Forgotten Moloka’i

A few years ago my wife and I discovered a new favorite place, a place with its own magic and warm, friendly people. It’s a barely discovered little corner of Hawai’i called the island of Moloka’i. This article was never published in its entirety, largely because I didn’t try very hard. I should have. It’s still one of my favorites.

Jim Mastro

Shortly after our arrival on Moloka’i, I was wondering if we’d made a mistake.

Fresh from the lush and flowery ambiance of Honolulu, my wife and I found ourselves staring at parched red earth and desiccated shrubbery. It seemed like the middle of nowhere. Even the tiny airport reminded me of all those end-of-the-earth little island airstrips I had flown into in the South Pacific: roll-away stairs to get off the plane, a tiny, cinder-block terminal, and a couple of burly guys tossing baggage on a bench.

“You’re in the country now,” a fellow passenger said to me as we disembarked the plane. He was an island local, returning home from Oahu, and he must have noticed my bemused expression. I was struck by how he said it, though; he was proud, not apologetic.

Okay, so it wasn’t rainforest, palm trees, and white sandy beaches. We had decided we wanted to get away, really get away. So despite its initially barren appearance, maybe Moloka’i was just the ticket.

At the moment, though, things didn’t look promising. Our rental car had failed to show up at the airport. A call to the agency only resulted in an answering machine. So we were left sitting on the curb, wondering what to do. Finally, I got in touch with Ray Miller, the real estate agent from whom (over the internet) we’d rented an ocean front condo for the week.

“I’ll come out and pick you up,” he said. Fifteen minutes later, Ray was helping us load our luggage into his somewhat battered, blue pickup truck. He was tall, lanky, white-haired, soft-spoken, and remarkably sanguine.

“Don’t worry,” he said as he drove, “you’ll have a car.”

A few minutes later, we were in his office in Kaunakakai. While Ray made a few phone calls to try and locate our car, we went outside to look around.

As far as cities go, Kaunakakai is fairly inauspicious. In fact, someone with a strong arm could, quite literally, throw a rock from one end of the town to the other. We stood on a single main street, lined with faded and dilapidated wooden structures. It was something out of the Old West; Dodge City with plumerias and coconuts. There wasn’t even a traffic signal. I fact, as we were to discover later, there isn’t a traffic signal on the entire island.


Bustling, downtown Kaunakakai

Accordingly, Kaunakakai is blessedly quiet, free of tourist hype and hubbub. At Ray’s suggestion, we walked to the small market across the street to buy groceries. No sooner had we finished shopping than our rental car had appeared, along with a profusely apologetic agent who immediately gave us a discount over the already reasonable price.

All the brochures say Moloka’i is “The Friendly Isle.” It was becoming clear why. On this island where everybody knows just about everybody else, everyone is taken care of, even the tourists. Moloka’i is like family.

* * * *

Moloka’i is the fifth largest of the Hawaiian islands. Thirty-seven miles long and ten miles wide, it is bounded on the south by the longest white sand beach in Hawai’i and on the north by the highest sea cliffs in the world. These cliffs plunge a heart-stopping, nearly vertical 2000 feet, directly into the ocean.

Essentially, Moloka’i is what’s left of two ancient volcanoes, one at each end of the island. The middle of the island is a saddle formed by lava flows from both. The higher eastern end drains most of the available moisture from the prevailing trade winds, making it the lushest and greenest part of the island. The central plain and the western end are dry; dry, in fact, to the point of being desert. Some areas are almost completely devoid of foliage.

Because most of the island is arid and lacks the “South Pacific” allure of the other islands, the tourist industry has almost completely neglected Moloka’i. The result is an island where life is slow, and where things have changed little since the 1920s. Less than 7000 people live here, and of these over 50% (some say 70%) are of Hawaiian ancestry. It’s the highest percentage of any island except Niihau (a privately owned island near Kaua’i), making Moloka’i is the most Hawaiian of the Hawaiian Islands.

Longest, highest, most, friendliest–a lot of superlatives for a place the world seems to have forgotten. While we were there, you could have added another one: windiest.

* * * *

“Not so good for diving today,” Bill Kapuni said. “Maybe tomorrow. I’ll call you in the morning.”

I hung up and looked out the sliding glass door at the coconut palms and the wind-blown sea. Far away, a humpback whale flung itself out of the water, its long white pectoral fins flashing in the sun. We had come to snorkel and dive and lie on a beach. This was Hawaii, after all! Unfortunately, unusually strong trade winds were making these activities impossible. Bill Kapuni, the owner of the only scuba business on the island, had scheduled our first dive for today, but he was concerned that the choppy seas would make diving unpleasant, if not unsafe.

