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Image: Hawaii
 Photo: Robert Hunt
Image: Hawaii
 Photo: Linda Bair

Hawaii: Searching For Koolau The Leper
By Nate House

On the plane from Honolulu to Kauai I ask a young Hawaiian kid reading a school book if he’s familiar with Koolau the Leper. “I’ve heard of him,” he says. “My father knows the story better then me.” However, he proceeds to tell me what he knows. He tells me that a man named Koolau took his family into the valley of Kalalau to escape deportation to the leper colony on the island of Molokai. He tells me that as hard as the authorities tried, they never caught him and he lived in the valley for the rest of his life. As the story unfolds, I sense that there is more to the story, perhaps because he’s too young or forgets certain details. What escapes him is that Koolau was a local hero, a man who faced all odds because of pride and morality. I ask the kid if it is difficult to travel to the valley where Koolau lived. “Pretty hard,” he says.

An eleven-mile trail follows the rugged Nu Pali Coast on Kauai’s North Shore, this is the place Koolau called home. The trail, just inches wide, flanked with hundred-foot drops into the Pacific, is the only way to get to the Kalalau Valley in the winter months. The valley is accessible by sea kayak in the summer when the seas are calm, but even then, there is always the chance of being stuck there because of high seas or heavy rain.

In the 1860’s, under the reign of King Kamehameha V, all those suspected of having contracted leprosy in Hawaii were ordered to the leper colony on the island of Molokai. More than 800 lepers were sent to the colony. The colony attracted visits from both Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson during their sailing adventures in the Pacific. London’s Tales of the Pacific has at least three stories concerning the lepers of Molokai, including a fictional account of Koolau’s last days. In his fiction, London describes how the families of the lepers would wail at the docks as they watched their loved ones sail off to die in exile.

I put on a pack, grab a walking stick and begin the hike into the Kalalau in search of Koolau.

The Kalalau trail starts at the calm beach of Ke’e—a sharp contrast from the harsh environment that exits just a few feet away. The trail is muddy, and climbs 400 feet at the very beginning. After the first mile, one begins to realize what lies ahead on the trip. It’s going to be hell on the legs, feet and lungs, but calming and tranquil for the eyes and mind. The black cliffs of the Na’Pali strut out into the Pacific, covered in a soft veil of mist. In the distance we can make out an occasional humpback breaching. The image of the whales diving and resurfacing reminds me of shadow puppets projected onto a wall. I feel equal parts child and adult.

Most recorded and oral accounts refer to this as the view Koolau saw as he took his family and a small band of lepers into the Kalalau. Koolau convinced them to escape the fate of the leper colony at Molokai and follow into the woods in the hope of finding peace.

As the trail continues it becomes apparent why Koolau choose this destination for his pilgrimage. This is no leisurely hike on the beach. The trail begins a standard routine of climbing cliffs, descending into lush valleys and traveling on half-foot switchbacks that when looking down offers nothing but an angry view of blue and white water crashing against black rock—a constant reminder of what could happen in the event of a misstep.

Regardless of age or physical condition, the trail is arduous. I can’t imagine a group of lepers carrying their worldly possessions on their backs traversing this path. Words that come to mind as I navigate the narrow path are courage, survival and lack of options. I feel courageous placing one foot in front of the other, but I’ve never been without options or had to fight for my survival. How a group of lepers hiked this trail I do not know. But I think about them now, as the trail opens up and spreads a view of the Kalalau valley before me.

Two green, thousand-foot peaks embrace an empty white sand beach. A waterfall flows through a vertical bed of green moss into a small pool near the end of the beach. The valley contains a canopy of mango and guava trees—testifiers that the valley offers shelter and sustenance.

There are signs that man was here before Koolau. Terraced walls made of stone still stand, once used by those farming coffee and taro. A trail follows the Kalalau River up to a remote waterfall that forms a clear water pool. Beyond that is the dense valley full of uncontrolled vegetation on which a large herd of wild goats feed.

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