Aloha! Last week, we started our great Hawaiian adventure, settling into the charming Lilikoi Inn on the Kona side of the Big Island. This week, it’s time to hit the road and start exploring the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands. In this post, we’ll focus on the northern part of the island where ‘cowboy country’ meets the land of deep valleys.
On a bright Saturday morning, I loaded up Moana – my trusted Suzuki jeep – and together with Christa – a fellow volunteer at the Lilikoi Inn from Austria – headed north from Kona to the Kohala Peninsula – the oldest part of the Big Island. Much like the rest of this island, the peninsula is wildly diverse and the drive is a scenic one. While its western coast is sunny and dry, the east is wet, green and utterly remote. It’s home to seven majestic valleys carved by millennia of wind and water – the main goal for this road trip. En route from Kona, the views are incredible: to the left snow-capped Mauna Kea and to the right lava fields tumbling down into the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Hawaiian Cowboys? You Must Be Joking!
As I get closer to the town of Waimea, the first stop for the day, the changing landscape raises questions whether I’m still in Hawaii, a feeling I haven’t had since visiting the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia last year. The ocean is no longer visible and there’s nothing but endless green fields, rolling hills and lots of cows, horses, pickup trucks and cowboys driving them – not exactly the stereotypical vision of Hawaii that you had in mind, right?
You see, way back in 1793, a British captain honored King Kamehameha I with a very special gift: a herd of cattle. King K was so amazed at this bizarre animal, that he ordered it to be protected. Within a time span of fewer than 20 years, the little herd multiplied to proportions that were difficult for the locals to deal with. Lucky for King K, a rancher by the name of John Palmer Parker jumped ship not too far away and offered his assistance in controlling the out-of-control herd. Later on, Spanish cowboys also arrived, bringing with them modern riding and ranching techniques that were taught to local Hawaiians. Alas, the paniolo is born: a Hawaiian cowboy in the middle of the tropics! Today, the Big Island is home to the Parker Ranch – the largest privately owned cattle ranch in the US. I hope you like hamburgers…
Lots of Organic ‘Stuff’
Waimea is the biggest town around here but it’s hardly a stressful place. It looks like something out of the Wild West that’s been time-warped into the 21st century, with low-rising wooden buildings, old-school signs and iron horses riding down Main Street. Saturday morning is the perfect time to pay a visit to the first farmers market of the day and check out all the goodies that make you remember why you visited Hawaii in the first place.
Continuing the northbound quest, the tiny town of Hawi is the next stop. This area of the Kohala Peninsula is the birthplace of King K. If you don’t remember the previous post, King K is kind of ‘da man’ around the island, with schools, roads, shopping plazas and probably even a clothing line named after him.
If Waimea cast me away to the Wild West, strolling the two blocks of downtown Hawi puts me on heightened alert in case Billy the Kid starts shooting himself out of an ambush from one of the rustic buildings. But it’s all good in Hawi, in fact, very good. On this sunny Saturday, farmers, hippies, and ordinary families are all gathering beneath a huge banyan tree in the center of town. There’s, you might have guessed it, a farmers market taking place. Ice-cold coconuts are split open, the smell of roasted coffee is in the air, and there’s lots of ‘organic stuff’ on sale. Local children are playing hide-and-seek in the nooks and crannies of the huge tree and a gifted young man plays the ukulele beneath its shade. This market really hits the spot and comes with perfect timing for the next stop.
Before the first hike of the day, why not stop for lunch? And if lunch, why not at Keokea Beach Park? It’s a spectacular little cove and by noon locals are already firing up their BBQs and sliding open their ubiquitous beach chairs – you know, the ones with cup holders on both sides… With sea-smashed cliffs all around you and a river not so quietly flowing from the valley to the beach and ocean – it’s the perfect spot to taste all the ‘organic stuff’ bought at the Hawi market and soak up some Hawaiian sun.
The Valley of the Long Spear
This wild part of the Big Island is home to a series of seven deep valleys, the first of which is Pololu Valley – the next stop. Meaning ‘long spear’ in Hawaiian, the Pololu Valley was formed by millennia of slow erosion, wind, and rain. Before Europeans arrived, the valley was decorated with taro patches but there’s not much of that left. From the lookout point at the car park, the Pololu Valley is exactly the Hawaii I imagined. Let’s hike down, shall we?
