Kauai: Following the Dolphins on the Na Pali Coast


There are distinct seasons for everything in the Pacific, though this is not always so obvious to the tourist on dry land. Look at all the people lounging on the beach in Hawaii, remarking on the balmy weather, the wonderful hotels, the funky music, the ya-yas at the local clubs, the great food. They haven't the faintest idea what month it is, because paradise hasn't got a calendar, or uranium. Aloha, they say to each other, and after a while they learn to say Mahalo (thank you). They bandy these two words all over the place, and some people laugh at them for it, but why? It is rare - almost unheard of - to find anyone who speaks Hawaiian in complete sentences. this is tragic, because when the Hawaiians lost their language - when it was debased and bowdlerized by missionary literalism - they lost their identity. the movement for reviving the old language, which is melodious and highly metaphorical, is (like the movement for sovereignty) still struggling. what you hear in normal speech is jargon, conversational color, a matter of vocabulary, of knowing twenty or thirty words and scattering them in your English sentences.

The more Hawaiian words you know the more easily you can pull rank. It is exactly what missionaries do in simple societies to ingratiate themselves. In Hawaii this manner of speaking comprises a local idiolect, or lingo, in which every hole is referred to as puka, and all talk as nunu, and every toilet as a lua, and all children as keikis, and so forth. Directions are full of Hawaiian jargon - seaward is makai, towards the mountains is mauka, and west is eua. Like Hawaiian Pidgin, with which it shares many words, it is often used jokingly. Of course, there are words which only native-born Hawaiians know, but they keep them to themselves why give everything away? This lingo has a certain charm, though no one forms sentences. No one ever says "Hello, how are you?" in the language, and when I asked some old-timers, who would have called themselves kamaainas, they couldn't tell me that the simple greeting was Aloha kakkiou. Pehea'ae. Hawaiian is used simply to gain credibility. In Africa it has an exact counterpart in so-called kitchen Swahili.

Travel writers in Hawaii interlard their prose with this island jargon to give it verisimilitude. Travel writers in Hawaii write about the room service at the hotels, and the efficiency of the valet parking, and whether the hollandaise on the eggs benedict has curdled. Brunch is quite as important subject for the travel writer. So is golf. So is tennis. They are mainly junketers, people on press trips, and they often travel with their spouses - one scribbles, the other snaps pictures - making travel writing one of the last Mom and Pop businesses in America. I thought of such people when I was in my camp site at Vava'u, or paddling in the Trobriands, or squatting on the beach in the Solomons, or sheltering from the driving rain in a ratty cave on the west coast of Rapa Nui.  

"I'm a travel writer, too," one named Ted said to me on Kauai. "I'm here covering some hotels. I'm covering some restaurants, too. Pacific Cafe? It's Pacific Rim cuisine. We're at the Waiohai here. My wife Binky is with me - we always travel together. She's an astrologer. Have you stayed in the bungalows at Mauna Lani? We had three nights there. I'm covering it for a paper back home. We mainly do upscale hotels. Last time I was here I was covering the block party at Waikiki. it was kind of fun." I asked Binky to tell my fortune.

"I couldn't read your stars unless I had lots of astral information," Binky said. "I do a little writing myself. I like the hotels. but it's funny about Hawaiian hotels. some of them serve only American wine. And I can only drink French wine. I love Cristal. they made us feel very welcome at the Four Seasons in Maui. they gave me a gold pendant and Ted got a fabulous shirt from the logo shop. they hydrated our faces with Evian atomizers as we lounged by the pool. My real favorite place is St Bart's. Ever been there? I love French food." I was proud of being a travel writer in Oceania. I stopped seeing it as a horrid preoccupation that I practiced only with my left hand. but when I got to Hawaii I changed my mind. I was not sure what I did for a living or who I was, but I was absolutely sure I was not a travel writer. As a matter of fact, travel writers seldom wrote about the seas that la Hawaii. the Pacific was something they squinted at over the rim of the pineapple daiquiri. they gushed about the waves breaking on the reef, but apart from that, water sports are not a frequent subject for travel writers. the proof of this was their love of surf. and yet boat-owners are never so sentimental about surf, which is like a vision of death and destruction.

