Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wailau Valley Secrets, Molokai, Hawaii

       My first year on Molokai I often asked what was required to visit the remote valleys on the backside of the island. Answers to my questions varied considerably. For the most part it appeared I would not be welcome. Others said 'back side Molokai' was lawless and people didn't always come back. I was told that wild pigs would eat me while I slept or more generously that it would only be possible to go with locals who knew the way, but nobody could tell me who they were. Of course there were the stories about scary dope growers, supernatural night marchers and always the man eating sharks guarding the bay. On the other hand people told me about taking their families camping there for weeks in the summer. They had a perfectly fine time and actually lived to tell about it, but when I said I wanted to go, invariably they brought up killer pigs. I understood. Pristine places stay that way if few people find them.
       The premier mark of distinction on Molokai is exactly how much time one has spent on the island. People who say “bred and born” do so with an air of royalty, but any high number of years is noteworthy. It is usually the first question people ask. I am usually visiting, which means I will be leaving, which is acceptable. My friend Jill was up for adventure regardless. Finally I met a woman who owned land in Wailau Valley and she gave us permission to stay on her property.
     Aside from a morbid fear of sharks our plan to jump off a fishing boat and swim ashore to camp in a nearly inaccessible tropical valley until a boat could return to retrieve us seemed perfectly sound. Millions of years ago Molokai broke in half leaving rubble on the ocean floor all the way to Oahu. Wailau Valley is on the steep north side where the massive geologic event left behind the highest sea cliffs in the world. Witnessing the event was for the birds since humans didn't arrive until fairly recently in the spectrum of time. Intense rainfall eventually sculpted deep, fertile valleys which were  inhabited by seafaring Polynesians over a thousand years ago. Estimates of the peek population in the valley range from ten thousand on up. Wailau means many waters, although there is no accurate count of the waterfalls that line the cliffs when it rains as there are too many and it is always changing.
     Jill picked me up early following the implied law of the sea that boating adventures begin at the crack of dawn. It is often true that the sea is calmer in the morning, there is more day light to make use of and most people sleep at night so it is not a problem except to insomniacs like me. Tom offered us a boat ride for the price of the gas. Other options were;

1.    Hire a helicopter for nine hundred dollars an hour, which is great if you  need to take your cat who doesn't like to swim.  
2.    Paddle my inflatable canoe into the wind over steep breaking waves for six hours, a conservative estimate, with no room for gear or food.
3.    Swim. Audrey Sutherland did it many times and never ran into any sharks, but I can't even begin to understand how her imagination allowed this to happen. There are people in the world we are not supposed to compare ourselves too.
4.   It used to be possible to hike over the mountain and down into the back of the valley. The trail is still printed on maps, but from what I could find out it has not been traversed in many years. Supposedly the ragged bits of rope used to swing across the sections of trail that had fallen away were at questionable risk. Ranchers may give permission to cross their land, but a person would probably have to sign a waiver admitting a rescue attempt would be a waste of tax dollars for someone nuts enough to try it.

