Dear Reader. I am sorry. This episode is going to be long. Not because I recently re-opened the Arabian Nights. Not only. It is a long story for the overwhelming amount of things and changes that happened in the first hours and days of our adventure.
These are Travel Journals, not “Travel Back Cover Resume”, after all.
I will not mind if you skim over this episode (especially that I will know nothing about it). But if you like to read, you will find that each detail is an important part of the whole adventure.
Let’s get into the story…
Yes. That is how our journey started. With the news of a hurricane coming right our way.
After a good 5½-hour direct flight from Oakland, CA, we slowly start our descent, and, passing under the clouds, we start to see the beautiful dark red coast of Līhu’e, main city of Kaua’i island.
Turquoise and deep blue ocean, black lava rock, red soil, lush green landscapes… the paradise we see from our small window is enough to give our bodies a first adrenaline rush.
“- We’re here!!”
At the gate, we leave the A/C-ed plane to enter a new hot and humid environment. It is surprising at first, as we are used to cold and sterilized airports. Here, except for the ones between you and the tarmac, there are no windows, and you can feel and smell the wind.
“Welcome to the Garden Island” says the sign at the exit, and it really is how it feels.
We get our backpacks, and sit and wait for the bus that will bring us downtown. I am on the phone, checking my Couchsurfing messages, Tetyana is sewing, fixing my Tunisian fabric sandals.
My mind switches back to “planning mode” for a bit and reviews how the upcoming days will unfold, as if I need to remember and double-check:
- Day 1: get supplies and head to the North Shore, close to the trailhead. Sleep at Eli’s (CouchSurfer) ;
- Day 2, 3 & 4: hike the Kalalau trail. 11 miles one-way, strenuous, one of the 20 most dangerous hikes, but taking place in the middle of the untouched paradisiac nature named Nā Pali Coast. Camping ;
- Day 5 & 6: back to Līhu’e to get the rental car (would be silly to pay for the first four days while we will be hiking, and the car waiting on a parking lot), rest and explore the South Shore, while staying in Kōloa at Yvonne’s ;
- Day 7 & 8: Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park. Exploring the top of the island. Cool and humid conditions expected. Nothing but trails and nature. Camping ;
- Day 9: early packing, airport, fly to Big Island.
I pulled some hair off to make this itinerary, got lucky finding super late permits for Kalalau (they are very limited—60 permits per day, meaning 60 people per day authorized on the trail and campgrounds!— and usually get sold out up to a year in advance, found them 3 weeks before, a group probably cancelled, our luck), looking for hosts, messaging, finding activities…
Anyway! Let’s start our adventure!
Bad news come quickly. Eli, the guy who offered to host us for our first night on the island, has not replied yet and is unreachable. Phone in hand, I contact as many people as I can to find a last-minute shelter, as we ride the bus through the city.
We just have to make a quick stop at Walmart to get a can of isobutane for the camp stove, and we are supposed to head North, getting close to the Kalalau trailhead. Tomorrow, we will start hiking in supposedly the most beautiful landscapes we would have ever seen.
Well. Walmart is out of gas. That’s our luck. We hitch-hike our first ride to reach Kukui Grove, another commercial area with a K-Mart. Out of supplies too. Well. Third and last option is Sport Authority, where we finally find the providential cans. The woman at the register is also the kindest, and generously applies all kinds of discounts on our purchase. “That 20% coupon, that other one”… even splitting the receipts so that coupons can be applied multiple times. Karma.
We get a beer from the local store in Kukui Grove, slowly and happily sip it (“we’re here! It’s happening!”), and eat our sandwiches, waiting for the bus 70 to Hanalei. The names here are amazingly beautiful.
We hop on, and a few stops later, a couple of young people boards and sits in front of us. She looks like she is from mainland, he is probably local. They have an argue, and he moves across the alley, to the opposite window. Bad words probably. He opens a case, and pulls a ukulele out, starts singing and playing.
We reach Fruit Stand, our first stop. We need to hitch-hike the last three miles to get to Chanterelle, a kind person who accepted for us to leave a bag at her place, while hiking.
But things got more complicated on the way. Heavy rain started. Not-your-everyday-rain. Tropical rain. Long. Heavy. Intense. Soaking showers.
