Posts Tagged With: tsunami

Down in the Valley, Big Island Style

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.

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Zipline-y Doo Dah….

Ziplines have become quite the fad in the last 15 years or so, which postdates the era that I lived on the Big Island. But the local tourism industry has caught up, of course, so Hawaii ziplining is now a thing. Which I suppose is good, since (a) it’s relatively eco-friendly and (b) heaven knows there are enough scenic venues here that are worth looking at whilst suspended on a steel cable. We became zipline aficionados a number of years ago in Costa Rica — which is where the whole thing started — and so of course we were not about to miss out here.

Our choice of zipline operator was Skyline Eco-Adventures, whom I can highly recommend. (Just click on their name to get their website.) Their big selling point was the fact that they operate near Akaka Falls, a tremendously scenic venue that I wrote about in an earlier post. Their outing takes you down seven ziplines of increasing length and height. You know the drill. First you get all suited up in a harness and helmet and pulleys and such, like Alice here:

Zipline Akaka-010

…and then they have you run off a ramp into the waiting jungle canopy. Here’s Alice again, sliding off into the distance, and waving cheerily to avoid looking down.

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This all leads up to the grand finale, which is a 3350 ft (1 km) cable that crosses the Kolekole river over Akaka Iki Falls — Akaka Falls’ little brother, a 250 ft (76 m) cataract — at a height of 250 ft (still 76 m) above the top of the cascade. For those of you keeping score, that’s 500 ft (152 m) above the riverbed. And here is what that looks like:

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The yellow-clad optimist at upper left is our friend Cindi, who with her husband John visited us for five days last week as our sojourn here began to wind down. What you cannot tell from the above photo is that she is moving at close to 40 mph (55 kph). You can also not hear her screaming. I promise you that this particular experience was every bit the adrenaline rush that you would expect it to be.

At the end of the line (literally) our refreshments consisted of apple bananas — the little tiny super-flavorful ones that grow here — plus fresh cut sugar cane. You can’t eat raw cane (it’s got the consistency of wet bamboo), so you chew it. This is a surprisingly refreshing thing to do: crushing the cane stalk with your molars releases the sugar-laden liquid, sweet and wonderful in your mouth.

We drove away from the experience chattering like lunatics as our adrenaline levels slowly retreated to normal, then drove back to Akaka Falls itself, which Cindi and John had not yet seen. The path was a lot more crowded than the last time we were here, a week or so ago. One reason for that is that weather was better this time; another was the presence of a bus full of schoolkids visiting from Oahu.

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They were all wearing the blue teeshirts that you see in the photo, which show a silhouette of the battleship Arizona and the words “Always Remember the 7th of December 1941”. I have no idea what the children actually know about that particular event, nor why they were wearing those teeshirts in March; more interestingly, I also have no idea what the many Japanese tourists on the footpath thought about it.

It was still early enough in the afternoon for us to make one more stop on the Hamakua coastline as we headed back to Kona, so went to Laupahoehoe Beach Park. Laupahoehoe is known for one important thing besides being difficult to pronounce by tourists, and that is a particularly tragic tsunami.

The town sat right on the coast, and the wave hit on April 1, 1946. Many buildings were destroyed, but the one that was hit hardest and suffered the largest loss of life was, of all things, a schoolhouse. 24 people were killed, most of them children, and this sad memorial marks the spot. As you can see from the list of names, whole families of siblings were obliterated.

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People still come and decorate it with flowers, seashells, and memorabilia.

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The town itself is no longer on the coast, having relocated to higher ground up the steep hillside above the highway. The coastal area is now a popular beach park where people come to camp, fish, and goggle at the wild surf. Even without a tsunami, the waves and lava rocks at this place are violent and stunning to behold.

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Hmmm. Seems like a bit of a downer to end this post on, especially as it is likely to be the last on this trip until we get home and post a link to the collected photos and videos in a couple of weeks; we overnight in Honolulu tomorrow, then head back to the mainland and home the day after. We’ve been gone for 5 1/2 weeks, our longest trip yet, and this stay has been such a success that we are planning on returning next year to the same house. As motivation to do so, the Big Island continues to taunt us with spectacular sunsets that we can watch every night from our lanai, the open patio at the back of our rented house. I’ll close with one from ten miles up the coast, taken a few days ago.

Kohala sunset-001

Aloha! Next stop: Japan in seven months!

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Hello, Hilo

Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island (despite a population of less than 50,000)  has something of a rustic and even slightly downscale reputation, probably not helped by the 150″ (3.8 m) of rain that it can get in a particularly wet year (and I witnessed one of those). But I’ve always loved it, for many reasons: for one, I lived here for three years, decades ago, and my first child was born here. But my emotional resonance with the place notwithstanding, Hilo is one of the most authentic places that you can visit in Hawaii, insofar as its daily life and commerce center on its residents rather than on a flow of tourists, which are relatively few compared to Kona or any of the other islands.

