KA'U DESERT, Hawaii — Trudging across the Great Devastation were eight men and four women from the British Isles led by an army captain of the Royal Lancers in full uniform.
There was no sign of life in any direction. No plants, bushes, trees, insects, birds, animals. Nothing. A never-never land.
Only the immense jet black lava flow that is called the Ka'u Desert on the steep slopes of 13,677-foot Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Big Island.
It took the party of intrepid hikers three hours to walk the tortuous five miles down the mountain to where they were setting up camp.
Their boots and heavy shoes were in shreds from the trek over billions of clinkers, the sharp-edged, rough aa and pahoehoe lava.
It took five hours for a truck loaded with supplies to drive a circuitous route through a smoother lava flow to get within a mile of the campsite, as close as it could get.
Tents, chests ladened with tools and food, bundles of wire fencing, all had to be carried by hand from the truck across the strange surface by the young adventurers led by Capt. Nigel Stafford of the United Kingdom's 9th/12th Royal Lancers.
Stafford, 23, in his five years in the British infantry, has been in some unusual situations--a guard at the Grand Maze Prison in Belfast where IRA prisoners are held, six months in the Falkland Islands, a stint in the jungles of Belize, Central America.
But this, he said, topped all.
Here he was, a British army captain on active duty on a faraway American island in the Pacific, leading a party of British civilians marching through the incredible Ka'u Desert over a natural bridge across the Great Crack, a 40-foot-wide, deep chasm, to set up camp in the heart of the Great Devastation.
"I suppose it is rather bizarre to find someone like me in this godforsaken place," said the red-faced, blond, handsome 5-foot-11 soldier. On the sleeve of his right arm was a tiny British flag.
"The truth is," he added, "being here is unlike any kind of soldiering I have ever encountered."
The group of foreigners set up two bright green tents and a blue tent. They also set up a kitchen.
Some of them spent the afternoon knocking out a smooth path in the lava with sledgehammers, a path leading to a weathered, rusted, mile-long section of old fence they would be replacing in the next three days.
Others hiked back and forth to the truck unloading the fencing and supplies.
They had come to the Big Island to serve as a volunteer labor force at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park--a reverse Peace Corps, if you will.
"We're here helping you Yanks. We're helping less fortunates all over the world," said Linda Noble, 21, a hair dresser from Fraserburgh, Scotland, who quit school at 16. She snickered when she said it, pulling off her boots and socks to see how her feet were faring.
Mike Read, 20, a bank clerk from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, jumped into the conversation: "America has neglected this beautiful place. We have come to assist this national park which boasts some of the most unusual flora and fauna on earth."
For six weeks the young men and women have been toiling long hours everyday, clearing undergrowth from Puukohola Heiau, the last major religious temple of the ancient Hawaiian culture built in the islands. They have been removing non-indigenous plants from a rain forest, helping ranger Dena Leibman, 25, in her work with Nenes, the rare and endangered goose that is Hawaii's state bird, and rebuilding a fence on the gigantic lava flow.
The fence prevents wild goats from reaching lush sections of the park where, in the past, animals have destroyed acres of rare and endangered plants.
In the last 10 years, the National Park Service has killed 20,000 goats to protect one of the world's most distinctive flora, more than 1,700 species, 98% of which flourishes only in the Hawaiian Islands.
The English volunteers are members of Operation Raleigh, a creation of Prince Charles, patron of the organization. It is made up of 4,000 young men and women, who, in the words of the heir to the British throne, "are making practical contributions to better the world in science and service."
Operation Raleigh honors the memory of that notable Elizabethan, Sir Walter Raleigh, and marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of America's first English-speaking colony by the famed adventurer at Roanoke Island, N.C.
The organization's four-month project on Hawaii's big island is one of 40 expeditions being carried out by Operation Raleigh on six continents between autumn 1984 and spring 1989.
Members of London-based Operation Raleigh are young people ages 17 through 24, 1,500 from the British Isles, 1,500 from the United States and 1,000 from several other nations in Europe and Asia.