She comes back to me sometimes like a dream: her sweet, intoxicating fragrance; her bold, exotic features; her impossible charm… How could I forget her? She was full of contradictions; a Jeckle & Hyde.
doubt about it she was beautiful. Provocative.
She was elegant and sophisticated—traits that created a sense
of nobility. And yet she
was so unassuming, so innocent. She
was unrefined and unrestrained—unpredictable.
There was an animal nature about her that was powerful and at
times destructive. She was
raw and savage, and capable of a fury like I have never before seen.
She had this dark side that was both terrifying and alluring.
I will never forget when I first met her…
of us set out to sea on a beautiful, crisp morning, full of
expectations. We could see
her in the distance: a mere blemish on the horizon.
Excitement hung thick in the air like the taste of salt.
We were restless in anticipation.
It was mid-afternoon before we finally arrived.
remember my first impression being how alien and foreign she appeared.
There was this sensation that she existed outside of
time—unaffected by the events of the rest of the world.
I recalled how the Mutiny on the Bounty occurred in this area
over two hundred years ago. To the men of that ship, she appeared isolated and
unforgiving. And I can see
why. It is not easy to
approach her. It’s as if
she doesn’t want anyone to get too close.
unloaded into a smaller boat. This
allowed us to get closer to the tortured formations that protected her
shore. A couple of boys
emerged from out of the bush and ran down to help us.
I climbed out of the boat and looked back out across the ocean.
There was Kau, standing eternally stoic by her side, soaring
majestically towards the sky. A small tuft of clouds obscures his peak, giving the
impression he rises up to the heavens.
Kau seems so much more impressive from here, towering over her as
he does; but does he possess her same secret?
two boys led us up a narrow dirt path, weaving its way through thick
woods. Along the way, we
passed about a half dozen small huts, all constructed from coconut logs
and dried palms. Some had
metal roofs, rusting from age; another was surrounded by a wooden
fence—so aged that not even the clumsiest or most awkward of animals
could have been contained. The trail opened up into a clearing and at the center stood a
small schoolhouse, built up on a cement foundation. A few pigs and dogs and chickens roamed the area, but
otherwise the place appeared deserted.
We were the only people on the island.
stepped inside the schoolhouse, removed my pack, and walked around the
room. “Fear of God is the
Beginning of Knowledge.” This
banner spanned the top of a decrepit chalkboard at the front of the
classroom, for all the students to see and remember.
Letters of the alphabet and numbers, scratched onto faded scraps
of paper, decorated the other walls.
Everything about this place seemed like a fragment from the past.
At one time children must have actually gathered in this room;
chalk dust filled the air as a teacher scratched a new lesson on the
board. I tried to imagine
what it must have been like—the tune of “Fara Jaka” resounding
through the village as the children recited their alphabet.
song faded from my mind and there was silence.
Whatever it may have been in the past, tonight it would serve as
our home. Sleeping bags
were already scattered along the cement floor.
The sun began to pass behind the coconut trees, casting its rays
through the dusty louvers of the schoolhouse.
The room was painted a golden hue, and long shadows began dancing
on the walls until the final curtain call… and all was dark.
wasn’t long after sunrise that the group of us began the arduous hike
to the summit. A hot cup of
coffee and the cool morning air awakened all my senses and I felt like I
could take on anything. I
forged ahead into the thick foliage, pushing myself up her precipitous
slopes. And there was a reward around every corner. From delicate
tropical flowers to lush ferns, each step granted new vistas—a small
glimpse of Eden.
the summit was our final destination, that alone would have been worth
the long hike. I stood in
awe as I gazed out at the incredible expanse around me.
I looked out towards the east, from where we came: dozens of tiny
atolls lay scattered over the ocean like jade on an emerald blanket.
In front of me, Kau still rose above it all with his cone like
profile; but he did not appear quite so grandiose from this vantage.
In fact he looked more like a camouflaged party hat!
every one had time to rest we continued on along the ridge.
I gasped when I finally emerged from the trees; my heart almost
skipped a beat. I gazed out
across the massive caldera. It
was like standing on the ridge of a giant salad bowl, floating in the
ocean. Inside the basin, a
verdant rainforest carpeted the steep ridge, plummeting inward to a
crystal blue lake. But that
is not what caught my attention first.
Nestled among this delicate beauty, a large, austere cone
ascended to one side of the lake, belching sulfuric gas like an
industrial smokestack. See this was no ordinary island that I was visiting.