Boating in Hawaii's waters can be rather uncongenial. Just offshore, prevailing conditions are unpredictable much of the time, and fierce (and of course prettiest) in winter months - frothy seas, still winds, and strong currents. the sailor with a problem looks onshore and sees a rocky coast or a reef, heavy surf, or one of the great horrors for anyone in a small boat - surfers having a wonderful time. "It's not too great when you are surfers," Rick Haviland told me in Kauai. He was a master of understatement. "That's kind of a bad jellyfish," he said one day of a Portuguese man-of-war, and "kind of neat" always meant breathtaking. Rick was in the kayak and bike business, rentals and sales, and as a former surfer he confided to me that the presence of surfers always means high waves and the worst conditions for the rest of us. It was Rick who gave me a crash course on Kauai's sea conditions and it was Rick whom I successfully bullied into accompanying me on an off-season jaunt down the coast which has the most beautiful cliffs in the Pacific.

If you try to paddle a kayak in the wrong season off the glorious and almost inaccessible Na Pali coast of Kauai you can get into deep trouble - no one does much paddling between October and April, though some of the tour boats run throughout the winter. I was apprehensive, because it was November and I was looking for a window of good weather to make the trip paddling my own little boat. I had a special reason for wanting a closer look at Kauai, because I had traveled in the Marquesas in French Polynesia. there is a great cultural connection between those two places. Of course thee are connections and relationships all over the Pacific - words spoken on Tahiti are also spoken in New Zealand and Samoa, food items and cooking methods are shared in island groups thousands of miles apart, and so are dances and deities. It seems at times - and it is often argued - that this enormous body of water is a single oceanic family of like-minded people with a common culture. But as Professor Sinoto had said, one of the closest connection that exists is between the Marquesas and the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, the Hawaiians are the descendants of the Marquesans who sailed to Hawaii and settled there sometime around A.D. 700. but it is generally reckoned that the last place in the Pacific to be settled was here, on the almost inaccessible Na Pali coast. they could not have hosen a more appropriate place. Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas and Kauai in Hawaii might be neighbor islands: they look similar, with volcanic mountains shaped like witches' hats and vegetation as dense and dark green as spinach, the same deep valleys, the same furrows of cold lava flows. their ancient ruins - patterns of boulders, rock platforms and walls and petroglyphs - are almost identical, and they are just as dangerous to anyone who travels offshore in their peculiarly tricky waters.

"I guess we should kind of angle out here," Rick murmured, looking up at the surf as we set off in our kayaks from Haena Beach Park near where the Na Pali begins. to the right were surfers frolicking in the ten-foot breaking waves of "Tunnels", a well-known surfer's spot, to the left was a reef and more waves nearer shore - another version of sudden death. I followed him; I liked his mellow mood, the way he relaxed and rode the waves. The happiest campers are imperturbable. So what if the wind was blowing fifteen knots or more? At least it was at our back, helping us along in a big following sea. the outlook was good, but so what if the weather tuned foul? We had camping equipment, we had food and water, we had survival gear, we even had a quart of margaritas. We paddled on past the first of the cliffs - Na Pali means "The Cliffs" - a corner of the coast, which was the place where Hawaii's best-known deity, Pele (goddess of the volcanoes), fell in love with a mortal, the chief Lohiau. It is a hidden and in many respects a spiritual coast, full of mana; a place of temples and burial grounds - a holy coast. this coast and much of Kauai is a byword for the exotic. It is the source of many Hawaiian legends, ancient and modern, as well as some of our own sweetest myths; just above us, the Makana Ridge was the location of Bali Hai, in the movie South Pacific; a bit further on Holopu Valley was seen by millions as the home of King Kong; across the mountains the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark was shot; and further along the coast Elvis Presley fooled with Ann Margret (should be Joan Blackman) in Blue Hawaii. Talk about legends!

An eight-foot swell with a strong push to it ("Kind of a surge - feel it?") was dragging us sideways towards the first of the deep Na Pali valleys. this one was Hanakaiai, with a small but lovely beach which is swept away each year by the powerful winter seas and then is piled up again in the spring and summer. the footpath passes here and then continues on to about a third of the length of this coast; the eleven-mole Kalalau Trail. It is only for the strongest hikers, but is well known among outdoor people as one of the most scenic in the world. The rocky cliff-face a bit farther along was being battered by waves, and these reflected waves smashing against oncoming ones created a choppy sea and a phenomenon called clapotis - vertical standing waves - which were making me seasick. I had never felt pukesome in a kayak before but, bobbing like cork in this chaotic chop, I felt distinctly nauseous. Coincidentally it was lunchtime, but paddling out a mile in the wind and streaming sea I was babble to settle my stomach. Rick and I divided up our lunch and, eating it - a sandwich, an apple, a bottle of water - we drifted apart, and thee we stayed, for an hour or two.

There is a mystical element in paddling a kayak which might be described as the trance induced by the rhythm of paddling, lifting and stroking continuously and gliding along. The paddler concentrates, and falls silent, and without fanfare but with a relentless steadiness goes forward, rising and falling in the waves. It is an effort, of course, but because of this trance the effort is almost unnoticeable. I suppose hikers and joggers must enter that same state of mind, because it becomes very peaceful and healthful way of breathing, and here it was intensified by the beauty of Na Pali with long narrow fluted valleys, and cliff rims rising to 4,000 feet. This spell is hard but not impossible to break. In my case it was shattered by the bite of a poisonous jellyfish. In my paddling trance I had spooned up the tentacles of a floating Portuguese man-of-war, and one tentacle - a long geletinous noodle - slipped down the shaft of my paddle and was fliipping around my forearm. the pain was almost immediate: the poison is a neurotoxin, attacking the nerves the way the jellyfish immobilizes its prey. My arm was fiercely stung as I plucked off the tentacle, and then I summoned Rick. He reminded me gently that the folk remedy is urine. I had tried that without ay success in Vanuatu. Papaya leaves or met tenderizer would have been more effective, and would have spared me three hours of numbing agony. 

But the spectacular landscape eased the pain - it had that capacity to bewitch. They were not simple ledges, but rather a multitude of sharp green pinnacles all over the face of the cliff. the whole mountainside had the look of a gothic church in a fantasy - hundreds of steeples and cupolas. Even with my stinging arm in this choppy sea, I would rather be here among the cathedral-like contours of the cliffs on this high island than seeing its architectural equivalent in Europe - and I knew that the next time I saw Westminster Abbey or Notre-Dame I would be instantly reminded of the soaring Na Pali coast and miss it terribly. The ancient Hawaiians must have known how strange and magical these pinnacles seemed, for - down to the last green cone - theyh calloed the whole lot of them keiki o ha 'aina, "children of the land," and gave each one a different name.

We passed "a flower-throttled gorge, with beetling cliffs and crags, from which floated the blattings of wild goats. On three sides the grim walls rose, festooned in fantastic draperies of tropic vegetation and pierced by cave entrances." This is Jack London's description of the Kalalau Valley and beach, which is the setting for his powerful story, "Koolau the Leper" (and it is true in most of its details). this valley is as far as anyone an get on foot. the rest of the coast is reachable only by the various tour boats, big and small, which trundle back and forth. And there are helicopters buzzing on high - dipping into the valleys, hovering over the cliffs. Two today were passing the lovely stone arch at the mouth of Honopu Valley, the so-called "Valley of the Lost Tribe," where a pre-Hawaiian people (their origin is the subject of archeological dispute) flourished.  

Opinion is divided on the choppers of Kauai. Except for the operators themselves, most people on Kauai would like to see them vanish into the sunset. But there is no question that the chopper, the most versatile of aircraft, offers an unusual way of seeing the Na Pali coast. they are numerous and intrusive and noisy, but their worst fault is not the noise pollution to others but the way they deafen their own passengers - the sound of the rotors drowns out the wind whistling through the valleys, the water music of mountain cataracts, the crashing of the waves against the sea-cliffs,; and it gives the false impression that this hidden coast is easily accessible.

"They're kind of pain," Rick said. this was as close as he ever come to stating his anger, but modest as these words seemed they represented for him blind fury. "I don't want to think about them." On some days, Zodiacs - huge rubber dinghies - took tourists along the coast, splashing back and forth, mercilessly wetting the passengers and giving them the impression they were on a do-or-die expedition. but the zodiacs, though noisy and just as intrusive as the choppers, are very safe. If you listen carefully to one boatman talking to another you might hear the following exchange.

"How many burgers you had today?"

"Twenty-three burgers this morning - eighteen this afternoon."

"Lenn had thirty-some-odd burgers all week."

it was their way of referring to boat passengers, and although it was utterly dismissive, there was something horribly appropriate in calling a big sunburned tourist a "burger."

We passed Awaawapuhi Valley, the narrowest and most dramatic of the valleys, where on the tight strip of the valley floor there had been an extensive old Hawaiian settlement. there was also once a large settlement of Hawaiians living in a traditional way at the next valley, Nuakolo Aina. In fact, so hidden was this valley that the people remained as they had been for centuries, living undisturbed into the early twentieth century. They were alii or nobles in the valley, and just outside it a shoreside village called Nualoto Kai was inhabited by commoners. the foundations of the dancing pavilions, the houses and temples, garden walls and many other structures - excavated and catalogued by Sinoto - still remain, inside and outside the valley. We returned to them the following day and I was astonished by how closely they resembled the ones I had seen 2,000 miles away in the Marquesas. Under the cliffs, which were like black turrets, we made for the valley of Miloli'i. Off in the distance the sun was setting behind the privately owned island of Niihau and its neighbor, the little lumpy volcano of Lehua. We were paddling in a headwind. I hate headwinds. I had thought that everyone hated headwinds.

Rick said, "It kind of cools you," and paddled uncomplainingly onward. that night we camped on the sand of Miloli'i -  baked potatoes and grilled fish over an open fire. Afterwards we talked for a while, and then Rick crept down the beach. I sat by the fire, stirring the coals, and feeling drowsy. I had had some happy times paddling through the Pacific, but their origin had been sights and sounds. I had not experienced much comfort. the hardship had been necessary to the discoveries I'd made. but this was different, this was one of the most pleasant interludes in my trip. It was luxury - the meal, the fire, the night air, and most of all my fatigue, which was like the voluptuous effect of an expensive drug. I loved being numb, utterly senseless, and sitting there dead tired on the soft sand, and then simply easing myself down onto my sleeping-bag, and subsiding.

It was magic, memorable slumber. I slept under a full moon that was as bright as an arc light. All night the surf dumped and slid on the steeply shelving sand. In the early hours of the morning I was wakened by something tickling my nose - a fat and over-ambitious ghost crab perplexed by the task of eating my face, or perhaps wondering how to drag me into the hole in the sand. I slapped the thing away and went back to sleep. I had thought that nothing could equal the thrill of those cliffs seen from a kayak. I was wrong, for the next day, headed back to Nualolo Kai to look at ruins, we saw some splashing out at sea - probably dolphins - and we headed in that direction. I was totally unprepared for what we were about to see - dolphins, in every direction, dolphins. there were sixty or seventy of them, a variety called spinners, four or five feet long, and some babies. They were jumping clear of the water, swimming upside down, frolicking in groups, and swimming in a vast irregular circle about a quarter of a mile in diameter. And they were gasping. I had always seen dolphins from a bigger noisier craft, so I had not known anything about the sounds they make - how they breathe and sigh and blow. Every time they break the surface they gasp, like a swimmer sucking air, and hearing this laboring breath which is the most affecting and lovable human noise, I was struck by how much we miss when we can't hear the creature we are looking at.

"Kind of neat," Rick said.

Even the experienced guide was amazed. He had been down this coast hundreds of times and he had never seen anything like it, he said. For the next hour and a half we played with them, paddling among them, and they performed for us. We made no sound, we poised no threat, we merely watched appreciatively - and they seemed to realize that. After this, who wouldn't paddle into Nualolo Kai, and put ashore, and walk to the great heiau, or temple, against the cliff face and leave an offering? We wrapped round stones in freshly plucked ti leaves, and placed them on the wall with a wish that we would have a safe trip and would return. At the end of the trip, riding the surf into Polihale I was very haippy, with the pure joy that comes to the traveler whose efforts are rewarded - in my case handsomely, with the sight of those cliffs and ruins, and the antics of the dolphins. Our little boats had given us the greatest freedom. the Hawaiians had always known that simple fact. And it was as true of the dead as it was of the living. In the cliffs above the broad white sand of Polihale hundreds, perhaps thousands, of corpses had been found, and the luckiest - the most noble - had been buried in their canoes, like the greatest Vikings in the logs and burial places of England.

An extract of the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992. 

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