The helicopter lifted carrying six strangers, all of us tourists from across the United States. Our pilot, Gary, turned immediately toward the center of the island and within minutes, the bright Kaua’i coastline was lost in the dense vegetation.
The oldest of the Hawaiian islands, Kaua’i is in some ways still the most natural. The sprawling sugar cane fields are gone, replaced by a nascent coffee industry, and there are still long stretches of coastline that are undeveloped, lush and private.
This is the Hawaii of my imagination, the landscape I’d hoped to see.
We flew over the razor-sharp edges of volcanic ridges and through clouds that misted the windshield before we broke through to clear blue skies once again.
The pilot banked smoothly to the right and we descended to the foot of the the sheer drop of the waterfall featured in the movie Jurassic Park. The only way to access the waterfall is by helicopter and when the blades stopped turning we walked the short trail to take photos splashed with water drops thrown from the falls.
Back in the air we flew into valleys, crossed the breathtaking chasm of the red rock Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and then chased the breathtaking Na Pali Coast, banking in and out of hidden valleys between the vertical peaks. After a while I noticed we’d all put down our cameras and surrendered to the experience, overwhelmed by the views from every angle.
The radio crackled in my ear and the pilot announced we were going to be the fortunate ones. Then he turned in the direction of the Wai’ale’ale Crater, the heart and center of Kaua’i. The clouds had moved on and we descended into the broken mouth of the crater.
Where before we’d looked down on mountaintops and waves with a god’s-eye view, now we circled and banked like a mechanical bird riding a current of air, surrounded by the evidence of the violence of the island’s birth. Waterfalls plunged over the vertical walls, ribbons of pure water undulating in the breeze, and plants and trees clung to every surface. I’d been warned about the effect of the crater and had shrugged off the idea of being moved to tears by such a thing. But within its walls, like so many before, I felt the power. Who were we to drop in uninvited to such a sacred space?
Slowly we circled, taking it all in. Each of us still and silent, the music in our headsets providing a soundtrack that only emphasized the grandeur. I put down my camera again, wanting nothing between me and the beauty of the monument to the raw force of nature.
When we flew up and out, cresting the edge, I leaned out looking over my shoulder, straining for one more look, half expecting the crater to lower a veil of clouds and in that way disappear from view, suggesting that the mystical place I’d just experienced had never really been there at all.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance journalist based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country.
CAM is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org