I started to wonder if perhaps I should take up golf. Our condo at Kaluakoi, a resort at the western end of the island, was a mere 100 feet from a rugged, rocky beach with pounding surf. But between us and the waves was a putting green. In fact, we were situated in the middle of the golf course, which for a non-golfer like myself is sort of like being the only vegetarian at a Texas barbecue. But I had to admit, as I watched the putters in front of me putter around, that there was a certain allure to the almost Zen-like concentration they were using to place recalcitrant balls into little holes. Perhaps it was the perfect pursuit for a quiet island. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about rain. In fact, it was hard to imagine a better spot for the sport.

In the end, though, we opted for an exploratory drive. We’d been told that the Kalaupapa overlook was worth a stop, so we headed toward the center of the island, then turned north toward the cliffs.

* * * *

I inched as close to the edge as I could force my acrophobic body to go. Straight down. I mean straight down. 2000 feet. Below, a dark, roiling ocean and crashing waves.

To say that these are the highest sea cliffs in the world is to say nothing at all. Those are just words designed to categorize and pigeonhole, but they cannot convey the sheer scale and majesty of these verdant walls of ancient lava plunging vertically into a dark sea. The vista is stunning. Anywhere else in the world, this would be a tourist mecca, lined with souvenir shops hawking “Overlook” T-shirts and bustling with people. Here there were only a few people besides us. No one said anything, stunned into silence by the spectacle. ‘Worth a stop’ indeed.

Jutting out improbably from the bottom of the cliffs was a tiny, flat peninsula called Makanalua. Formed by a rogue, late term lava flow, the final belch of a volcano before it died, Makanalua sits like the perfect natural penal colony. Isolated by steep and treacherous cliffs on one side and pounded by high surf on two others, a person marooned there would have a hard time escaping. Which is precisely why the rulers of Hawaii decided to cast their lepers ashore there.

Molokai Overlook_low_res

Kalaupapa Overlook

The anguish and suffering that must have taken place at this seemingly idyllic spot is almost unimaginable. People with leprosy were torn from their homes and families and cast onto the shore–and often into the rough ocean offshore–to fend for themselves. Many drowned before touching the land. Those that survived lived a mean and spartan existence. There was little food, no building materials to speak of, and no medical care. Then, in 1873, a Belgian priest named Father Damien exiled himself to Makalanua to tend to the outcasts. Father Damien built shelters, cultivated food, tended to the sick, and essentially brought civilization to the leper colony called Kalaupapa. Damien himself fell victim to the scourge in 1889, but his legacy remains. Today he is revered on Moloka’i almost as a saint.

From my vantage point high above, the former colony looked like paradise. The beaches were pristine and the land uncrowded. On the leeward, western side of the peninsula the ocean was calm and clear. It looked like excellent snorkeling. Unfortunately, Kalaupapa is off limits to all but carefully controlled tour groups. Leprosy is curable now, but a few people still carry the scars and are permitted to live out their lives in privacy and seclusion.

We pulled ourselves away from the sheer precipice and followed a trail to the famous Phallic Rock. The ancient Hawaiians, like many ancient peoples, were concerned with fertility. So when a naturally occurring rock somewhat resembled a phallus, it was only natural, apparently, to embellish. Hence, the Phallic rock, tucked away in the trees at the top of the Moloka’i sea cliffs. Warning to women: Don’t visit the rock unless you wish to get pregnant. Such is the legend.

Moloka’i is an island rife with history and legend. The hula was supposedly born here, at Mauna Loa on the western end. The ancient Molokaians were also renowned for their prowess at warfare, and the island was a stronghold of powerful kahuna (sorcerers). The great Kamehameha, the first to bring all the islands under one rule, used Moloka’i as a training ground for his soldiers. Some people even believe the ancient Hawaiians first made landfall at Halawa Valley, a mystical place at the eastern tip of Moloka’i.

* * * *

“This is where you get your feet wet,” Pilipo said, as he sat on a stone to remove his shoes. Only a few minutes into our cultural hike, we had come upon a rocky stream flowing through the rain forest.

Pilipo Solatorio was our guide into the historic Halawa valley, near the northeast tip of the island. Our goal was the famous Moaula Falls. On the way we were to learn about the ways of Pilipo’s ancestors, the ancient Hawaiians who had lived in the valley for hundreds of years.

Once safely across the stream (from which one member of our group emerged somewhat damper than before), we followed Pilipo’s certain lead through dense jungle and under overhanging vines. Halawa Valley was not always so overgrown with lush vegetation, Pilipo told us. At one time the entire valley was under cultivation. The first farmers had covered the valley floor with an intricate patchwork of terraces for growing taro, a staple in their diet. These terraces were held in place by carefully constructed rock walls, many of which still stand.

We stopped to look at one of them. It loomed out of the jungle like an ancient black skeleton, tinted green by a skin of moss. The stones fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, solid and perfect after hundreds of years, even though the Hawaiians had no metal tools for carving.

