The Timeless Kauai Swamp

« native Californian and the author of THE NUN’S STORY, who moved to the island of Kauai four years ago. Cradled among the mountain peaks on the island is a prehistoric swamp, to be traversed, as she here describes, only in the company of expert guides. The translations of the commemorative chants were made by Mary Kawena Pukui, staff member of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

THE island of Kauai, where I moved from the mainland four years ago, is the fourth largest of the Hawaiian archipelago and said to be the oldest — the first to have erupted out of the sea. the first to have cooled off so that plant life could move in. Kauai calls itself the “Garden Isle"’ and boasts of its generous rainfall, which in one place on its mountainous summit (“the wettest spot on earth”) averages 450 inches annually. It is this colossal rainfall that has created the real garden of the Garden Isle: the great Alaka’i Swamp lying up in the cloudland of Mount Waialeale. Ever since coming to Kauai I have longed to visit the swamp. Last summer I got my wish and saw the corner of my small island which truly belongs to the gods.

Cradled among mountain peaks, only a few miles from the famed Mercury tracking station with its radar ears cocked toward outer space, the Alaka’i could serve as a setting for Genesis. It is an antediluvian world of quaking bogs and stunted as well as giantlike vegetation where violets turn into trees, trees into ground shrubs, and every sense you ever had about customary nature is turned upside down. Hauntingly beautiful and sometimes scary, covering ten square miles, the swamp is a goblin’s garden that takes you back into the Carboniferous epoch when our flowering world began.

Relatively few people have crossed the Alaka’i. Only Hawaiian pig hunters, exploring botanists, geologists, and ornithologists, and the more venturesome island-born descendants of missionary pioneers know the swamp these days. The most historic journey was made by Queen Emma, widow of Kamehameha IV, in 1871, with some one hundred friends and retainers, including musicians and hula dancers, and a priestly kahuna who chanted prayers every step of the way over the bogs. A scries of old Hawaiian meles, or songs, written to commemorate her exploit proved that it was not a royal yarn, as I had first supposed. Following in her footsteps, I matched chant couplets to the arduous trail and discovered them to be poetic eyewitness reports, for no Hawaiian composer, even the most gifted, could have imagined the boggy cloudland of the Alaka’i.

The swamp plateau, which is four to five thousand feet up and virtually trailless, is difficult of access and hazardous to traverse without an experienced guide. Its name, Alaka’i, means “to lead.”suggesting the wisdom of following a knowing leader. Geologists tell of “blowholes" in the swamp, so covered over with mosses and turf that nobody could detect their whereabouts save the old-time Hawaiians, who did so by listening for the sound of the underground waterfalls. The rain over the swamp is as fine-textured as fog, called, in Hawaiian, noe, a mist. When it falls thickly, every known landmark is blotted out, even for experienced swamp hands. The eerie vegetation, presenting the phenomena of dwarfism and gigantism (such as the British botanist Synge found in 1934 on the fabled “Mountains of the Moon,” the Ruwenzori ol equatorial Africa), tricks the senses also. In this virgin wilderness, trees and shrubs look alike.

In the time before the missionaries, and for a while after them, Hawaiians used the western end of the swamp as a shortcut from Waimea on Kauai’s south shore to Wainiha on the north. Over this anciently established crossover, where the swamp is only two miles wide, there used to be a corduroy road of sorts, made of sections of tree ferns dropped horizontally over the bogs to provide a floating foothold. This “road” was reputedly restored for the last time nearly one hundred years ago for Queen Emma’s crossing. No trace of it remains.

I have made many mountain climbs in my time, but none to compare with the Alaka’i trip, which was the most rugged and also the most inspiring. Nothing in California’s High Sierra, in the western Rockies, or even in the glacial mountain meadows of the Swiss Alps can hold a candle to the muscleand spirit-stretching experience of climbing up to the Alaka’i and bog-hopping across it from tussock to tussock, over the matted turf that sometimes springs under the feet like a trampoline, sometimes gives way and drops you knee-deep into a black mud gravy of rotted vegetation which has tremendous suction power when you try to pull out of it.