A car finally stops to pick us up. Inside, a couple from Bulgaria with two adorable kids, and here they start speaking Russian to Tetyana. It is our first day on the island, it is their last day of vacation. Karma again.
They drop us right is front of Chanterelle’s house and wish us good luck.
We walk and pass the gate to discover an amazing house, surrounded by beautiful gardens, fountain and sculptures.
We are greeted welcome, and start conversing while re-packing for the next days.
Mahalo (thank you) and we get back on the highway (the highway here is a single lane each way following the shore) to hitch-hike to reach the end of the road.
That is something we are not really used to: “the end of the road”. While the island makes an almost-perfect circle, the highway doesn’t make a loop around, but more like an mirrored C shape, or a U (depends how you look at it). And the part where there is no road is where we are going, of course.
On the map, look at the North-West part, where the green and the mountains connect with the Ocean. This is the Nā Pali Coast. No road there. So, we are heading to the top tip, where Ke’e Beach Park and the trailhead are. We will camp there, right in front of the trailhead. Starting early and before the heat-wave is a key to get through the Kalalau trail.
We get a ride with J-man. Jimmy, James… we didn’t quite understand his name. But he is a scientist, chemist, working on plant-based remedies for cancer. He is originally from New York, moved to Kaua’i about 20 years ago, and has not been able to leave since. He goes to Portland, Oregon quite often for work, tried to move back to mainland, but a force brought him back. He cannot explain it, he said, but he tried but hasn’t been able to move away.
We arrive in Hanalei, where our driver drops us off and wave before leaving. The beach and campsite are maybe 2 miles farther.
It is 5:55 p.m., we are hungry. We decide to make a stop and get to a coffee-shop-gallery just there.
It starts raining again. The coffee-shop is closing. No luck. It has a small covered patio, and we decide to sit there, waiting for the rain to stop.
The owner of the place is done cleaning and walks out to her car. She stops and looks at us.
“- Are you guys going to Kalalau?
– Yes! We are camping tonight in Ke’e and we’ll start hiking tomorrow.
– The trail’s closed I think. I saw a couple this morning who said they wanted to go but they came back and said it was closed.
– Oh… (silence. We look at each other, between confusion and denial). Ok. Thank you!
– And you also probably don’t want to camp tonight. It looks like it’s gonna keep raining for a while, and even with the best tents, you’re going to get completely soaked on the beach. It’s not gonna be pleasant”.
Heart starts to beat faster.
I take Tetyana’s phone and get online.
I read the message again, just to be sure.
I read it out loud, for my mind to confirm and let Tetyana know.
“- So, what now?”
My weeks of preparation and efforts to make this Kalalau adventure happening vanish in just a second. Snap. I feel empty.
We are hungry. It is pouring down.
We are stuck here. The Sun is setting down.
We decide to unpack some sweets. We need fuel to think straight and make new plans: wine, cheese, olives, and some goodies saved from the flight service.
I contact Chanterelle again, updating her on our situation and asking if we can spend the night at her house. She kindly agrees.
“- Let’s go there and sleep on it. We’ll check tomorrow and make new plans”.
We finish our wine and food, and get back on the main road. Other side, going back.
It’s still raining. And now pitch black. The night falls quickly here.
I unpack our headlamps and we use them to be seen and signal that we need a ride. The third car stops, under the rain.
“- Oh that’s good!”, he told us.
In the car, Michael, wedding photographer on Kaua’i#1. He just came back from a shooting near Ke’e. He is going back to Kapa’a, so we are on his way. We have a good talk, of everything and nothing, and arrive at our providential shelter for the night.
Outdoor shower (yes, it’s so nice here all year around that a lot of people have an outdoor shower. SO nice ), nighters.
New plans, back on tracks. Po’ipū.
Early wake up.
Coffee, toasts, journaling.
The State Parks’ website shows the same message. Trail closed. “Stay out, stay alive”.
Let’s make news plans. Get the car early, change the route.
A quick talk with our kind last-minute hosts, and we decide to get back on our way to Līhu’e. Chanterelle, who has to deliver some of her creations to a store (yes, she is a talented creator#2), gives us a ride to the bus stop.
Back on the bus, back in Līhu’e. We walk back to the airport to get the rental agency. On the road, we keep meeting unexpected feral animals: chickens.
