You have an open day on the Big Island. You've already seen the lava spilling from Mauna Loa, you've had your fill of the fancy hotels of the Kona and Kohala coast, you've prowled the tidy ranch town of Waimea and the weather-beaten grid of Hilo. So you bear north on Hawaii Highways 19 and 240, and soon you stand at a startling overlook, staring down 900 feet at jungle treetops, a black-sand beach, free-roaming horses, a few scattered rusty metal roofs, a couple of 1,000-foot waterfalls.
This is the Waipio Valley, one mile wide, six miles long, emptying into the sea, accessible only by one very rugged road, which drops from the ridge at a 25 percent grade. In this small world, 45 miles north of Hilo on the Big Island's Hamakua Coast, development has never arrived. The jungle, fed by more than 125 inches of rain yearly, is interrupted only by a winding stream, tiny farms, muddy back roads and a few dozen rustic dwellings that house a full-time population of fewer than 50.
To peer down from the Waipio Valley overlook is to glimpse a sort of Eden-on-the-Pacific. And for those who venture down into the valley, Waipio offers a chance to hike, surf or ride horseback in a rare patch of raw Hawaii. Those who stay longer will gradually discover social tensions between those who depend on tourists and those who want them banished -- which is one reason why most visitors make the valley a day trip and leave it at that.
Many of the valley's occupants are taro farmers, whose muddy patches produce the root that was the staple of the old Hawaiian culture. Along the edge of their fields, ancient paths hint of the days when the valley was the island's breadbasket, supporting a community of thousands and, in the 19th century, occasionally housing the visiting King Kamehameha.
But Waipio lies low and exposed on the island's wet, storm-vulnerable side, and the valley was torn apart by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960 and flooding in the late 1970s. The threat of another tsunami, compounded by a profound local antagonism toward development and large-scale tourism, has scared hotel builders and others away. Hence, Waipio remains separated from the rest of island civilization by its single, rugged access road, which is limited to four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Within the valley, fewer than 15 rustic rooms are offered for rent to travelers (there are more above, near the overlook), and about two-thirds of the low-lying land is owned by the private, nonprofit Bishop Museum, which in the interest of cultural preservation rents about 200 of its 600 acres at rock-bottom rates to the taro farmers.
"This is my church," Markus Broyles told me one day on the Waipio beach. Broyles, a sculptor who writes poetry under the name Euripides Rips, said he had moved to the Big Island from Malibu in 1984. He comes to Waipio, he said, "whenever the surf's up or if I just want to spend some time alone."
Not quite paradise
But anyone who enters the valley should keep in mind that this is not paradise: River crossings can be difficult, tides on the black-sand beach can be treacherous, some trails can be steep and slick.
One spring day, after a storm had swollen the stream and tributaries, I scrambled up a trail near Papala Falls. The trail got steeper and steeper, until I was pulling myself up hand over hand with a guide rope secured to the valley wall, my feet groping for narrow, muddy footholds on the steep path. The waterfall roared. I climbed and sweated. Jungle sounds echoed in the thick canopy of greenery. Finally, I reached the trail's goal -- a rock outcropping and a pond that fed that waterfall -- and flopped down to rest.
That jungle canopy was a few hundred feet below me now, and the valley stretched out in a new perspective: no picnic tables in the foreground, no handrails at the precipice, not a tour bus for miles -- and not a chance that I'd avoid serious injury if I fell.
Hmm, I thought. This is the wildest corner of Hawaii I've ever encountered.
Then, intimidated, mud-smeared and bug-bitten, I climbed back down again, trying not to think too hard about my distance from the valley floor.
Like its landscape, the valley's culture intrigues and daunts, often simultaneously.
Tom Araki, 86, owns the only hotel, which boasts five rooms and one shared bathroom. Catch him on a slow afternoon and Araki can reminisce about the 1940s, when his late father opened the hotel.
Linda Beech, who has a doctorate in psychology and has been a journalist and a television star in Japan, has spent two decades building a rough-hewn compound near Papala Falls, about two miles from the beach. While a cat pads above on her tin roof, Beech rhapsodizes about the comforting rumble of the waterfalls by night or delves into details of local history.
This may make the valley seem a happy gathering of eccentrics. It is not. It's full of feuds, many of them between those who earn their living from travelers and those who think the valley should be shielded from all tourism. When they get angry at outsiders and each other, the tourist-wary neighbors of Waipio have been known to cut off roads, reroute brooks and string up barbed wire, occasionally forcing detours from trails that are supposed to be protected by the state for public use.
Beech, who since 1990 has been renting three units on her property to travelers (including an apartment-size treehouse 35 feet above the valley floor), says she has spent much of the last year wrangling with neighbors and county authorities over access to her lodging and its legal status.
In several miles of hiking alone I had only pleasant encounters, but local officials concede that a few hikers have been intimidated by locals on the public trail near Nanaue Falls.
