Halawa Valley is said to have been inhabited as early as 650AD by early Hawaiians arriving from the Marquesas Islands and subsequently thrived for hundreds of years in a flourishing civilization of taro cultivators. Ruins of multiple heiau’s (temples/sacred sites) still litter the valley floor. It is one of four windward valleys that pierce the high and rugged sea cliffs along Moloka’i’s north coast. The center of the valley is split by two slender spills of water plummeting to the valley floor which lead to two protected beaches, creating a stunning vista – almost an amphitheater of lush tropical vegetation. Being both so historically and culturally rich, and one of the most beautiful spots on the island, Halawa Valley is one of Moloka’i’s top tourist destinations. We were surprised then, after a day traveling out there, to find ourselves at the end of the road and alone in this great valley. And even more surprising is how we got there…
Perhaps this is a testament to how things work on Moloka’i. At the airport (which was really just a shelter) we had chatted to a local guy named Curtis who immediately offered us his knowledge of the island. Through Curtis we were given the number of Philip who rented bikes. Somehow, amazingly, it had been communicated through the coconut wireless that two hikers were on the island and that they might be looking to rent some bikes. Even more amazingly, when ambling through Kaunakakai town to pick up supplies, Philip had recognized us immediately and asked us if we’d like to rent. Without any concrete plans, and fresh off the plane, we had told him we’d contact him later if we decided to go ahead with the bikes.
Now it must be said that Trails of Freedom is about reaching epic destinations by foot, hiking up to treacherous ridges, down into the deepest valleys and along endless rugged coastlines. However, it is also true that Trails of Freedom is about being up for anything and taking an adventure at any chance. So, keeping this in mind, when Philip cycled up to our camp with two adopted dogs nipping at his feet, we were open to suggestions.
It was sunset, and the sky was streaked with every kind of red which flooded over One Ali’i Beach Park where we had just set up camp. The palm leaves clacked together lazily and the ocean was dead calm, interrupted only by the shadows of Lanai and Maui out to sea. The dogs sniffed around while Philip offered us the bikes. Leigh and I looked at each other and smiled. “Let’s do it,” Leigh Anne said. And so, without even meaning to, our new bikes were chained to the picnic table, ready for the 30 miles to Halawa Valley the next day.
We woke early, knowing that we had a big day of riding ahead. Both Leigh Anne and I could not remember the last time we had been on a bike, let alone a bike ride of this magnitude. And yet the saying is true, it was “like riding a bike,” and after breaking camp pretty soon we were pedaling down the highway blissfully taking mile by mile. The only hindrance was our packs. Last night when Philip delivered the bikes, he offered to take the gear we didn’t need. (Which, as an aside, was another very important and wonderful characteristic of Moloka’i: of course we will put all our stuff in the trunk of your car and just “meet up later.”) We rushed, stuffing unnecessary items into the big pack and leaving the rest. Well, the rest turned out to be too much. This meant we had to strap a few bags to the handlebars of the bikes. It certainly didn’t help with the uphill slogs or when the wind was against us. In fact, it felt like an elastic chord was attached to our backs most of the time, constantly pulling us back.
Still, extra baggage or not, we were stoked to be cruising the countryside, racing past small houses, tiny churches and cows in meadows. The landscape seemed to change from one mile to the next: taro fields giving way to farmlands, coconut groves to what felt like tree tunnels with vines and trees hanging over the road. The real treat though was when the road rejoined the coast again around mile marker 19.
The road narrowed quite markedly as the farmhouses turned to fishing huts. After passing the last of the small seaside towns, including Kalua’aha Church (Moloka’i’s first Christian church built in 1835), we wound our way along the rugged coast that was lined with black jagged rocks which dropped down into the incredibly blue water. The road would dip down into little coves, often with only two or three houses surrounded by exploding fruit trees, flowers and small sandy beaches. The terrain steepened and we would have to climb up the hill, legs burning and continue following the cliffs. We would pull over from time to time and marvel at the whales breaching, with Lanai and Maui in the background.
The climb to mile-marker 22 was incredibly tough and when I pulled over to rest, I was drenched with sweat and my legs were on fire. From here it was an endless uphill slog, causing us to push our bikes most of the way in the excruciatingly hot afternoon sun. We were desperate and aching as these few miles crawled by. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the road managed to level out and it was a gentle and very rewarding ride down to mile-marker 25 by Pu’u O Hoku Ranch. When we reached the ranch, we dismounted our bikes and collapsed in the shade. Speechless and verging on sun stroke, we gave a weak high five and hoped that the worst was behind us.
