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MOLOKAI'S LUSH EAST END
On Moloka'i the sunrise first strikes the rocky headland of Mount Kamakou, which at just under 5,000 feet in elevation is the highest point on the island. The peak is high enough to catch a good amount of moisture from the trade winds, so the East End is the wetter part of the island. It's a steep landscape rich with vegetation and scattered with evidence of human history – weathered wooden houses a century old, churches older than that, and an abundance of stacked-stone structures created by the native Hawaiians untold hundreds of years ago.
World's Tallest Sea Cliffs
To begin at the end (end of the region's single road, that is) we find ourselves looking into one of Hawai'i's most expressive early places, Halawa Valley. To the left at the head of the greenery-choked valley is the white cascade of Mo'oula Falls, the most prominent part of a stream system that over time cut this deep valley and still delivers clean water through its valley floor and out to sea through its mouth at sinuous Halawa Bay. No road passes out of the valley. On the other side of the valley rise Moloka'i's north shore sea cliffs, the tallest in the world.
Halawa is the broadest, lushest, best-watered valley on the island, and the early Polynesian settlers saw that right away. Archeological evidence suggests that this valley might be the oldest settlement site in the Islands. Certainly people started living here sustainably, relying primarily on taro cultivation and fishing, at least 1,400 years ago. The hour-long hike from road's-end to the waterfall passes an amazing array of old stone house foundations and dozens of temple platforms (heiau).
By the mid-1940s, people had almost entirely given up living in this valley. The allure of modern lifestyles proved too seductive to the younger generations, and eventually the old-timers grew too feeble to work the taro patches. So for 40 years the jungle closed in, and the valley became an overgrown "ghost town."
Then something very refreshing happened – descendants of the resident native families began to return. Young Hawaiians began clearing junk trees and rebuilding the skillfully engineered taro irrigation systems. Today the Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike is returning traditional life and practices to the valley and offering guided instructional hikes to visitors who want to learn about the ancient ways.
One venerable man whom Halawa visitors are likely to meet is Uncle Pilipo Solatorio, a kumu in his 70s. He was raised in the valley but left when he was a restless teenager. "When I got sixteen, I wanted out of here," he says. But before he left his grandfather took him into the taro patch, barefooted, and said, "Do you feel the lepo popolo ['farm dirt,' formerly a derogatory term]? Remember your roots."
A lifetime of experiences in the outer world convinced Pilipo Solatorio to return to the culture in which he was raised. Thanks to this man and others like him, Halawa Valley has recently become a living classroom of rediscovery. Some of the lessons have to do with sustainable living in Hawai'i. Some have to do with the art of living no matter where you are.
Something similar is taking place at Pu'u o Hoku Ranch, which occupies 14,000 acres of pastureland just above Halawa Valley. In recent years the ranch has been acting vigorously on its commitment to organic agriculture and locally made products. Its large biodynamic farm continually yields an array of vegetables and herbs, which ranch employees box and sell both on site and in town an hour's drive from here. The farm also produces 'awa (kava kava), a medicinal plant that plays a significant role in traditional Hawaiian cultural practices.
The ranch headquarters includes a small store stocked not only with farm produce and fruit but also lots of Moloka'i-made items, including sea salt, lotions and oils, soap, kitchen ware, honey, and sweet-potato chips. Organically raised grass-fed beef is another ranch product.
Pu'u o Hoku includes three guest-stay structures, one of these being a handsome, sprawling lodge. This lodge accommodates up to 22 guests, who can take advantage of a vast central living/meeting room and a kitchen that would make any chef shout with excitement. Nearby are the Sunrise Cottage and the Grove Cottage, each a completely furnished small house. Altogether up to 34 people at a time can reside here.
This design, plus the region's natural beauty and solitude, makes the ranch ideal for retreats, conferences, and family reunions. It would be difficult to find any situation on earth better suited to serve as a beacon of healthy living and sustainable practices.
The sinuous two-lane road from here to central Moloka'i follows the south shoreline and offers many beautiful vistas. Directly east, Maui stands boldly on the other side of the Pailolo Channel. Just below, the rocky islet called Moku Ho'oniki serves in the winter months as a calving place for humpback whales. The dome-shaped island of Lana'i seems to float like a great boat in the offing to the south.
Small sandy coves gouge the shore along here with ample room for a few cars to park off the road. Snorkeling is excellent along this shoreline. The curve of white sand at Kumimi Beach is one of the most popular swim spots on the island (not that you're likely ever to see a crowd here).
Then, as you drive west, trees and foliage begin to separate the road from the shoreline, which joins the great reef system of Moloka'i's south shore. You begin to spot the amazing stone fishponds that arc into the placid sea, built by the Hawaiians of old. You can visit two small churches that were hand-built by Father (now Saint) Damien de Veuster during his ministry of the late 19th century. And you can stop for snacks and groceries at just one place—Mana'e Goods & Grinds, a roadside pull-off at the 16 Mile Marker.
Certainly you will notice from the evidence of abandoned structures that the East End of Moloka'i once supported many more people, and that these vanished residents must have understood and cherished its resources. Experiences in Halawa Valley and at Pu'u o Hoku Ranch point to a possible future for this part of Hawai'i as people return to wise practices of the old days.