Hilo sits in the crook of U-shaped Hilo Bay, a geographical feature whose shape contributed to tragedy. In May of 1960, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile roared into the bay, whose shape essentially focused the wave onto the downtown waterfront; 61 people died. Today, a seawall extends about halfway across the mouth of Hilo Bay in the hope of diminishing that focusing effect should another tsunami strike someday. The downtown waterfront has long since been rebuilt; it’s only a few blocks long but pleasantly situated directly adjacent to a park and of course looking out over the palm-lined bay itself. Adding to the scene are some pretty good restaurants and a lot of local artisan shops that on average are superior to what you’ll find in Kona, probably because they feature real local artworks instead of an endless selection of plastic leis and coconut-shell bras for your next at-home production of “South Pacific”. (You can find that stuff here too, of course; but in Kona it sometimes seems that that’s most of what you find.)

We got lucky with Hilo’s weather yesterday, it being sunny and beautiful. So after having lunch at a waterside restaurant with some old friends, we walked around Liliuokalani Gardens, a 30-acre waterfront garden and park established by the eponymous queen in about 1900. It’s a serene place to walk, Japanese-themed with arched bridges, pagoda-shaped shrines, and koi ponds, but unmistakably Hawaiian nonetheless, dotted with enormous monkeypod and banyan trees.

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Queen Liliuokalani, by the way, was the last monarch of Hawaii as well as the author of the most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created: Aloha Oe. You have heard it a hundred times, but in case the title is unfamiliar to you this should refresh your memory:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjZyZ8IuSzw.  (And if, when you read the words “most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created”, your first thought was “Tiny Bubbles” sung by Don Ho, please go back to drinking your mai tai.) Her portrayal in popular culture has been rather “Disney princess-ized” over the decades, depicted as your classic willowy and almost-Caucasian beauty. She was in fact very Polynesian in appearance — dark skin, broad nose — and as an adult somewhat resembled her contemporary, Queen Victoria. She was also very responsive to her subjects, moving by popular will to abrogate the so-called Bayonet Constitution that had essentially been forced upon the islands by the sugar barons. She renounced it in 1891, proposed a more Hawaii-centric alternative, and was promptly invaded and deposed by the U.S. That, gentle reader, is why Hawaii is a state today, and you should not imagine for one moment that there aren’t still people here who are pissed off about it.

About 10 miles north of Hilo is the largest and most impressive tropical botanical garden  on the island, the unimaginatively if accurately named Tropical Botanical Garden in the microscopic town of Papaikou. The parking lot and entry point of the garden is just off the coast highway, on the scenic northeasterly-facing Hamakua coast of the Big Island. But the walkway through the gardens takes you a steep 200′ (60 m) or so down the hillside to the roiling coast, passing waterfalls, palm-shaded gardens of orchids, anthuriums (or is it anthuria?), ginger, and a lot of everything else along the way.

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At the bottom you end up at a dramatic ocean overlook where swimming would be a decidedly bad idea.

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The (literal) downside, of course is that having walked steeply downhill to get here, you get to walk steeply uphill back. And since this is a rain forest, you get to enjoy the 120% humidity while you do so. Still, it was worth it.

The Hamakua coast road was for many years (and the whole time I lived here, ages ago) the best practical way to drive between Kona and Hilo, taking about 2 1/2  hours. There was also the so-called Saddle Road, which cuts straight across the island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, but it was a grueling drive: a narrow, poorly-maintained road with more twists and turns than a bad soap opera. But that all changed in the 1990’s when the road was regraded, repaved, and straightened, and that more direct route now shaves about a half hour off the trip. It’s an unusual drive, starting in lush, humid Hilo, climbing up to 6600′ (2000 m) elevation where the terrain is all lava fields, the air is dry, and the temperature about 20F (11 C) cooler than sea level, and then descending again to the dry Kona coast. When you make that drive, as we did, you pass through a layer of clouds that gives you a good chance of getting rained on, after which the emerging sun will grace you with a rainbow. The Big Island has a couple of nicknames, the Orchid Isle being one and the Rainbow Isle another, both for very good reason. So here was our rainbow, an impressive double-decker with nearly a full 180 degree arc.

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At the midpoint of the saddle, if you are above the inversion layer (read: clouds) you get striking clear views of the two 14,000′ (4300 m) peaks that dominate the island: Mauna Kea (“White Mountain”) and Mauna Loa (“Long Mountain”). Mauna Kea is the premier astronomy site in the world and hosts about a dozen major observatories to prove it, a couple of which you can see from the road:

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I have spent approximately 200 nights atop Mauna Kea, using those telescopes. It was an exciting and wonderful time in my life. Plus, the loss of countless brain cells as a result of breathing the thin air for so long at that altitude is a great excuse for my personality, though only for those who didn’t know me before that.

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