At Mile Marker 16 we turn onto a nondescript driveway and make our way around a copse of palm trees and tall shrubbery. Just beyond lies the beach house where we’ll stay for the next three days, all shaded by coconut palm trees.
With a mountain at our back, Jonathan and I take a leisurely stroll to the beach, basking in warm sunlight under a blue sky with small, high clouds. We soak it all in, savouring the moment. Before us stretches a crescent-shaped beach, about a mile in length, bordered by palms and large green hibiscus shrubs with fragrant red blooms. The beach’s fine bone-white sand is pockmarked with crab burrows just above the high tide line. A mile out, the waves are breaking over the barrier reef that runs along the entire length of Molokai’s southern shore. Its waters, running the gamut of blues, form light shades in the shallows to dark blues out by the reef. The previous day’s humidity has been broken by the cooling Trade Winds blowing in off the Pacific.
We meet KB, the caretaker of the property where we’re staying. In his mid-fifties, KB won’t tell me his real name, which somehow seems befitting his immigrant status – anonymity is what a lot of outsiders come looking for. “I’m originally from the San Francisco Bay area and I came here four years ago to build some cabinets,” he says. “Shortly after arriving I felt that I had to stay here. I didn’t want to leave.”
As it starts to rain, we move under the covered veranda of the main beach house and settle on two sofas. The sound of the rain beating down on the roof is soothing. I ask KB why he wanted to stay. “The people, the weather, the quiet solitude, the slow pace, the”—he hesitates before finishing the thought—”the swimming.” He laughs. “I like to swim. I like the island style. Things go easily and people are intent on preserving their traditions, and I respect that. And I think that they’ll be successful. It’s an island, so it’s a place where you can keep the world at bay if you want to.”
In the distance a rainbow starts to form, framing our view of neighbouring Maui.
“Molokai has a chance of succeeding,” he continues, “because on this island there aren’t the natural wonders that tend to attract tourists and make it a mecca for tourist games. It’s beautiful in its own way, but it’s not beautiful in the way that the other Hawaiian islands are. So, hopefully, it will remain Molokai.”
The island has already withstood one invasion and stayed true to itself. KB points out that the introduction of plantation agriculture on the west end of the island is responsible for its barrenness today. “The growers have come and gone and changed the west end of the island to meet their need,” he says. “It’s been messed about by the corporations and it survived. I think that is one of the main attractions, that it survived all these privations by outsiders, which means that it has an inner strength that will make it stay itself.”
I go into the kitchen to grab a couple of beers and when I walk back onto the porch a wild hen with her chicks following darts out from a thicket of bushes and scurries across the yard in front of us. This shifts our conversation to the island’s idiosyncrasies.
“People do things the Molokai way. They don’t approve of the way people do things on other islands or continents.” KB’s referring primarily to hunting, small-scale farming, fishing and boat building, but also rituals around celebrations and food.
“If you come from another place, that means that there is plenty to learn here, and it’s good to learn from people who know how to be on their own portion of the Earth.”
Four-wheel-drive jeep is the only way to travel into Kamakou Preserve, 2,774 acres of lush rainforest that scales the slopes of 5,000-ft Mt. Kamakou. At Cory’s Lunch Wagon in town we rendezvous with our guide, Bob Livingston of the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii (TNC). Livingston transfers his sleeping four-year-old daughter to our jeep and we begin the hard drive along a double track dirt road.
During our stay on Molokai we’ve already experienced the hard rains the island typically receives, and this happens to be the wettest spring in 20 years. But the precipitation is even heavier at Kamakou, at the summit of which it’s almost always raining. It’s the wettest and wildest region of Molokai and the only road through it is the one we’re on, which is flooded in many parts and barely safe. But the moisture is what makes this place so rich—of the roughly 250 plants found here, 219 of them are endemic.
It takes us an hour and a half to reach the Waikolu Valley Lookout, normally a 45-minute trip. The fog is thick and we only catch glimpses of the majestic valley when openings appear briefly in the rain clouds far below. As we contemplate whether to proceed onto the even narrower track that continues into the preserve, an even darker rain cloud envelops us.
Livingston halts the jeep along the way at points of interest. Beside an oddly shaped man-made hole, he explains: “This was dug by Hawaiians to replicate the hull of a 19th-century sailing ship. It was used to measure a full load of sandalwood.”
The sandalwood trade is one of the darkest periods in Hawaiian history. “The Hawaiian monarchy almost enslaved their own people to capitalize on the sandalwood trade,” Livingston says. In their desire to acquire American, European and Chinese goods, such as alcohol and guns, they forced their own people to toil in the mountains cutting down sandalwood trees. Within 40 years they had depleted the forest of sandalwood, shipping it primarily to China.
“Life was so harsh that parents would cut down sandalwood saplings or pull the shoots out by the roots in order to kill the trees, just so their children wouldn’t have to cut them down one day.”
The more elevation we gained, the heavier the rainfall. In places the track was so washed out that deep narrow grooves were carved down the center of the tracks, making it difficult to control the Jeep’s steering. And the slippery mud frequently left the jeep’s tires spinning, unable to gain any traction. Occasionally the jeep slid sideways and backwards, until the drive turned into a roller coaster ride that induced nervous laughter and increased the chances we’d roll the Jeep.
Fearing the risk to Jonathan and Bob’s daughter was too great, we stopped the Jeep. At about three-quarters of the way up to the top of Kamakou we left the jeep to walk down a rainforest trail so we could view some of the work being carried out by TNC.
This work focuses on native ecosystem conservation where the rainforest is still intact; it doesn’t do single species conservation or restoration of severely altered areas. In Hawaii, that means much of their work is restricted to higher elevations, where the rainforest has largely escaped the impact of humans. And the ecological function of the mountain rainforest is critical—Kamakou is responsible for 60 percent of Molokai’s fresh water.
The main threats to the mountain ecosystem are feral animals, especially goats, deer and pigs, but hunters are airlifted into the interior by helicopter to help control their spread. The harvest is evidently bountiful as evidenced by the deer antlers and boar tusks that adorn the fences of homes along Route 450.
The rain gets heavier as we descend; at one point it pours in sheets and we are almost swept off the track as we round a bend. But the scenery is hauntingly beautiful—dark green vegetation, highlighted by light, lime-green moss, shrouded by rain clouds. The forest thins out as we descend until it is reduced to scrub. We arrive back in town, our jeep covered in red mud.
While we are watching the sun set from the veranda of our beach house, KB, the caretaker, drops by for a chat. Philosophical as always, he muses about the many different reactions that the island provokes.
“Molokai is not for everybody. Some people come here for brief periods and enjoy it. Some come here and absolutely hate it because they don’t like to be away from normal tourist activities. And some people come to Molokai thinking that they’re going to want to stay and love it, and they discover that they don’t like it at all. Others arrive and become hooked. It really isn’t for everybody.”
“The chief thing is that Molokai has a spirit of its own. You’re either going to be compatible with it or you’re not. In a way it may be up to the island whether you get to stay or not.”
All photos by Joseph Frey. All rights reserved