A Weekend on Napali: Part Four

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A Weekend on Napali: Part Four

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Sep 14, 2011

(Continued from A Weekend on Nāpali: Part Three.)

Getting into the rhythm of Nu‘alolo Kai.

Mike & Natalia caught a late afternoon boat ride back to Kīkīaola and civilization with Captain Andy’s Raft Expeditions, one of three boat tour operators permitted to land at Nu‘alolo Kai and take their passengers on a guided tour through the valley, and that left me with time on my hands to do some real work.

The pre-trip email had said to pack work gloves and expect to put in a full day’s work. The invasive castor plant was the focus, it said, but I soon learned most castor plants had been yanked out so many times over the years that only a few stubborn ones still managed to send forth a shoot. The email also suggested we help in camp around mealtimes, but Yumi breezed through chopping onions and garlic, whipping up fresh scrambled eggs and, even, making soup over the camp stove with the grace and ease of a prima ballerina. Whenever I asked, “May I help with anything,” she’d shake her head and smile.

Micki, her husband Bill and I fell into a scrub-rinse-and-dry team around the wash station after each meal, but that certainly didn’t take all day.

Mel met the Captain Andy’s boat every day. He’d saunter down the quarter-mile path to the boat landing, pulling a wagon with three good wheels and one wobbler that relied on a single bolt to stay attached. Mel’s primary purpose in these forays was to trade out water jugs—giving them our empty ones in return for full ones—and to re-fill our ice chest. But, after a couple days, I discovered Mel was also scoring things like pineapple bars and ice-cold Diet Pepsi. Today, Captain Junior showed up with only five passengers on board, and Mel returned to camp with a plate piled high with kalua pork, teriyaki chicken and kaffir lime and lemon rice pilaf.

It wasn’t like we were going hungry. Or that we were eating freeze-dried food. Or processed. Oh, no. Yumi prepared three hot meals a day for us. At every meal, someone—usually Micki—asked for the recipe of, at least, one dish. I still want the recipe for Yumi’s salad dressing.

What was quite apparent at Nu‘alolo Kai—where there was no kitchen sink, no refrigerator, no oven and no ice maker—was that no matter where in the world you go. No matter how “civilized” with modern conveniences or not. It all comes down to food. Food is the common denominator. Everybody loves food.

One of Mel’s other duties was to fill the water tank. It was a responsibility that Mel had taken on himself. And after a couple days with Nā Pali Coast ‘Ohana, I started to discover the rhythm of the place. There was no printed check list. No team meeting every morning with assignments doled out.  You just sort of figured out what needed doing and did it.

Take Cheryl. She’s a retired teacher and appointed herself the inglorious duty of cleaning the composting toilet. I suppose the old saying that someone has to do it is true, but let me say that everyone else was ecstatically grateful to Cheryl for her efforts. She also made sure there was a full bottle of antibacterial hand soap inside the composting toilet. I don’t consider myself a germ-o-phobe, but I made sure to squeeze out a dab whenever I used the facilities.

So, I watched as Mel skimmed the freshwater well of its mossy cover. He told me how they had to cut down the nearby coconut palm trees, because they were sucking up all the water and leaving the well dry. He pointed out the kalo, taro, growing at the edges of the rock-lined lo‘i which suggests that the Hawaiians who originally planted the kalo here probably used its leaf for ceremonial purposes. He told me about the impressive, five-tiered rock structure, behind the well. How he’d witnessed its destruction from goats. Sabra told me later that they feel it was used for performance purposes and hopes one day, after it’s re-built, to conduct hula ceremonies there again. I thought about the valley’s natural amphitheater-like shape. How the sounds of helicopter’s rotors and boats’ motors—even PA systems—echoed through the valley. I imagined Sabra chanting, an acolyte drumming, feet pounding and voices singing in dance, and my skin horripilated in what we call a “chicken-skin moment.”

Mel hooked up the gas-powered pump to divert water from the well to the tank. From there, gravity took over and water flowed to native plants in a fenced nursery through an irrigation system.

The nursery “exclosure,” as it’s called, sat at the edge of the noni grove in the middle of a field of guinea grass. Tree stumps of ha‘ole koa were covered with black plastic. A few noni trees were pulled to make room for a test crop of natives, like pili grass, wauke, lonomea, naio, alahe‘e, ‘iliahi and ‘uala. Or, by their common English names: grass, paper mulberry, bastard sandalwood, Psydrax, sandalwood and sweet potato. If these survived, the plan called for more to be out-planted once the goats were completely eradicated.

Inside, I helped Cheryl clean the emitters on the drip line.

It may have been Labor Day weekend and the official close of summer elsewhere, but the sun in Hawaii didn’t know that. The sky was clear. The heat intense. “Too hot to weed,” Cheryl announced. Sabra said to wait for morning before the sun crested the ridge just over the right arm of the “x” on the wall.

Now, what?

Walking back to camp, I watched two white-tailed tropicbirds fly along the cliffside. One flew over ridge into Nu‘alolo ‘Āina. The other circled and circled and circled, trying to land in a nook high on the cliff wall, probably returning from sea to feed a chick.

“It’s half-past nap time,” Mel announced when I arrived at camp. Apparently, naps are a requirement in Nu‘alolo Kai, and I didn’t argue. I crawled into a hammock strung beachside between two shady trees.

