Moloka’i is a sleepy island 38 miles long and 10 miles wide with the dramatic allure of Kauai’s sheer sea cliffs, hidden valleys, and waterfalls but without the crowds. The blue Pacific laps the edge of the coastal road that traces the eastern shore. The road is shaded by a tangle of tropical foliage and narrows into one lane. It reminded me of the drive to the Napali Coast on Kauai before it was taken over by tour buses. A precipitous climb delivers stunning views of white fringed beaches far below and Maui resting beneath a billow of white clouds. As I neared the trailhead where I was to meet my guide into the sacred Halawa Valley, I had the sensation of dipping into the distant past.
I was greeted by Lawrence Aki, a fifty-generation descendant of those who lived in valley. Like them, he continues to raise taro and pound it to poi-the pasty purple staple of the people of old. The trail to Mo’oula is rocky and root strewn, but worth every effort to reach the two-tiered waterfall tumbling over a verdant pali (precipice).
Today 80 percent of the existing plants and trees in the valley are introduced from other exotic locales. Towering mango shade the centuries-old trail lined with giant ferns and splotches of wild pink impatiens We passed by a temple to Lono (god of agriculture and healing) that consisted of seven tiers of rock walls with levels for praying, dancing, and a sacrificial altar. Our guide did not want to talk about the many hundreds of human sacrifices that took place here, rather he stressed the Hawaiian concept of oneness with nature-the connection of the humans to the rocks, the trees, the clouds, the water. He talked about mana (spiritual power) that is passed from one generation to the next. When he sees someone he sees who is standing behind them. “The ancestors never die,” he says, ” they are always looking over the shoulder of the living person.” If you are wise to their ways you can summon their knowledge and increase your mana.
A shroud of mystery hangs over Halawa, the earliest rutas de senderismo settlement on the island with archeological digs dating it back to 570 AD. The heiau (temple) at the mouth of the valley is over a thousand years old. Hawaiians lived here peacefully for centuries, isolated from warring factions on other islands even after the aggressive Tahitian chiefs arrived in the 13th century. It is said that whenever invaders tried to approach, the seas rose in response to the powerful prayers of the priests. These priests were the keepers of the poison god, and birds that flew over the trees that were used to carve his image would drop from the sky.
By the time of Kamehameha the Great (1750-1819) priests could pray a person to death. One of the reasons Moloka’i has been slow to develop is that these ana’ana priests were greatly feared by other islanders who were pleased to leave them alone.
When we reached the pool beneath the falls, I couldn’t wait to plunge into the bracing waters. After lunch I dried off on the rocks on the sun like Mo’ the great lizard spirit who guards these waters. Too soon we left what is the most authentic Hawaiian experience in all the islands and headed back to the 21st century. At the end of the hike, I bade farewell to the other guests and took a few extra steps to a protected white-sand beach for a private swim in the delicious rolling surf of Halawa Bay.