which dips over the great pali of Laupahoehoe, 700 feet in height; but I found myself riding carelessly down what I hardly dared to go up, carefully and in company, four months before. But whatever improvement time has made in my health and nerves, it has made none in this wretched, zoophyte village.


Leading Kahele, I groped about till I found the house of the widow Honolulu, with whom I had lodged before, and presently all the natives assembled to stare at me. After rubbing my horse and feeding him on a large bundle of H leaves that I had secured on the road, I took my own meal as a spectacle. Two old crones seized on my ankles, murmuring Iomi, lomi, and subjected them to the native process of shampooing. They had unrestrained curiosity as to the beginning and end of my journey. I said ”Waimea, Hamakua” when they all chorused, ”Maikai;” for a ride of forty miles was not bad for a wahine haole. I said, ”Wai lio," (water for the horse), when they signified that there was only some brackish stuff unfit for drinking.


In spite of the garrulous assemblage, I was asleep before eight, and never woke till I found myself in a blaze of sunshine this morning, and in perfect solitude. I got myself some breakfast, and then looked about the village for some inhabitants, but found none, except an unhappy Portuguese with one leg, and an old man who looked like a leper, to whom I said ”Ko" (cane) ”lio” (horse), exhibiting a rial at the same time, on which he cut me a large bundle, and I sat on a stone and watched Kahele as he munched it for an hour and a half.


It was very hot and serene down there between those palis 700 and 800 feet high. The huts of the village were all shut, and not a creature stirred. The palms above my head looked as if they had always been old, and there was no movement among their golden plumes. The sea itself rolled shorewards more silently and lazily than usual. An old dog slept in the sunshine, and whenever I moved, by a great effort, opened one eye. The man who cut the cane fell asleep on the grass. Kahele ate as slowly as if he had resolved to try my patience, and be revenged on me for my conquest of him yesterday, and his heavy munching was the only vital sound. I got up and walked about to assure myself that I was awake, saddled and bridled the horse, and mounted the great southward pali, thankful to reach the breeze and the upper air in full possession of my faculties, after the torpor and paralysis of the valley below.


Never were waters so bright or stretches of upland lawns so joyous as today, or the forest entanglements so entrancing. The beautiful Eugenia malaccensis is now in full blossom, and its stems and branches are blazing in all the gulches, with bunches of rose-crimson stamens borne on short spikelets.

Hilo, Hawaii, May 24th


Once more I am in dear, beautiful Hilo. Death entered my Hawaiian ”home” lately, and took ”Baby Bell" away, and I miss her sweet angel-presence at every turn; but otherwise there are no changes, and I am very happy to be under the roof of these dear friends again, but indeed each tree, flower, and. fern in Hilo is a friend. I would not even wish the straggling Pride of India, and over-abundant lantana, away from this fairest of the island Edens. I wish I could transport you here this moment from our sour easterly skies to this endless summer and endless sunshine, and shimmer of a peaceful sea, and an atmosphere whose influences are all cheering. Though from 13 to 16 feet of rain fall here in the year the air is not damp. Wet clothes hung up in the verandah even during rain, dry rapidly, and a substance so sensitive to damp as botanical paper does not mildew.


I met Deborah on horseback near Onomea, and she told me that the Austins were expecting me, and so I spent three days very pleasantly with them on my way here.



The old Kilauea has just come in, and has brought the English mail, and a United States mail, an event which sets Hilo agog. Then for a few hours its still, drowsy life becomes galvanized, and people really persuade themselves that they have something to do, and all the foreigners write letters hastily, or add postscripts to those already written, and lose the mail, and rush down frantically to the beach to send their late letters by favour of the obliging purser. The mail to-day was an event to me, as it has brought your long-looked-for letters.


Letter 27: Puna, a Magical Spring, a Leper Exodu, “Bill Ragsdale" and Self-sacrifice of Father Damiens


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