Environment Perspective Photo Essay Top Travel

Contemplating nature in a volcanic crater

Dryland palms on Koko Crater Botanical Garden's edge. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

HONOLULU – Wandering through Koko Crater Botanical Garden, I found a temporary oasis from my thoughts. 

We were here by accident.

My family got too late of a start to the day and, in the middle of winter break’s tourist season, our original plans to hike to the lighthouse in search of whales or to visit one of the popular beaches around Maunalua Bay seemed impossible in a maze of cars. 

Near the suburbs of Hawaiʻi Kai – my home before we left Oʻahu – we’d decided that after driving all the way from the city, we couldn’t go back without finding something to do. 

So, we ended up in the gardens. I have no memory of coming here when I was younger, but the area felt vaguely familiar. 

A bulletin board in the parking lot said the garden specializes in “dryland plants.” To avoid slipping as we started walking, my gaze fell to the ground. Looking at the slightly uneven path beneath my feet, I was struck by its faded crimson color.

A path along the Cactus Garden and through the valley. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Like I’d been transported to Mars or a far-away desert, the garden was quiet and I quickly forgot the franticness of the morning.

Located in the Koko Crater valley on Oahu’s eastern coast, a loop guided me through dryland plants from Hawaiʻi, the Americas, Africa, and Madagascar. Though not the beach day I’d anticipated, I found myself savoring the focus it took to keep track of the shifts between its different sections. 

One of five gardens in the Honolulu Botanical Gardens system, unexpectedly stopping in the valley ended up being some of my favorite hours of this winter. 

But, while I found calm in the walk, I also left with uncertainty. 

On the last part of the loop, a mongoose darted across my path. Within 50 steps from the garden’s exit, it paused before hiding in a shield of plants. I was pulled from nature’s easy quiet to consider the world surrounding us.

From my elementary school lessons in Hawaiʻi, I remember being warned that—while exciting to see a small wild animal on an island without the squirrels and rabbits of the U.S. mainland—mongoose are invasive. With no natural predators and few diseases on the islands, their population exploded and they became widespread.

A threat to native plants and seabirds, the macabre joke when I was younger was to say, “I wonder what bird that one just ate,” whenever someone spotted a mongoose.

Knowing all this, still, my first reaction was delight: in the tranquility of vines imperceptibly swaying in the mostly stagnant air and resolutely unmoving cacti, its energetic dash was eye-catching.

Before this one ran across my path, I hadn’t seen a mongoose for a few years. 

Then, as it paused before disappearing into the plants, it turned toward me and I remembered what it represented. 

Flowers of Transvaal gardenia, a plant native to southern Africa. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Propelled by the now-disappeared mongoose, I spent the rest of my walk thinking about how only a few hundred yards from me was a world lacking the biodiversity I’d spent the last two hours exploring. The Koko Crater Botanical Gardens are inside the valley of a dormant volcano, surrounded by green even in the middle of winter. They’re also nestled next to a sprawling golf course. 

In the middle of my walk, the gardens had felt insular – literally like a planet light years away – but seeing the mongoose, I realized they’re not. The parking lot, separating the gardens from the road with a chain-link fence, was another reminder of the world outside the garden’s tranquil bubble. All my thoughts came rushing back.

Cacti of Koko Crater. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Though some of my most vivid memories were formed in nature, in the past, I thought about moving “into” and “out” of nature as an event requiring planning and long car drives.  

Immersed in plants from across the world, I had forgotten where I was. In the sun and equilibrium of a slow walk along well-marked paths on a day with few other visitors, I saw nature as something preserved. I pictured it impassively waiting for me, like magic, the next time I decided to leave my own bubble of my life and routines.

But now, spontaneously within the familiar atmosphere of the suburbs but in gardens wholly new to me, my imagination of what delineates the space between nature and “not-nature” dissolved to a hazy gradient. 

Leaving the gardens, watching the gravel parking lot and the Hawai’i Kai Golf Course’s too-green fields disappear behind me, I spent my last days of 2023 thinking about the inescapable traces of human activity. Less than an hour after leaving the Koko Crater Botanical Garden, the last pieces of crimson dust on my shoes brushed off on concrete stairs and bustling sidewalks. 

As I returned to the mainland for New Year’s – equipped with photos of Hawaii’s plants and the memory of my walk back to the parking lot – I kept thinking about the subtle shifts that connect the ordinary to the essential.

Annamika Konkola is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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