Sunday, July 17, 2005

There’s a deafening silence inside Haleakala

I’m not in any way learned in geology, so the following is a layman’s explanation of how Maui came to be - based on leafing through a few guide books and brochures.

All of the Hawaiian Islands (about 19 in total) came about as the crust of the earth far beneath the Pacific moved slowly through the eons (plate tectonics) over a “hot spot.” A hot spot is a place where super-hot lava is rising out of the earth – in the case of Hawaii it just happens to be belching its way up underneath the ocean. (Another hotspot is Yellowstone National Park.) As the gigantic Pacific Plate moved northwest across the hot spot during the course of millions of years, the chain of islands was created one by one. The hotspot, I suppose has stayed in relatively the same place all this time, but as the plate moved, it carried the islands with it. So, all of the Hawaiian islands came from the same source – the oldest islands stretching out west, the and newest island being the Big Island which is still growing as Kilauea continues to erupt.

Maui started with a huge mound of lava that made a giant dome. Today that dome is the West Maui Mountains. After the eons of time went by, erosion made huge and beautiful valleys – like the Iao Valley. Later, in fact, a lot later, as the plate moved further, another giant dome was made, Haleakala. The lava flows of these two mountains met in the middle and made the isthmus that is today the middle of Maui.

Haleakala is big. It makes up roughly 75% of the entire island. Like its bigger siblings on Hawaii, Mauno Kea and Kilauea, Haleakala is among the most massive structures on earth – roughly the size of Everest when measured from the bottom of the ocean.

Haleakala is also considered an active volcano, though currently dormant. I was a bit surprised to learn that the last eruption was only about 200 years ago about a dozen years or so after Captain Cook arrived here. We visited the site of this eruption which is well down the mountain on the southwest shore of east Maui – a short drive past Wailea. It’s an amazing giant field on the easy slopes of the mountain filled with these giant reddish brown and black volcanic rocks. Where the fields meet the water the pieces of rock go from pumpkin size to golf ball size – sometimes making a salt and peppery mixture of lava rock and what looks to me like white coral.

When seen from below, the summit of Haleakala was completely covered in clouds during our entire week stay in June 2005. This is apparently a typical phenomenon that gives rise to the remarkable and diverse eco-zones that make up different parts of the island. The trade winds blow from the west toward the east. When they hit Haleakala, the air rises and cools creating clouds. These clouds shroud the mountain up to around 8,000 feet typically allowing the summit to poke through on the top. So, most of the time when one gets to the summit, one would look down upon a huge expanse of clouds. This also gives an eerie and beautiful glow to the famous sunrise on the summit – something we didn’t do. Maybe next time we’ll be more in the mood for the 2:30am wake up call to begin the drive up.

The cloud formation on the east side creates the dense, lush and beautiful rainforest that makes the road to Hana the spectacular drive that it is with and cascading waterfalls coming down most all the time. This side of the mountain can get a whopping 400 inches a year of rain. The west side of Maui lies in the rain shadow of the mountain and remains mostly dry and arid. On that west side is Kihei (where our condo was) and Wailea, the ritzier community down the block with resort hotels and golf courses frequented by the rich and famous. Just one week before our visit, the Maui Film Festival was hosting stars mostly in the swanky Wailea hotels.

The Haleakala summit at 10,000 feet above sea level general drops in temperature about 30 degrees and opens up a huge “crater” that is a both an awesome vista and a lifeless void that looks nothing like the rest of this planet. For me it looked most like the images of Mars from the Mars rover – and sometimes something like the moon. It’s a stunning site.

The crater isn’t a real crater because it was created by erosion, not a volcanic blast. It’s a landscape of black, grey and reddish rocky sand and contains a number of smaller reddish cinder cones within the main crater area which dips down about three thousand feet from the summit. To hike down the sliding sands trail into the crater is to take a serene and mystical trip to another world. During our hike, the crater was shrouded in fog that would blow by us. Occasionally – within a matter of minutes – the fog would clear revealing the colorful and bizarre enormity of the crater. Two minutes later visibility would again vanish.

We were passed by a band of horses taking some tourists up the trail to the top. I remember thinking as I watched them that the inside of the crater was a deafening, still silence. So much so that the voices of the tourists on the horses could be clearly heard while they were still just barely visible coming up the winding trail. We couldn’t help but be somewhat envious of the these horseback tourists (though not the horses) as the climb up is a lot tougher than the climb down. Although the trail is gradual, the altitude makes a big difference.

