Sue Lebrecht home

Kalalau Trail, Hawaii

Published in In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology

So we’re sitting in the tropical forest in the night, buck naked under a canopy with rain streaming heavily on all sides and we hear this anxious holler of “Hello”. We’re upstream a half-hour hike from the ocean, three hours from the trailhead parking lot, and here in the pitch black is some guy on a trail slippery enough to create a new sport.

Andreas goes to investigate, putting on his shorts and taking the flashlight, leaving me with two last beers and the light of a flaming candle. Ahead in a clearing shines a full moon through the rain. Behind me clumps of long, thick bamboo shoots squeak against each other although there is no apparent wind. I lean to smell the fresh white ginger flower upright in an old wine bottle, a thoughtful welcoming to this site by who knows who.

I’m on the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, Hawaii at the first campsite area near Hanakapi’ai Beach. I met Andreas at the State Parks Office in Lihue while obtaining a camping permit for the trail and gave him a ride in my rented cherry-red Sunbird Convertible, roof down, tunes cranked.

We’ve got no clothes on because we just finished dipping in the stream; there’s a great swimming hole at the end of an overgrown path leading downhill from the campsite. And because its hot, and because he’s German, my parents are German and nudity is quite natural among Europeans, and because, well, he didn’t put his clothes back on and it seemed neat to sit naked and try and act natural.

I first read about the Kalalau Trail in Ray Riegert’s Hidden Hawaii, “Kauai’s premier hike, one of the finest treks in all the islands….” It is an ancient footpath through dense tropical forest along the rugged Na Pali Coast. Beginning where the sole northwest road stops abruptly at Ke’e Beach, it spans 11 miles to Kalalau Beach, a sand patch bordered by sheer cliffs and the sea. It traverses up and down the flank of 3,000-foot ridges – a succession of them that jab into the ocean and form valleys in the mountain side. There are three stream crossings and three campsite areas – at Hanakapi’ai after two miles, at Hanakoa after six miles, and at the trail’s end, Kalalau – each sporting an unmaintained trail leading up the valley.

“Purists will claim you’ve got to `do Kalalau’ to see the Na Pali Coast…”, Riegert writes, and enticed, that’s what I wanted to do. I read that it could be reached in a day – but I hadn’t alloted time for inevitable sidetracking and the unexpected. I’ve traveled; I should have known better.

We began the hike late, having stretched the required two hour ride from Lihue into four hours, exploring road side caves and shooting tourist photos at lookouts. Our pace was relaxed. We stopped to lean into the fierce wind on outcrops with dropoffs that poised in the horizon of ocean and sky. We stopped to taste guavas, picking them from trees, prying them in half and sucking out the seeds and juice of their middle.

The trail was well-trodden and for most part it tunneled through tangles of tropical growth, warped and woven. In places you couldn’t see the trees through the vines; in this jungle they hug, hide, protect, perhaps even love trees to death. Flowers were a splash of color here and there in the greenness.

At the first stream crossing, at Hanakapi’ai, I stopped to feed a whole can of turkey to a little black pregnant cat. Feral cats were left by squatters years ago. She hit my soft spot; my cat died recently. At the base of the stream is a gorgeous blond beach fringed by black cliffs. It is a popular destination for day hikers. On the other side of the stream are campsites – terraced sandpatches underneath palm trees with an ocean view. Though they looked inviting, we averted to the upstream trail leading to a waterfall for a site enroute recommended to us at the permit office.

Andreas returns and says he walked the guy to the coast. He had started late for the falls and got stuck in the dark. His parents were waiting at the parking lot – probably quite worried. I dab on mosquito repellent and start a fire. We decide to hike to the falls tomorrow since we’re part way there anyway. This is when I knew I wouldn’t make it to Kalalau Beach, but I didn’t know then I’d later be obsessed with the idea of returning.

The early bird gets the spiderweb, wrapped around the head, leg, arm, whatever touches it first. After two veils I ask Andreas to lead. The trail is slick. Trees have fallen across it and the ups and downs are increasingly steep. There are protruding roots and loose mossy rocks; we seem to cross the stream an unnecessary number of times.

I love the groves of bamboo and wish I knew more about the fruits and foliage of the island. We find a fruit that looks like strawberries and plucks off like raspberries and tastes like their combination. We try bites and nibbles of all sorts of unknowns, though we know this is risky. We smell this red blossom and that blue cluster. We find stones wrapped in broad leaves placed on rocks and I remember reading about them: offerings to a local God to ensure a safe journey. We follow suit and sandwich a rock. It’s a perfect temperature; I’m walking in my bathing suit, not sweating.

The falls are a 400-foot towering shoot of water with a deep turquoise bowl at its base which overflows into a network of basins. Again, we take off our clothes and swim. The falls fall hard and spray stings our flesh as we approach. It’s apparently impossible to swim behind it.