Luckily, it was. From here it was mostly downhill, save for a small climb that made our knees shake, leaving us praying we didn’t have to endure another hellish climb. Fortunately it was only a tease and before long the road dropped down an incredibly steep and windy road that would drop us at the base of Halawa Valley. We flew around corners with renewed vigor and our breath was literally taken from us as we rounded the bend to see the entire Halawa Valley revealed to us in an instant. A lush basin lay before us, the great Mo’alu falls plummeting 250 feet down the center before turning into a river which divided the valley floor. A skinny flume of smoke rose from one of the few shacks that were scattered amongst taro fields. We could see two beaches divided by the rocky outcrops of the river.
We whooped and yelled as we raced down the hill, feeling like the only people on earth. We careened around corners, hearts thumping, before becoming enveloped in thick jungle at the base. Vines draped across the road in thick ropes and the smell of overripe fruit was pungent and sweet in the air.
We felt like this was the valley that time had forgotten. The old stony remains of a church stood without windows or a roof, jungle growing up through it, almost denying its presence. We walked the length of the beach to see if there was anywhere to fill our water. We walked to where we saw an old jeep and some sort of structures on the other side of the bay. The structures turned out to have been abandoned and there was no one in the truck. The one house that we did see had a rusted old jeep in the driveway and a boat which had died there, already crawling with vines. We saw no one save for an old grey-bearded man with his dog, a castaway amongst the ruins. We stopped him to ask where we could get water. He chuckled revealing a few sticks of teeth, but his eyes would not meet mine as he answered, “Not here, not for miles…” He swaggered off, his clothes hanging off his bones.
What had happened here? The four mile deep valley seemed heavy with some sort of force that neither Leigh Anne nor I could read. Perhaps it was the spirits of those who had lived here many years before. It’s true, this was a sacred place with a rich history so really it’s no wonder we felt a presence there. Many heiau’s (places of worship) were built here and young men wishing to become Kahunas (priests) came here to learn and practice. Furthermore, the valley was hit with two tsunamis, one in 1946 and one in 1957, which covered the entire valley and destroyed the taro fields. There are only a few residences remaining, but the valley itself is still littered with the stone remains of those who had come before us.
We walked our bikes over the sand dunes and attempted to set up camp on a grassy patch by the beach. We found it close to impossible to erect our tent. Our bodies were aching and our hands shook from the constant grip of handle bars as we attached the poles. It was barely dark as we crawled into bed, but we were ready for sleep. We’d need all the rest we could get for the climb back out in the morning. That night, the wind struck up and mixed with the rustling and cracking of palm leaves. I had a tumultuous sleep, dreaming wild dreams of ancient warriors and giant waves engulfing the valley.
The next day, after an unfathomable climb out of the valley, we raced along the coast and countryside with the sun beating down on us, packs strapped to our backs. As I coasted down the ocean road I thought of the valley, harboring so much rich history and spiritual weight.
We found out later that the only way to access the waterfalls in the valley is with a local guide, as you have to cross private land to get there. On our last night on Moloka’i, we had joined our new friends Dave and Wailani for dinner. Wailani, whose family had lived on Moloka’i for generations, told us of the importance of showing respect in Halawa Valley. She told us to drop a Ti leaf in the pool at the base of the waterfall. If it floats, then the giant Mo’o (lizard) who lives there will let you swim. If it sinks, don’t swim. She was dead serious and continued on. DON’T stand on the stone walls or ruins and if you do, you have to say “e kala mai” (excuse me/sorry). She was telling these stories and giving us this information as easy as if it were directions, which in a way they were. Like us, it may seem like you are discovering this valley for the first time, but it is important to remember who came before you and to respect who lives there now, even if that does include giant lizards.
- Guided tours can be arranged through Hotel Molokai or Molokai Fish and Dive. They depart daily at 9.15am from the pavilion at the end of the road.
- Tours are $75 per person (all proceeds go to the development of new Taro fields)
- Cultural tours can also be arranged by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. or calling (808)-567-9202
- Bikes can be rented from Philip at Molokai Bicycle at (808)-553-3931