A few steps further on, Pilipo reached up to pick a yellowish, mottled fruit from a broad-leafed tree. “This is called Noni fruit,” he said. “The ancient Hawaiians used it as a medicine, either drinking the juice as a treatment for cancer or applying it topically for burns.” He also told us about the kukui nut, taken from the “candle tree,” so called because the Hawaiians would skewer several of the waxy, heart-shaped nuts on a sharp stick and light the top one. Since the nuts are very oily, they’d burn with a slow, steady flame and thereby supply the Hawaiians with nightime light.

Giant monkeypod trees, more than a hundred feet tall and adorned with enormous bird’s nest ferns, lined the trail. The air was rich with the damp, green, earthy smell of new and decaying foliage. Surinam cherries–tart, red, heart-shaped fruits the size of grapes–grew randomly, and every few minutes we’d come upon a patch of raspberry-like berries, sweet and ripe for plucking.

Hiking through jungle

Hiking through the jungle

Soon we were far from any sign of civilization. The only sounds were the gurgling of the stream below us, the twittering of tropical birds, and the rustle of a slight breeze through the thick foliage. It was easy to imagine that we were walking back in time, following the well worn path of ancient Hawaiians to their secret place in the jungle. Each new set of ruins we passed added to the feeling.

Pilipo held up his hand, stopping us in our tracks. “We are about to walk across a heiau,” he said. Heiaus were sacred places to the Hawaiians, their temples. “In the ancient days, one would be immediately put to death for crossing a heiau, but the stream has washed out the original trail.” He pointed to the stream flowing below us in a ravine. “So we have no choice.” But he made it clear we should be respectful of the ground we walked on.

A moment later we had gathered around a large pile of stones. It was a burial mound, Pilipo explained, and we were standing in a former City of Refuge, one of several such places in old Hawai’i. Any lawbreaker, no matter the crime, could escape punishment if he or she could make it to a City of Refuge before capture. The fugitive was then required to remain in self-imposed exile for seven years. Criminals who tried to slip out of the City before their time was up faced immediate punishment–often death. But after seven years, the slate was wiped clean and the former lawbreaker was free to go back to home and family.

I looked at the moss-covered pile of rocks in front of me and wondered if the person buried before us had made it here only to die before his seven years were up.

We pressed forward, through luxuriant flower beds and across rocky streams. The sound of rushing water grew louder until, finally, we could see the falls. We entered a small clearing surrounded by steep, jungle-covered hills. A high, shimmering column of frenzied water cascaded from a sheer, volcanic cliff to plunge into a dark pool. We clambered over giant boulders to stand before the swirling water. Billowing mist dampened our faces and created rainbows in the air around us. A deep roar drowned out every sound.

'Red Chicken' Falls

“Red Chicken” Falls

Standing on a large boulder with the falls behind him and shouting to be heard, Pilipo cleared up a monumental cartographic misunderstanding. “This place is called Moaula Falls on all the maps,” he said, “but that’s a mistake. The foreign mapmakers got it wrong. In Hawaiian, moa means “chicken” and ula means “red,” but “red chicken falls” makes no sense. There are no red chickens here! Instead, the true name is Mo’o’ula Falls, named after the red lizard god, Mo’o, who guards them.”

Then Pilipo described how the Hawaiians would prepare for a swim by tossing in a carefully prepared cluster of ti leaves and watching it closely. If it floated around and washed out of the pond, it was safe to swim. If it sank, the god of the pool was displeased and swimming could be dangerous.

“The god lives in that cave,” Pilipo said, pointing to a dark hole in the side of the cliff. “Anyone care for a swim?”

Amazingly, two brave souls shed their shirts and jumped into the cold, dark water, tempting fate. But no giant red lizard appeared to chase them out.

Too soon we were heading back down the valley toward Pilipo’s homestead and his newly planted taro fields, where we had begun our trek. As we retraced our steps through the jungle, I caught the sound of helicopters hovering overhead. These were tourists from nearby Maui, coming to see the famous valley and “red chicken falls.”

It must have been a beautiful sight from above, I thought. But they were seeing it from a remove, and they were seeing only the surface–a lush blanket of foliage between towering cliffs, and a spectacular waterfall cascading down. They couldn’t hear the roar of the water, feel the mist on their faces, or feel the presence of the red lizard as he guarded his treasure. Neither could they see the ancient ruins and feel the weight of centuries of tradition and wisdom.

They paid a lot more than we did, no doubt, but they got a whole lot less.

* * * *

On the drive back to Kaunakakai, we detoured to Bill Kapuni’s house to take him up on an earlier invitation. Since rough water and strong winds continued to make diving impossible, Bill had invited us over to look at his work. He came out his front door as soon as we pulled up.