       We met Tom and a few of his friends where the boat bobbed serenely in a quiet bay. As the sun broke the horizon we collected our gear and waded into waste deep water to the anchored boat. It was a good chance to float test the five gallon buckets we had packed our stuff in. Of course I had imagined jumping over the side with a bucket so overloaded that it would be sucked straight to the bottom and I would not let go for fear of starvation. They floated. Whew.   
       I sat forward on a cooler chest that either roved gently around on the floorboards or without warning made an animated gesture skyward. There was no guessing which. When we were out of sync the boat-cooler-spine connection banged my teeth together. The view shifted dramatically from overcast sky to rapidly approaching ultramarine trough below. This was the real adventure; swimming ashore with a bucket did not equal riding a cooler chest through steep chop. Tom found his groove, judging which waves to throttle back on and which he could blast over without jetting into space. The cooler became my friend again and sightseeing was an option.
       Soaring high over the vertigo sea cliffs a helicopter looked like a gnat. The people looking down at us probably thought, Styrofoam cup.
       Land in the valley is privately owned, divided in parcels and camping is allowed by the discretion of the owners. Several families who own plots set up camps on the beach for the summer. It was still a little early in the year to make the trip, the seas were not calm and the trip to shore looked ominous. Jill looked green. Tom asked if she wanted to stay on the boat for the full tour of the back side or jump off on our way passed Wailau. She opted for an early exit. I offered to go, but she said she was fine going alone, which I admired. In the bay the sea calmed and we circled as close to the beach as the waves allowed. Jill jumped with her dry bag and kicked toward shore as we sped away to continue sightseeing.
      I watched as she made it through the first set of breakers, disappeared from view in the second then finally stood up on the beach by the time we were too far away to have done anything to help. In a moment of concern I asked Tom if he thought she would be alright. He shouted over his shoulder that she was probably already making friends. He was her boss at work and I made a mental note to tell her how much confidence he had in her.
      The boat rolled deeply. Confused waves bounced off the base of the cliffs as if they were surprised to run into something solid after a thousand miles of uninterrupted ocean. I held on with one hand and took pictures with the other, but in no way captured the grandeur. The tallest sea cliffs in the world must be experienced. There are waterfalls so tall they turn to mist before they land. In one bay a double waterfall joined then shot over a cliff into the waves below, more sculptural than public art. We turned around where only a hundred years before lepers were hurled into the sea to fend for themselves if they reached the Kalaupapa Pennisula. The odds of a safe landing had been marginal and many perished. The place called for silence. No one spoke until we rounded a rocky pyramid jutting out of the sea that finally blocked our view of the desolate shore.
     Back in Wailau Bay Tom motored perpendicular to the beach where the water was most calm. We dropped one anchor, and then Jeff, a rescue diver, swam ashore with a second anchor. I did not know anyone could swim with an anchor, but he did it with ease. Once set we pulled the boat closer to the beach. That made it very easy to take the cooler, three buckets and four gallons of drinking water ashore. Smooth round rocks that had rolled for eons down the river bed composed the beach. I put my mask on, but didn't see a single fish and definitely no sharks. The water was clear, the sand black and corrugated by wave action. Round rocks scattered across the symmetrical pattern created a lifeless zone between shore and deep water. Happily mesmerized swimming over the monochromatic underwater zen garden I forgot my fear of sharks. 
     Jill had wisely brought jugs of water. I had been told the river water was fine to drink, but it didn’t look so good after we began exploring. There was a lot of algae growth, usually meaning slow moving water and more chances for bacteria. One dead thing upstream can fowl the water. Boiling it worked and since I had planned to drink from the stream that's what I did, until we met up with people who knew where to find artesian springs of the purest, freshest water on earth.
     Tom was right. By the time I got to shore Jill had made friends with people who were camping, run about a mile into the valley, scouted a campsite further down the beach and was not out of breath when she met us coming ashore. We hauled our gear to the available site away from the river and set up camp around a stone fire pit surrounded by coconut and hala trees. The ocean crashed at our front door. Rock cliffs rose straight out of the beach on either side. On closer inspection the ground looked paved. Ancient Hawaiians had organized the rocks into level platforms, steps and walls. Wailau Valley remains undisturbed, aside from the ravages of nature. The last Hawaiian residents left a hundred years ago. Short rock walls, lo'i, snake through the valley forming terraces for growing taro, evidence of many hands working long ago. Behind the heiau where I strung my hammock a leaning stone stuck out of the ground and steps covered in fallen fronds rose mysteriously into the jungle. 
      We spent the day exploring. At dusk men from a camp near the river walked into the light of our fire wearing camouflage clothing with rifles slung over their shoulders. My muscles tensed involuntarily, but I managed to smile. They came to tell us they were going hunting so we wouldn't accidentally get in the way. They were after deer, pigs or goats, whichever ran in front of their sights first. And they invited us to come over the next morning. A breakfast invitation had not been my first thought when I saw men with guns. Jill, a vegetarian, muttered a prayer for the animals. I was pretty sure that if they didn't kill something we'd be offered Spam, but I couldn’t decide which I wanted less.  
     In the morning we dropped some oranges off with the neighbors and declined breakfast since we were eager to go hiking. The first part of the trail was easy to follow. It traversed the valley floor under an insanely bright green canopy.  About a mile into the valley the trail became less clear so we stuck to the river, boulder hopping where the banks were too steep. Jill is part goat and that is not an insult. I had trouble keeping up with her. The wet rocks were slippery and I fell into the water a few times. Half way into the valley we stumbled onto a swimming hole deep, wide enough to dive and swim laps at a lovely bend in the river. An ancient giant koa tree clung to the steep side of the pool spreading shade over the swimming area. It must have been the playground of kings and queens. There was a feeling of privilege in a place so perfectly formed. We climbed the cliff, up the roots of the tree. On a level area overlooking the swimming hole there were rocks laid out in regular patterns. In that ancient, unspoiled place I had the feeling that people had lived well. But with all ancient ruins comes an undercurrent of interminable sadness for all that has been forever lost.
     We discovered our host after a few days on a hidden branch of a trail. She had quite a few guests that weekend so it was a good thing we had made our own camp. Plus the mosquitoes didn’t like the breezy beach quite as much as the still, damp jungle. The first few days we were so low maintenance she didn’t even know we were there.  
     By the time Tom was on his way to fetch us, our minds had slowed to the rhythm of the sun traversing the sky. We had met other inhabitants of the valley and visited a hidden working taro farm, as if going back in time a thousand years. Our last morning a rainbow graced the sunrise as we packed our buckets, lighter now for having eaten most of the food. Wailau Valley is difficult to reach, which has preserved it. I left feeling reverence for wild places with a calm mind and a full heart. Time in the untouched valley erased depression and worry with that intangible elixir only nature at its most fertile and pristine can impart. Or that’s how it was for me. Others might have been inspired to post no trespassing signs, drill for oil or open a fast food restaurant. Hey, it happens.        


