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Secrets of Hawaii's Big Island
by David Yeadon

"See Naples and die" they spell it differently here. See Hawaii and live.
    — JACK LONDON, 1916

A beguiling strangeness moves on Big Island. Something enticing is happening and a sense of aliveness eases through my hike-weary frame. Cool breezes whisp through the tops of the red-flowered 'ohi 'a trees in this dense, dwarf-like forest filled with deep, moist shadows and unfamiliar bird calls. Fern trees with trifid-like fiddle heads reach for the canopy through lush scrub still dripping from one of the day's countless mini-showers — sudden warm sprinklings that sometimes barely last a minute.

Here on the slopes of Kilauea, one of the earth's most active volcanoes on one of the earth's remotest islands (known confusingly both as Hawaii and Big Island), I am hidden away deep in the woods and feel myself entering an unfamiliar world.

"Can you hear it?" I'm sitting with Tom Pico, a renowned island artist-woodcarver. His voice is muted and a boyish smile flickers about his young-old, hair-shrouded face. We're lolling on the stoop of his tiny, hand-built cabin-workshop surrounded by his carving tools, grinding stones, makeshift furniture, battered guitar, pots and pans, scattered cassette tapes, and all the comfortable detritus of an artist-hideaway.

"Hear what?" "The forest," says Tom softly.

And y'know, I think maybe I can. A few more minutes of silence to let the mind-yammer fade and I'm becoming aware of sounds and sensations that normally would be drowned out in the do- this, do-that hullabaloo of the daily whirl. There are presences here, touching parts of my spirit that have lain dormant a little too long . . .a gentle loosening of the psyche from its strictly human sphere, a subtle entering into a sentient world. Things all around are talking to me and I'm listening . . . .

A while back on this warm afternoon I'd been leafing through Tom's award-filled portfolio of exquisitely handcrafted replicas of ancient Hawaiian "stone age" fishhooks, knives and adzes and powerful carvings of mythical creatures and deities, many adorned with ancient tattoo designs, sinuously crafted in notoriously hard koa wood which once grew profusely on the island but today is increasingly rare and expensive.

"There's a real cultural reawakening going on here," Tom had told me "All the gods are returning — Kane, Ku, Lono, Kanaloa. There's kapa-making (bark cloth), tattooing, tiki-carving, the restoration of ancient stone temples (heiau) and pu'uhonua (places of refuge) where violators of the strict kapu ruler of the king and his ali'i (noblemen) could seek refuge from very messy death penalties. Hula too — serious hula — is incredibly popular — there's April's Merrie Monarch festival here in Hilo that's sold out months in advance — there's new outrigger canoe- building and racing clubs and voyaging societies — even the ancient language and ancient kahiko songs are being revived. And all this when there's hardly any real full-blooded Hawaiians left. We're mostly a weird mix of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and of course Caucasians, the haloes "those without breath." When Captain Cook and his crew dropped by in 1779 they treated him like a deity — before they killed him on his next visit and they still couldn't believe that such pale-skinned, frail-bodied people could actually be alive! But slowly the haloes pretty much took over anyway — the missionaries came in the 1820s, then the sugar and pineapple plantation and ranching guys, then the last monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, got deposed and the USA made Hawaii a territory in 1900 and a state in 1959."

Tom paused and stroked his raggedy moustache. "It's not finished yet though, not by a long way. There's a lot of people demanding more sovereignty for the islands. They want their culture — and their land back! Y'see when the original Hawaiians came over from the Marquesas, maybe as long as 1700 years ago in those great double-hulled canoes, they brought with them an ancient world immersed in spirits. Nature wasn't something abstract or romantic the way we tend to see it now. Everything — rocks, trees, animals, birds, clouds, volcanoes were all part of their world — everything had a voice . . .and, well, they want to hear those voices — their aloha aina again."

Tom paused. The forest murmured to us softly "It's so sad y'know — we've forgotten so much we once knew . . ." A couple of lines I'd recently gleaned from David Abram's beautiful book The Spell of The Sensuous came to mind: "Today we participate almost exclusively with our own human-made technologies . . ." and then the heartfelt coda at the end of the book " . . .but as I watch I, too, am drawn . . .into the depths of a vast breathing being, enclosing us all within a common flesh . . . ."

