Kalalau: Valley of the Lost Mangos (and Hidden Paradise)

November 15, 2010

Between my new girlfriend Laura’s repeated ravings about Kalalau and National Geographic’s beautiful pictures, I had no choice but to go and check out this “hidden paradise” for myself.

All I knew going in to this was that Kalalau was a remote valley located on the uninhabited Na Pali Coast of the Hawaiian island, Kaua’i. You reach it through an incredibly arduous 11-mile hike starting at Ke’e Beach and once there you are immersed in nature without electricity, running water, food, or toilets.

We obtained camping permits, prepared our camping essentials, and packed for our 6-day stay in Kalalau. Given the hike and Laura’s repeated warnings about its difficulty we took immense care to minimize our pack weight. We took a tent, two sleeping bags, two sleeping mats, a tarp, a cooking set, a water filtration system, a small plastic shovel, two portable flashlights, a lighter, heavy duty matches, a backpack water system and two water bottles (5 liters total), biodegradable paper, 16 power bars, beef and turkey jerky, a bag of trail mix, two small bags of tuna, two bags of macaroni and cheese, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, 8 extra duty large garbage bags (to protect the gear while swimming to the boat for the return boat ride), cordage (to fix the tarp), a camera, a swimsuit, one pair of hiking socks, two pairs of ankle socks, a sun hat, toiletries, one hiking short, a pair hiking shoes, a pair of hiking sandals, two hooded sweatshirts, a poncho, a first aid kit, extra batteries and a small fanny pack. That was it!

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Despite our best efforts, my pack still weighed in at 55 pounds (when all the water containers were full) and Laura’s at over 30 pounds! We decided to camp on Ke’e Beach on Sunday night right before the trail head to get an early start for the hike. I would advise those attempting to copy us not to make their first attempt at building a tent they have never used before at midnight with limited light. We finally figured out how to assemble the tent and promptly went to bed. Unfortunately, we barely slept that night as the local roosters mistimed sunrise and started crowing at 3 a.m. in a cacophony of noise that made it impossible to sleep. By 5 a.m. we gave up trying to sleep and packed for the hike. Most people do the hike in two days stopping at the 6-mile campsite in Hanakoa, but we were determined to make the entire hike in one day to avoid the nasty mosquitoes in this area and maximize our time in Kalalau.

The first quarter mile is on a relatively steep and narrow trail, which made for a good warm-up. There is a beautiful beach at mile 2. We refilled our water bottles and frolicked on the beach for a while before heading back on the trail. The trail is actually hard to ascertain in certain areas and we briefly walked in the direction of the local waterfall for by mistake. I also managed to drop my brand new Ray-Ban sunglasses. Despite searching for them for almost an hour, we failed to find them and moved on. The next four miles felt as though they went on for 100 miles. I kept thinking, “are we there yet?”! It took over 3 hours to get to the 6 mile site where most people stop for the night. We rested for a while and were lucky to run into some of Laura’s friends who had done a boat drop that morning in Kalalau and were hiking the trail back. They had delicious fruits and trail mix which they generously shared with us.

The remaining 5 miles did not feel nearly as exhausting, or maybe we were so tired we could not feel anything anymore. There was however an extremely hairy part at mile 7. The trail around the cliffs was completely eroded. To go through we had to hug the mountain, essentially dangling above a several hundred-foot drop into the ocean below. It was all the more harder to accomplish while buffeted by 50 mile-per-hour wind, carrying a 50+ pound pack, and having walked up and down a narrow trail for 6 hours! Fortunately we made it through unscathed! Kalalau Valley was a site for sore eyes with its gorgeous colors and amazing white sand beach. I was excited that we had finally reached it, but my happiness was tempered when I realized we had another mile to walk to get to the river, and another mile to the actual camp site. Funnily enough the official permitted camping grounds are located after many, “Area Closed, Do Not Go Further” and “Falling Rocks”, “Stop or You Will Die” signs!

When we finally crawled into the campsite at 4 p.m., we were exhausted, but happy that the ordeal was over. It has been said, many people experience a spiritual awakening upon reaching Kalalau. I can understand why, as the place exudes beauty and positive energy. Then again, as dehydrated, hungry, and tired as we were after an insane 10-hour hike, I think many would feel a spiritual awakening entering into a McDonalds or lying down on their couch 🙂

The valley had just been completely cleared for the annual goat hunt and we were one of the first groups to make it in, so we selected a nice camping spot with beach access. We set up camp, ate a light dinner, and promptly fell asleep by 7 p.m. The sun sets at 7 and with no electricity there is not much to do at night. We slept 11 hours and were up at 6 a.m. the next day with the sunrise. While we were rested, we ached everywhere and decided to take it easy that day. We read, walked on the beach, went for a swim and showered in the nearby (freezing) waterfall. Laura also went to meditate on “Sacred Hilltop”. Even a relaxing day involves a fair amount of activity as the river we pumped our drinking water from was 1 mile away and we had to get water twice a day – which entails at least 4 miles a day of walking for water. That said, after the grueling 11-mile hike up and down many mountains with a 55 pound backpack, 4 miles on a wide road on flat terrain with a light pack felt like child’s play!

