HONOLULU – Hawaiians called it Le’Ahi because it looked like the brow of a tuna. The English speakers who took control of these parts some time back call it Diamond Head. The people who try to lure tourists here call it a gold mine.
Other than the hula and the flower lei, and perhaps now the president of the United States, there’s no more familiar Hawaiian icon than the giant crater that perfectly frames all those photos taken for people back home.
As wild as Waikiki can be with its salesmen hawking sailboat rides and Pearl Harbour tours and gentlemen’s clubs and its constant stream of shoppers, there’s a gentle, wild side to Oahu that’s sitting right at the end of all those postcards.
Hundreds of people make the expedition to the rim of the majestic Diamond Head crater to watch the sun peek up from the vast Pacific east of Oahu.
You can climb Diamond Head anytime, but it’s best at about 6 a.m. (avoiding the mid-day heat). It’s about a 10-minute drive up the hill and through a tunnel to Diamond Head park, which rests inside the vast crater. The circumference is a whopping 1,072 metres and it’s 230 metres high.
The trail starts out as a slightly uphill stroll on a paved path. But it soon switches to a series of winding cutbacks carved out of the deep brown/black lava rock. It can get a touch slippery if it’s rained lately, but there are handrails and it’s not all that bad for someone in reasonable shape.
It can be climbed in as little as 20 minutes, but that’s rushing things. Take time to look around at the dawning light that casts lovely shadows on the rock and the gnarly kiawe (a relative of mesquite) trees that line the dry canyon walls.
After a solid climb, you get treated with 74 (somebody counted) stairs, then a long walk up a tunnel that’s maybe two metres high but well-lit. Then, there are a tidy 99 stairs, followed by a three-storey spiral staircase and a bend-down-as-low-as-you-can duck job through a crawl space and out onto the trail.
There had to be 300 tourists up there on a recent day, but everyone was pretty hushed as the sun began to climb from a bank of low clouds that hung on the horizon.
You could just see the inky smudge of Molokai in the distance, giving you a taste of what ancient explorers must have felt upon seeing land after weeks or months on the water, after leaving their ancestral homes in the Marquesas and French Polynesia.
The views on the way up and down (you have to retrace your steps to get to the parking lot; there’s no circumnavigation of the crater allowed) of the spreading city of Honolulu and the jagged cliffs of the Koolau mountain range can be spectacular, as is the view up the coast toward Sandy Beach.
There are great views down to the Diamond Head lighthouse, built in 1899, and you can see surfers riding the perfect waves that roll in from the south toward the highrises of Waikiki. Once you’ve reached the top, there are signs explaining the history of the crater, formed by a massive eruption some 150,000 years ago, and information about the trail, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for defence purposes in 1908.
Back down below, there’s a great picture of a pair of women in big, wide-brimmed hats and matching white, long skirts, both clinging to the edge of a cinder-cone trail (no handrails or electric lights in the tunnel in those days, and probably no stairs).
One of them, Anne Winslow, wrote a friend about the trip in March 1909.
“This morning the expedition to the summit came off,” she wrote. “I don’t think you ever climbed one that was built of dust and ashes without a sprig of anything to catch hold of. To my mind, it was a nightmare.”
She might feel a little better about it if she tried it today.