Falling into the swamp is the most rewarding way to see it. As you go down in the bogs, you drop into a wonderland of prehistoric botany. The nearer your face comes to that antique turf, the nearer you come to what appears to be the source of all floral creation. Every tussock viewed in close-up is a whole new universe of madcap vegetation. A couplet from the chants suggests that Queen Emma used a tussock as a footstool:

On an unstable mound
Sat Emma the Queen....

OUR party was smaller and less dramatic in makeup than was the Queen’s. We numbered twenty: three men and seventeen women, islanders all, who like myself had heard over the “coconut radio" that there was to be such a safari and had leaped at the chance to join it. Our guide was Hans Hansen, vice president and manager of Kauai’s largest sugar plantation, a swamp-lover from his boyhood, when lie had explored the Alaka’i with Augustus and Eric Knudsen, sons of Kauai s pioneer naturalist and cattleman, Valdemar Knudsen, who had supplied the guide for Queen Emma’s crossing. We were botanizers and bird watchers, amateurs mainly, all lovers of the wilderness and the high places, but none of us held any championship medals for mountaineering. Whereas Queen Emma’s party had to spend the night on the swamp plateau (because of lengthy halts en route for chants and hulas), we made the eight-mile round trip in about five hours’ walking time. That we got up to the swamp and across it, and back, without any collapses from fatigue or altitude exhaustion testifies to the glory of the scenery through which we alternately slid, tramped, waded, and climbed.

Tree ferns canopied the start of our trail, their lower trunks hairy with the yellowish-brown wool called pulu, which, said our guide, snatching off a handful, was used by the old-time Hawaiians to stanch the flow of blood, and was also exported to California for pillow and mattress stuffing. Mixed with the towering ferns were the tropical trees of the middle forest zone — a bewildering glossy-leaved tapestry shot through with the bright colors of blooms and berries, which could have been the fruit of the vines climbing up the trees or of the trees themselves. Only the trained botanist could tell, and the birds, of course, who can locate their preferred nectars, berries, or fruits anywhere in the forest. We saw our first crimson-feathered apapane (whose plumage used to contribute to the beauty of the old Hawaiian feather capes) at the top of the ridge that drops down to the Kauaikanana stream.

This was the point where the Queen’s bridle trail had ended. Here her party had dismounted and started down “on foot,” so the story goes. I could not imagine anyone’s feet, especially a queen’s, holding to that precipitous mud slide down a tropical gorge, nor could I imagine the royal lady’s attire for such an exploit — a mulberry riding habit with a train ! The chants sing discreetly only of the terrain:

The way down to Ka-ua-i-ka-nana
Was steep all the way to the stream
The stream was not far away
But the water made walking difficult.

Our guide gave us the Hawaiian joke name for that part of the trail. It means bottom-sliding, the way we went down it. The stream at the end was only about five feet wide, deep-running, paved with moss-slimed rocks, but wadable. Our trail up the Kawaikoi ridge opposite looked like one of the playful little waterfalls that fed the stream. The whole slope, as far as we could see through its dense forest covering, sparkled with the runoff from the great swamp above. The water spurted from the ground at varying levels like individual springs but was all part of the vast leakage from the Alaka’i.

Queen Emma’s followers must have made a human rope of themselves as they climbed the boggy slope. One of the meles gives this happy picture:

We lovingly held hands
To the rocky top of the hill ,
Entered the beautiful forest,
The forest of mokihana trees. . . .

We, on our way up, became arboreal again, like our ancestors. We climbed with hands, knees, and elbows, grasping at roots and vines, hauling our feet behind us like vestigial appendages. In places the hiker directly ahead of me was some ten feet higher, looking down on me with a grin but no helping hand. Every monkey for himself was the law on that part of the trail.

At the top of the ridge we sat down in the only spot where the sun got through. A pervasive aniselike sweetness filled the air, the scent of Kauai’s unique mokihana trees, whose leaves and berries were formerly strung into the royal lei of the island. We took pictures, used binoculars on the birds, and listened raptly to our leader telling what he knew of the plants up there at the 4000-foot level.