Edge of civilization
The closer one looks, the more clearly one recognizes that in some senses, this place is a valley beyond the rule of law. Electricity and telephones are rare. Authorities acknowledge a substantial disparity between the number of buildings in the valley and the number of building permits. Then there are the whispers about marijuana crops nearby and the grumbling over the valley's various property and access disputes.
Most travelers view Waipio as a place to be admired from the overlook above, or to be targeted in a day trip, but not an overnight stay. The handful of local tourism enterprises that serve the valley are mostly built on that idea.
The Waipio Valley Shuttle, which has offered tours of the valley since 1970, begins its 90-minute, four-wheel-drive van trips near the entrance to Waipio Valley Artworks, just above the valley in the tiny town of Kukuihaele.
Waipi'o Na'alapa, which offers two-hour horseback rides on the valley floor, collects its customers at the same place, then takes them into the valley by van. (Neither tour company's vehicles, however, are supposed to venture onto the beach.)
Inside, Waipio Valley Artworks offers ice cream and accomplished woodwork and painting from Hawaiian artists.
The independent-minded and exertion-inclined can make the half-hour hike down the road into the Waipio Valley, and choose among several options.
You can turn right and stroll a few yards to the beach and hang out there, near where the dramatic Kaluahine Waterfall drains into the sea. Or you can follow a left fork off the main road up into the canyon and walk toward Hiilawe Falls. A 90-minute hike yields a close view of the falls, and an even closer view of the strangest, ugliest man-made landmark in the valley: the shell of an abandoned building that was to have been a restaurant.
The walls went up in the 1960s. When plans fell through, the developer passed the property on to the Bishop Museum, which has let it be. The mirrored walls of "the teahouse," as it's locally known, stand on an otherwise scenic rise, the glass spider-webbed by shooters and rock-tossers, the shards sending out odd glints of reflected sunlight, while the whole spectacle is slowly reclaimed by the jungle.
Hikers also can wade across Wailoa Stream (also know as Waipio Stream) as it empties into the Pacific and hang out on the often-empty beach on the other side. And once a hiker has crossed the stream, there are two other trails to ponder.
One is a flat lowland public path that I followed for more than a mile inland along the valley's northwest edge. It was on this trail's farthest inland reaches that intimidation of travelers has been reported. State forestry officials say it's safe, but a Bishop Museum spokesman suggests that hikers stay fairly close to the beach.
The other path is the zigzag Muliwai Trail, which climbs the 1,000-foot-high northwest wall of the valley. Most hikers turn back at the top after about an hour's climb. But the very hardiest and best-prepared (who carry water-purification equipment, waterproof tents and permits from the state Department of Forestry in Hilo, among other things) continue on the trail into the unpopulated Waimanu Valley several miles to the north. That journey, which takes two or three days, is counted among the most difficult hikes in all of the islands.
Even for the least of Waipio's hikes, a map is vital (Basically Books at 46 Waianuenue Ave. in Hilo is a good source), and a canteen is a good idea.
Whenever possible, it's wise to double-check directions and trail conditions with someone on the scene. If you don't, you could end up part of a scene like the one I encountered the first time I approached Waipio.
I was driving to the overlook from the neighboring town of Honokaa, and a paramedic waved me over to a parking spot by an orange pylon.
While I waited and my rental car idled, an emergency helicopter dropped from the sky onto the road before me, next to a fire engine.
"Lost hikers," shouted the paramedic to me over the roar of the helicopter's blades. "Second time in two weeks. Stuff happens."
When you go
* Getting there: The Waipio Valley is a 45-mile drive north of the Big Island's Hilo airport.
* Where to stay: For day trippers, options include: Waipio Wayside Inn (telephone 800-833-8849 or 808-775-0275) in Honokaa, a five-room bed and breakfast about five miles from the Waipio Valley Overlook. Rates: $65-$110. Waipio Valley Artworks Vacation Rentals (telephone 800-492-4746) offers three units within 400 yards of Waipio Valley Overlook. Rates for a couple: $65-$125 nightly. In the valley, Waipio Treehouse Waterfall Retreat (telephone and fax 808-775-7160) offers three cottages, each with cooking facilities, priced at $225 a night for overnight stays, or $175 a night for stays of two days or longer. Tom Araki's Waipio Hotel (mail reservations c/o Sueno Araki, 25 Malama Place, Hilo, Hawaii 96720; telephone 808-775-0368), which includes five rooms and one shared bathroom, runs $15 a person.
* Where to find food: All food must be brought into the valley.
* Valley tours: Waipio Valley Shuttle (808-775-7121) offers 90-minute van tours, with hourly departures Monday through Saturday. Rates: $35 per adult, $15 per child under 11. Waipi'o Na'alapa (808-775-0419) offers two-hour horseback tours of the valley floor at 9: 30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Rates: $75 per adult, $65 for children ages 8 to 14; children under 8 not allowed. Both companies require or strongly recommend making reservations at least a day ahead.
-- Christopher Reynolds
Pub Date: 9/14/97