On the way back we bypass a river crossing in lieu of a noticeable secondary trail. Before not long, its obviousness peters into the perhaps as the trail narrows, disappears, then reappears sporadically. We’re in a swamp, in a brash of bamboo at the base of a delicate fern-covered cliff, absently being led away from the river. Out of reach overhead against a cliff hangs a decaying rope ladder leading up into the unknown. We pass by.

Next we’re standing under the dark shade of a massive tree under which nothing grows; only leaves decompose in its dampness. This is a dead end; no path leads from its circumference so we wing it into the thick of things, not without apprehension.

I’ve never had the urge to go where no man has gone before. I’m a path follower and this is the first time I’ve lost trust in a trail. I’m getting anxious. I see hoof marks in the ground and my imagination takes over. I can visualize a wild boar charging out from under a ledge, his tusk boring into my leg, his muzzle of spiny teeth crunching the bones of my ankles. Enough. I keep watch for climbable trees and decide these hoof marks are sheep. Yeah. That’s it. Sheep.

We’re going nowhere fast, in fact, my feet are stuck. No, they’re sinking. I lie face first, Andreas pulls, my feet pop and he reaches back into the black muck holes and recovers my running shoes. We stare at one another; it’s my lead. I’m thirsty.

We bushwack to a cliff edge, follow along its brim and finally hit a stream which has worn the side into a slope. We immerse and help each other down, hand over hand, level after level, shivering in the cool wetness until we reach sunshine and the main stream below. Continuing downstream, we leap from one boulder to another where possible; wade shallow edges and swim across deep troughs avoiding channels of current which plunge. Ultimately Andreas plows through the growth on the other side and finds “the” path.

We drink lots of water, wash up in our swim hole and while Andreas cleans his clothes I return to the campsite, just in time to meet Don.

Don must be one of the purists Riegert refers to. “Are you planning to hike to the end?” he asks. “Kalalau is a must.” I tell him I have a flight to Maui and must be off tomorrow, unfortunately. He says he could use a ride into town and asks to join me on my hike out.

Don is a “New Age” person into spirits and energy fields and such. “Energy is the highest in the islands and no where is it greater than at Kalalau,” he says. “Some people can’t handle it. They have to complain.”

Don says he’s lived in this valley for seven months; he originally comes from Connecticut. “Rangers will fine you $50 if they catch you staying, but, well $50 for seven months – I could manage that. It’s easy to get work and most jobs start at $6 an hour.” He survives on food stamps. “You can get guavas anytime but to live off the land you need a garden.”

As he speaks I notice for the first time an old garden bed around the campsite – an overgrown flat patch upheld with fine stone work. Whole communities lived here until the 1920s and it is one of many markers of the past.

Hawaiians first settled at Ke’e Beach in 1200 AD and as their population grew they dispersed into Na Pali’s valleys. They cleared forests and built terraces for growing taro, the stable crop. The peak of production was in the 1600s when up to 200 acres were cultivated and each of the large valleys supported several hundred people. Families finally moved to more easily accessible villages lured by running water and regular schooling.

In the bush off the trail lies a hunk of rusting machinery once used in a coffee mill. Further upstream is an old stone fireplace – a site in which four people recently lived for two months, according to Don.

Trails apparently lace the forest, but unmaintained, they are disguised with growth. I tell Don of our day’s escapade and he says he’s aware of the trail that led us astray. About 12 years ago it was the trail to the falls but now is used only by wild pigs. “Ornery things,” he says. “They’ve got tusks, can bore right through -” I interrupt. I know already.

A sudden breeze washes over the leaves above us and has the bamboo squeaking in circles. Don is on his way to visit a friend on the other side of the stream. We say good-bye until tomorrow, and in parting he says I should consider flying back after Maui. "You need just three days: one day in, one day out and one day to hang out.

We’re fast asleep when at about 3:30 a.m. there’s a thunk near our tent. Startled, I shine my flashlight at a flashlight shinning on me. “Oh sorry,” says a voice, “something, mumble” – can’t make it out – “but the mosquitos are so bad.”

WHAT?” Andreas booms, just waking up. “Who’s there?” The voice asks, “Is this the half way point to the river?” Half way to the river? You’re beside the river, er, stream. What are you doing so close to the tent? Is this Don? I’m glad I’m not alone. The voice says he is going to sleep here if we don’t mind.

Two hours later there’s heavy panting and sniffing outside the tent. I prop up on my elbows, straining my eyes to see. Suddenly a four-legged silhouette stops and growls. I see teeth shinning in the moonlight, then not four, but 12 legs.

