The Trail of the Queen, spiritual and swampy hike, high in “one of the wettest spots on Earth.”Koke’e State Park.
Sometimes you can get a bit wet, hiking in the rain. Then you can get wet, hiking in the rain, in one of the wettest places on the planet. How does it feel? Like getting into a lukewarm bathtub, fully dressed, shoes, and backpack on. Literally. Even with waterproof layers, you drip down inside/under. Drenched. Pants like you’ve swam in the Ocean wearing them.
But hey, when you are three hours from the trailhead, AND in the open nature (with nowhere to hide), AND crossing a swamp on top of a tropical island… your options are pretty slim. Basically, a “— you’ve made it so far, just keep going…”
Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park
Day 4 on Kaua’i.
Another good night at Yvonne’s. Breakfast with toasts, coffee, and fresh mangos and fruits from the garden.
Everything is so green and offering so much. I start to truly understand the island’s given name, Garden Island, and the different stories we heard of people “trapped” here. I would easily—and gladly—fall into a such a destiny, forced to spend the rest of my life here.
We pack the car, and say bye our host, as adventures lay ahead and we have no plan to come back. Driving to the West. Sun and clear skies, then heavy rain and nightfall for five minutes, then clear skies again. So tropical.
We cross a lot of smaller cities and villages, and the more we drive, the more everything seems to get a bit more rustic, simpler.
We stop just before the fork where the road starts climbing up to Koke’e. Lunch time! Looking at the Ocean, and now being good judge of where the water is safe, I declare that we should not even touch the sand. We sit on the rocks near the sand and start eating, until, minutes later, a single giant wave that appeared from nowhere washes us. Even though we were like 60 feet away from where the waves died on the beach, this single one came out of nowhere with an unpredictable strength, and may have swallowed us if we had been sitting on the sand.
We retreat closer to the road.
When everything is kind of dry, we get back in the car and start driving up. Again, from clear skies to heavy strong showers in three minutes. We stop on the shoulder, forced by the weather. No way to keep going, even at very slow speed. Zero visibility.
A wall of water in front of us, and so dense that, like in the cartoons, you keep looking, hoping to see a fish swimming in there.
Minutes later, we start climbing again to the Waimea Canyon Viewpoint, at 3,400 ft. alt. The rain stopped, we feel lucky to be able to step out and walk a bit. The view there is fantastically… clogged . But I still love seeing this couple on the back with a selfie-stick. No matter what!
We keep driving up to the entrance of the park, and head to the Ranger’s Office. Maps, trails, weather forecast… we look at it all, especially that we discover that there is no cellular reception up here. Better know everything before going forward!
Lots of easy trails, too easy for us ( ^^ ), some others might be inaccessible (“— After all that rain and wind, if you go there, you need to have a chainsaw with you. Otherwise you might get stuck. — Uh, OK!”). We agree on the Alaka’i Swamp Trail. After the rain, going to a swamp seems like a good idea, right?
One last trail on the board puts my mind to boiling point: one that goes down to Kalalau Valley, walking down a ridge (you will see what the Valley looks like a bit later). Too dangerous, it has been closed. And put off the most recent maps. But the description is still there on the black board, and some say it is still practical and used by locals.
We drive a bit more up to the campsite and pick our spot. #4. Because we spotted a hen and her four little ones walking by at the same moment. And it was cute. We make thoughtful decisions.
We bring the tent out and I start unpacking it. I have pitched many tents in my years, enough to feel confident and not to feel the need to check the manual before leaving the house. I start setting up: ground cover, inside room, weatherproof cover, and it’s time to anchor the pegs. Then, time to slide the poles in… but after trying all the configurations that crossed my mind (in ×, parallel, front-back, side-side…), I resign myself thinking that there might be a part missing. Or there are the poles from another tent.
So with a half-down tent up, we get back on the car to explore further up.
It’s foggy, and our first stop at the Kalalau Viewpoint, 4,000 ft. high, doesn’t give us much. We can feel the vastness and emptiness in front of us… but that’s pretty much it.
We drive to the dead-end of the road and second viewpoint, Pu’u o Kila, and it’s a different story there.
A trail leaves from the viewpoint, going North, bringing us in front of a wooden sign:
“Wai’Ale’Ale, one of the wettest spots on Earth. Elev 5,140ft”
We pass it and hike downhill, following the ridge along the cliff, to find, about twenty minutes later, the perfect spot to watch the Sun go down.
Speechless. Except for one magical sentence: “— we’ll be down there (pointing at the trail that we imagine running along the shore, 5,000 ft below) in two days.”
(oh, and remember the dangerous trail? Look again at the previous pictures and try to imagine a trail that goes down from up to the bottom of the Valley. It all looks so sharp and vertical… From up here, the Valley is around 4,000 ft below).
The Sun finishes its course under the horizon, setting the clouds ablaze for an instant, before putting this part of the World at a peaceful rest. Everything gets quiet, still.
We walk back to the trailhead, and say “goodbye” for tonight, and “thank you.” It was incredible.
Back to the camp with the fall of the night, freezing river-water shower under the beams of our headlamps, dinner under the stars, night under a collapsing tent.
I know romance.
