I am blessed to live only nine miles from one of the most spectacular vistas on the Big Island, the Waipi‘o Valley Lookout. This day I came to draw with a friend. Waipi‘o looks different every time I see it. At some times of the day, the shadows fall just right on the far cliff, that I can see a trail zigzagging its way across it. After a rain, if I look carefully, I sometimes see thin waterfalls plunging down the sheer faces of the cliffs. Last week when I went, the valley and far cliff were clear. In fact, I could see the second cliff and even Maui beyond it. Today it is overcast with occasional misting, though we could still see fairly far out. Some days Maui is not visible at all.
This is the oldest part of the island, part of Kohala Volcano, and it has had time to weather with steep cliffs and seven deep valleys. None is as big as Waipi‘o Valley. It was never so clear to me how different this place is from the rest of the island until I saw the 3-D map at the Kilauea Visitor Center at the end of December. Waipi‘o and the nearby valleys are the sharpest features on the map. Waipi‘o is one mile across at the ocean, cuts into the land more than five miles inland, and is almost 2000 feet straight down at the back of the valley.
The parking lot above the lookout is nearly empty when we arrive. A three generation Japanese family is just returning from the lookout point, the teenage son helping his grandmother up the steep path. She manages with his help and by hanging onto the steel railings that flank the path down to the lookout. At the top she tries to hide a proud smile.
A local group of teens gathers in the parking lot to transfer everyone into a four-wheel drive truck for the journey into the valley. No one is allowed to drive that road without four wheel drive. They leave, and we are all alone.
On sunny days, the lookout is crowded with people taking pictures. But at times like this overcast morning, with the far cliff tops shrouded in mist, occasional rain-mist falling, it’s a meditation spot that can fully bloom with a sacred feeling. I hear the rhythmic sound of the waves slapping the cliffs and coming ashore in the valley below, I see the contrast of the frothy white surf on the black lava sand beach, I taste the mist on my lips and smell the wet air. We perch on a picnic table under a metal awning and take it all in. I forget my desire to draw, and just sit, observing everything around me, letting my monkey mind settle. The quiet seeps into my bones as I meditate, an occasional bird call piercing the air. My friend is deep in thought too, painting the quiet scene below.
After a while, the sky begins to brighten. The sun breaks through on the far side of the valley and I can see the second cliff and other features in sharp relief. Our private meditation spot livens up with a group of young people chattering and tramping down the walkway from the lookout, accompanied by a couple my age. They arrange themselves in front of the spectacular view for a group photo. I offer to take it for them, so everyone can be included; they gladly accept. The group is from Luther College in Iowa. It’s always nice to meet people from the Midwest, and we chat amicably.
They are waiting for a local gal who is escorting them into the valley. She will carry their lunch supplies with her four wheel drive, and they will walk down!
When the tour guide arrives, I take the opportunity to listen to her lecture about the valley. She starts by telling the group that she will chant, asking permission to enter. She has the group face the valley, women on her left, men on her right. It was a beautiful chant in Hawaiian. It’s only in the past 30 years that a concerted effort has been made to bring the language back. With the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, speaking Hawaiian was banned in the schools until 1986. It is unfortunate, as before that occurred, the missionaries translated their language into an alphabet so as to create a Hawaiian language bible. The Hawaiian royalty embraced literacy and within two generations the Kingdom of Hawaii had the highest literacy rate of any country in the world.
This young woman explains that it is her generation and younger that has once again embraced the language and customs of their past such as chanting and looking to nature for signs and direction.
She lives up on the rim, as do many of her relatives in Kukuihaele, the little village (about 120 houses) on the edge of the cliff facing the ocean. They also farm small patches of land in the valley, growing taro to make poi for their families. She says it’s a cultural practice and they don’t make poi to sell, though they do give it to friends.
While people do still live in the valley (estimated to be about 100), most people who farm the land live nearby because the valley suffered much destruction in the 1946 tsunami. During a tsunami, the valley channels the water straight back to the cliff walls and there’s no way out except that one road in from the lookout. However, the kings of old are buried in the sides of the cliffs and the land is culturally sacred and historically important to Hawaiian people. Because of the mana of the kings buried there, they believe that the valley is a safe place. Indeed, no one died there during the 1946 tsunami.
She went on: this was the Valley of the Kings (Ali‘i ). Even today, you can find Heiau (temples) on the cliffs. The valley contained one of the places of refuge on the island. One still exists on the west side, south of Kona. If you broke the law, but could reach the Place of Refuge, you would be safe. You spent your time “doing rehab” until the Kahuna (priest) felt you had ‘done your time.’ Once set free, you were forgiven. The biggest problem was getting to the refuge in the first place, as the King’s fastest runners would be chasing you. If you made it, once forgiven, you’d likely be hired by the King as a runner.