Within the upper sands of Haleakala are two famous and rare natural anomalies. The beautiful Silversword plant and the Nene goose. The Silversword – which grows only here and on Mauno Kea on Hawaii – is an interesting oddity. It grows with succulent skinny white leaves with a greenish hue that grow out from a common middle and sometimes extend upward on a stalk. They are famous for blooming only once and then dying – something that happens anywhere after four to fifty years.

The Nene are brown geese that probably originated from Canadian geese that arrived on Hawaii after getting way off course in flight south. After a separate evolution on Hawaii they lost most of the webbing in their feet and have become accustomed to the rather harsh climate at the higher levels of Haleakala.

We saw the Silversword but mostly near the observatory center at the top which looked to have been cultivated by the ranger service. Nonetheless, they do occur up there naturally. We saw no Nene – except captive ones in the Kula Botanical Gardens down the mountain.

Click here for my pictures of Haleakala. Also see special instructions.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Why nobody talks about Kaho’olawe

Looking out over the ocean anywhere on the south shore of Maui from Ma’alaea all the way up to Lahaina, the Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe is clearly visible. About eight miles from the shores of Maui, it looks a lot like the more familiar island of Lanai does from West Maui from Lahaina to Ka’anapali.

Kaho’olawe is relatively small, but not the smallest of the eight major Hawaiian islands. Ni’ihau, an island populated exclusively by native Hawaiians, is smaller. In fact Kaho’olawe is 11 miles long and six miles wide which gives it almost 30 miles of coastline. Still, it seems the island is so seldom talked about, I don’t think I had heard one word about it, and was barely aware of its existence, before our June 2005 trip to Hawaii.

So what gives?

The answer is simple. Kaho’olawe was seized for target practice during WWII, and we bombed it to kingdom come. It remains today virtually uninhabitable.

Back around about 1917 the island was leased out from the existing territorial government to a cattle rancher by the name of MacPhee for $200 per year – that’s about 55 cents a day. Not a bad price for a Hawaiian island of 45 square miles. The lease went all the way to 1954 with an option to renew. A Harry Baldwin bought into the island as well around 1922 and they jointly ran a successful ranch. In 1939, being in a patriotic mood, they agreed to offer up a small tip of southern shore for U.S. Army target practice. It was a nice offer, but may have been a mistake on their part … besides, let’s get real, no deal that good lasts forever. The day after Pearl Harbor the U.S. Navy evicted MacPhee and Baldwin and seized the whole island as there very own gigantic artillery range in the name of national defense.

The “good” news was that MacPhee and Baldwin were to get their lease and the island back (blown to bits) after the war. The bad news was that after the war MacPhee and Baldwin were told to take a hike and were never compensated. When their lease ran out in 1954 the island was appropriated solely for military use by presidential decree. Kaho’olawe became the most pulverized place on earth.

Luckly, Kaho’olawe isn’t rich and lush like the other well-known islands. It’s mostly dry as it sits within Haleakala’s large rain shadow and is generally too low to spawn cloud formation and rain as happens on the other big Hawaiian islands. The coastline is also made up largely of cliffs and there are only a few good beaches.

The bombing continued until 1990 when a native Hawaiian group finally managed to convince the government to stop, and the state took possession of the territory from the Navy in 1994. The U.S. Congress allocated about $400 million to clean up this mangled isle filled with debris and unexploded ordinance, yet the sum didn’t even come close to doing the job. Today it still sits out there as a big, barren wasteland. At present, there doesn’t seem to be anything that will prevent Kaho’olawe from remaining a giant dusty bump well into the future.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Adventures in Hawaii

If you’re ever in Oahu, and you’re the type of person that would patronize the commercial tourism industry, you’d probably attend a luau or perhaps make a day of the Polynesian Cultural Center. There isn’t anything wrong with these things, though despite what the glossy pamphlets tend to imply, I’d say it’s doubtful that you are getting an “authentic” cultural experience. What you are getting is a kind of modernized, moralized and Disneyfied depiction of an ancient culture. It’s all meant in good spirit, but I imagine the tourist machines must make the real purveyors of Pacific Islander cultures sneer. It seems, however, that many, perhaps even most island guests – with their Hawaiian shirts, leis (and Mai Tais in hand for the luaus) -- seem to take the experience as the essence of the Hawaiian or general Polynesian cultural experience.

