by Mark Freeman Sierra Magazine Sept/Oct 1987
The ideal trail begins where pavement can go no farther. It’s not merely an alternative route to a destination, but the only overland route available. Such a trail leaves the last beach parking lot on the rainy northwest side of Kauai and follows the soaring volcanic cliffs and flower-choked gorges of the Na Pali Coast to Kalalau Beach, 11 miles away.
I start walking on the Kalalau Trail late in the afternoon after saying goodbye to friends. Then and there my shoulders begin negotiating a truce with my daypack, which holds all the necessities (some are strapped on) for a four-day trip, namely blanket, tarp, one extra shirt, food, tobacco and books. When I meet other hikers laden with tents, stoves and all manner of gear, including stockpiles of insect repellant, I begin to appreciate my comparatively light load.
That first ascent of one of Na Pali’s rugged seaside cliffs sets the standard for the number of ascents to come. The trail winds sharply up finger-like palisades toward windswept promontories, then zigzags down the other side into verdant gorges cut by mountain streams rushing to the beach below.
I should mention that this is beautiful country, but the trail is narrow and cluttered with tree roots, shale fragments and slippery kukui nuts. It’s only atop each of the cliffs, halfway between one ravine and another, that I can stop, look and fully admire. On the way up or down the trail itself commands my attention.
Despite this caution, occasional distractions of startling quickness or rare brilliance force me to a halt. A bird I don’t recognize darts out of a tree whose name I also don’t know (due to its isolation, 90% of the species in Hawai’i have adapted specifically to place). A shaft of sunlight catches a huge shining spider’s web just below the cliff’s edge. It’s worth the off-trail scramble to see the web’s maker, a rotund red-and-black arachnid with bright yellow spikes rising from its backplate like a crown of tiny rhino horns. This, it later turns out, is one of the Gasteracantha, a spiny spider. Amazement stays with me as I climb the next precipice, where the deep foliage reduces to shrub size and then gives way to open sky.
At each summit, the clifftops divide light from dark, wet warmth from dry heat. Here, the sun rises and sets a hundred times each day from behind tropical clouds, its light pouring along the stream-cut paths between steep cliffs. In each valley’s shade the smell of overripe fruit and flowers predominates. But out in the sun, it is the smell of earth that rises, dry perfume of red soil and bugs.
Separated from its herd and balanced halfway down the bluff, a young goat gives a cry. As I approach, the older goats turn to me, assuming a wait-and-see stance, ignoring their offspring entirely. The kid tenses its muscles and moves, not slowly and carefully as I would, but in leaps and twists. An elder merely sneezes as the youngster rejoins the group and they move away. I continue over the hump of that cliff and down into the next breach.
I spend the first night a mere two miles in at Hanakapiai Beach, where I discover a small collection of folks as varied as the creatures I encountered along the way. Two Japanese-Hawaiians return to camp carrying archery equipment, but no dead goats. A biochemist soon to return home to Switzerland shares a buffet with me on the rocks by the small beach. A middle-aged couple guards a fully furnished campsite, she in charge of stoves (yes, plural) and fire, he busily alternating between a flashlight-search for freshwater prawns in a six-inch deep pool and a relentless high-tech attack on insect invaders. It rains on us that night but my plastic lean-to holds up reasonably well. However I wake up fitfully during the night—it’s as if my mind is trying to come to grips with the significant differences between my old world and this new one.
About ten more cliff ascents and drops into rainforest gorges make up the remaining nine miles to the trail’s end. I become more familiar with the valleys, their wildlowers, bugs, carpets of rotting guavas, mangos and passion fruits. I come to relish new vistas as the trail emerges at each cliff-end around peaks sculpted from volcanic rock. The unfolding views make me feel lighter, my pack’s insistence to the contrary.
After I edge past one final palisade, a huge bare hill of red soil rises in front of me, its skin peeled off ages ago and carried away by wind erosion. In a severe rain the whole hillock would turn into slippery, precarious mud. But here it rarely rains. The trail has passed the invisible line that divides Kauai’s wet and dry sides. (Mt. Waialeale, located in the center of the island, is considered the wettest spot on Earth, but then I have heard that said of a number of places.)
The contours have changed from sharp to rounded, and the trail is no longer a series of switchbacks; now it meanders over hills and bluffs. On a smooth ridge below me I spot a heiau, an unmistakable arrangement of large stones marking a Hawaiian holy spot—a place of kings and sacrifices—overlooking the sea. From here I wander slowly down into the broad Kalalau Valley, breathing deeply and sweating freely.
A river cuts its way around rocks and under fallen trees like a scene from “The Lost World”. The gnarled roots of six-foot-tall white ginger plants spread into every available crevice both above and below water level. The plants’ huge flowers fill the air with a sharp and languid scent. I step out of my shorts and into the freshwater pool only to find an additional gift. Where my foot enters the water, a yellow object I took to be a leaf turns out to be a mango that has floated downstream and washed up in a direct delivery.
One last mile leads to Kalalau Beach. The trail is lined with passion fruit and wild tomatoes the size of berries. The path ends on a vast blond beach bordered by black cliffs rising a hundred feet. A delicate waterfall at one end of the cliff completes the scene, providing drinking water and a natural bath for visitors. From the escarpment above, wild goats periodically send down showers of volcanic rocks, creating a ten foot no-persons-land in front of the cliffs. Even so, frigate birds and humans alike risk the intermittent onslaughts to reach shallow caves at the cliff’s base.
Only 40 years ago, native Hawaiians lived in this paradise, terracing every inch of the valley for taro. This was also the home of the mythical menehune, small people who accomplished prodigious building feats but emerged only at night. Today this tropical coastline—still without roads—is no longer a pristine paradise. Helicopters regularly roar over its beach and waterfall, while motorized Zodiac rafts buzz the shore, loaded with tourists eager to catch a glimpse of Hawaii’s “untouched” coast.
In the late-afternoon sun I do my best to ignore any interruptions. I spread myself out on the wide beach and spend the last part of the day reading while listening to waves breaking hard, like muffled cannons, on the sand. In a few hours the evening’s entertainment begins– a roseate sunset that fills the entire horizon, only to be upstaged by the night sky. I lie there, listening. The truth is, I couldn’t walk another step if I tried.
For those interested, some of the books in my daypack were stories from Mary Kawena Pukui’s The Water of Kane, and “Kalele the Bold” from Hawaiian Tales of Heroes and Champions by Vivian L. Thompson & Herbert Kawainui Kane, plus the marvelous Hawaiian writings of Jack London.
London’s “Koolau the Leper” is one of the stories he wrote while staying in Hawai’i with his wife Charmian. It focuses on indigenous people on Kauai with leprosy, and their rebellion against being forcibly uprooted by missionaries to the island of Molokai. After years of being unable to defeat this insurrection led by the historic figure of Koolau, the final scenes took place on these very cliffs above the beach at Kalalau.
A few of these stories are shared live on a story blog radio program broadcast on KALW-FM at the height of the AIDS pandemic and are now archived on Queer4Decade’s “Healing Tales” pages– it is found 6th in the series, just above Yuri Cachero’s photo here: