Mahaulepu — remembering back to the first time I saw this relatively wild area of Kauai when the island was new to me, visions of every shade of blue in the ocean come to me, along with the wonderfully wild, craggy sandstone bluffs and cliffs. There was a curved sand beach, a shaded cove, a stretch where windsurfers prevailed like bright flags fluttering on masts at sea. There were tidepools. There was a cave, a stream, a small house I learned was grandfathered into the property from times back.
This was the plum we reached when we made the trek to the South Shore, wended our way past the moldering Koloa Mill on red dirt plantation roads, then stressed the shock absorbers on my old Chevy Citation during the rocky road of the last segment leading to Mahaulepu. After discovering this place was very special for myself, I learned it was the same for many people, present and past.
As well as its pristine beauty, it held mysteries. Some said ancient burial caves existed high within the Makauwahi cave itself, that a spirit voice could be heard at times, and not always friendly, depending on the intent of the intruder. That was not my experience, but I enjoyed an exploration of what I later learned was the Makauwahi Sinkhole. We bent low to enter through the dark maw, an entrance off the Waiopili Stream; we stepped lightly and respectfully within the earth orifice shaded by a mighty tree. The roar of machinery could be heard in the quarry just beyond, and in the darkest, most seaward cave portion, the reverberation of waves hitting like pounding pahu drumbeats.
Back in the TGI office after a day off, and still excited from that first exploration, an associate staff photographer with an interest in archaeology pointed me to hidden petroglyphs that are evident only at certain times under the shifting sands, showing me photos he’d taken and published. When I hit the Hawaiian collection of the college library, I learned a great deal more of the importance of the ancient heiau (sacred spaces) of the Mahaulepu and surrounding area, how they related to cosmic knowledge, particularly the marking point for winter solstice.
Still standing in the 1980s were the remains of a stone land bridge that photographers and artists liked to capture on film and canvas. On my first visit back to Mahaulepu after Sept. 11, 1992, when Hurricane Iniki devastated the island, it shocked me to find the remains of that ancient lava rock arch had been battered to the point of disappearance. Also fallen was the great tree in the “cave.”
The Mahaulepu area is still the plum, although the access has changed somewhat, and it’s not as off-the-beaten-path as it used to be. Many vacationing visitors are directed by their concierges and hosts on how to find what was somewhat of an island secret. Also, copious articles have been published not only about the Smithsonian team’s discoveries at the Makauwahi Sinkhole, said to be the largest limestone cave in Hawaii, but about the hike along the lithified cliffs stretching from the Makawehi cliffs off Keoneloa Bay to the furthest accessible “hidden” bay. Not so many local families now camp for the day and picnic there. Although horses and riders no longer (are supposed to) race along the sands, you do see trail riders on the periphery. You do see an occasional fisherman setting pole or surf casting; the same for hikers along the seaward paths. And the windsurfers are now joined by surf paddlers and, on calmer ocean days, snorkelers off the higher cliff areas where the schools of fish dance.
Mahaulepu still remains a wonderfully wild, craggy place at this time — one of our favorite places to go for a day at the beach, cliffside walk (and whale watch, in this season) and picnic (often a birthday excursion for me). The purely open space of it has been fought for and defended for years by the environmentally conscious and savvy group Malama Mahaulepu, and we have managed to stave off development — until now.
A favorite true story I like to recount is how, on a day when I wearily slept on the last small crescent of beach toward the cliffs’ rocky end, I was joined by a large monk seal who lay down beside me, almost cuddling up. I woke to the sound of grunts and a salty smell — and quickly and quietly got out of there. The joke is that he (I believe it was a he, from the size) didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to approach a human from 200 yards. (What? Did I need a yellow tape enclosure?)
I expect that land bridge I mentioned that disappeared was formed eons ago, no doubt B.C., with the final lava flows on this ancient island. Without meaning to show my disrespect to Christendom, I wonder now what the next generation’s thoughts will be when recalling Mahaulepu, B.C. (Before Cows) or even B.D. (Before Dairy). We as the public are given until Feb. 23 to make our comments in opposition to the Environmental Impact Statement (that was commissioned by the dairy bosses) about the 800-plus lactating cows to come, and then all the rest that will come with them.
This is no sacred cow. “Recalling Mahaulepu” means that the area as you know it in the present day may very well become memory before this year 2015 ends.
We have a week to speak up — that is, unless it is already another one of those Kauai-style Done Deals. It’s up to all of us who feel strongly to speak up now to download or request a copy of the said EIS and attend the upcoming Koloa meeting to say that we, indeed, do not want to follow the “New Zealand model” with this dairy (which, in truth, has backfired environmentally in NZ). If the Mahaulepu area is no longer a sacred landscape, what’s being decided now is whether or not the area will remain a treasured island haven, a place where the wind will continue to blow salty fresh, the reefs will proliferate, and the fish will multiply and continue to school in the blue, blue waves that lap the golden beaches and pound the dinosaur cliffs. All of that, and more, remains to be seen.
Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and former TGI staff member, regularly instructs on the topics of history and Hawaiian culture for visitors to Kauai through Hawaii Pacific University’s “Road Scholar” program through Pacific Islands Institute. The writer is hard at work now completing her second memoir. She continues as principal of TropicBird Press and TropicBird Weddings & Celebrations-Kauai under DAWN Enterprises.