Over the years since our wonderful trip I have used my images of Wailau Valley in many paintings. The magic has not dulled, I can recall it every time I close my eyes and wander the trails in my imagination. I recently ran into Jill and we both agreed it is time to go again. 

Hidden Taro, 10x13" acrylic on canvas, available
Shaped by Time, 10x13" acrylic on canvas, available

St. Damien Going Ashore at Wailau, 40x50", sold

Deep Valley Shadows, 18x24", sold
   If you are interested in purchasing a painting, please write to  me at;
   cb2c @ yahoo.com for a current price list.   


  1. I got out my book: Paddling my Own Canoe by Audrey Sutherland after I read this, to see if you are talking about the same Molokai location as her. it's a different place, correct? Yet, similar in so many ways to the description in her book. Thank you for this blog entry. It's lovely.

  2. Hi Amara,
    Good to hear from you. I love your FB posts. It's the same area, from Halawa Valley to Kalaupapa. We did most of it by boat, then camped in the first big valley Audrey S. would have come to. That is such a great book! No surprise you would have it :)

  3. I hiked the Wailau trail in March, 13 miles from the road to the beach. It was harrowing, to say the least. I also hiked back out. Pig tunnels. Oh, my God, the pig tunnels, they go on forever. The hike in is possible, but your chances of death are high and you will have to face the pig tunnels.

  4. I've been backside twice and still long to go back! I stayed on the island with a friends family for two summers and was grudgingly treated as a local. Lol. We camped in Wailau for a week the first time and a month the second time and man, what an adventure! Seriously. Our second time in, my friend's dad floated in a full sized gas stove because he wouldn't go a month eating campfire food. And we visited the taro farm! They taught us how to boil the roots and pound poi, such a great experience.

    I love seeing other's stories of camping in the valley!

  5. It's so rare for people to get there. I felt so fortunate, like going back in time. Thanks for posting your experience, I know exactly what you mean!!

  6. Our Hawaiian friends took us back there and showed us how to make a hale and survive. I miss Wailau everyday since I left Molokai.


  7. Quite a few years ago. Loren Gill, a naturalist for Moanalua Gardens, under the auspices of Foster Gardens, used to organize camping trips to Wailau Valley via a fishing boat. Went on it twice for about a five day camping trips. Fabulous trips. Wish Foster Gardens had continued the trips; would go again. One highlight was to take a picture of a waterfall as it streamed over a cliff. The water fell in mists so one could take a picture directly underneath! Hiking up the stream to the waterfall and the cliffs above for spectacular views were other highlights.

    1. Thanks for writing, we are lucky to have been there as so few get to go. Are you from Lanai? Another amazing place, but I've only been there by boat and seen the edges.

  8. A group of us hiked the Wailau trail in 1983. We were in college at u of h. We spent 5 glorious days in the valley. I'll never forget how the waves made the rocks on the beach click together. Awesome.