“The trail of the Queen”: Alaka’i Swamp Trail
I read out loud what the Lonely Planet says about the trail.
“[…] This is a spiritual place: Queen Emma was said to have been so moved by tales from the Alaka’i that she ventured there, only to chant in reverence during the sojourn.”
The coffee is brewing at the bottom of the cups, the oatmeal is getting ready. A good breakfast at dawn, before heading again to Pu’u o Kila, the dead-end of the road, and trailhead.
Because of the bad weather of the last days (remember, there was a hurricane coming our way. Wait, what?! You haven’t read Episode 1?), there is nobody around. Just one car up here, but from a family who seems to be coming only for a quick view. We start hiking downhill again, following the ridge, along the cliff, like yesterday. Our breaths, footsteps, the wind in the trees, and several birds. Nothing else comes to our ears. Peaceful. The terrain changes often in the first part of the trail. Sometimes climbing up an almost vertical wall, or going down like lizards, or jumping around giant mud puddles. We walk at a good pace, carefully trying to avoid getting soaked and dirty. It is just the beginning, let’s wait to get to the swamp for that.
After following the cliff, we reach a junction and take a right, going down inland, in a completely different decor. From the mostly bare wood-patched cliff, we dive into a green, moist, giant jungle. You walk here on a grid-metal pathway, a foot above the ground, giving you the feeling of flying through the place. Not steeping onto the ground makes this land feel even more special, sacred. Not disturbing anything.
We have hiked for almost two hours, and haven’t seen a single human since.
We reach another junction. Ahead, back to another trailhead. On the left, the way to the swamp, and the trail plunges down into a valley. Left we go. The lengthy metal pathway turns into short and steep metal steps, forming sinuous stairs disappearing down below. It all feels giant, magical… mystical.
We finally get to a river. There is some current, but some rocks are big enough for you to walk on them and cross over the water. And… we go back up, climbing the other side of the valley.
Minutes later, almost suddenly, the giant jungle stops, and the climb turns into a perfectly flat terrain, as far as eye can see.
A different yet powerful feeling of spirituality surrounds this place. The jungle was warm, and so full of green and life that it sometimes almost felt oppressing.
Up here, the view is open, the wind brushes you, and except for our breaths, it seems that there is no sound to be heard. All is still. I could drop my backpack, find a good posture on the pathway over the water of the swamp, and rest and meditate. But not this time. The rain joins us, slowly at first, then, the rain we know. Heavy. Showers.
We take our emergency ponchos out of the bags and put them on. But the rain is so strong that after 10 minutes, I feel as if I had no pants on. My legs are soaked, and the water is directly running down into my shoes. Raining so hard that, also, the water doesn’t really have enough time to run down, and a lot of it infiltrates up under the poncho.
“— Sunshine! Oh pretty Sunshine! Oh little pretty Sunshine!! Where are you?!…”
Tanya improvises a song, trying to call the Spirits of the Swamp for a little lull.
We finally meet two human souls (three hours after we started hiking), up here in the middle of nowhere.
“Me: Hi! Did you make it to the end? Is it still far?
(they look at each other)
Him: It’s maybe half-mile, a little more than that?
Her: It’s worth it, I promise.
Soaked as we already are, and being in the middle of this nowhere, we decide to keep pushing forward.
Even though the path is flat here, it is not necessarily easier than before. We are in a swamp. Over a swamp, I should say, as we are still crossing by waking on metal-grid platforms laid over the water. But the wooden structures that hold the path collapsed or got damaged by the water in some places, and, as a result, part of the trail is underwater or hanging loose over it, calling for prudence as the panels sometimes go down in the water when you step on them, and other times calling for long deer jumps over the water, where the trail totally vanished.
We finally reach the end of the trail, the lookout. The path goes down a couple of steps below the end of the swamp, and just hangs there, on the edge of the cliff.
And here, the view is amazing…ly white. We find a makeshift shelter under a couple of branches hanging over us, protecting a bit from the pouring rain.
We unpack our lunch-salads, and start eating. A nervous — but good — laugh comes out. This has been quite a journey, and here we are, soaked to the bones, still under the pouring rain, in front of a wall of white clouds. But one says it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey. And this journey has been amazing. We laugh really hard, happy to be here, just the two of us at the edge of the World.
She starts feeling cold from the rain and the wind. We take the pocket flask out of the backpack, and start drinking down the whiskey we put in there. I smile, remembering telling her, still at home in California, that we should pack one, that it’s not about drinking for drinking, but a flask like that always comes handy to save you. And it did indeed.
Reinvigorated by the break, the lunch, and the drink, we start the way back under the raindrops, after saying goodbye to good Kilohana Lookout.
The journey back sees a bit less rain, but it has poured so much that the dust trail has sometimes turned in a mud river, that the river we crossed seems to be now a raging and torrential stream (thankfully not a “stay away, stay alive” one, but still).
Getting back at the car, then at the camping. We decide to cut short our stay here. The night will be spent at Yvonne’s. Not much about camping, because it is amazingly beautiful up here, but because the trail of the trip, THE ONE, is happening tomorrow, and we need to dry, get our gear dry, and get some good rest to be ready for it. And, writing after all of this being over, this was the best decision we could have made. Something huge was coming.