“The words of common speech are quite useless. It is unimaginable, indescribable, a sight to remember for ever…

On 31st January 1873, Isabella Bird was standing on one of the world’s most astonishing natural phenomena: the volcano of Kilauea on the island of Hawaii. The soles of her boots were burned, her face was blistered, and she was struggling with nausea as a result of the noxious fumes. But nothing mattered as she gazed at the spectacle beneath her feet.

The journey to get there had been an adventure in itself. She had trekked on horseback, up through lush tropical rainforest where lianas hung from the trees, through groves of coconut palms and across vast expanses of lava called pahoehoe, whose curiously textured surface she likened to “a thick coat of cream drawn in wrinkling folds to the side of a milk-pan.”

With the other members of her travelling party she had stayed the night in the precipitously-located Crater House, a small hostelry catering for intrepid visitors to the volcano, and from her bed she had watched the “fiery vapours rolling up out of the infinite darkness.” Next morning, she had, with the help of guides, clambered down the terminal wall of the caldera, and walked for three hours across a difficult terrain of fresh lava in order to reach the active volcanic lake known to Hawaiians as Halemaumau.

The lava was difficult to walk on, and so hot that the rain hissed as it fell. It was also unstable, and on several occasions Isabella fell through the crust into cavities full of sulphurous steam, burning holes in her gloves as she pulled herself back out. By the time she reached the volcanic lake, she was ready to turn back; in fact, she was half-expecting to be disappointed, as recent reports suggested that it had become inactive. Instead, what she saw took her breath away. The volcano was certainly not dormant:

“Suddenly, just above, and in front of us, gory drops were tossed in the air, and, springing forwards, we stood on the brink of Hale-mau-mau, which was about 35 feet below us. I think we all screamed, I know we all wept, but we were speechless, for a new glory and terror had been added to the earth.  It is the most unutterable of wonderful things.”

Isabella gazed down in horrified fascination at the molten lake, nearly half a mile wide, which heaved and rolled in perpetual motion. Occasionally the surface would cool slightly to form a crust of greyish white, broken by cracks of fire; and then everything would suddenly be re-absorbed into the dazzling furnace beneath. Jets of lava played around the edges, while escaping steam hissed ferociously.

It was the vivid colour of the red-hot lava that impressed Isabella the most. Writing to her sister that evening, she tried to evoke its brilliance: “Molten metal has not that crimson gleam,” she told her, “nor blood that living light! Had I not seen this I should never have known that such a colour was possible.”

Reluctantly dragging herself away from the spectacle, Isabella took time to notice more curious lava formations on the return journey. Thick ropes, terraces and spirals of cooling lava were stained yellow with sulphur and white with alum, and she picked up a handful of ‘Pele’s hair’ – thin fibres like coarse spun glass, formed by the wind as it caught airborne droplets and shredded them into fine yellowish filaments two or three feet long.

Hundreds of Strands of Pele’s hair, Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii

Back at the Crater House, Isabella relaxed in the simple but warm hospitality.  The kind proprietor urged her to try the sulphur bath, which he recommended as a marvellous cure for her aches and pains, and she found herself being escorted to a small grass shed that had been erected over a sulphurous crack in the earth. Within this shed, she discovered a box with a sliding lid, in which she was meant to sit and be ‘steamed’; but the temperature of the surface was so hot that she burned her hand, and she wisely decided not to sit down. Rather than offend her host, she waited for a reasonable amount of time inside the shed and then allowed herself to be taken back to the hotel, declaring that she did indeed feel much better.

Isabella rode back down to Hilo from Kilauea on 1st February (see map at bottom), wearing garlands of berries and blossoms that the islanders had bestowed on her. Heavy rain turned her lunch into a pulp of bread and newspaper, and when she reached the town she was ravenously hungry, having eaten only a few half-ripe guavas on the journey. She had, however, experienced something that she would remember for the rest of her life; it was an epiphany, symbolic of the new sense of freedom that she had felt ever she had stepped off the ship from New Zealand, alone and independent, just a few weeks before.

For many travellers, that one experience would have been sufficient, but for Isabella it served only to feed her new-found fascination for volcanoes – and she certainly had ample opportunities right on her doorstep. Four months after her trip to Kilauea, she set out to ascend the volcano of Mauna Loa.

The Remarkable Surrounds of Mauna Loa

It was an act of pure daring, even more risky than her first expedition. Mauna Loa rises to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, compared to the crater of Kilauea which lies at only 4,000 feet on one of Mauna Loa’s slopes. Isabella had been regularly warned off the idea by her friends, but this just served to reinforce her determination. She gathered warm clothes, saddlebags, kettles, blankets and a huge Mexican poncho; her escort was William Green, the acting British Consul in Hawaii. If Isabella’s friends thought her behaviour scandalous, it was just as well that they didn’t see her a few days later, camping on the rim of the volcano, sharing a tent with the obliging young Mr Green, and shivering under several layers of flea-infested blankets. Green, who had supplied the horses and the guides, had remembered to bring everything except the tea, a disastrous oversight which Isabella reminded him about at regular intervals.

Consoling themselves with some brandy, the pair sat outside and watched the sunset; as darkness fell, they marvelled at the glow in the crater beneath them. By day the surface had looked black and lifeless but at night it seemed to come alive:

“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… an incandescent lake two miles in length beneath a deceptive crust of darkness, and whose depth one dare not fathom even in thought.”

After an uncomfortable night, Isabella began to feel the effects of the extreme altitude; one of the Hawaiian guides was already in agony with headache and sickness, and she herself experienced lassitude and exhaustion. Placing a pack of snow on her head made her feel much better, but she was unable to eat her breakfast, and the drinking water was frozen hard. The little party descended slowly towards a ranch, their first stop on the way down, and by the time they arrived Isabella had recovered her energy. She slept soundly, grateful for a comfortable bed.

It was a remarkably successful expedition, in view of the hazards involved and the notoriously bad weather;  Isabella wrote that, although she was not the first woman to ascend Mauna Loa, she believed that she was the second. She parted company with Mr Green, as agreed, on the sixth day, and continued on alone to Crater House at Kilauea. It was a journey of seven hours across an eerie, scorched landscape, and she feared that she would get lost; dismounting to feed her horse, she was alarmed to hear a rumbling and vibration beneath her feet, and suddenly the animal sank up to his knees in a rift that had opened in the earth. Snatching up her plaid and leaping back on her horse, she galloped away, convinced that the ground was breaking apart behind her. It was only when she recognised the steaming sulphurous plumes around Crater House that she allowed herself to relax.

Kilauea’s Crater…

Isabella enjoyed a further two months in Hawaii, during which she revelled in the beauty of her surroundings and took every opportunity to explore.  She had only just embarked on her extraordinary lifetime of travel, but for the moment she was blissfully happy where she was.

“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.’”

Isabella Bird (1831-1904) was the first woman to be elected Fellow of RSGS, in 1890. She wrote several books about her travels and became a best-selling author and early travel photographer. For many years she lived with her sister, Henrietta, in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.

Quotes and line drawing from: ‘The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six Months among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs and Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands’ by Isabella Bird, pub. John Murray (1890).