Desolate and Beautiful Molokai

Desolate and Beautiful Molokai

It was like descending into a red planet. Picturesque, surrounded by the blue ocean and a cloudless sky, Molokai gave off a reddish glow in the late afternoon sun. As the tiny plane drew closer to land, we could see deep crevices of red earth exposed all around. One solitary truck, spewing dust raced along bare landscape. It was spectacular.
Solitude was my first impressions of the island; perhaps unsettling for others, but for me, it was a welcome release from the buzzing hectic life style of most cities. I had visited New York just before Molokai. With the island’s dwindling population of about 7,000 people occupying 261 sq. miles, compared to the 1.5 million people crammed into Manhattan’s 23 sq. miles, Molokai could easily give one a sense of being on an uninhabited island. Isolation was part of its charm.
Nicknamed the Friendly Isle, birthplace of the Hula, and boasting of being the most Hawaiian of the islands, Molokai had a lot to offer. Home to the Molokai Ranch and ecotourism, Molokai is Hawaii’s premier destination for nature lovers longing to escape the concrete jungle.
Greeted at the baggage claim by our driver from the Molokai Ranch, we were updated on the island’s history and its people. Assured that the inhabitants were friendly, we settled back on the transportation van and watched the surrounding landscape.
We met only two other vehicles during the twenty minutes drive to the Ranch. One of the vehicles had stopped in the middle of the road. Our driver first stopped behind the car, and then after a few seconds slowly pulled up alongside. I noticed that the couple were arguing. My previous sense of relaxation turned to unease. Fresh from the city, and weighted down by a nightly fare of television news violence and the like, I silently prayed that we would move on. Maybe I was overly cautious, but it was not easy to switch pace in half an hour. We waited for perhaps only a few seconds, but it seemed a lifetime before the car moved on.
The driver sadly shook his head. “My niece, they’re always fighting.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as I coached myself to relax. After all, I was there to enjoy nature, or do nothing for a couple of days. A few minutes later, we pulled up at our destination.
Ecotourism, a new word introduced by concerned citizens wanting to protect an environment, yet desiring to capitalize on nature does not come cheap. Occupying 54,000 acres, the Molokai Ranch had three camps; Kaupoa Beach, Paniolo, and the Kolo Cliffs camp. Each camp had its own unique character: Kaupoa surrounded a white sandy beach, Kolo was on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and Paniolo, where we stayed, was on the hillside with a panoramic view of the ocean.
Deciding what to do in two days was not easy with all the activities they offered: ocean adventures, mountain biking and horseback riding to name a few. We finally settled on a four hours Cultural Hike for the next day. After our camp coordinator confirmed the time, he took us to our tentalow; a bungalow-like tent mounted on a wooden platform. ‘Dinner will be served from 6.00 to 8.00 PM,’ he told us before he left. All meals were served in an open pavilion; all included in the package.
As we laid out our hiking gear for the next day, I noticed two fluffy-flannel bathrobes on the end of the bed. It was a hot day so I put them away. The lavatory and shower was a few steps out the door. No roof and only a kiawe tree silhouette the blue-sky canvas. I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures.
We still had an hour before dinner. My friend poured us wine while I set up my tripod on the deck. Private and spacious with a panoramic view of the ocean, perhaps three miles away, the scenery was awesome and stark at the same time. Blue sky merging blue ocean with the island of Lanai clearly outlined in the distance.
“Why are you whispering?” My friend asked.
Why indeed! Apart from the faint twittering of birds, it was silent. No human voice, no television (Molokai Ranch does not have television or radio) or traffic sounds. Perhaps it was nature demanding that I observe the silence. Turning off the camera, I happily sat down, put my feet up, sip my wine, watched a silent landscape and daydream.
Birds singing woke me up early the next morning. An orange sky was visible through the half opened flap of the tentalow. Surprisingly, the temperature had dropped around 7.00 PM the previous evening. Thankful for the complimentary warm bathrobe, I donned one on, hauled out my cameras and head out the door. Outside on deck, I got some stunning pictures of the sunrise. Soft shadows of pine tress dotted the landscape but it was not long before it was replaced by the harsh brightness of the rising sun.
After a breakfast of made-to-order omelets, we got ready for the hike. Lawrence, a Molokai native, was our guide. A tall tanned-skin man, he arrived on time with our packed picnic lunches and several bottled water. Lawrence pointed out the highest hill in the surrounding area as out destination. Once we left the camp behind, apart from a few earth-hugging trees, it was a desolate place. Rock piles, once dwellings of a thriving community were all that remained. Despite the brisk wind blowing, we were soon sweating.
Finally we reached the top of the hill. Lawrence said that it was once-upon-a-time a principal ceremonial ground in the valley. It was a sacred spot. Foundations of the chief’s dwelling and the surrounding structures were clearly visible. On the edge of the settlement, we stopped to survey the settlement layout and the view. From our elevated vantage point, we could see the whole valley spread out towards the ocean.
“From this spot, the chief would address his people,” he said.
I was taking a video of the surrounding landscape when suddenly Lawrence’s voice rang out in a Hawaiian chant. Out of respect, I had avoided taking pictures of this Hawaiian man, but this time I could not resist. Focusing the lens on Lawrence, we listened in awe. We may not understand the words, but the voice rang powerful and strong. Standing there with chicken skin in the hot sun, I could imagine the masses of humanity looking up at this figure on the rise.
Speechless and unable to find the appropriate word to express our gratefulness for a candid view of his past, we descended the hill in silence. Lawrence’s chant seemed to have woken up ghosts of his ancestors. A pervading sense of loss, irrational yet profound, hovered until we left the site behind.
We found a shady spot under a kiawe tree to rest and eat our lunch.
“This used to be a forest,” Lawrence said. We believed him, but it was hard to imagine anything growing in the dry acrid landscape.
Ironically, the kiawe tree that offered us shelter was a foreign import. Its beans had supplied proteins for another import, the cow. Tenacious and hardy, the kiawe finally claimed the land. Native plants and trees, unable to withstand the onslaught of the new plants and livestock slowly became extinct.
Lawrence explained their efforts to reintroduce the native habitat. The whole community and the school children were replanting trees all over the island. A formidable task to replant a forest in the sparse environment, but seeing the gleam in his eyes, I could not help but believe that miracles do happen. What happened to the 20,000 people that used to populate the island is still a matter of debate by anthropologists.
Two o’clock, we were back at camp. Tired but reluctant to waste the only full day we had left, we jumped on a shuttle to check out the beach at Kaupoa Camp. White sandy beach with only two other people in sight, we laid out towels and enjoyed the quiet. Apart from a kiawe thorn that pricked the back of my head, it was a fitting end for the day.
On our flight back, I took pictures from the air. Unlike our inward flight when I had thought the island picturesque, now it looked like a wounded giant. Deep red slashes of erosion glaring in the early morning sun. Closing my eyes, I imagined greenery hugging and softening the harsh landscape. Lawrence might not live long enough to see his forest, but oh what a dream!

Desolate and Beautiful Molokai

taueva faotusia

Honolulu, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

While on a short trip to Molokai, I was enchanted by the sparse landscape, its history, and expecially its people.

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