Another not-so-silent silence and then . . . "Ahaa" Tom murmured, "She's moving again." "Who?" "Kilauea — can't you feel her. We're only a few miles from the Pu'u'O'o lava flow. Madame Pele's pumping — our goddess of volcanic fires is restless . . . lava's been flowing down to Kalapana for over 13 years almost nonstop, wiping out homes and roads . . . ."

"Yes but it stopped the day I arrived," I told him, "Everyone along the west coast is celebrating the disappearance of the 'vog' (volcanic smog). They can't remember such clear skies — and no sulphur smell . . ." "Not for long," said Tom with a knowing grin. "You're on the edge of new creation here. Big Island's still growing . . . that's why I'm here at Volcano — and so many other artists. There's something in the air. You feel creative here. You're bursting with it its oozing like lava out of all your mind's crevices the aumakua the higher self of the creator in you . . . .Sometimes I'm so deep into my carving I don't want to stop to eat or sleep or talk I just want to let Pele work her magic . . .let the flow keep on flowing . . . ."

Despite Mark Twain's gushy celebration of Hawaii as "the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean," I'd been somewhat skeptical about coming here. Yes, of course, I was familiar with all those enticing images of voluptuous, volcano-spawned scenery, gorgeous golden and black sand beaches, enchanting hideaway resorts, virginal maidens bearing flower-petal leis, gargantuan lip-smacking pig-feast lu'aus and hip-swaying, palm- frond-skirted hula dances and all that whole sunlit-smiling spirit of aloha. But to be honest I'd feared I'd merely find a Disneyesque, mainlandized, boogie-boarded, bronze-bodied brouhaha of pseudo-culture — a place where the once proud and powerful traditions of an ancient Polynesian people had been trivialized and homogenized into a surf-frothy, trinket-laced, mai tai miasma of jaded, stereotypical mediocrity. However, I came anyway, inspired in part by a line from Robert Bone's Maverick Guide to Hawaii — "Big Island is what Hawaii is all about." And while there is abundant evidence of all the downsides I dreaded, I was slowly learning from people like Tom that the deep, rich rhythms of the Hawaiian heart are still beating beneath such chimeric superficialities. Admittedly it took a few days to tap the sources of authenticity days of sensory bedazzlement that could only be calmed by long snorkeling odysseys among the rich, all-public offshore reefs at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, the fabulous Hapuna Beach and Kealakekua Underwater Park, where I played stroke n'kiss with the gorgeously-decorated tang, wrasse, parrot, angel, damsel, butterfly, trumpet and puffer fish, and let the underwater wonder of Big Island calm my initial rampant confusions.

And I was truly confused. Hastily scribbled notes of my first day's impressions are enough to reveal a distinctly roiling state of mind:

