For the last time, the sound of the pū wakes us, and we scramble to pack sleeping bags and night clothes, leaving us in bathing suits and wetsuits in the pre-dawn chill. There’s a fire built on the beach, and some of us huddle around it – not so much for the physical warmth as for the sense of companionship with people with whom we have formed a bond, however temporary. Sitting on a log, I talk with Kukui, from Wai‘anae, O‘ahu, about taro lo’i restoration projects there, and how that relates to similar projects on Maui. Why haven’t we talked before? Oh well – next time.
Another incredibly refreshing sleep. Either the air mattress I insisted on bringing (after all, we’re not backpacking here) or the Advil I was advised to take by our trip physician (mahalo, Dr. Karen) are working, or it might just be the mana of Kaho’olawe. I walk out to the beach alone to see the sunrise (it managed to make it on its own that day), and am greeted with a “WHHOOMPH” sound that I can’t at first place. Straining my eyes in the pre-dawn light, I see several whale spouts less than 50 feet out in Hakioawa bay. Again they give their morning greeting before traveling on around the point. Craig, a kua who is also a KIRC commissioner and sleeps on the beach every night (“not so many centipedes”), tells me that they are a pod of three who regularly hang out in the bay. By then, I am more than ready for the hike “topside”, which is our reward for all the hard work the past two days.
It’s hard to describe what the 28 of us see on our 9 hour excursion (it was supposed to be a half-day hike, but quite a few of us were slower than K, our PKO leader, anticipated—myself being the slowest, thanks to terminal blisters). Almost total desolation, on one level, but so much life, and rebirth, on another. But, above all, there are the incredible views of five of the eight main islands of the Hawaiian chain, including the snow on Mauna Kea. You get a sense of Kaho’olawe as the piko (center) of the islands. And you see the progress that has been made already, measured in a thriving ‘a’ali’i bush in bloom, or ‘ilima or pā’ū-o-Hi’iaka growing across the trail, or more than half the wili wili trees planted at one area looking like they’re going to make it. One of the lessons you learn on Kaho’olawe is to measure and appreciate small victories – but taken all together, they add up to a lot.
The highlight of the hike is the side trip to Puu Moa’ulaiki. At 1477 feet, it is the second highest point on the island, the site of the “Navigator’s Chair” and a lele (altar) used for offerings to Lono during the Makahiki season. To approach this sacred place, we remove our shoes and walk barefoot, in silence, (except for the occasional “ouch” and stifled whimper) for about 1/4 mile over lava rock (all right, maybe it was less than that, but I’m going by what my feet told me). Incredibly, Steve and Antony, the two EODs (Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians) who met us at the top earlier with chilled water, join with us in the barefoot pilgrimage to Pu’u Moa’ulaiki. The view and experience are well worth it. This is where master navigator Nainoa Thompson came to study the stars, wind and currents for the Hōkūle’a’s journey south, and you can see, in a small way, what he must have seen looking out from this place.
Back at camp, after dinner, everyone shares their mana‘o and na’au (thoughts and feelings). Some people are uncomfortable with public speaking and are brief. Some are overcome by emotion and cannot finish. Some are eloquent, such as Dr. Karen’s metaphor of the pöhaku as people – “This one is interesting,” or “This one is heavier than it looks.” Some of the most moving testimony comes from some of the kua who stayed in Hakioawa to move more pohaku and prepare dinner while the rest of us went topside. A group of women had gone further up the streambed and, climbing up the side, found a group of healthy native wili wili trees of at least three generations, with the keiki growing at their roots, that no one had known was there. It is another sign of life, and it is celebrated.
It’s sometime around midnight when everyone finally crawls into their sleeping bags on the beach. No tents tonight—we broke camp before dinner and have everything possible packed, for a quick getaway in the morning, when the Pualele arrives around 6:30. Another night of deep sleep—this time under the stars and the just-past-full moon. The only jarring note is the light spill into the sky from South Maui, which almost blocks out the stars – from Ma’alaea to Mäkena, an almost solid line of lights reminiscent of Miami Beach. And they want to build more…
The pū sounds before dawn the next day but I have had the most peaceful, refreshing sleep I can remember, and – miracle of miracles! – am no more sore of body than from the average gym workout (which I realize I haven’t been doing nearly enough of lately). We gather on the beach to chant the sun rising into the sky off Kaupō, on Maui – “E ala e.” We must have done something right, because – lo and behold! – there it is to start a new day. I might become a morning person yet.
That day, we are awesome! Somehow, almost 50 previous strangers come together to move what someone estimated to be approximately 6 tons of rock in about 8 hours, including passing them up a steep slope, where they are sorted and placed carefully in the final stack by Analani, alternating with Nāmaka, each weighing about 105 pounds, who firmly defend their position when anyone offers to take their place. At the top of the line, a group of people has it so together that they are actually tossing the rocks from person to person! At the place in the line where I’m working, about halfway up the slope, Lei, the woman on one side of me, regularly takes possession of one of the heaviest pōhaku, weighing at least 100 pounds, drops out of line, and carries it up the slope to the stack. When she returns, she gets us all singing, everything from Hawaiian “small kid“ songs to 50’s rock ‘n roll. Each time I think I’ve “hit the wall,” she keeps me going.
The single most moving experience for me (of many) of those four days is when the last pöhaku had passed up the line and, tired and sweaty, most of us are moving down the hill looking forward to go ‘au’au (bathe). One of the kua still standing on the slope facing the heiau, hair streaming behind her, sweat on her face, throws back her head, extends her arms, and begins chanting the birth of the islands, from Papa, for whom the heiau was built. Some of the women around her answer with the responses, other women in the valley below take up the chant, and it echoes off the rocks. I have studied chant in my halau, and spent many hours memorizing and practicing, but this is chant as it was meant to be used – from the heart, for a specific moment, to mark a special occasion. As I listen, the tears come.