“Eh!” says a voice. The growling stops. Someone is visiting our visitor and that someone has three dogs who are having a heyday around the campsite. Is this a local? A hunter? Don’s friend from across the river?

There is no sign of the dogs or strangers of the night in the morning; Don has not shown up to hike out with me. I bid Andreas farewell, place a fresh flower in the old wine bottle and march back to my convertible feeling discontented.

I was going the wrong way. I yearned to hike the trail’s end – Kalalau – with a hunger I had only felt once before seven years ago in Nepal. There I had flown out of the Annapurna Mountain Range with my friend, having hiked in, only to feel I was missing something terribly important. Knowing I’d kick myself if I didn’t give in to the compulsion I flew back the next morning hoping to fill the void.

I hiked over Throng La Pass at 17,600 feet, along the other side and days later found myself on a peak in sudden sheer fulfillment. This is what I had returned for – a sensation with the power of a milestone. There, standing with a little dog at my side, I was floored with an uncanny revelation: I knew then that it was my destiny to be a writer. Fairytale-type stuff. It was a career decision out of the blue, never entertained before and never looked back on since. So, what, if anything, do the mountains here have to tell me now?

Five days later I’m back in Kauai. My knapsack packed, I’m leaving the Sheraton Coconut Beach Hotel in Kapaa and the Bell Captain says, “Doing the hike? Hope the hurricane doesn’t hit.” Say what?

She’s racing northwest towards the islands at 115 m.p.h. and could hit the Big Island tomorrow afternoon and Kauai the day after. She’ll likely cause high waves and heavy wind and rain within a 100-mile radius.

I’m on the road with no change of plan. I pick up a hitch-hiker, the fifth person I’ve met from mainland U.S.A. who came to visit and stayed to call Hawaii home. Couldn’t even give his return ticket away, he said, there were no takers. We reach his stop and he wishes me luck.

I skirt the tunes and key into local 570 AM for the latest report. “Cloudy, windy with a good chance of showers,” said the broadcaster, “stay tuned for an update on Marie.” I’m in the final stretch, the rolling windy road to the trailhead and reception peters out to the sound of ripping paper. I entertain the idea of backtracking to hear the report, but I’m too committed to stop the wheels from rolling onward.

Police are cruising the parking lot. Go ahead, they say, but don’t try and cross any streams if she hits. Go to high ground, find a cave and stay put. Mountains with a twist; I like it, I like it.

Set and determined I’m off at a steroid pace. The trail is muddier than before. I pass a couple. She’s in beach whites and pink running shoes carrying a plastic bag with lotion and a towel; he’s carrying a big styrofoam cooler with both hands. Hey, what do you think this is – a picnic? The Sierra Club rates this hike a nine on a difficulty scale that reaches 10. I don’t ruin their date with adventure, I smile, say hi.

Hanakap’ia comes fast and then I’m into new territory. That was either thunder I heard or the grumblings of a hungry mountain. Dark clouds are hiding mountain-tops and rain is taunting with sprinkles. It brings a sense of urgency. Rain, rain go away, come back when I’ve pitched my tent. A huge centipede crosses my path – it’s at least the length of my foot. I remember Don said he was once bit by one and was in bed two days with wild hallucinations.

The trail leads up steep switchbacks then into thick foliage. I’m Alice in Wonderland looking at plants that seem familiar but out-of-proportion big. Then I’m back to reality, exposed along a precipitous cliff face. No one is around and I want to take a picture of myself here. I wedge my camera sideways in a crag, set the timer, heave my knapsack back on, release the timer, run back down the trail, turn, and walk nonchalantly back. So cool. Actually I’m hot. I’ve sweat so much my backpack feels soggy. I peel off my shorts to be clad in my bathing suit only.

I’m at the stream crossing at Hanakoa and a I dare say, I don’t like these stream crossings. There are huge boulders standing like upright eggs that you’re supposed to hop along with the help of a strung rope overhead for balance. The boulders are too far apart for my legs, there’s no way I can hop, bounce or jump with this knapsack and the rope is sagging in the middle.

My attempt is an award winning photo were anyone there to take it. I wrap my arms around the rope, thoughtlessly dependant, step wide and get stuck. I can’t move and suddenly I’m off balance leaning backwards, doing the splits. I get out of it somehow, but not before – of all times – I am passed by a hiker who flits over the rocks farther upstream, smiles kindly and suppresses a bowl of laughter, I’m sure. The lesson of the day is to assess possibilities beyond the given route.

This is Hanakoa Valley. Campsites are on terraced fields; rock-bundled plateaus of soft grass. I’m hiking through ghost villages. A path leads up the valley to a waterfall and while it is only half a mile long, I don’t stray to push my luck. A sign warns hikers to boil water before drinking it. I meet a guy who’s returning from a week-long stay at Kalalau Beach. He looks as relaxed as melted butter.