. . .flying southeast on small plane out of Honolulu on Oahu (far too much Miami Beach madness here); passing by Molokai, Lanai, Maui all little volcanic blisters on the 1,600 mile long conveyor belt chain of islands created by Pacific tectonic plate passing over "hot spot" in crust (most of them now eroded back down over 40 million years to nubs and atolls) but there's another one growing south of Big Island — Loihi — only 3000 feet to go before she becomes "land". Dazzling melange of pastures, plantations, cloud-capped peaks and melting moss-green canyons. After 20 minutes comes Big Island (4000 plus square miles, larger than all others collectively, but with barely 10 percent of Hawaii's 1.2 million population) — the 'twin-peak' island of shield volcanoes — 13,796' Mauna Kea volcano studded with astronomical observatories is actually 32,000' from ocean floor! (beats Everest by 3,000') and vast lava sprawl of 13679' high Mauna Loa the most massive mountain on earth both snowcapped with people skiing! Coming into Kona airport in middle of tumultuous black lava fields; can see string of upscale resorts on northwest coast with body-strewn blonde beaches and hyper-green golf courses like pristine architectural models plonked down hiddeldy-piggedly on edge of vast moonscape; "Hawaiian" guy next to me (mostly Irish but within one-sixteenth ancestry limit) plays loud Hawaiian slack key guitar tape — "Hey baby, here I am, rub upon my belly like guava jelly"; shows me local paper's earnest headlines "Two rabbits spotted eating indigenous plants in Volcanoes National Park" and "Endangered Hawaiian nene goose threatened by unleashed dog" (striking contrast to mainland's daily murder and mayhem); vast velvety sweep of cow-studded ranchlands west of Mauna Kea; huge surf and wave explosions on tangled lava headlands. Landing now — can see nothing but lava; lovely 'open' airport full of breezes on 80, humid March afternoon; racks of freebie brochures offering mind-boggling array of island enticements submarine reef trips, helicopter and small plane "see the lava flowing" flights; 'Polynesian' evening cruises, scuba and sportfishing charters, ski trips, 'cowboy' riding tours, glass-bottom boats, 'most authentic' lu'aus, river-rafting, whale- watching, botanical garden tours . . . oh dear prejudices justified?. Into hire car, driving on new highway north across frozen oceans of aa (rough clinkery lava) and pahoehoe (ropey serpentine foldings of lava) still seem eerily in motion. And here comes my first hotel, the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort complex, marked by understated lava rock sign (sense very P.C. environmental sensitivity here) but can't see anything but winding road across more black lava sea until — wow! Suddenly — immaculate Kings' Shops mall, rampant palms, unbelievably green golf fairways, hibiscus and bougainvillea everywhere, impressive circular driveway entrance with happy-smiley valet parkers and flowery lei around my neck from pretty girl (a kiss too) — then pow! led via Hollywood filmset "Grand Staircase" into a mind-boggling 62-acre, mile-long, 1240-room fantasy wonderworld laced together Venetian-style with canals, pools, waterfalls, beaches, tennis courts, parks, water slides and huge health spa. Taken by mahogany canal boat to my room overlooking lagoon with leaping dolphins; trams like bullet-trains sliding by silently alongside exotic 'museum walk' of Oriental art, linking 3 soaring tower complexes, flamingo sanctuary, convention center , six restaurants (palazzo-villa Italian, traditional Japanese teahouse, steakhouse, Hang Ten beach bar, etc.), big band playing in ballroom, wedding chapel (very popular for Japanese nuptials), Camp Menehune for kids (named after mythical leprechaun-like Hawaiian 'little people'), sumptuous lagoon lanai barbecue dinner-buffet in progress with hundreds of convention guests . . . .(too much! Overload! — I'm utterly "gobsmacked"!)

My notes careen to an abrupt halt at this point. Sensory saturation had obviously been reached. Resplendent and meticulously manicured though the Hilton village is ("truly a destination in itself" as the brochure proclaims), I already felt a soulful surge to experience something far more 'real'. A couple of fruit salad and parasol-frilled mai tais helped ease my buzzing brain, followed by an excellent Italian veal chop dinner at Donatoni's, but I still needed to truly touch this island before becoming irredeemably lost in the heady hedonism of its worldly extravaganzas. Behind the hotel rose the great, snowcapped bulk of Mauna Kea and the green sweeps of lower hills and ranchlands. They seemed wild and untamed and I wanted to be up there, roaming among them.

So, early the next morning (and sacrificing a vast buffet breakfast at the Palm Terrace restaurant), I joined a 12 hour 250 mile, circle tour of Big Island in an air- conditioned, 20 passenger coach driven by a talkative guide who seemed to feel the need to chuckle at himself after every utterance. It could have been a most irritating experience but the excursion was so richly varied in topography, history, and wild beauty that I became utterly immersed in the serendipity of it all. It was a journey around a true micro-continent that encompasses 12 of the earth's official 14 climatic zones, with scenic permutations running the gamut from African veldt, Australian outback, Montana ranchlands, Irish coastal meadows, to Scottish highlands, volcanic lava deserts, dense tropical jungles , and small town false- front main streets with all the time warp ambiance of the mainland's wild west remnants.

