A soggy hike along Kauai’s Kalalau Trail

August 8, 2013

As we drove past Pierce Brosnan’s oceanfront villa on Kauai, our taxi driver turned to look at my boyfriend and me. “Kalalau Trail,” he said, “is trippin’. Man, that’s the real Hawaii.” He gave us the hang-loose sign, shaking his thumb and pinkie back and forth.

We’d gotten off to a late start, and it was raining hard. Our driver seemed unconcerned. He nodded toward the jungle. “Out there, you do whatever you feel like doing,” he said. To my left, I saw the faint edge of a mountain peak smudged out by clouds: Mount Waialeale, the wettest spot on Earth, the driver told us.

Details: Kalalau Trail, Hawaii

At the end of the paved road near Ke’e Beach, the taxi dropped us at the Kalalau trailhead. Leaving behind cellphone coverage and mundane daily routines, we began our ascent up the wild cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. Kauai is the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands, and the vegetation is tightly knotted and ominous. We were taking a leap of faith into what was once the backdrop of the film “Jurassic Park.” I looked up above me, half-expecting to see prehistoric birds swoop down from the canopy.

Instead, the rain fell. My hiking boots, intent on suctioning mud, soon became a pair of squelching blocks. Traction long gone, I was definitely “trippin’.”

Most visitors to Kauai keep their footing. They enjoy the beauty of the island through the lens of a resort or a popular beach. As stunning as these magnet destinations are, Kauai’s true treasures are buried far off the road. The Na Pali Coast, on the island’s north shore, is one such hidden gem.

And the Kalalau Valley is truly hidden. People seldom stray far from the end of the road to make the 22-mile trek out to Kalalau Beach and back, which some do in three days, as we did, while others camp for a week or longer at the remote beach. Day hikers and surfers frequent the trail’s first two miles on their way to the more secluded Hanakapiai Beach. But after Hanakapiai, the trail is much less used. From there, hikers are supposed to have permits (although we met few who’d bothered to get them). We were left with the riffraff of island tourists: bedraggled backpackers with mangy manes of hair.

After a few hours, I blended right in. The mud had decided to play a game of heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. And eyes and ears and mouth and nose. I was covered in muck, my hair plastered to my head. The real trouble was that, trying to prove to my boyfriend that I was a light packer, I’d brought no change of clothes.

Even without the extra outfits, with all my camping gear I looked like a pack animal. And munching on carrots as we walked, I really did feel like a scruffy mule clambering in and out of valleys. At least I’m getting the carrot, not the stick, I thought.

A mind of its own

From the two-mile mark at Hanakapiai Beach to the six-mile mark at Hanakoa Valley campsite, there was little of the coastline to be seen. It was as if we were blindfolded, making our way to some secret location. The trees all around us muffled our sense of direction. An unbroken chorus of eerie birdsong came from unknown perches. Thoughts of “Jurassic Park” reemerged as we plodded deeper into Na Pali.

That night we ate cold beans from a can. I felt cold. After setting up the tent, we’d dipped into the nearby stream. The water was icy. And it started to rain again. Still, we sat for a while, watching the water pour down the cliff with a guttural surge, only to disappear into the jungle.

Sam and I had planned this ad­ven­ture for months. We’d scoured maps, read blog posts, made detailed lists of gear and food to bring, talked to others who had made the trek, borrowed a water filter and even looked at weather reports to prepare as best we could. But just a few hours into this long-anticipated hike, I felt as if all that planning had been for naught. From the beginning, it was clear that the trail had a mind of its own. We had no choice but to buckle under and go with the flow.

I’d tried to model the Kalalau hike after my experience on the Inca Trail a year ago. We planned on two nights on the Na Pali coast; on the Inca Trail, I’d camped for three. The two trails share a similar history: Both are rumored to have served as ancient warrior training grounds. The Inca Trail also offers hidden treasure: The 26-mile trek culminates in the unveiling of Machu Picchu, the hidden Incan city.

Yet my actual experience on the Kalalau Trail differed greatly from what I’d encountered in Peru. For the 21 people in my Inca Trail tour group, we’d had three guides and 22 porters. While I hiked with my light pack, the porters darted down the path with towering stacks of chairs or clinking pots and pans. Camp was set up before we got there, and we ate gourmet meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But it was just the two of us on the Kalalau Trail. Our food and lodging was much more primitive. We were on our own, exposed to the elements and the wild terrain.