He showed us a charming little red-berried shrub, a member of the heath family named the ohelo — Madame Pele’s berry (and you call her Madame when you scale her heights), the berry that appeased her wrath when thrown into the caldrons of her volcanoes. Though the volcano we were sitting on was many thousands of years dead, the fiery goddess’s lovely red berry still grew up there handily near the summit, just in case — Near her berry bush was a clump of Kauai violets looking as familiar and innocent as the violets in grandmother’s garden. But farther up, within the swamp proper, that same violet transmogrifies into a tree four to five feet high. Did Queen Emma see those violets?

I know she saw Pele’s berries growing in some kind of mossy hole (puka) on that open portion of the high trail, and the view from it which this quatrain from the chants recalls:

Arriving at Puka-’ohelo
Forest-fragrant with the breath of ferns,
It was there that the Queen
Beheld the top of Wai ‘ale \de.

The last of the climb before reaching the true swamp of the stunted growth was a swamp of shrinking growths, but still higher than our heads and so dense that you seldom saw more of your party than the plodder ahead and behind. And sometimes even they vanished, dissolving mysteriously into fern fronds or rotted tree stumps with topknots of crinkly white moss like aged hair. Perhaps this was the place which the chants record with a touch of anxiety:

The Queen turned to ask ,
Oh where are our guides?
What is the name of that mountain?

Our guide marked the obliterated trail with cut fern tips that dropped like bright green arrows from his swinging ranger’s knife every few feet across the boggy forest floor. Though we seldom saw him far out front, we could follow his green arrows. Where there appeared to be a decided fork, he dropped a whole fern frond across it and passed back the word that no one must step over those fivefoot pennants of green.

At one point he waited until we were all more or less caught up and bunched together on the trail. Then he showed us the ukiuki by the wayside, Kauai’s only native lily, soon to come into paleblue bloom and later to fruit into the blue berries used as dyes in the old Hawaiian tapa cloths. He demonstrated another use of the ukiuki by plucking its three central leaves, discarding the inside two, and making a whistle of the remaining one by pinching together its outer edges at a given point and blowing down the folded tip. It made a sweet high-piercing sound, like a birdcall, which carried through the bush even when the human voice did not. And now with his lily lute he piped us up through the last of the wilderness to the western edge of the great Alaka’i Swamp.

IT was exactly like stepping out of one world and entering another, almost in a single pace, or more accurately, a single startled stumble forward out of the shrubby entanglements of the fern forest into the open spaces of the swamp plateau. A fine foglike drizzle fell from the nearly white sky. At first glance, the swamp showed no bright colors, only a vast spread of dun-toned turf sprouting gray growths in the hollows and hay-colored grasses on the tussocks. The bog pools, as frequent as holes in a good Swiss cheese, were rimmed with orange and brown mosses. The magnificent ohialehua trees of the forests below became dwarfed gray-green shrubs up here, two to three feet high, not yet in scarlet bloom but bearing their creamcolored leaf buds that looked like ornaments pressed out of wax. The lehua makanoe, said our guide, the little lehua of the mists.

As her party had entered the swamp, Queen Emma had also had the noe — a favorable sign indicating that the gods had accepted a person into their cloudy realm.

There stood the lehua makanoe ,
Unusual mountain plants.
Misty appeared the lehua blossoms ,
Among the thickly spreading sedges.
Anointed were the faces of the flowers.. . .

Leader Hans squinted at the soaking swamp he had not crossed for ten years, said it looked drier than he had remembered it and that our chances of getting across it to the Kilohana Lookout appeared very good indeed. He stepped forth lightfootedly into the vegetable sponge, and the next in line sank into it to the knees. Soon our party began to resemble chocolate soldiers, but nobody fretted. There were no leeches in this mud, no crocodiles in the bog pools, no venomous serpents lurking in the tussocks; not a single creature harmful to man inhabited that tropical swamp. For that matter, the whole of Hawaii is reptile-free. Only the ghosts of the old Hawaiian gods were up there. They must have been pleased that we followed in the footsteps of their illustrious queen — Emalani, called Ka-lele-o-na-lani, she who reaches toward heaven. They gave us a burst of unprecedented sunshine somewhere midway in the swamp.