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We spent the next few days exploring the valley. Usually, the valley is home to a number of local hippie types who call themselves “outlaws”. They squat illegally and spend their days avoiding the park rangers. They had left the valley for the goat hunt and we were mostly left to our own devices. Fortunately Laura, who had been to Kalalau before and had become close to the outlaws remembered most of the private spots, secret gardens, and scenic views. We witnessed, and drank from some of the last known virgin water sources on earth, bathed in waterfalls, and explored such valley hang outs (for those in the “know”) as: The Bluff, Big Pool, Outlaw Falls, Smoke Rock, Sacred Hilltop, Ginger Pools, and Mike’s Garden just to name a few.

After two nights, we decided to setup camp on “The Bluff” away from the campers. The lack of natural light made for wonderful star gazing! We even saw a “UFO” flying in bizarre air patterns (probably a military plane from the nearby air force base). We fell asleep on the bluff and had a restful night until right at the crack of dawn a helicopter flew into Kalalau, and started hovering right over us. We thought it was the park rangers who would land at the ranger station a mile away giving us plenty of time to pack up and leave. We stayed cozily in out sleeping bags, and to our surprise, the helicopter landed right next to us! The ranger came out and asked if we had our permits. (Most of the days in August were sold out of permits far in advance so we had only bought tickets for the day we hiked in, taking a chance we would be able to avoid getting caught for the rest of time by the local park rangers, who fly in to the valley by helicopter every now and then). It looked like our luck had run out only 3 days in to our trip! Somehow I looked trustworthy and when I assured him we did, he did not question us further. He just told us he was accompanying a film crew and needed us to leave. He also informed us that Kalalau was closing for the rest of the year for restorations in a few days (which we already knew). I am one of the last people to see Kalalau in its natural state. This winter Kalalau beach will receive a man made face lift and will never be the same. We set up our new camp near the mouth of the river and stayed there until our last day.

Despite not having internet, email, or Xbox, and being isolated for over 5 days with notionally nothing to do, I was never bored and only managed to read one and a half books. The reality is that surviving is a full time job! As you might recall, we had only brought 16 power bars, beef and turkey jerky, a bag of trail mix, two small bags of tuna, two bags of macaroni and cheese to eat. We actually ate 10 of the 16 power bars on the trail. After two days they were all gone and I vowed not to eat any more power bars for the rest of my life. By day 4 however, we had eaten all the food, and I would have happily eaten a power bar again 🙂

We had originally planned to live off the mangos that grow in season on the abundant mango trees in the valley. I had been assured, they were so good I would never eat a mango outside of Kalalau again and I was looking forward to gorging on mangos for a week! To my utter disappointment mango season had recently ended and most of the mangos were rotting on the ground. We scoured the valley looking for food and luckily found a hidden community garden planted by the outlaws. We found delicious super ripe figs, which we picked right from the tree. We also chanced upon a squash, which we decided to have as our entrée with some lilikoi (a local fruit) for dessert. Creating and sustaining a fire strong enough to boil water and cook a squash is a non-trivial affair. You have to forage for the right dried wood, branches, logs and leaves to make the fire. After many hours of getting water, stoking the fire, and preparing the food, relaxing to enjoy your meal, as meager as it may be, is an utterly satisfying experience!

I actually had difficulty documenting the trip. On the way in, I realized that my trusty Panasonic ZS3 with its 12x optical zoom’s lens cover had not closed properly and the lense was scratched (I have since bought a ZS7 with a 16x zoom as replacement). The camera could no longer zoom and the pictures were a bit fuzzy where the scratch was. I started using my iPhone 4 as the main camera. I have to say I was impressed by its photo and video quality. Even low light photos were amazing. It unfortunately met an untimely end when I dropped it in the ocean while taking a picture.

After six days it was time to go. I was ecstatic that Laura had organized a boat pick-up as I don’t think I could have survived the 11-mile hike back with no food! We packed all our gear in garbage bags, braved the “strong current, dangerous shore break, and high surf” which many signs on the beach warn you of and jumped in the water to swim to the boat. The ride back was actually gorgeous as we marveled at the beauty of the coast, its inlet caves, and cliff side waterfalls.

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The first thing we did when we got off the boat was head straight to Ono Burger (“ono” means good in Hawaiian) for an epic meal! I ordered two cheeseburgers, fries, and coke! I then promptly booked us a room at the St. Regis Princeville and treated us to in-room massages before spending the rest of the day relaxing by the pool. Funnily enough our one night at the St. Regis cost more than the entire week in Kalalau which only cost $44 in camping permits and around $100 in food and supplies! The next day our stay in Kauai came to an end. It was time to go kite surfing for a 5 days in Maui, the next exciting leg to our trip 🙂

I left refreshed, happy, and ever more grateful that capitalism’s invisible hand provides the answer to all of our needs; especially tap water, electricity, ovens, and food in supermarkets and restaurants 🙂

Overall, it was definitely a unique and amazing experience. I cannot recommend it enough!

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