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