This is Tofua,
and she has a secret: she is an active volcano!
by one, we sidestepped down the near vertical embankment, taking us into
the caldera. Hiking across
brittle lava, we traversed our way around the base of the cone and
finally proceeded down near the edge of the lake.
A small clearing opened up to us and we decided it would be the
perfect spot to set up camp. While
others pitched their tents, I scanned the area for an appropriate site.
I finally settled on a nice flat area under an ironwood tree,
unrolled my sleeping bag—and prayed that it wouldn’t rain for the
next couple of days!
I set up camp—which didn’t take long—I made a dash for the lake,
stripped down to my skivvies, and jumped into the crisp, smooth,
sulfuric water. It was like
swimming around in a fountain of youth.
I was invigorated by this mystical pool, rejuvenated by Tofua’s
vitality, and returned to camp—as sappy as it sounds—a new man!
evening, after dinner, after the normal campfire ritual, I slipped into
my sleeping bag. I lay
awake, absorbing all the sights and sounds, becoming intoxicated from
the wonderful fragrances. I
eventually fell asleep under the stars.
was a fiery gate
woke the next morning, not to dogs barking, or chickens crowing, or cats
fighting, nor the annoying beep of my alarm; but to some subtle hint
that a new day had arrived. When
I opened my eyes, the sky blushed slightly in anticipation of the rising
remained cuddled up in my sleeping bag for a while and watched the
appearance of a new day. The
others crawled out of their tents in random succession, like bears
awaking from hibernation, and soon everyone was gathered around the
a few sore muscles, we all laced up our boots and, after a hearty
breakfast and hot coffee, set out on another hike.
We could have been walking on the moon, or another planet for
that matter. It looked like
some king of war zone. Lava
rocks littered our path as we climbed up to the crater of the volcanic
cone—to the heart of Tofua. I
scurried up the brittle lava, eager to see inside.
Almost too eager. The
ground dropped off without warning.
I reached the abrupt edge—gravel fell into the crater like
rain—and suddenly felt dizzy.
was pure vertigo! From the
rim, the crater dropped some 300ft. to a ledge below.
Another chasm (about 100ft. in diameter) extended another 200ft.
into the earth, like a vertical tunnel to her heart. I could literally
see the lava churning around below—a fiery gate to the unknown.
Darkness came, and the entire crater was filled with a portentous orange glow. Tofua awakened. She moaned and groaned incessantly. It sounded a lot like an old boiler room. But even more eerie was the clanking noises that seemed to emanate beyond the fiery hole. How many poor souls were down there, shackled to chains, working away their sins with every swing of their pick-ax? The ground began to shake beneath us. Monstrous flames shot out of her throat, like a dragon, as she exhaled her noxious gasses. I could feel the heat rushing up from below. It was an awesome sight. Then, an instant later, she spewed lava some 200 feet up (still well below our vantage); a violent fireworks display out of control.
was a feast.
returned to the village the next day to find it alive with new faces.
The young ones greeted each of us as we approached the
schoolhouse with a luscious green coconut.
So refreshing is its juice!
But this was only the beginning of the villages’ hospitality.
A pig had been slaughtered in our honor, and one of the young men
was already roasting it over a fire.
Then, a mountain of manioke (tapioca) and taro was piled up on
some coconut frans and faikakai (a delectable caramel dessert) was
awaiting our fingers!
played with the kids, teaching them baseball and bowling using coconuts
and sticks. After dark we
joined a kava ceremony with the men, drinking and exchanging stories
was a surprise.
next morning the boat was waiting for us just off shore.
Nobody really wanted to leave.
The villagers were perhaps saddened more than us.
They followed us down to the lava jetty and helped us onto the
small boat. They stayed on
the shore and waived to us until we could no longer see them.
Tofua was behind us now.
pod of dolphins surfaced in front of our boat, swimming along the bow
like I have always seen in the movies, but never experienced for myself.
Were they our guardians—sent by Tofua?
were already going crazy over the appearance of the dolphins when a
humpback whale swam alongside our boat, passing only 50 ft. away!
When it was behind us it rolled onto its side and waived its
gigantic fin, almost as if it was bidding us farewell.
And then, with no warning, it jumped completely out of the
sea—full breach—spinning around before finally entering the water…
was a dream.
rhythmic song of the ocean fades and I think I can hear the faint sound
of music somewhere in the distance.
Then I realize: I am no longer on a boat.
I open my eyes. My
alarm is going off. It’s
6am. Already my dream has
faded; only fragments remain.
Tofua for real? Sometimes I
wonder if she really does exist outside of my mind.
now she will.