What we did on Kauai
Kauai – October 30 – November 9 2013
I didn’t come to Kauai for the beaches. Snorkeling makes me anxious (cutting my air intake in half while threatening the sole remaining route with flooding? no thanks) and seems unhygienic. I’m only moderately fond of hiking – it’s hard work staying present enough for hours to really take in the scenery – I tend to daydream and then fall and hurt myself. I’m allergic to fish (more on food later). And going on a guided tour feels like being trapped in a shopping mall except worse, since it usually involves interacting with strangers performing an awkward physical activity. So why in the world would I come to Kauai? I came for the mystery.
Hawaii is the world’s most remote archipelago. As Jacob mentioned, we read James Michener’s recounting of the geological history of the islands, and I though about it obsessively over the whole trip. For millions of years, maybe even hundreds of millions, the hotspot under the ocean here has been hurtling lava into the ocean and the air. Island after island has surfaced, found life, and eroded back under the waves. A chain of islands stretching from the Aleutians south and then south-east, most of them now underwater seamounts, is visible on Google Earth. The truth is, Kauai is dying. As soon as its volcano ceased to erupt, it started to erode. Part of the Napali coast is the fastest-eroding cliff-face in the world. Meanwhile, the island sinks.
But let’s backup. If Kauai was made from lava, how did all the stuff get on it? The soil, the plants, the coconut trees, the cows, the cars, the people? And what happened to the plants once they did get there? What kind of civilization did the first discoverers make, and what did they eat? This is why I came. To soak in what, to me, seems like living proof of millions of years of terrestrial history. To see millennia before my very eyes in the layers upon layers of lava and understand it in my bones. To walk among the lava rocks and marvel at the soil clinging to them. To feel myself awaiting predators in the night and realize there are none. To brush against the friendly plants that long ago lost their poison in this land of no predators. To understand how the first discoverers, arriving in 200 A.D. on outrigger canoes, navigating by birds and starlight, could have survived in this beautiful but inhospitable land.
The hotspot under Kauai erupted for at least 14 million years before it even reached the surface. Once it did, thousands of years passed before anything happened. A bird passed, and dropped a seed. Other seeds floated or blew over. When the first humans came, probably from the south pacific, they had to bring their own food with them, for no food was available on the island. Maybe coconuts washed ashore, but none grew trees in the acidic soil. The first Hawaiians planted the coconut trees. And the bananas, turmeric, taro (btw, taro burgers are common delicious veggie option on the islands), and other staples. Some iconic Hawaiian symbols like Birds of Paradise arrived only recently, in the plantation era of the 1800’s. The last thing I did in Kauai was the most remarkable. I went to the botanical garden on the north shore at Limahuli. It’s a restoration of an ancient original Hawaiian valley, with terraced taro beds and reclaimed forest. Today Kauai is overrun with invasive species. 90% of the original forest is gone in the lowlands, 60% in the highlands. Mostly you see forests of only 1 type of tree, 1 type of fern, that were brought from elsewhere and took over, crowding out indigenous plants. I say “indigenous” to mean plants that floated there and evolved over thousands of years or that the first settlers brought from the South Pacific. In the mid-1900’s mistaken botanists planted millions of seeds of invasive species, thinking it would help native Hawaiian plants to regrow. Then cattle ranchers cleared a huge amount of native forest, so much so that only a few species of certain trees remained to be saved. It feels like a tragedy to me. The forests on Kauai today look nothing like they did pre-contact with the West; instead they are full of only an African tree that grows too tall here, shading out everything else. In growing too fast and tall, its timber grows too weak, and it cannot be used for building. The trees also break easily and are constantly falling, a hazard for everyone. The garden at Limahuli supports a striking study in contrast between a native Hawaiian forest and the current forest.
So what did we do? Yes, we did go to the beaches, we did snorkel, we went on 3 magnificent hikes, we even took a guided kayak tour, and we went on a helicopter ride. I did not eat any fish. The first thing we did was go to the health food store in Kapa’a. I had a scrumptious blackened tempeh wrap with nori and picked up a live burrito for later (brazil nut, sunflower seed, cashew, flax, avocado, tomato, herbs, lime and salt wrapped in a collard leaf).
We stayed in two places, in the hills near Lawa’i, the south shore, and in town in Hanalei, the north shore. The two sides of the island feel so different, although both are lush. The south has more strip malls and chain stores, and feels a little drier. But it also has access to Waimea canyon – the grand canyon of the Pacific, and the Kalalau Lookout – a spot you can drive to overlooking the Kalalau valley, on the Napali Coast. Otherwise the valley is accessible only by boat, helicopter, or a precarious cliff-side 11 mile footpath.