The day was a truly kaleidoscopic beginning with the teeming touristic trimmings of beach-front restaurants, shopping clusters, and older hotels and resorts of Kailua-Kona (perfect little 1838 Hulihe'e Palace near the waterfront here, vacation home of Hawaiian royalty and now a museum), a brief pause to sip superb, just- roasted Kona pea-berry coffee on the high coffee plantation-dotted slopes overlooking the ragged lava coast far below, a hesitant exploration of a restored sacred 'place of refuge' at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau (I felt I was trespassing in such places and later decided to avoid them), a brief pause to admire Father John Velge's 1899 religious folk art at St. Benedict's Painted Church, and a slow drive through the verdant valley at Na 'alehu, one of Mark Twain's favorite spots.

Gradually the land became higher and wilder as we rose up into the island's volcanic heartlands. At lunchtime I gorged on buffet delights at the funky Volcano House hotel while peering through teeming rain and racing clouds into the dramatically-smoking caldera of Kilauea in Volcanoes National Park. Subsequent brief pauses to photograph smaller steaming craters and stroll through the Thurston lava tube set in luxuriant rainforests were the highlights of the tour.

As we left the tumultuous volcanic drama behind us, the rain ceased abruptly and we descended through increasingly lush, jungly terrain, passing orchid and anthurium farms and vast macadamia plantations, into the Hawaii county seat of Hilo. Somehow this sturdy community of around 40,000 people has survived enormous tsunami (tidal wave) destructions and hurricanes, ever-impending lava flows, the demise of its staple sugar industry, and notorious rain-lashed climate to reveal a delightful park-laced heart and a 1920-era downtown with deliciously bizarre, lopsided, "Last Picture Show" ambiance. Most tourists tend to avoid the place but I found it entrancing not quite so entrancing though as Honaka'a, 40 miles to the north up the winding Hamakua coast road cut by dozens of jungled gullies, rich as Rousseau artworks. This place, with few tourist trimmings, a bowed false-front main street (there's even a section of hitching rail still intact here), clustered mom n' pop bakeries and snack bars, and a pure Rockwellian barber's shop, is the epitome of Big Island's small town charm. I returned here many times to listen to the locals and learn their secrets. As one old Filipino gentleman explained over beers in the bar of the Honoka'a Club, "This place ain't changed none much since the twenties and that's the way we most like it." We toasted tenacious traditions. The round-island "familiarization" journey had been an exhausting but intriguing experience and I returned to my fantasy-hotel convinced that, despite all the mainland trappings of a cut-and-paste, surface-value culture, Big Island still possesses that "foreign" feel that special sense of being a 'place apart' with its own deep and rich cultural heritage. And while I was and will always remain a haole, I sensed that the smiling faces and aloha spirit of the indigenous old-timer kama'ainas were generous enough to let me into their world for a while.

So I was now ready to go by myself in search of real and secret places. But first I couldn't resist visiting those three other fabled Kohola Coast resorts close by mega-complexes of upmarket hotels, condominiums, luxury homes and golf courses strewn in green paradisesical settings among the coastal lava deserts on the surfy cusp of the ocean. As one young, golden-tanned, $400/night room couple gushed "Big Island is all about the resorts!" While feeling that they might be missing the whole point of this magnificent mini-continent, my self- indulgent side empathized with their sentiments as I explored the exotic "everything-you-want" attractions of the recently-opened Four Seasons with its excellent Hawaiian culture Interpretive Center, the jungly "little-grass shack" tranquilla mood of the Kona Village's hales; the pristine, understated charms of Mauna Kea, the refined chandelier and art-graced ambiance of The Orchid, and the sumptuous exuberance of Mauna Laui Bay Hotel, with its 5 world-renowned, celebrity-filled "bungalows" (a stratospheric non-negotiable $3,200 — $4,100 a night including personal butler and every luxury imaginable!). Fortunately these mini-worlds of Falstaffian indulgence are all refreshingly "green" in attitude, with lavish care being taken to preserve every nuance of ancient Hawaiian culture and history. As Danny Akaka, the Mauna Lani's resident historian, told me with captivation enthusiasm, "You can see how our island once was right here in the petroglyph fields, heiaus, ancient trails and fishponds, shelter caves in the lava tubes, house platforms this was all the great 'ili of Kalahuipua'a, a favorite place of our kings. David you must explore our island see into it you'll learn many things . . . ."