I round the mountain range that bisects the wet and dry sides of Kauai. Change is noticeable. Land is dry and open, I can see for miles the fluted cliffs of Kalalau Valley. As I round a ridge – forever blasted with the trade wind – I try to spot the trail on the next one. This is more than a diversion, it draws me on. A blister has formed on my right big toe. I’m tired, my pace is slower. Looming clouds are darker. Recent landslides are obvious and they are unnerving to cross on a path all too fresh. Then I’m on a long narrow ledge, a two-foot wide fringe from a 1,000 foot plummet. There is no room to play. I do not stop, I do not take a photo, I step directly onto the trail.

Later, with my feet on more secure ground I meet bow hunters on the track of goats. They are friendly but I don’t wish them luck. I know their story: helping to control goat population so they don’t ravage the land then starve – but I can’t bear to imagine an animal in pain. Mountains up the valley have knife-point peaks and vertical walls forming a giant fortress.

I see quite a few Jet and Zodiac boats running tours along the coast and hear helicopters doing the same in the air above. It’s an unnatural sound but they are not close enough to be obnoxious. Then again, I’m biased. I took a ride with Papillion Helicopters when I first arrived on Kauai for a bird’s eye view of the playground. What a wild experience: to skirt tree tops through a narrow canyon, rush up a cliff and suddenly poise in front of a three-pool waterfall so close that spray hits the window, spoiling a photograph.

I hear braying and discover a small goat herd on a ridge crest below me. The trail narrows, becomes more rugged and even precarious in spots. It slithers down loose red rock and suddenly I see the beach beyond; a glistening half moon of white, sun rays upon it.

Finally Kalalau Beach is before me, and I take off my runners, almost in reverence. The first step has silver powder sifting through my toes. There are a number of tents well ahead and I take my time arriving there. I look no more to the dark billowing clouds behind me, only to the deep ball of orange ahead. I mark my spot with my tent and when the pegs don’t hold in the sand I gather rocks to secure them. From the grass plateau above the beach a naked man stands and tells me to make sure they’re big – the rocks. A tent blew away the night before. I heed his advice and after hefting some damn big rocks get applause from the naked man and his naked neighbors.

I ask if anyone has heard wind of Marie. They’ve heard, but haven’t felt her presence. Then I’m standing naked, turning around, being cleansed under a waterfall in a small alcove. I return to the beach just in time to witness the lightshow of sunset with others spaced here and there near the ocean’s edge. We are not many; perhaps 10. There are no mosquitoes. After sunset three really big frogs hopped past my tent towards the ocean.

The stars are bright. There are loud crickets droning like electric shavers in high pitch. The waterfall sounds larger than I remember it and the ocean sounds like an airport with jet planes taking off every 10 seconds. I’m not complaining. Not at all.

In the morning I awake with my tent alternately puffing out then sucking in with the regularity of the ocean’s breath. I’ve had bizarre dreams but they are lost as I regain my bearings: lying in my tent on a secluded beach in Hawaii.

I meet Kim and Cathy from Calgary – the first fellow Canadians I’ve met on my trip – and we decide to hike the valley trail. They came to Kalalau campsite by campsite, in three days.

It’s a glorious, sun-filled, cloudless morning. We pass a landslide area where at the top, karins have been placed – one rock on top of another – in homage imitation to the mountains and peaks beyond. Kathy has a hiking guide that says this was a Pre-christian worship ground.

We get lost following a chute into an open field where bananas grow, then backtrack; get lost alongside a small stream that curves from one bowl to another in narrow stems, then backtrack. We agree we are on the wrong trail when we have to move branches and step anywhere with effort. I am learning.

From out of the jungle we enter an unexpected open field in the Kalalau Valley. We stand on rocks and gaze. Then re-entering the jungle we find extensive agricultural terraces that have plum, guava and large mango trees on them. The trail ends at a large deep pool which slides into another pool. We swim, slide, pick and eat guavas.

Back on the beach, after lunch, we explore caves, huge surf carved out pockets. I wish I had brought a flashlight to see into the deep recesses. One cave is occupied with a tent; another has a huge sand dune forming in front of its entrance. It’s amazing how these real lava rocks look like the fake thing. They are globs with an edge here and there, patches of gray and black, some streaked with limestone sediment.

In the afternoon I lie alone on the beach and soak in the sun and see the most amazing rainbow I’ve ever seen. I resist the urge to run for my camera; just simply to enjoy it. It arches all the way over the peaks and ridges, the path that we had struggled over to arrive. And then another rainbow forms an arch over the first. With their color so intense and bright I give in and take some pictures.

And then I see that elusive end of the rainbow. I can hardly believe it. I’m standing in the pot of gold.