An Ascent of Kilauea, by Lady Brassey

from Around the World in the Yacht Sunbeam

[Footnote: Kilauea: a volcano on the island of Hawaii.]

At last we found ourselves at the very edge of the old crater, the bed of which, three or four hundred feet beneath us, was surrounded by steep and in many places overhanging sides. It looked like an enormous cauldron, four or five miles in width, full of a mass of cooled pitch. In the center was the still glowing stream of dark red lava flowing slowly toward us, and in every direction were red-hot patches, and flames, and smoke, issuing from the ground.

Yet the first sensation is rather one of disappointment, as one expects greater activity on the part of the volcano; but the new crater was still to be seen, containing the lake of fire, with steep walls rising up in the midst of the sea of lava.

We spent the night at the Volcano House, and at three o'clock the next afternoon we set out, a party of eight, with two guides, and three porters to carry our wraps and provisions, and to bring back specimens.

First of all we descended the precipice, three hundred feet in depth, forming the wall of the old crater, but now thickly covered with vegetation. It is so steep in many places that flights of zigzag wooden steps have been inserted in the face of the cliff in some places, in order to render the descent practicable.

At the bottom we stepped straight on to the surface of cold boiled lava, which we had seen from above last night. Even here, in every crevice where a few grains of soil had collected, delicate little ferns might be seen struggling for life, and thrusting out their green fronds towards the light.

It was the most extraordinary walk imaginable, over that vast plain of lava, twisted and distorted into every conceivable shape and form, according to the temperature it had originally attained and the rapidity with which it had cooled, its surface, like half-molten glass, cracking and breaking beneath our feet.

Sometimes we came to a patch that looked like the contents of a pot, suddenly petrified in the act of boiling; sometimes the black, iridescent lava had assumed the form of waves, or more frequently of huge masses of rope, twisted and coiled together; sometimes it was piled up like a collection of organ pipes, or had gathered into mounds and cones of various dimensions.

As we proceeded, the lava became hotter and hotter, and from every crack arose gaseous fumes, affecting our noses and throats in a painful manner; till at last, when we had to pass to leeward [Footnote: Leeward: away from the wind.] of the molten stream flowing from the lake, the vapors almost choked us, and it was with difficulty we continued to advance.

The lava was more glassy and transparent-looking, as if it had been fused at a higher temperature than usual; and the crystals of sulphur, alum, and other minerals, with which it abounded, reflected the light in bright prismatic colors. In places it was quite transparent, and we could see beneath it the long streaks of a stringy kind of lava, like brown spun glass, called "Pele's hair."

At last we reached the foot of the present crater, and commenced the ascent of the outer wall. Many times the thin crust gave way beneath our guide, and he had to retire quickly from the hot, blinding, choking fumes that immediately burst forth. But we succeeded in reaching the top, and then what a sight presented itself to our astonished eyes! I could neither speak nor move at first, but could only stand and gaze at the horrible grandeur of the scene.

We were standing on the extreme edge of a precipice, overhanging a lake of molten fire, a hundred feet below us, nearly a mile across. Dashing against the cliffs on the opposite side, with a noise like the roar of a stormy ocean, waves of blood-red fiery liquid lava hurled their billows upon an iron-bound headland, and then rushed up the face of the cliffs to toss their gory spray high in the air.

The restless, heaving lake boiled and bubbled, never remaining the same for two minutes together. Its normal color seemed to be a dull dark red, covered with a thin gray scum, which every moment and in every part swelled and cracked, and emitted fountains, cascades, and whirlpools of yellow and red fire, while sometimes one big golden river, sometimes four or five, flowed across it.

As the sun set and as darkness enveloped the scene, it became more awful than ever. We retired a little way from the brink to breathe some fresh air, and to try and eat the food we had brought with us; but this was an impossibility. Every instant a fresh explosion or glare made us jump up to survey the scene.

The violent struggles of the lava to escape from its fiery bed, and the loud and awful noises by which they were at times, accompanied, suggested the idea that some imprisoned monsters were trying to release themselves from their bondage, with shrieks and groans, and cries of agony and despair at the futility of their efforts. Sometimes there were at least seven spots on the borders of the lake where the molten lava dashed up furiously against the rocks—seven fire fountains playing at the same time.

I had for some time been feeling very hot and uncomfortable, and on looking round, the cause was at once apparent. Not two inches beneath the surface, the gray lava on which we were standing and sitting was red hot. A stick thrust through it caught fire, a piece of paper was immediately destroyed, and the gentlemen found the heat from the crevices so great that they could not approach near enough to light their pipes.

One more long last look, and then we turned our faces away from the scene that had enthralled us for so many hours. The whole of the lava we had crossed in the extinct crater was now aglow in many patches, and in all directions flames were bursting forth, fresh lava flowing, and steam and smoke were issuing from the surface.

It was a toilsome journey back again, walking as we did in single file, and obeying the strict charges of our head guide to follow him closely, and to tread exactly in his footsteps. On the whole, it was easier by night than by day to distinguish the route to be taken, as we could now see the dangers that before we could only feel; and many were the fiery crevices we stepped over and jumped across. Once I slipped, and my foot sank through the thin crust. Sparks issued from the ground, and the stick on which I leaned caught fire before I could fairly recover myself.


[Footnote: Note the purely objective description. What colors predominate? Point out the similes in use. Do they heighten the picture? Does the author succeed in giving a clear picture of the volcano?]

Louise de la Ramee