These guys are strangely everywhere. The first one we saw was… right in front of the exit at the airport. Everywhere, even in front of the local KFC. Reckless chickens. We will find out where they all come from in the next days.
The rental company is super busy, but after an hour, we finally get a sweet and tiny Chevy, perfect for us.
We drive to get some groceries, but happen to discover a farmer’s market on the parking lot of Kiku’i Grove. Lot of super fresh, inexpensive fruits and veggies. First fresh coconut, with a really awesome and friendly local.
We pack some good food and drive down to Kōloa, to meet Yvonne. She has an awesome house on the heights, beautiful and comfortable, and a huge fruit garden.
We unpack, talk, news, weather, and drive down to Poi’pu beach.
First swim, first sunset. And one like we have need seen before.
Sunset time. Explosion of colors. Simply… amazing.
Back “home”, we chat and get the latest news from Yvonne: Kilo is lining up and should hit Kaua’i on Tuesday.
Behind that sweet name, a hurricane, which just got an upgrade from Tropical Depression to Class 1 Hurricane. High winds, rain and floods to be expected. Basically, a “don’t go outside”.
We decide to spend the next days around.
Nobody around. Exploring the National Tropical Botanical Garden and the remote Maha’ulepu Beach.
Up before sunrise, another day starts, and we need to make the most out of it!
We walk down to the garden to pick some fresh guavas and passion fruits.
With a couple of guest passes in hand, kindly offered by Yvonne, we drive to the National Tropical Botanical Garden. It is still raining, and there are not that many people around.
We wait in the car for the showers to calm, then get on the shuttle that will drive us into the park—Jurassic Park style. We follow the road, high up on the shore, looking down to the Ocean and an isolated beach, to get to an automatic gate that opens on a seemingly untouched piece of nature.
The park is empty, and we do not cross any living soul (animals excepted) for the two hours we spent wandering around, visiting.
Once of the good things is that this Botanical Garden is highly educational. Really. From the native plants to the aliens/invasives ones, the different historical phases of the Island… your learn a lot. But it also sometimes means being put in front of sad and shameful constatations:
On the shuttle out of the Garden, we take some time to call the Department of Land and Natural Ressources to see what can be done with our Kalalau Trail permit. After all, we paid $ 88 for it, not to be able to use ut since the trail was closed because of Kilo. We also booked a couple of nights to camp in Koke’e State Park, following the Kalalau. What we decide to do, and is validated and done by the DLNR agent, is to swap the two permits: let’s go to Koke’e tomorrow, and finish our trip in Kaua’i with the Kalalau. Hopefully, by then, the weather will allow the trail’s re-opening. The agents gives us the note that the re-opening is not certain, since purely based on concerns over hiker’s security (over the years, a lot of people died on the Kalalau. After all, this trail has been ranked as one of the 10 Most Dangerous Hikes#3 in the US, and one of The 20 Most Dangerous Hikes#4 in the world. Yup! Tetyana doesn’t really know that yet. We’ll get there later ), but agrees and changes our permits.
Shuttle back, then we get on a minute drive to the Spouting Horn, a natural curiosity.
Last—but not least—stop of the day: Maha’ulepu. This one is almost off the maps, and off the charts, and the route to get there is passed on by locals: “drive there, pass a hotel, make a right onto a dust road, look for a ranch, left at that fork…”.
We got lost but finally found other cars. We are high up on a cliff, and the way down to the beach is the same: “keep left here, walk down on the horse trail, not the foot trail, keep the cave on your left, pass the river…”.
After 20 minutes, we arrive on a pristine and empty beach. A surf spot for some, a walk in paradise for us. Currents are strong here, and, again, you need to know it, the best is after a long walk, behind what seems to be the end of the beach: a corner where the shores goes back in to make a bay.
Half sand on the left, half rocks on the other side. Amazing beauty. We drop our clothes and swim. Nobody around. A strong feeling of being alone in the whole world. We stay a bit, and the Sun goes down to close an unexpected but great third day. What a start.
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Michael Stickney: wedding photographer on Kaua’i, www.iloveyouphotography.com
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Chez Chanterelle: specializing in luxuriously soft bamboo and rayon jersey, and lace. www.chezchanterelle.com
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Kalalau Trail: The 20 Most Dangerous Hikes – Outside Magazine