If it hasn’t been raining lately (good luck with that around here), hiking down to the beach and valley floor is quite easy. Even though there’s not a grain of white sand to be found, the wild and rocky beach is spectacular. I keep my eyes peeled in case whales breach the waters in front of my eyes but I can only spot helicopters zipping up and down the coast, likely packed with tourists enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime views through the lens/screen of their digital camera.
The Mother of all Valleys
Saturday was just the appetizer for Sunday’s main course: Waipio Valley. We’re now on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island’s northeastern side, where the scenery is even wilder and where the valleys are even greener and deeper.
Waipio Valley has to be the most beautiful spot on the Big Island – an island already blessed with so many beautiful spots. It is the southernmost of the seven valleys that carve into this side of the island, running inland for over 10kms of thick jungle, freshwater streams and waterfalls galore. In the past, Waipio (meaning ‘curving water’ in Hawaiian) was known as the Valley of the Kings – the seat of the highest ali’i (chief) and home to over 1,000 residents.
So what are we waiting for? Let’s explore this baby! Well… there’s only one problem.
To reach the valley you either need a 4X4 (and my Moana ain’t one of those) or hike down one of the steepest roads in all of the US, blessed with a 25-degree grade and an impromptu junkyard for know-it-alls who thought their 2WDs will get them down safely. The hike down is tough on the knees but easy on the eyes, making swallowing this pill a bit easier. The end of grueling descent poses two options: right to the beach and left deeper into the valley. Left it is!
No Aloha Over Here
Today, little is left of the royalty and glamor of the jolly old ali’i days. Instead, a small handful of farmers reside in the valley and they ain’t too happy about sharing their paradise with the outside world. And just in case you don’t feel the ‘welcoming’ vibe, there are plenty of smartass signs to help you get the message but also evidence of at least some locals having a sense of humor. If it weren’t for the steep road, this place would be pretty much off the grid. And on this misty Sunday, the air in the valley smells more like a coffeeshop in Amsterdam. Can you really blame the resident folks? What else is there to do around here! Well, there is one-star attraction but it requires a bit of effort and a lot of luck – Hiilawe Falls, the ‘X’ on today’s treasure map.
The Secret Map to the Waterfall
I’ve heard about these falls from previous volunteers at the Lilikoi Inn and from Shay, who really knows this island inside out. Apparently, the Hiilawe Falls hide deep in a gorge that feeds into the main valley with a whole lot of private property around. You can spot them from afar but getting there requires some rough (and wet) hiking. Without any officially marked trails, I was lucky that Shay hand drew a map to the falls. With this ‘secret map’ and the fact that it’s kind of considered a taboo to hike to the falls, I just couldn’t resist the temptation.
The hike traverses along the banks of a river that’s hidden beneath a moss-covered tropical rainforest. According to the drawing and a few ‘hero stories’ that I had heard before, reaching the actual falls involves switching river banks and traversing through neck-deep waters at certain locations marked on the secret map. Now, Shay is a very smart man but how are his cartography skills? Lucky for Christa and me, we met three friendly hikers who showed us the way. There was Uncle Irv – a local barber who moved out here from Detroit, Captain Patrick – an Alaskan fishing boat captain who comes to Hawaii to warm up in the winter, and Ryan – a young Marshall Islander who clearly has no use for shoes like us ‘soft’ city folk.
So we switched back and forth across the river, got bitten by mosquitoes a few times, doubted ourselves many times, and walked through neck-deep refreshing water while hoisting our bags over our heads. And when we caught the first glimpse of Hiilawe, we kicked it into high gear and steamed ahead. It kind of reminded me of the epic hike to the Vaipo Waterfall in Nuku Hiva last year – the highest in French Polynesia.
What can say? Just have a look at the pictures. It really doesn’t get any better than this. At 442 meters (or 1450 feet for you Yankees), Hiilawe Falls are the highest in the State of Hawaii! Still amazed to have made it out here, we all went for a cold dip, Ryan showed off with his cliff-jumping skills, and the force of the waterfall offered us all a free (and well deserved) massage!
Unfortunately, In the Waipio Valley, what comes down must go back up… on that treacherous road that is. Before putting the quads to work, we hit the beach for some R&R. With waterfalls cascading straight into the ocean not too far away and young Hawaiian keiki (children) learning to surf in the rough waters, this was the perfect way to end the day and there was even a rainbow smiling down at us on the long drive back to the Lilikoi Inn.
On the final post from the Big Island of Hawaii, we’ll be on the hunt for some lava in Volcanoes National Park. We’ll also attempt the arduous hike up to the summit of Mauna Kea and check out what all those scientists are really doing up there in their observatories. See you next week!