One might compare this to the American perception of Chinese food. What most Americans think of as Chinese food, is actually a distinctly American food that is dished up with some Asian cooking techniques. Real Chinese people don’t eat sweet and sour pork, kung pao chicken, or crispy beef – yet they cook it up for Americans all over this land all the time. (Note, however, my favorite local Chinese establishment Pick Up Stix has a row of Mexican chefs lined up behind the woks.) Some Chinese dishes have some similarities to these dishes, but most food that Chinese people eat is simply too exotic for the American palette – and probably doesn’t have enough MSG and sugar added. I don’t think Chinese people tend to package their food in those little square containers either. But I digress…

At the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, you’ll see a depiction of various Polynesian cultures in a beautiful, immaculate theme park environment – and brought to you directly from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. In fact all the cultural representatives from the different Polynesian islands are actually students (converts plucked from their representative homeland) attending the adjoining Brigham Young University adjunct -- and undoubtedly you’re getting a look at these cultures through the church’s ever-present, though again generally well-meaning, filter.

One authenticity you won’t see at the PCC – or in any other show I know of in Hawaii (except the joint across the street from our hotel on Kuhio Street) is the nudity that was once a normal part of ancient Hawaiian culture. Going back a hundred and a half or more years ago, around the time that Joseph Smith was seeing his visions back on the mainland, protestant missionaries were working hard to mold the natives into a more “civilized” culture. Apparently, a significant part of the mission became the task of simply convincing native Hawaiian peoples to please wear clothes.

Just around the time of the end of the Civil War, Mark Twain journeyed to Hawaii on a steamship called the Ajax. It’s not clear to me how well known it is to the general public that Twain went to Hawaii (then referred to as the Sandwich Islands) or that he wrote some good material that offers among other things, an interesting historical perspective about life there in the 1860s. His exploits make a nice little book which I picked up at the Bishop Museum called “Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing it in the Sandwich Islands.” He took residence there for about four months writing articles and letters while doing extensive sight-seeing. The book has some characteristic humor that make it well worth the read. Take for example this section of text where Twain explains some of the problems with Hawaiian’s adjustment to this new custom of wearing clothing…

In the rural districts of any of the Islands, the traveler hourly comes upon parties of dusky maidens bathing in the streams or in the sea without any clothing on and exhibiting no very intemperate zeal in the matter of hiding their nakedness. When the missionaries first took up their residence in Honolulu, the native women would pay their families frequent friendly visits, day by day, not even clothed with a blush. It was found a hard matter to convince them that this was rather indelicate. Finally the missionaries provided them with long, loose calico robes, and that ended the difficulty -- for the women would troop through the town, stark naked, with their robes folded under their arms, march to the missionary houses and then proceed to dress! The natives soon manifested a strong proclivity for clothing, but it was shortly apparent that they only wanted it for grandeur. The missionaries imported a quantity of hats, bonnets, and the male and female wearing apparel, instituted a general distribution, and begged the people not to come to church naked, next Sunday, as usual."

In another section Twin writes:

“At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen. I begged them to come out, for the sea was rising and I was satisfied that they were running some risk.”

Twian’s writings cover a broad range. He tells stories about riding a lame horse on Oahu, looking at the live volcanos on the Big Island, seeing the Iao Valley on Maui, and even commentary about some Hawaii lawmakers. For example, Twain recounts a little story about a Hawaiian legislator who offered a bill for "the construction of a suspension bridge from Oahu to Hawaii, a matter of hundred and fifty miles! He said that natives would prefer it to the interisland schooners, and they wouldn't suffer seasickness on it.... Do not do an unjust thing now, and imagine Kanaka [native Hawaiian] legislatures do stupider things than other similar bodies. Rather blush to remember that once, when a Wisconsin legislature had the affixing of a penalty for the crime of arson under consideration, a member got up and seriously suggested that when a man committed the damning crime of arson they ought either to hang him or make him marry the girl."

I mentioned Captain Cook’s rather unpleasant end at the hands of Hawaiian natives (including what happened to his heart) in the last blog. Twain offered these details:

“His flesh was stripped from the bones and burned (except nine pounds of it which were sent on board the ships). The heart was hung up in a native hut, where it was found and eaten by three children, who mistook it for the heart of a dog. One of these children grew to be a very old man, and died in Honolulu a few years ago. Some of Cook's bones were recovered and consigned to the deep by the officers of the ships.”

When Twain returned to San Francisco, he felt his Sandwich Island adventures had ample opportunity for the podium and he tried his hand on the lecture circuit. They proved to be very successful for him. The poster for the event advertised: "Doors open at 7 o'clock. The trouble to begin at 8 o'clock."