We found an adorable little cottage with a deck and view overlooking a valley not far from Po’ipu. One thing I love about Hawaii is that everywhere has great grassy lawns – grass on the mainland being a tropical import. Unfortunately, though, Kauai also has chickens everywhere – wild roosters and hens dominate the island. They aren’t classified as game so they can’t be hunted. And the roosters never SHUT UP. They crow all day and sometimes most of the night. If you stay out in the county like we did the first few days, it can be wicked hard to sleep.
Paper of the Trail
First thing the morning after arriving, equipped with our 4wd convertible jeep, we set out up Waimea canyon for a hike along a ridge deep into an ancient forest that our guidebook promised contained tree ferns and other native Kauai flora. The guidebook also warned of the 6-mile muddy road that shouldn’t be attempted without 4wd. So this jeep wasn’t just for style, and for us the narrow and bumpy drive down that road was way more fun than the hike itself. With the top off, we drove an hour up the canyon road, and then an hour to the end of the dirt road, crossing a rushing stream that ran over the road like the road had no business being there (it doesn’t) and running through massive puddles that kicked up mud clear over the windshield and onto us. It was 10 am on a Thursday, and we hadn’t told anyone where we were going. We found a single car parked all the way at the end of the road.
We thought we had found our trail, the Mohihi-Wai-‘alae trail. It was supposed to lead across a stream, up a ridge, through ferns and into mossy old Hawaiian forest. But we got distracted talking and walked 30 minutes down another path that didn’t have any of those features before we realized our mistake and turned back.
Once on the right trail, we spent what seemed like a mile pushing our way through thick ferns, nearly getting tripped by thick rhizomes reaching across the barely-discernible path and clutching at our ankles. It took my whole body pushing to get through. At one point I realized we were on a rapidly narrowing ridge, with drops on either side. The land seemed about to disappear from under my feet and I teetered on a precipice for a moment, surrounded by ferns, before finding the path again, snaking down from the top. The best part about pushing my way through dense forest in Hawaii is that there are no poisonous plants or insects to worry about. No poison oak, so I can actually touch all the green things. No snakes or deadly spiders (there are rats and wild boar, though). The most there is to worry about is mango skin – mango is in the same family as poison oak and ivy and the skin can cause a rash. Despite our total isolation on this hike, we found tiny strips of paper along the entire route. It looked like someone had put a novel through a shredder and then dropped the narrow shreds, one by one, along the way. I still wonder what book it could have been.
Our plan on this trip was to make most of our own food, but that night we treated ourselves and headed to the Hyatt down at Po’ipu. The grounds were beautiful – views, walking on the beach, a hammock, a whole series of salt water pools. We even ran into someone I know from one of our dance communities. We checked out the Hemingway bar and ate at Tidepools, which was supposed to have veggies options. It had one, beautifully presented, but still mostly a bunch of tofu replacing the meat.
The south shore is eerily quiet at night – there is *nothing* going on after dark. And it’s dark. Even with no predators, the island feels menacing to me at night. As if at any moment, it could all be swept away, erode in a single storm into the sea. The next day, undeterred by our previous adventure, we went hiking again, on what is undoubtedly one of our top favorite hikes EVER.
We were up before the sun (thanks, roosters) and drove again up Waimea canyon road, first taking in the Kalalau lookout (double rainbow!). On the way up, we heard Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who sang David Bowie’s Space Oddity from the international space station, interviewed on NPR. It gave me chills – he’s an eloquent and thoughtful man.
Then, we set out on our hike – the Canyon Trail to Waipo’o Falls. This trail is mostly out in the open on a broad ledge in the middle of the vast canyon – truly epic. There were quite a few people, but we both agreed is was one of the most perfect hikes we had ever done. The scenery changes continuously but it’s all stunning and includes the most incredible views of the canyon – it falls away all around, the layers and layers of lava visible, with an unimpeded view of the tree-filled depths below only. We ate lunch at the bottom of one waterfall and the top of another, playing in the water. The hike was just the right difficulty level – not unpleasant but enough to get a good workout. Plus, it starts out going slightly down, so the return trip is uphill – much easier on my knees.