So I did and, of course, he was absolutely right.

My first day-long learning sortie was with the equally enthusiastic Rob Pacheco, owner with his wife Cindy, of Hawaii Forest and Trail, a local eco-touring company. Somehow, through charm and vision, Rob has managed to persuade many of the island's larger landowners to open up their private reserves to his small-group tours. Our key destination was the Pololu Valley at the tip of the North Kohala coast but, whereas most visitors make do with brief photographic interludes from the dramatic lookout, Rob led me on rainforest trails deep into the lush heart of this splendid wilderness. For much of the way the narrow path ran high up the near vertical valley wall alongside the 1905 'Kohala Ditch', a 22 mile miracle of hand-dug flumes and tunnels built primarily by Japanese laborers to bring constant water supplies from the eastern rain-doused side of the island to the drier but rich sugarcane fields of North Kohala and Kap'au home of Big Island's beloved and Herculean King Kamehameha the Great who conquered and unified the Hawaiian island chain in 1795 and whose colorful statue dominates the sleepy main street.

"That flume's a fantastic piece of work," said Rob. "Unfortunately all the sugar plantations on the island have closed down recently couldn't compete with world prices. But Rodney Inaba's starting up kayak tours through these mountain tunnels so at least people will learn what an amazing project this was!"

Rob's enthusiasm for everything around him was contagious. "See those plants, . . ." he gushed. I peered into the riot of vegetation, " . . .They're true indigenous species." To me they seemed to be rather insignificant scrubby extrusions. "Almost everything else is 'exotic', imported species. Y'know they call Hawaii the 'endangered species capital of the world' there's so little of the original ecology left we have one of the highest rates of extinction in the world 75% of all US plant and bird extinctions have been Hawaiian, can you believe it? What's left though are some of the rarest ecosystems on earth the Galapagos are nothing compared to these islands!"

I was to hear that same sentiment many times in my travels here the ongoing battle between indigenous and exotic species. But the hike was still magnificent with sheening, spidery webs of waterfalls, and vistas through tumultuous forest in the valley far below once filled with taro farms when this part of the fertile northern tip was called "Kanuku na Kanaka" "the place where the people stand neck to neck."

Later in the day Rob and I stood on the soaring, windswept cliff tops looking back into Pololu and along the dramatic 12 mile-long series of forest-coated hanging valleys and threadlike falls tumbling hundreds of feet into surging surf on black rock beaches. "This is one of my secret places," he whispered conspiratorially, "When I bring people here I know they're going to take something meaningful home . . .I can see it in their faces . . ." In the far hazy distance I could see another valley that looked much larger than the intimate Pololu. "That's Waipi'o," said Rob, "You can get a horseback ride down there..quite an unusual experience if you're in a 'secret Shangri-La' mood . . . ."

And so there I sat the following day, bestride a stubborn and headstrong Palomino, deep in this amazingly verdant hidden valley surrounded by 1000 foot high cliffs. A mile wide and over six miles long, the valley floor can only be reached by walking or four-wheel drive vehicles down a 25% grade track. With the delicate silver threads of Hiilawe Falls in the background I was listening to the tales of my guide, Mike Shaw from Kohala NA'alapa Trail Rides, of the vast tribal groups that lived a life of rich abundance here for hundreds of years in this 'Cradle of Hawaiian Civilization'. Taro was and still is the main crop grown here a protein-rich root from which islanders make the ubiquitous gooey-gray poi (I've eaten just about everything on my odysseys around the world but this bland, glue- like dish eludes my obviously under-refined palate). Mike's word pictures of valley history were vivid: gory sacrificial deity rites to satiate the fears and beliefs of its over 50,000 residents on the black sand beach heiau altars; regular devastations by fifty-foot high tsunami tidal waves; more recent influxes of dozey-eyed, marijuana-farming, counter-culturalists, and backpacker bacchanals at the tiny $15 a night hostel run by Tom Araki, a wizened 88 year old Japanese gentleman who summed up the unique spirit of this entrancing place for me: "Y'got real mana here," (supernatural powers). "Not too many little places like this left nowadays. People need 'em . . .keeps their minds right . . . ."

