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A Bird's-Eye View of Haleakala,
By Diannek

"There never was a stranger contrast between the hideous desolation of the crater below, and those blue and jeweled summits above the shifting clouds."

from Six Months in Hawaii, by Isabella Bird

sunrise on Haleakala
Haleakala volcano on a very cold morning


Isabella Bird, a proper Victorian Englishwoman, visited the Sandwich Islands in 1873 and wrote letters home. The letters, addressed to her sister, were gathered together and later published into a travel book entitled Six Months in Hawaii. The book became a British best-seller, extolling the beauty and wonder of this tropical paradise. Isabella traveled extensively throughout the islands, by horse, riding bareback, an unconventional and daring practice for an English woman of her time. One of her memorable letters described her trek up Maui's Haleakala accompanied by her new friend, John Alexander.

Isabella traveled by ferry from Honolulu to Maui, landing at the small isthmus harbor of Maalaea. From there she found a good horse and crossed the isthmus to Wailuku, a half-day trip at a steady pace. There she stayed at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander, one of the missionary families on Maui.

She was on my mind as I decided to visit Haleakala this summer, one hundred and twenty-three years later. What would Isabella have thought if she had accompanied me this summer morning? Isabelle's journey up the volcano began at two a.m. from John Alexander's Makawao residence. Their riding party consisted of herself, Mr. Alexander, a Japanese guide and two pack mules. They would need camping gear and food because in those days the trip up the volcano and back took at least two days. Isabella explained that "the road soon degenerated into a wood road, then into a bridle track, then into a mere trail ascending all the way."

My trip was quite different. I was accompanied by my husband and we drove our trusty rental car, which we packed with two cups of coffee, some island melon and our cameras.

It took Isabella's riding party five hard hours from Makawao, the small cow town on Haleakala's slope to the volcano's rim.

It would take us less than an hour. Our road was a four-lane highway for the first half before narrowing to two lanes once we reached the switchbacks. Unlike her torturous path, ours was exceedingly well marked by abundant and bright highway reflectors. There were no cars behind or ahead of us, so I thought perhaps few tourists would be visiting the volcano on this particular morning.

We reached the lookout's paved parking lot half an hour before the five-thirty a.m. sunrise. About two hundred people had arrived ahead of us, many in tour buses and minivans. The parking lot was full, and there were lines for the restrooms. We barely squeezed ourselves into position at the guardrail that protects visitors from the blackness of the extinct volcano's immense crater.

Isabella had dressed for the trip in a haphazard fashion. In addition to her regular riding suit, she borrowed a much-worn topcoat from Mr. Alexander, and a tartan shawl, which covered her to her feet. Even so, she "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."

I wore two t-shirts, a windbreaker, more suitable for the golf course than freezing mountain air, and light-weight jeans. This clothing felt uncomfortably hot at sea level, but on the mountain top, we too felt the fierce biting wind whistle through our clothing and chill us to the bone. Other visitors sat huddled in blankets, hotel beach towels, anything they could lay hands on; some just shivered into themselves as we all waited for the sun's arrival.

One of the things that made Isabella's letters home unique was her scholarly mind that took in and recorded the flora and fauna, the geography and the culture, as well as the beauty she saw. Her letters weren't merely school girl postcards that gushed on about the tropical beauty, but rather, they were the keen-eyed observances of a mature traveler. She recorded the bad and the ugly for us, as well as the beautiful. And so it was when she recorded what she saw on Haleakala: "There never was a stranger contrast than between the hideous desolation of the crater below, and those blue and jeweled summits rising above the shifting clouds."

The crater hadn't changed. It was still a rocky, barren and desolate place. We simply stood there waiting and shivering, too cold to move, watching the dark and densely-packed clouds that shrouded the volcano's crater. Looking down upon on churning clouds was fascinating. They boiled against the sunrise as if to block its path. But finally the sun peaked above them, and we watched its rosy glow creep into the crater itself, illuminating it with oranges, yellows and purples, until finally we could make out the entire huge expanse of its hollowed out bowl. And then the crowd exclaimed the magnificence of the "house of the sun," just as they have for hundreds of years.

It's surprising to note that John Alexander took time off to accompany Isabella to Haleakala, because at that very moment, the Alexanders and Baldwins were quite perplexed by the problem of a serious and continuing water shortage for their sugar crops and they were devising a way to fix it.

There is plenty of water on Maui. In fact, the term Wailuku means "waters of destruction." The town's label was well-earned because the Iao stream that flows through town frequently flooded the entire area.

there's nothing like the smell of sugar cane...
Burning sugar cane smoke drifts over Kihei.  
Haleakala is barely visible in the background.


The sugar plantations grew along the slopes of Haleakala, where torrents of tropical rains scar the landscape with deep gorges. The plan they developed was daring and dangerous.

They proposed a series of irrigation ditches to divert and control that wasted rainfall. Their proposal was risky, financially as well as physically, but they were determined men of missionary vision and zeal. The politics of the day placed as many obstacles in their way as the geography itself, but they persevered and between 1875 and 1915 the ditches were completed and the precious water was diverted to irrigate the crops.

It is possible today to locate those ditches, which gouge through Maui's landscape in many places. They are still in use, their brick and mortar, rock walls still sluicing water into the sugar and pineapple fields.

We left the mountain shortly after sun rise and decided to see if we could find any of those ditches. We followed packs of bicyclers down the mountain slope, all dressed alike in rented orange and yellow helmets and safety gear, finally passing them when they stopped for breakfast. Back again in Makawao, we found Baldwin Avenue and headed toward the sea. Along the road just past the old Baldwin residence, now a college campus, we came onto some cane fields and a sugar mill nearby.

photo of a ditch!
A ditch - I've heard there's a new recreational activity 
called ditch kayaking.  Might be fun.


Then along the road we spotted one of the ditches. Clear fast-running water sluiced rapidly through it towards a nearby cane field. Nothing in its present condition suggests the extreme effort it took to put it in place or the number of years it has been in use. And as another pack of bicyclers streamed past we wondered what Isabella Bird would be thinking and writing if she were a Maui visitor today.


One-day Trip Planner:

An interesting one-day trip would include either a sunrise or sunset visit to Haleakala, a visit to the Wailuku museum for a glimpse of Maui before and after contact with the missionaries. A quick stop at the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum will help round out a picture of 19th century Maui. This museum also contains information and early photographs on the ditch project. Complete the tour by wandering through Makawao, an up-island town of small shops and stores that still remembers the days of the paniolos.

Reading List:

Six Months in Hawaii, by Isabella Bird
(A new copy of this book occasionally shows up in a bookstore, or Amazon.com may be able to special order it for you.)

The Water of Kane, by O.A. Bushnell
(A fictionalized account of the hardships involved in completing the Hamakua ditch, the first and perhaps most difficult of the entire project.  This book may be special ordered through Amazon.com.

Visiting Haleakala: Haleakala National Park is open 24 hours a day. A well-marked easy 1-1/2 hour drive from the Highway 30 turnoff on the isthmus, or book a tour through most hotels or tour agencies in Lahaina.

Touring:

-Bailey House Museum
Wailuku, Maui
Displays of Hawaiian cultural artifacts on first floor; "period rooms" of missionary residence on second floor; floral gardens, island gift shop.
Open 10 a.m. to 4:30. Donation requested.

-Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum
Puunene Avenue & Hansen Road, Puunene
Explore the history of the sugar industry, including exhibits of the irrigation ditch project. Across the street is the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company mill.
Open 10 a.m. to 4:30. Donation requested.


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