We went to a farmer’s market in a parking lot in Lihue (near the airport). It was filled entirely with elderly Hawaiians speaking languages I couldn’t understand. I found tiny homegrown chile peppers. “Chile chile chile” muttered the old woman standing next to me as I bought the whole bag. She was trying to warn me of the heat, I think (they were ultra spicy). I found lima beans, little radish seed pods like we had eaten in the garden at Esalen, and tropical fruit: coconuts, star fruit (not very flavorful), a strange spiky one that we forgot to eat, papaya, apple banana (Hawaii has its own varieties of banana), and some veggies. It was much less plentiful than markets in California, and there weren’t any specialty things like cheese or meats. Just veggies and fruit and a lot of people arriving early to form lines at the stands they preferred. It was like a stepping-stone between California and the markets in Asia to come.
Barefoot in Hanalei
Driving away from the South shore, past Kapa’a and my new favorite place – the health food store Papaya’s – everything grew greener, bigger, more impressive. The sides of the highway were filled with plants, high like walls. As we rounded the corner to my first view of Hanalei bay, I breathed in sharply and looked in astonishment. It really is that beautiful. Many of you have been there, too, and know what I’m talking about. In Hanalei, we stayed in town, across the street from the beach. We walked or biked everywhere in the cute little village – to yoga, the Harvest market, or the coffee shop. When it was sunny (because it often poured torrential rain), we ran out of the house in swimsuits, barefoot, to jump in the ocean. In the mornings we went running on Hanalei beach, the majestic green lava mountains towering to the west. I loved boogie-boarding, it’s one of my favorite things. The waves were huge though – winter makes itself felt powerfully in Hawai’i, just not through temperature change.
The week unfolded gently and easily, and it didn’t seem strange that we hardly said a word to anyone besides each other. Finding delicious food was so easy at the market, and we bought so much to cook that we didn’t need to go out. One day we hiked 8 miles round trip down the Kalalau trail to Hanakapi’ai beach and then inland to the giant waterfall. My review of these trails is that they are one big mud pile! From the coastal trail the views of the inaccessible Na Pali coast were hard to comprehend in their beauty and strangeness. The beach had a sign warning not to go near the water and notches marking the many people who had died there, setting the tone for an uneasy rest of the hike. Hawaii is wild. For the two miles on the hike through the valley to the waterfall I was covered in mud, sliding my way through. The trail crossed the river in five precarious spots, and we hopped boulders or waded in thigh-high rushing waters. At the waterfall, the high cliffs promised falling rocks, and the water’s roar coupled with imminent rain showers made everything spooky.
After that hike, I needed some good beach time to rest up. Hanalei beach is so easy, and there’s actually shade if you want it. It’s a sleepy small-town beach that happens to be huge and gorgeous. There are no big buildings or resorts on it and no commercial activity; nothing to buy or anyone trying to sell anything. What a luxury in this day and age.
Eventually, we left the beach for a helicopter ride. I thought I would love it, but I think it actually showed me the limit of my senses. My mind had no frame of reference for how we were taking in all these gorgeous scenes from such unusual vantage points, and so I couldn’t be very present with it – it seemed like I was watching a movie or dreaming, and not in a good way. The steep, eroding hills and narrow valleys we saw were impossible to access by road and extremely difficult by foot; 90% of the island is uninhabited and will remain so. We did see the volcano crater, the center of the island, now looking like a wide green valley surrounded in a circle by sheer 3000 foot cliffs. Afterwards we were both disoriented and physically uncomfortable, uncertain of what had just happened to us. I suppose some things are meant to be taken in slowly, with directed effort and time to adjust.
One of the last things we did on Kauai was eat at Common Ground, a field-to-table restaurant on an organic farm that a local massage therapist had recommended to us. It felt like a familiar sort of healthy Californian spot with awesome vegan and gluten-free options. I loved their commitment – they even served us a brown smoothie. That’s what happens when mixing kale and turmeric! I’ve made similar things for myself many times but never been in restaurant with the guts to serve a brown smoothie to customers. The best part was an unassuming little dessert: pineapple chia pudding, so good I asked them how to make it: coconut milk, almond extract, vanilla bean, chia, agave (i would use maple syrup instead of agave).
Our last days in Kauai it rained so hard and long that I felt like a soggy amoeba. Heavy sheets of water plummeted from the roof; everything was mud and puddles; it was impossible to get any clothes to dry and nearly impossible to see to drive. I was convinced the roads were being pounded out of existence, disintegrating before my very eyes. Conversation was an effort; all I could hear was the rain.
Hanalei is connected to the rest of the island by one one-lane bridge over a river; occasionally when it rains relentlessly the river takes over and the bridge closes. The night before our flight to Japan, the river was rising fast and the rain was not expected to stop all night. So we packed up and left, booking a sad last-minute room nearer the airport. Traveling was starting to show its ugly side, and this is just the beginning.