Here’s the thing about Bill Kapuni: He’s a giant of a man, bigger than life, like a Hawaiian of legend, like King Kamehameha himself or the great Duke Kahanamoku. When Bill Kapuni walks into a scene, all eyes are on him. Yet, at the same time, he’s gentle, quiet, and self-effacing. He speaks slowly and deliberately.

“Pehea oi,” he boomed from the porch. How are you?

Pilipo nudged me and whispered, “Say ‘Maikai no’.”

“Maikai no,” I repeated. I’m fine.

Bill flashed a giant smile. “You speak Hawaiian now, eh?”

He came down the stairs, grasped our hands in turn, and buried Pilipo in a bear hug. Then he invited us in, where we were greeted by his Irish-American wife, Kyno, a woman almost as tall as Bill and just as big-hearted. Even the one-year-old baby in Kyno’s arms seemed enormous. My wife and I felt like Gullivers in Brobibdinagia.

Bill Kapuni is well enough known for his dive operation, but there is much more to him than scuba cylinders and regulators. When he was younger he rebuilt classic hot rods, all of which were highly sought after by collectors. Now, in addition to diving, he carves wood. So we were told. But when we walked into his living room it became clear that the truth is much more than that. To say Bill Kapuni carves wood is to wildly understate the truth. It’s somewhat like saying Picasso dabbled with oil paints.

We stood amidst several exquisite works of art in native wood. Among them were traditional Hawaiian ceremonial drums and outrigger canoe miniatures and replicas. But dwarfing everything else in the room, including Kapuni, was a stunning piece he had recently completed. “This is a tribute,” he told me with some measure of pride, “to the skill and bravery of the ancient Hawaiian voyagers.”

It’s a fitting one. The work consists of a life-sized navigating mast and two massive steering paddles, all hand-carved, all mounted vertically in the most imposing piece of woodcraft I’ve ever seen. Standing nearly ten feet tall, it shines in the quiet light of Bill’s house, dominating the living room. Its smooth surfaces and exquisite lines exude raw power.

Bill told us the work was coveted by the governor of Hawai’i, who planned to place it either in the Governor’s mansion or the Honolulu International Airport. He seemed entirely unconcerned with the renown this exposure could bring him. He even seemed slightly embarrassed by this compliment to his skill.

It was an attitude unusual for an accomplished artist, yet entirely consistent with what I had come to realize about the people of Moloka’i. I was continually astounded at how genuine they were. Bill, Kyno, Pilipo, even Ray Miller–all were unpretentious, unhurried, and warmly welcoming to friends and strangers alike.

Later, after we had left Bill’s house, Pilipo took us into his own home to show us his collection of ancient artifacts and to talk about his efforts to preserve the land and the culture of his people. We sat drinking lemonade and talking about history and family and life on Moloka’i, as evening fell and the world grew quiet.

“Moloka’i is not like any other island,” Ray had said that first day as we drove into town.

Sitting there completely comfortable in Pilipo’s house, the truth of that statement became clear. Without our being aware of it, Moloka’i had worked its magic on us. Our big city angst had evaporated, allowing Moloka’i’s charm and the friendliness of her people to bring us back to earth–the real earth of flowers and sea and sky, of grass beneath our feet and the tangy sweet smell of plumeria in our nostrils. The island pace had caught us, a pace slower and more “island” than Oahu or Maui could ever be. It had brought us back to our senses.

* * * *

Unfortunately, our time was almost up. So, the next night, our last night on the island, we decided to do a deal.

At ten PM sharp we found ourselves in Kaunakakai, parked across from Imamura’s general store. The street was dark and deserted. We got out of the car, looked around to be sure we weren’t being watched, then made our way down a darkened alley to the back of Kanemitsu’s Bakery. The walls of the shadowed alley were lined with graffiti, and an empty beer bottle lay on the littered pavement. In the high windows at the back of the bakery, I could see ceiling fans turning, and the faint sound of tinny radio music wafted through the bug screens. A single bare lightbulb shone over a blue, paint-chipped door.

I screwed up my courage and knocked on the door, timidly at first, then, when there was no answer, more forcefully. Footsteps approached from inside the building. I stood back and held my breath. The door opened abruptly and I found myself facing a slim, dark-skinned man wearing flip-flop sandals, dark pants, a dark blue T-shirt, and a scowl. He was covered head to toe in flour.

I swallowed.

“Bread?” I asked tentatively.

The man nodded. “What do you want?” His voice was gruff.

“What do you got?” I asked, sticking to the script I’d been given.

He grimaced and mumbled a few varieties. Most were undecipherable, but I already knew what to order.

“Cinnamon butter,” I said.

The door closed in my face. A moment later, he reappeared with a loaf of hot bread in his hand. I handed him the money and we scuttled away. Others had begun to arrive, money in hand and anticipation on their faces. We sat in our car and devoured the hot, delicious bread.

Like the island of Moloka’i itself, it was better than we’d been told.