The sky was dark when we met at Kīkīaola Harbor on Kaua‘i’s west side, a pile of yellow, blue, green and red dry bags gathering on the dock as each member of our work party arrived at the rude hour of 5:00 a.m. We said our groggy hellos, sharing breath in the traditional Hawaiian greeting known as honi and with the more common pecks on the cheek. A sky full of diamonds sparkled overhead.
Two inflatable rafts captained by crew from Captain Andy’s motored up to the dock. They would carry our team and our gear an hour down the coast to Nu‘alolo Kai. There was no way our mound of colorful bags and line of hefty coolers would fit, along with 14 people, I thought, and yet Captains Matt and Junior were practiced at hauling Nā Pali Coast ‘Ohana around.
The ‘Ohana, a non-profit, serves as the caretakers of a remote valley on Kaua‘i’s north shore, accessible only by boat. Nu‘alolo Kai is part of 6,500-acre Nāpali Coast State Park, 15 miles of remote shoreline between Ke‘e and Polihale Beaches made up of narrow valleys sliced deep into sea cliffs by millennia of flowing freshwater streams. This is a wilderness park. There are no lifeguards. No park rangers. No electricity. No cellular. No Internet.
Archeological evidence shows humans occupied Nu‘alolo Kai for 800 continuous years, vacating in the early 20th century as a cash economy replaced a long-standing barter system. Keys to survival here were, no doubt, the rare fringing reef—600 feet off-shore at its farthest; a fresh-water well; a neighbor valley, Nu‘alolo ‘Āina, which served as the breadbasket; and coastal flats cupped on all sides by vertical cliff walls extending 500 to 1,500 feet, which provided a natural barrier from potential invaders. Except for goats. But we’ll get to that.
Outside Kīkīaola Harbor, a late-summer south swell rolled ashore, as evidenced by the splashing of waves that crashed over the harbor’s breakwater. Yesterday, dozens of trucks and cars parked alongside a desolate stretch of Kūhiō Highway where surfers knew to catch the perfect waves. Our Captain Junior was one. Waterman that he is, though, he decided it prudent to wait until the sky lightened, so he could actually see the waves and time our departure out of the narrow harbor mouth between wave sets. Good thinking, Captain.
Soon, the sun tickled the horizon, marking the start of a new day, and the sky turned from black to blue, similar to the color of the deepest parts of the ocean. About then, Captain Junior gave the green light, and we tumbled into the boats and set off, making a perfect departure.
An hour later, hardly wet from the splashing waves, I spotted the “X” in the cliff wall, and we had arrived at Nu‘alolo Kai.
A natural boat landing exists on the beach’s western end, thanks to a 25-foot-deep channel that splits the reef and runs ashore. It’s one of the only such landings along the entire Nāpali. That and a similar style in rock wall construction found on the neighboring island of Ni‘ihau suggest a close relationship between the peoples of Nu‘alolo and Ni‘ihau, perhaps even the entire Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, now known as Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Captains Junior and Mike moored our boats off-shore, and we formed a human chain in waist-deep water, passing yellow bag after blue bag after red bag after green. Bags filled with long pants, long-sleeved shirts, work boots, binoculars, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and hammocks. Coolers filled with fresh greens, tomatoes, okra, onions, garlic, ginger; a few dozen raw eggs; fruits of papaya, lemon, apples and star fruit; white and brown rice; chicken; sliced cheese; lunch meat; and bread. We wouldn’t go hungry on this trip; there would be no freeze-dried meals. And cameras, snorkel gear and ukuleles. Even Natalia’s picking pole.
Botanists Natalia and Mike from the National Tropical Botanical Garden joined us for the first two days of our five-day work trip. Their priority would be to survey the valley of native plants. Five others in our team would swim around Alapi‘i Point at the eastern end to climb ashore the surf-pummeled shore of the hanging valley next door— Nu‘alolo ‘Āina. Their objective—after landing and bushwhacking a mile into the valley—would be to map a few of the dozens of structures dotting the stream that striated this valley and watered the terraces of agricultural plants. The rest of us would pull any pesky castor plants that refused to go away; clean out the well, fill the water tank, water and weed the native plant “exclosure,” weed and clear around the grave sites in the coconut grove; and rake the walking path, trim overhanging noni branches, and clear that path of errant fruits of noni; make note of any wildlife using the beach, valley and cliff walls for resting, sunning and nesting. And, most important of all, enjoy nature, marvel at the beauty and wonder of Nu‘alolo Kai. And ask Sabra Kauka, educator and president of the ‘Ohana, dozens and dozens of questions about Hawaiian cultural practices, in general, and Nu‘alolo, in particular.
To be continued.