We’re back in Hawaii for our annual escape-the-winter sojourn, and we returned today to one of our regular stops on our “ferry around our visitors” circuit.
One of the iconic images of the Big Island is the overlook at Waipi’o Valley (the name means “curved water”) near the northern end of the island. You’ve seen it on any number of postcards, and here’s how it looked today.
Those cliffs across the way rise to 2000′ (600 m) above the valley floor and its black sand beach; you can hike the ridiculously steep road down to the bottom but unless you’re a fitness freak or a masochist you will hitchhike back to the top. (In my salad days, 35 years ago, I walked that road up and down a number of times. Not the craziest thing I’ve ever done but it’s definitely on the list.) More about the road shortly.
Waipi’o was the capital and residence of many of the early Hawaiian chiefs for the first few centuries after the islands were settled from Polynesia. It became less central in the 15th century but has always been an important farming area for the locals: avocado, guava, and most importantly taro. Here’s a taro farm in the valley.
When I lived in on the island in the early 1980’s there were — and still are — only a few dozen residents in the valley, almost all living without electricity. At the time you could divide most of them into three categories: farmers (mostly taro), marijuana growers (the Hawaiian word is pakololo), and crazy-eyed Vietnam veterans retreating from the world. There aren’t any Vietnam veterans left, but the taro farmers are going great guns; I don’t know about the pakololo growers. (Hawaii has a medical marijuana law.) But farming can be a risky business: although the valley is ridiculously fertile, a tsunami sends a (literal) wave of ocean (i.e. salt) water up along the length, essentially poisoning the soil for ten years at a time. This has happened in 1946 and 1960.
There is also a lot more tourism into the valley than there was 35 years ago; there are a couple of companies operating four wheel drive tours of the place, which is how we got down here today. That is far and away the best way to see it, since half the land is private and the road down is a recipe for disaster for the inexperienced 4WD driver. Take a look at this picture from the valley floor, looking up towards the hillside:
Look at that seeming slash in the hillside, pointing to the upper left from about one-quarter of the way up the middle palm tree. That’s the road, the steepest public road in the United States. It has an average grade of 25%, and the steepest part is 33%. From inside a vehicle, a 33% downhill grade looks like you’re driving straight down a cliff, which you more or less are. The road is only about 1 1/2 vehicles wide, very poorly paved, and sporting a guardrail that is best described as decorative. Uphill vehicles have the right of way, and an elaborate vehicular minuet ensues when a descending vehicle meets an ascending one. The real fun happens — and we actually saw this — when a naive first-timer in a rented Jeep gets halfway down the road, realizes belatedly that he has bitten off way more than he can chew…. and tries do to a U-turn to get back up. That is to say, he tries to turn around on a road whose width is more or less equal to the length of his vehicle, with a vertical wall on one side and 500 foot drop on the other, waiting for him to make a mistake.
We, happily, made it to the bottom without incident thanks to our very experienced tour guide, and we repeatedly forded the Wailoa river as we made our way towards the back of the valley. Here are a couple of scenes for context.
The tree in the upper photo is a monkeypod, which is actually of African origin. But see the waterfall in the distance at the far left of the panorama? Here’s a better view:
That is Hiilawe Falls, at about 1200 ft (350 m) the tallest waterfall in the state of Hawaii. (There is some dispute about its height, with some claiming something like 1500 feet.) The flow used to be bigger but has been reduced due to some upstream irrigation.
If you’re inclined to rough it, you could live pretty well and far off the grid down here. The Wailoa river has fish — in particular tilapia, which are not native to Hawaii but which escaped into the wild and are now plentiful. There are a number of underground springs providing fresh water, though you’d have to know which ones are infected with leptospirosis, which is a bacterium found in infected animal urine. And of course there is an abundance of fruit and taro. So your daily routine would involve scenes like the ones above and this one.
It’s all very idyllic-seeming, and back in the 1980’s I actually knew a pair of biologists (graduate students) who lived here, and whom I occasionally stayed with. They loved it down there, occasionally venturing up the cliff side into town in a rusted-out 1961 Jeep that didn’t have a second gear. When they left the island to finish their degrees they sold me the Jeep. A year or two later when I left the island, I in turn sold it to a local stoner who was altogether unsure what day of the week it was but was quite certain that it would serve him well in his own pakololo-related adventures. He offered to trade a kilo of local weed for it, which was more than fair, but I took $300 in cash instead and avoided eventual arrest.