That night, dinner is kalua turkey, straight from six hours in the imu – enough to make a vegetarian fall off the wagon (almost). After dinner, the kua share their stories, of their personal journeys to discover their Hawaiian culture and what compels them to committing large parts of their lives to Kaho‘olawe. Some come almost every month – a major investment of time and energy – and one woman, Pi’ikea, has been coming since 1980. They are all volunteers.
After lunch, we all participate in the hi‘uwai, a purification in the ocean. Standing in a semi-circle on the beach, the kua chanting, we are all asked to let go of any personal problems and negativity in our lives, so as not to transmit them to the pōhaku (chosen rocks) that we are about to handle. Swimming out into the bay, with a view of Maui, Moloka‘i and Lāna‘i that I have never seen before, I feel the insignificance of my pilikia (problems) and let the ocean wash them away. It seems to similarly affect everyone else, from kua to malihini, for, as we reconvene in the meeting area, we walk up to the work site in almost total silence.
Kalei, `Ohana member and “cultural technician” from the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) who had given our Maui group the required pre-access orientation, is waiting for us in the dry streambed below Hale o Papa, a hillside heiau dedicated to women. We learn that we will be stacking pöhaku for the future construction of retaining walls that will stop the erosion that has been uncovering the iwi (bones) of women and children buried there. Since there is a high percentage of women on this access (about 60%), there is a sense of purpose in the air. Kalei chants an opening invocation, asking permission for us to be there to accomplish this work, and also a cleansing for the pōhaku, should any once have had a different purpose. With clear minds and willing muscles, we form a line and start passing rocks.
Someone should have had a video camera (Daniel, where were you?)! The Three Stooges had nothing on this group. One wouldn’t think that something that sounds as simple as passing rocks down a line could be so complicated. But the distance between people has to be just right, different heights have to be considered, the streambed isn’t level, and, most importantly, we have not yet coalesced into a team. Still, I handle weights I didn’t think I could (up to 100 pounds, I would guess), and, even more amazingly, enjoy it.
After what seems like forever, but is actually less than three hours, the “luna” calls pau hana and we all gratefully repair to our respective ocean bathing areas—men to the right of the bay (they have a tidepool) and women to the left (a 10 minute walk, but sandy and private). I guess it works out about even. As much as I love the ocean, I’ve always wanted to rinse off after I’ve been in it, but somehow, knowing that this was the only water I’d experience for a while, other than for drinking, it feels good just to get clean. And at least this beach has a sandy bottom so I don’t fall on my face in the first two feet, as I had during our hi‘uwai ceremony.
As tired as you are after a day like this, you cannot just crawl off to your tent. As part of the experience of working together, it is expected that you become part of and share with the group (kūkākūkā). Derek (“Kekaulike”), the Zodiac captain and “master pū blower,” invites us all to introduce ourselves and share any stories behind our names—a good method for 50 people to learn each other’s names in a short time.
On February 28, 13 intrepid souls under the auspices of the Maui Sierra Club began a four-day adventure unlike anything that any of us had ever experienced (other than the 2 that had been on a previous access) – one of the monthly service trips to Kaho‘olawe organized by the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana. For a history of the island and information on the PKO, I recommend their excellent Website, www.kahoolawe.org. This article is being written from a purely personal perspective, as a journal of an extraordinary experience.
As a middle-aged ex-back-packer with a bad back and not in the best of physical condition (yes, I’m an SC hike leader, but you don’t see me on those 5-mile lava hikes, do you?), I had anticipated volunteering for kitchen duty as an alternative to active service when I heard that the particular work we would be doing was moving and stacking several tons of rocks in preparation for the construction of retaining walls at a later date. But, I show up at 6:30 AM (no mean feat in itself, from Huelo) on Thursday at Mākena Landing with an open mind and a back brace in my allotted two double-bagged trash bags of “ukana” (PKO for luggage). We form a line in the water and begin passing the bags and buckets out to the Pualele, a 33-foot fishing boat that comes within 50 feet of the shore. That’s the first lesson in laulima, or many hands working together, that becomes our way of life throughout the trip. We swim the rest of the way to the boat.
The water is calm and we have a smooth crossing marked by many welcoming spoutings and breachings from our winter whale visitors. The PKO Zodiac meets us off Hakioawa Bay, our home for the next four days, and we chant a request to land. Our group’s rendition wouldn’t have won any awards at the Merrie Monarch Festival, but the response is given, and Kaho‘olawe accepts us. We thank our Captain, Uncle Bobby, for the whale watch tour as we slide into the Zodiac. A minute later, we’re back in the water passing ukana in to shore.
After setting up camp, the pū (conch shell), which orders our lives for the whole time that we are on the island, calls us to the meeting/dining/kitchen area—a clearing under tarps, with picnic tables–for the first of many circles, holding hands, with one person offering the pule (prayer) concentrating our 48 individual energies towards a common goal. There are about a dozen kua (literally “backbone”– PKO volunteers) and another 20 folks from other islands and as far off as Germany, in addition to our Maui group.
One thing of which you can be assured when you’re with the PKO – you will eat well! These folks have been used to accommodating as many as 100 people on these accesses, for many years, and have meals, as well as everything else, really organized. Even the eight of us who were vegetarians had been well provided for, as promised. As hard as you work, don’t expect to lose weight on Kaho‘olawe!