But I am not much of a napper, and so I could only manage maybe 20 minutes of shuteye. In a dream-like state brought on by the warmth of the afternoon, the sway of my hammock and the distinctly slow pace of life here along Nāpali, I opened my eyes to see layers of blue—baby blue sky creasing the horizon, navy blue deep water far off-shore, a ribbon of white where the surf broke over the reef and turquoise blue inside the lagoon. Now, this is some kind of work trip, I thought.

I watched squadrons of black noddies fly east, skimming the surf break, flap-flap-flapping their wings and heading to nest sites in the sea caves along Nāpali Coast.

I scanned the rocky shoreline that lead to Alapi‘i Point. A 35-foot ladder once hung there and lead to the hanging valley next door, called Nu‘alolo ‘Āina, where our archeological team mapped ancient sites, and I was pretty sure weren’t taking mid-day naps.

The tail fin of a reef fish—uhu, parrotfish—broke the surface of the water. I’ve always been told that’s a good sign of a healthy reef.

Something glinted in the sun, catching my attention. I focused my eyes and mind on a rock at the water’s edge. If I squinted just right, it looked like the shape of Hawaiian monk seal. Maybe. Maybe not. But I’d better investigate.

And that’s how I determined a role for myself at Nu‘alolo Kai--as wildlife monitor, assessor, recorder. As you know from reading this blog, I perform this task elsewhere around the island for a variety of non-profits and organizations. Naturalist, you might call me. Yes, I could do that.

The glinting rock, indeed, turned out to be a Hawaiian monk seal, a pup born this past May to a female known to scientists as K30. With propeller and entanglement scars and an enormous shark bite wound to her side, K30 is the poster child of threats to Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands. Her son, though, looked healthy and sported a clean, unmarred coat. The next day, a different, untagged, male hauled out.

A retired schoolteacher friend of mine and member of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui told me that he’s talked story with any manner of old fishermen and the oldest remembered sighting of a Hawaiian monk seal dates back to the 1940s at this very beach— Nu‘alolo Kai.

Apparently, it’s an important beach for honu, too. I spotted at least one Green sea turtle each day, and I heard reports of 40 on other ‘Ohana work trips. My bet is the fresh water mixing with the ocean here grows the kind of limu that must be the chocolate of the sea turtle world.

Nu‘alolo Kai is an important habitat for all kinds of native and endangered wildlife.

Evening  came on. I went for a swim at the boat landing, spotted an eel resting in a rocky crevice by the ingress and egress to the water. Then, I rinsed off under a hot water sun shower.

The sun dropped and the light turned artistic, painting the cliff walls. Those cliff walls. They got me every time. The more I looked, the more I saw. Ledges. Caves. Faces. Then, I saw something scurrying. Those darn Erckel’s francolins. They were everywhere.

This brownish game bird was introduced to Hawaii in 1957 and is as prolific to Nu‘alolo Kai as chickens are to my yard in Anahola. They graze along the ground and fly in short bursts much like a chicken. At night, they switch-backed up the cliffs to roost on high—and I do mean high. Its call sounds like a dry laugh that slows on the end.

I joined our group on the beach to watch the sun set. Mel suggested the rocks along the western point, Makua‘iki, reminded him of a lion’s profile. I saw a gorilla's profile. Micki saw a woman's fine and delicate face.

A pueo, Hawaiian owl, worked the beach line; we hoped for the field mice that danced around our feet at camp.

The sun set but nobody moved. Within a few minutes, the sun, now below our line of sight, threw off pointy streaks of mango-colored light into our visible skyline. For a full twenty minutes after sunset, the sky continued to saturate with color. I’ve always thought Hawaii sunsets are prettier long after the actual sunset.

Someone made a move for camp and Yumi presented us with coconut chicken long rice, a green salad of arugula, tomatoes, avocado, green onions, garlic and ginger with her famous sesame salad dressing, and hapa rice. After dinner, Sabra played ukulele and Yumi danced hula.

And, then, long after the sun set. After all color had evaporated from the sky. It happened. I never did see them. I wasn’t able to confidently identify the one possible predated specimen we’d discovered on our botanical foray. That one may have been an ‘a‘o. But it could have also been the more common ‘ua‘u kani.

I’m talking about shearwaters here. In particular, the endangered Newell’s shearwater. I’ve heard them scratching around their burrows at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve seen them flying at sea earlier this summer when I helped with the odontocete research. I’ve even performed necropsies on dead ones. But I have only heard a pair one other time, briefly, during a night survey at Kīlauea Point. This was a full-on symphony. That is, if you can compare the hyperventilating-like-chimpanzee-pant-hooting call of a Newell’s shearwater to a musical performance. But it did reverberate off the amphitheater cliff walls every single evening after sunset and every single morning before sunrise.

Why is it one species of animals speak to you more so than others? Why one dog in a long line of pets touches your heart in a deeper way than all the others? Hedyotis st. johnni made Mike’s face split into a grin when he spotted it on the cliff wall. For me, the ‘a‘o is my Hedyotis st. johnni.


To learn more about the ‘a‘o, Newell’s shearwater, I invite you to read my feature story on this black-and-white seabird with a colorful story.

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