Gleefully, over the ensuing days, I gave myself to the island and it gave itself back to me, in abundance. Alternating my nights between an elegant condominium resort, a ranch B&B, high mountain cabin, a high-rise Kona beach hotel, and even a spot of outback camping, I roamed widely, delving into Big Island's nooks and crannies, and met individuals of every ethnic and lifestyle group, each of whom added to my growing understanding of this amazing place. Four barely-teenager "retro-hippies" led me gleefully to hidden 'Green Lake' in an ancient crater on the wild Puna nude-bathing, whale-watching coast near Kapoho Bay, exclaiming in suspiciously-slurred speech "this island is 'it' man! We're staying . . . ." I took an evening stroll through the luxuriant stillness of Puna's magnificent Lava Tree State Park, full of towering ohi'as, huge umbrella-like monkeypods, and strange vertical tubular remnants of lava-encased trees. The same night, I joined clusters of older beaded and bearded "real" hippies at the funky Pahoa Lounge in Pahoa, yet one more time-warped, false-front town, to watch a crazy two-hour 'earth- odyssey, belly dancing extravaganza' produced by an energetic and enticing bunch of local lovelies. The air reeked with illicit aromas, and later on a hitchhiking hippie on his way to Hilo graciously offered me two gargantuan joints for his lift which, of course, I politely refused!

Early the next day, after a brief pause to sketch Hilo's 7:30 a.m. Suisan fish market (enormous tuna and mahimahi here), I explored the lush tropical gullies of the Onomea coast, much preferring nature's own tumult to the beautiful but self- conscious delights of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Then I took a half hour climb in welcome solitude up through bamboo-laced rainforest to the 420' high Akaka Falls before the tourists arrived, and enjoyed Kona coffee and home- baked fruit turnovers and cookies at Ishigo's 1910 general store in tiny Honomu as the coaches roared by.

Despite hire car restrictions, I soared up and over the notorious Saddle Road from Hilo on a brilliant morning past Mauna Kea's shining snowcapped slopes (radio warnings of snow-blindness on the summit!) , across surging lava flow seas, and down to the lush expanse of the vast and historic Parker ranchlands and amazing array of French Impressionist originals at the family's graceful homestead near the paniolo (cowboy) flavored town of Waimea. In a few brief hours, I'd moved through half a dozen climatic zones and once again sensed Big Island's enticing diversity.

You find the same diversity with the food too everything from Peter Merriman's imaginative 'New Hawaiian' cuisine, Edelweiss' genuine German offerings, Roy's, Sam Choy's and Sibu's oriental-influenced delights, cutting-edge creations at Mauna Lani's Canoehouse and the Fours Season's Pahu'a, to funky- style basics at Kona's Ocean View and Captain Cook's beloved Manago Hotel (see sidebar). A week is barely enough time to sample such riches and learn the deeper secrets of this multi-layered place. Try not to miss drives along the 'other- planet' Chain of Craters Road and the wild Kohala Mountain Highway to Waimea; a hike to Green Sand Beach (teeming with olivine crystals); the 'secret' 4 mile Ka-hau-a-Le'a Trail through rainforests to see the 700' high venting Pu'u'O'o the beating heart of the Kilauea volcano; and lazy days on the west coast's fabulous string of beaches, all of which are public. And even then you'll hardly have begun to discover the hidden delights here.

This weary malihini (newcomer) haole spent his last morning up in the old coffee community of Holualoa yet one more time-warp, clapboard and tin-roof village perched on a precarious hillside high above the resorts of Kona and reviving itself with art and craft stores. Here I chatted with retired Norma Julia from Maine on the stoop of Paul's general store. She was completing one of her delicate watercolors which she sold locally. "I go back to the mainland less and less," she told me. "Madame Pele's constant creativity keeps me here she gets deep inside you . . .you become part of the island . . . ."

I remembered a few lines of Rainer Maria Rilke:

"The inner what is it? If not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep within the winds of homecoming."

And here on Big Island, I felt I'd come home too . . . .

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