Two notable Kings who lived there, were Liloa and his son, Umi. Liloa was the first King to pull all the warring groups together under one rule on the Big Island in the 1300s, five centuries before the reign of King Kamehameha. Liloa moved to the valley and reigned over a productive taro growing area that provided for the whole island in times of famine.
Liloa’s first son Hakau, his heir, was born of a wife who was a high Ali‘i (of the royalty class). He was powerful but mean. If he found that someone was considered more handsome than him, he would have them killed. The people were afraid of him.
Umi was Liloa’s son by a lower ranked Ali‘i wife. When Umi found out who his father was, he went to him and chanted his genealogy to show his lineage. Liloa accepted him as his son.
Chanting genealogy was one way that Hawaiians of old understood their personal history, since their language was not written. When the Hawaiian language was banned in the schools (1896 – 1986), it began to die out. Genealogical chanting has resumed, and the guide said that most Hawaiian children today can chant their genealogy back at least four or five generations. Some can go all the way back to King Kamehameha or King Umi on the Big Island.
Umi was helpful to all and the people loved him. When Liloa died, he split his power, giving the political power to his first son and the spiritual power to Umi. It was the first time that these powers had been split apart. Ultimately Umi overthrew Hakau.
Coming back to the present, the local guide told the group that most of the land in the valley is owned by Kamehameha Schools along the cliffs and beach, and the Bishop’s Estate in the center. The Bishop’s Estate grants local people who have historic ties to the valley permission to farm it. This is not a park – it is private land, so they need to stay on the road. Vehicles coming up have priority over vehicles going down or pedestrians. She recommended staying on the cliff side of the road, as there have been some ugly incidents with pedestrians finding themselves between a truck and the wall. I even witnessed trucks hugging the wall as they traversed downhill – clearly on the wrong side of the road.
Finally, she gave them a word of encouragement: “For our school, going down and up that road was our PE class. You can do it. Your legs may be shaky, but you can do it.” Personally, I would not attempt it. The road has an average 25% grade, as it drops 800 feet in 0.6 miles.
As the hikers from Luther College marched down the road, we waved them off. More tourists came to the lookout, took their token pictures, and climbed back up the hill to the parking lot. I have been that tourist. But now that I live here, I could make this lookout something more. I could come here to do my reflective writing – perhaps it would be richer. At any rate, the experience would encourage serenity.
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Aloha Diane….aAs you know we live less than a mile from the Waipio Lookout. One of my favorite times to go to the Lookout is about 9pm. No one but me will be there. I find I do my best reflective thinking there at that time. The Valley at night is different each time I go. New Moon or Full Moon the Valley is fascinating. The surf is beautiful. I can see the lights of the Menehune among the trees in the Valley. One night I was sitting in silence on the retaining wall with my feet dangling into the Valley, watching the sites of the Valley below, deep in thought, when apparently a cat jumped into the trash barrel beside the building that houses the lavatories! I say it was a cat but I never found the being that rattled the trash barrel and startled me. I have gone back many times but have not yet figured out if there was a meaning for me in the noisy barrel incident! Anytime you and your family want to journey into the valley, just let us know. We would be more than pleased to take you in our 4×4 truck. We have seat belts for 6.
Kim, I hadn’t even thought about going at night. Now I’m anxious to see it in the moonlight. And YES, we’d love to take you up on your offer to drive us down into the valley. We really didn’t understand what we were seeing when we took the horseback tour as tourists. As I learn more about Hawai’i, I continually see it with new eyes. Mahalo.
Hi Diane! We are happy you would like us to take you into the Valley some time. All we need to do is decide when!
Diane, that was a beautiful article. I learned more about Waipio then I’ve ever known. I even went on one of those horse drawn tours once a long time ago. I’m curious about the temples on the cliff walls. I’ll have to look into that. Your stories are always so well written, I always look forward to them.
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Thanks for the feedback on horseback riding in the Valley. I will suggest & join my friends who will be here for the next three days. If anyone extends an offer to us, I would definitely accept as I only have an AWD older model Subaru. Sherri
Sherri, Alas, I don’t know anyone with the right vehicle. The last time I was down in Waipio Valley was while we were still visiting the island. I got stuck going horseback riding with the girls because a parent had to accompany minors. My husband is allergic to horses, or so he said. The horseback riding company meets you at the top and drives you down.