Then the bog pools mirrored the blue, and the antique turf sprang into multicolored life like a pointillist painting underfoot, each dot of color a miniature bloom of some sort. We got down on our knees to look. There was an insect-eating plant barely half an inch high, its tiny flytrap bloom a fleck of yellow on a slender stem of reddish hue. Nobody knew how it got to Kauai’s summit, the only representative of its family in all the islands.

But everything in the Alaka’i was strange and otherworldly. In his rare book The Indigenous Trees oj Hawaii (now a collector’s prize) J. F. Rock reports that the summit of Kauai was first visited for scientific study by Heinrich Wawra, botanist with an Austrian exploring expedition in 1871. And, wrote Rock, “it is peculiar that no other botanist or botanical collector has cared to visit the mountain again.” Quite possibly the botanists feared they would go out of their botanical minds in the midst of such floral excitement.

Lobelias, looking like something that should grow on the moon; a mistletoe that has dispensed entirely with its leaves; a black-fruited member of the coffee family, the coprosma, called kukainene (goose droppings) in happy Hawaiian because the great Hawaiian mountain goose, the nene, now almost extinct save in refuges on the islands of Hawaii and Maui, used to feed on those small black berries; nodding club mosses like foot-high surrealist trees sculptured in jacle; grasses like the makaloha, from which the finest of old Hawaiian mats were woven.

Even those of us who scarcely knew the difference between a stamen and a pistil could have spent days in those bogs. But our leader was watching the sky. He bribed us out of the swamp by a promise of sun on the Kilohana Lookout, if we would hurry. We plunged after him into the jungle of trees and ferns rimming the eastern edge of the swamp.

It was somewhere in that last stretch before the rim of the pali cliff that night overtook Queen Emma’s exhausted party. There beneath tree ferns her stalwarts built a small platform of lehua branches and spread their cloaks for the Queen to sit upon:

In the forest of’ Aipoi-nui
We suffered with ‘goose pimples.’
A fire to warm was suggested,
Lighted with mosses for tinder.
All sat around in a circle
While Emma sat bowed down,
Anxiously awaiting the day.

The royal songwriters did not portray Emma as valiant as she really was. The Knudsen memoir tells how the Queen sang through the rainy night to her followers, raising their dampened spirits by the sound of her “small sweet voice” chanting their ancient meles, and then the modern haole (foreigner) songs of the day, enchanting them into forgetfulness of their soaked and shivery state until dawn came. “This was life in the spreading mist,” sings the commemorative mele.

The final few hundred feet were through a jungle thick and entangling that grew right up to the rim of the Wainiha cliff, over which we undoubtedly would have walked had our leader not got there first to mark the abrupt trail’s end with his immobilized form standing waist-deep in shrubs and grasses against a sweep of cloudy blue sky.

We crouched in a row for lunch on the cliff rim. Below lay three of Kauai’s most beautiful northern valleys — Wainiha, Lumahai, and Hanalei, each with its river born out of Mount Waialeale’s waterfalls and the perpetual leakage from the Alaka’i Swamp. The valleys fanned out into a fifteen-mile spread of the northern bays and beaches, from Haena Point to the Kilauea Lighthouse promontory. The froth of Pacific surf rimmed with white the distant crescents of black lava and yellow sand, and we could even see, off the lighthouse bluff, the speck of rocky islet that is a refuge and breeding ground for Kauai’s “boobies,” the frigate birds. A rare, almost unheard-of burst of sunlight over the lookout was our final gift from the gods that day.

This was the celestial panorama Queen Emma had crossed the swamp to see — the most splendid in all of her splendid realm. The historical meles evoke her on the lookout:

Wondrous indeed was the lady
Standing on the heights,
On the summit of Mauna-Hina
Looking toward, the Koolau side
At Hanaleis beauty spread before her,
The sandy stretch of Mahamoku,
The waters of Lumaha’ i.
The Queen turned to go back
For the fog rested on the mountain.
I call to you, you pause to listen;
Ka-lele-o-na-lani is your name.