Soothed at Mile Seven

That first night, bugs buzzed us. We blew up our CamelBak water carriers for mini-pillows. They were hard but handy. My sleeping pad leaked. I could feel the root indentations on my back when I awoke.

In the morning, I reluctantly put on my sweaty T-shirt, and we left the wet forest, following the switchbacks from the windward side of the island to the leeward. And there, in front of us, was the ocean. No boats, no surfboards, no people, just the bluest blue below the terra-cotta-colored cliffs. Around every corner, Sam would exclaim, “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”

We moved with ease over the supposedly dicey Mile Seven. The path narrowed slightly, but I sensed no real danger. There was good footing, and moreover, the view was breathtaking.

Mile Seven, just where the guidebooks said that I should be filled with terror, was where I felt strangely soothed. I was severed from the stresses and work of home. Beneath me, the hem and haw of lava rock was long frozen. And in front of me, the ocean swelled for miles, untouched. My mind, the land and the water — we were all suspended, immune to man-made disturbances.

We kept our packs light the second day by stopping at the many waterfalls along the way. There we would filter and refill our canteens and CamelBaks and snack on trail mix. We picked up a hungry straggler at one point: Bret from Oregon. He was between jobs and had needed a getaway. The Kalalau Trail was the only place in Kauai where he could stay for free. (He hadn’t purchased a permit.)

His shoulders sagged under his heavy pack, and he moved slowly. I asked him what on earth he could be carrying. “Well,” he said proudly, “I got my two handles [of liquor], a six-pack, a camping stove, dried beans and rice.”

In response to my puzzled look, he continued, “I’m planning on staying with them Kalalau hippies. I got to have stuff to barter.” Our taxi driver had mentioned an old man, Alakai, who roamed the trail, but this was the first I’d heard of an actual community in the Kalalau Valley. Before we said our goodbyes, we offered Bret, who had no idea how to cook dried beans and rice, a granola bar and a couple of crackers.

Hippies on the beach

Not long after, the Kalalau Valley, sealed by a long white strip of sand, came into view. Pink and yellow flowers splattered the trail, and there was a magnificently sweet smell that I couldn’t place. Passion fruit, perhaps. On cue, with the pristine beach just up ahead, I heard, “This is the most beautiful place I’ve — ”

Mid-sentence, we’d run into three naked people strolling down the path. It was then that we realized that the beach to our right was not as quiet and deserted as we’d thought. Nudists were frolicking in the ocean, throwing Frisbees across the beach, doing yoga in the sand, all the while warbling and shrieking with joy. Bret’s hippies, I thought.

Recovered from our initial shock, we agreed that this was great. Everyone seemed so naturally in his or her element. Keeping our distance so as not to intrude, we slipped into the ocean along the edge of the beach.

After a while in the sun, we headed back to the trail. We stopped by a stream to fill up on water. A man bathed naked in a pool behind us. He hummed a tune; we didn’t bat an eye. That night we camped along the trail. We didn’t talk much. The sunset, the stars, the quiet — it was all extraordinary.

On our last day, the rain came down on the Na Pali Coast with a vengeance. Sam would still hop across the streams, from slippery rock to rock. I waded right through. It didn’t make a difference; we both ended up drenched.

We emerged from the trail looking as if we’d walked through days of rain. I thought back to the taxi driver who had dropped us off, sending us off with that Hawaiian hang-loose wave. We thought about calling a cab to give us a ride back to Hanalei, a town a little way down the road on the north shore, but we were still ready to roll.

So we decided to hitchhike the hour ride back into town. A couple from Los Angeles in a sleek Jeep Wrangler picked us up. The husband immediately told us his life story, saying that he’d just recovered from cancer and was living big. “I usually wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers,” he told us, “but I saw you two and said to hell with it. I usually wouldn’t rent a big fancy car, but I liked this one and I said to hell with it. I usually wouldn’t spend a week at the St. Regis Resort. . . .”

Tired and sopping wet in his spotless car, we were grateful that he was living big, hanging loose. We told him that once he was up for it, he needed to come back and do the Kalalau Trail.

“Why?” he asked.

I said: “Just look at us!”

Donnelly is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase.

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