Kalaupapa National Historical Park
An introduction to the very remote Kalaupapa National
Historic Park on the island of Molokai in Hawaii.
Like a Gettysburg battlefield or an Anasazi cliff dwelling, the
national park at Moloka'i's Kalaupapa Peninsula tells a rich and
important story about being human. But its human drama tends to
overshadow another fact - one that's equally compelling. Kalaupapa
is one of the most thrilling landscapes on Earth. Taken as a one-day
adventure, the trek repays your moderate exertion with maximum
In fact, you scarcely have to exert yourself at all - just walk a
short distance from your car at Pala'au State Park - to get an
airplane-level view of the terrain. Suddenly you're standing at
the top of the highest sea cliffs in the world. The sheer green
walls, sliced with waterfalls, go on beyond seeing. So does the
ocean, blue as a dark gem. White waves crash against the rocks
two thousand feet below.
That's where Kalaupapa is. Down there, all alone. It's a
wedge-shaped piece of runaway land that seems to have slipped
out from the base of the cliff and gotten stuck. You see a few
confetti-sized rooftops and a one-lane airstrip that looks as
though someone rubbed with an eraser on the grassy lava.
Kalaupapa gives the word "remote" new meaning.
Scarcely more than forty people live there, all of them white-haired.
The cargo barge arrives once a year -- an annual Kalaupapa holiday,
when everyone gets to look at each other's new stuff and make jokes
Once a day, right through town comes the Damien Tours bus, yellow as
a dusty banana, a vintage all-metal school bus with green plastic
seats and stainless-steel hang-on poles. When the bus comes through,
the residents make sure they're busy somewhere else. They prefer not
to be put on display.
You'd probably hide out, too, no matter where you lived. But Kalaupapa
is a special place. The residents are all survivors of a well-known
tragedy - now very much a thing of the past - and they've been given
the privilege of living out their days in peace and privacy.
Starting in 1866, Hawai'i citizens who contracted Hansen's
Disease - the dreaded "separating sickness" or "leprosy" that
figures so prominently in Bible stories - were sent here, virtually
cast away. This was the final mission of Father Damien, now a
candidate for sainthood, and other "Martyrs of Moloka'i" whose
sacrifices inspired a global effort to cure the disease.
In keeping with its hard-won spirit of privacy, Kalaupapa offers no
lodging, no shopping, and no lunch counter. Visits are restricted
to a single day.
Actually, there's an exception to this rule. The national park has a
volunteer work program with three-day-minimum stays. In fact, for people
who like to be outdoors and doing something purposeful, the park's
volunteer program offers a startlingly original way to visit
Hawai'i - preserving rare native habitat for endangered plants
and animals, and working around one of the most valuable archeological
preserves in the state.
No matter how you visit, you have to be at least sixteen years old
and you have to be a guest of one of the residents.
It's easy to become a guest - call for a reservation with Damien
Tours and get on that clattering school bus. On many of the trips,
the driver is the "sheriff of Kalaupapa" himself, Richard Marks.
Marks likes to stop the bus every so often to set out food for the
peninsula's wild life - cats, axis deer, and pigs. As he steers the
bouncing bus along the rough-graded road from town to the site of
Father Damien's church, he tells the story of the settlement. His
stories are scathingly funny and infuriating. He makes you feel
what it was like to be cast away here, a victim of the by-gone
fear about Hansen's Disease. The sheriff's stories are sarcastic,
but the lingering emotion of the tour is something more like awe -
especially after you've sat in the church that Damien built by hand
and heard of saintly people who sacrificed their lives here. In the end,
the experience of visiting Kalaupapa is as uplifting as the wall of
cliffs beside it.
But when you're standing up at the top, at the lookout, staring
down the long cliff, it's natural to ask yourself - how? How do you
get down there?
Obviously, the airstrip offers one option. Every day, a couple of
midget planes will bring a few passengers for the school bus, then
five hours later whisk them back to Honolulu or Maui or even to the
little Moloka'i airport "topside".
Or you can walk.
There's one trail - four miles long and two thousand feet down.
The trailhead starts not far from the lookout. Bring lunch and
lots of water. And take your time. Stop to savor the impressions -
the native forest that cloaks the cliff, the birds trilling, the
phenomenal sea crashing below you. The trail is wide and perfectly
safe. It's built to accommodate the maneuvering of mules.
Yes, you can ride a mule down the trail to Kalaupapa. Each mule
trek is timed to meet with the old bus. The mules are big and brown,
sure-footed and safe -- safe as your living-room sofa. It's important
to keep remembering that "sofa" image on your way down the
cliff - when you're mounted tall in the saddle and your steed is
casually clopping its hoofs around the outside edges of the trail's
twenty-six dizzying switchbacks.
The ascent, of course, is no piece of cake, not even on mule-back.
It's not easy, nudging and kicking your mulish way all the way back
up the switchbacks. By the time you get topside - elated in body
and mind - you know that you've had an experience. Something completely
And when you get topside, whether by hoof or foot or even by plane,
you are surrounded by something just as rare - the remarkable island
of Moloka'i. The glow of amazing remoteness that you feel on the
peninsula does not fade up above. The entire island is a place
snatched out of time.
Article Courtesy of the Molokai Visitors Association
Kalaupapa National Historic Park
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