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Hawaii: A Ride Along the Napali Coast, 2011

May 4, 2011

Diana and I spent some time in Kauai recently, in an attempt to get away from the relentlessly wet and cold weather of Seattle.  We had other reasons to go, too, but warming ourselves was the primary motivation.

Despite having visited Kauai twice in recent years, we had never done one of the “must-see” activities.  That is to say, we’d never gone with one of the many charter outfits that take tourists along the rugged and roadless Napali Coast of the island.  While in length this shore is only around ten miles long, the intense geography and spectacular sea cliffs make the Napali one of the world’s legendary scenic and powerful places.

During winter the trip can be dicey, as huge swells come rolling in from the southwest, but as summer approaches the seas calm and make possible close approaches to some very unusual geological formations.  On our current visit to Kauai we had the time and the means so I said to Diana, “Let’s make sure we do the Coast by boat.”  She was quick to agree.

We picked one of the smaller charter boats.  Most of the vessels that ply the tourist trade are catamarans.  Since time is limited they tend not to sail but rather to motor along the beaches and cliffs. For that reason we chose Napali Explorers, who use a 48 foot inflatable design modeled on Coast Guard rescue craft.  With a zodiac-style boat we could do things the bigger sailboats could not, such as explore caves – as always, with weather permitting.

On the big day we gathered at Napali Explorer’s Waimea office and then proceeded to the Small Boat Harbor.  This was another advantage that NE took advantage of – their proximity to the beginning of the coastal cliffs.  Most tourists who come to Hawaii stay on Poipu Beach or on the North Shore.  We rather like the dry climate of the West Coast. So getting to Napali would be much faster since we departed from Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor.

1) Tourists board a motorized catamaran, Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor

We were pleasantly pleased to find that our vessel would not sail with a full complement of passengers. Capable of holding forty odd landlubbers, our group numbered less than thirty souls.

2) Heading out the harbor channel.  Because of a reef in the wrong spot, waves break over the harbor entrance and exits must be timed carefully

The first part of the journey passed an interesting stretch of shore.  We saw the now-abandoned Kekaha Sugar Mill, which local residents say has left a toxic brew of poisons on its property (the State of Hawaii maintains all relevant standards and clean-up policies have been followed).

4) The smokestack from the Kekaha Sugar Mill, in the town of the same name

Behind the mill are the cliffs that made up the original seashore.  Several millennia worth of water and wind erosion from the high volcanic mountains slowly formed a plain in front of the old cliff-side shoreline.  This plain proved to be the perfect place to grow sugar cane in massive quantities, and so this part of Kauai was developed in response to the insatiable world demand for the sweet substance.  Peoples from far-away lands like Japan, China, and the Philipines were brought here to work the fields, often in brutal slave-like conditions.  Whether or not the Hawaiian sugar planters engaged in blackbirding, similar to the kidnappings practiced by their brethren in Australia and Central America, I don’t know.

Perhaps life for the peons was better here.  On at least one plantation, in Kilauea on the North Shore,the management kindly provided opium for their Chinese workers, enabling the poor immigrants, I suppose, to dream of happier times and unrealized tropical paradises.

Now the US government Pacific Sands Missile Range is the big kahuna in these parts. The military has listening posts, they do rocket “research” for Star Wars projects and who knows what else.  One gets the feeling, motoring past their ocean-view accommodations, that they still may be waiting for the Imperial Japanese Fleet to come steaming over the horizon.

5) Gunboat on patrol

6) This is a military bar, apparently named “Shenanigans”

But soon we arrive at the famous Poli Hale Beach, a much nicer place to admire from the ocean.

7) Poli Hale, with the beginnings of the Napali Coast behind the sand

8) Dunes

We leave the beach behind and the scene turns spectacular as we are surrounded by Hawaiian Spinner dolphins.

9) A dolphin shows us why he’s called “Spinner”

The critters swim along with the boat for a fair distance and then disappear.  I think they like the contact with people, even though I do realize that’s a very unscientific sentiment.

10) Up close and personal

Finally we were treated to amazing geological formations in the cliffs, caused by the interaction of long-dead lava flows and volcanic ash with seismic and other forces of nature.

11) A rent in the cliff, complete with waterfall

At one point we passed through a group of Pacific Green turtles.  Once hunted to the brink of extinction, they have made a surprising comeback in certain areas of the Hawaiian chain.

12) Pacific Green turtle

But our attention rapidly turned back to the land.  A cave entrance appeared; today was calm enough to enter.

14) Cave entrance

15) The skylight inside: during winter storms, huge swells enter the cave and the water exits as massive vertical plumes up through the hole

16) Looking around inside

17) Heading back out

The boat passed another headland and we beheld the end point of the trip, Kalalau Valley.  We had to turn around before getting the chance to see straight in; Kauai is rife with strange and messy politics and some boats from the West Shore are not allowed to go further.

18) The (much over-photographed) valley.  At least this is a different perspective

A few days later Diana and I hiked along the knife ridge at the top of these mountains, over 3000 ft. high.  But that’s a story for another day.

19) More mountains falling to the sea

In case anyone wonders, here is how I photographed the dolphins (pic by Diana Herring)

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