Wild Forests of the Gods

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

The Rare Iiwi Bird

The word for wealth and prosperity in the Hawaiian language is 'wai-wai', 'water-water' or 'abundant water'. Young Pele might well reside over the fire of the volcano; with the life-giving power of water the old gods continue their legacy in the wild rainforests and remote valleys of Hamakua and Kohala. Here, with supernatural force, they summon down the rains, sheltering Mauna Kea in a blanket of snow which in due time will melt. Gushing waterfalls and magnificent torrents pour down to the ever thirsty taro plant, older than man and woman, the staff of life for the Hawaiian people.

The mountains that channel this sacred water are inaccessible and dark; the coastline is stark, with sheer and forbidding cliffs, permanently eroded and ribboned with silver liquid drama. The waterfalls of Hawaii, filled with the splendor of nature and dizzy with the legends of mythology are often hidden, but there are some breathtaking openings, cloistered in the wilderness, quietly inviting those who wish to view the ancient mystery.

A new secluded location opened up only five months ago. South from Waipio, about 14 miles before Hilo on Highway 19, the World Botanical Gardens now offers access to the dramatic and gorgeous Umauma Falls. The 300 acre Garden Project is still in its first stages but has the potential to change this desolate sugarcane field into an exciting botanical venture. The owners envision 30,000 species of plants, as well as a unique Wedding Grove where newly-weds and not-so-newly-weds can plant their own memorial native Hawaiian Tree. Umauma Falls shows the immense power of erosion at its peak: The three separate falls cascading down will soon merge into one tremendous torrent rivaling neighboring Akaka Falls. In the background, staged by Beauty itself, the sharp outline of Mauna Kea's summit, rolls toward you. On a clear day, Umauma's valley walls appear as mere side curtains for the grandiose play of Falls and Mountain.

Further down Hwy. 19 toward Hilo, Rd 22 leads to Honomu. Follow this road to nowhere, through deserted ghostlike cane fields and past an occasional lonesome horse. You will suddenly drive into the 65 acre Akaka Falls State Park. Here are the famous Akaka Falls which drop 442 feet into a fairylike plunge pool. The edges are cradled by lush heleconia, orchids and ferns. Bamboo, striped bright yellow and green and as thick as a man's wrist, shields it from the sun and rain. Gingerplants, 15 feet tall, tower toward an ever-changing sky. The Akaka Falls are twice the height of the Niagara Falls. The dense basalt of the rock's wall has resisted the forces of erosion while the pool below, supported by softer stones, has eaten a deep cavity. Akaka Falls can swiftly change from furious steel sheets to misty silver ribbons of rainbow liquid. An easy trail over wooden bridges and past bubbling creeks leads to Kahuna Falls, tumbling 400 feet down. Secluded by cliffs overgrown with wild orchids, they are truly the 'hidden falls of the wise'.

Just before downtown Hilo flows the Wailuku river. It gently cascades over a total drop of 200 feet, rushed forward by three dramatic falls. Wai-anuenue, or Rainbow falls, drop an enchanting and spectacular 80 feet into a deep, large pool. With its enormous lava boulders and hollow deep caves, it invokes visions of times before humans ever set foot on Hawaiian ground. When the torrent of water hits the river below, the reflecting mists throw myriads of rainbows in the air. Morning light creates magic. Underneath the pool, so it is said, lives Hina, the mother of Maui.

Further upstream, at Pe'epe'e Falls State Park, water and fire continue their never-ceasing ribaldry. The park, despite its treasures, lies mostly deserted. A lonely golfer hits a practice ball. A few children play on the grass. Behind them, long ago, hot molten lava, as if it had giant paws, pitted the riverbed. The water spills over these deep imprints as if to extinguish the fires in the belly of the earth. This bizarre interplay appears as a series of bubbling rapids. Boiling Pots we call them today. Pe'epe'e Falls itself, just upstream, augments the drama. In three to five separate ribbons it spouts into Wailuku River, crashing over the pools, to join the impatient ocean in the distance. The third true fall in Wailuku, Waiale, gushes down, further up toward the bridge. The narrow road leads you deeper and deeper into the heart of old Hilo's farms, where time ceased long ago.

Hamakua is the land of tall cliffs and abundant rain. Hilo averages 128 inches of rain per year! All along its coastline back to Waipio, invisible waterfalls, in their never-ceasing motion, tumble down. At Honoka'a, follow Rd 240. Here, the fearless traveler can hike down into deep and broad Waipio Valley. Look up at its immense falls and sense the deep mystique that surrounds old Waipio, valley of the kings. In the far back tumbles Hi'ilawe, 'lift and carry', the highest free-fall waterfall in Hawaii and one of the highest in the world. It drops 1200 feet into a stream which meanders over the valley floor, merging with the ocean at a large black sand beach. Long, long ago the god Lono came to Hi'ilawe to find himself a bride. When he saw his beautiful maiden, Kaikilani, living in a breadfruit tree at a pool in the distance, he cast a rainbow to her heart and traveled down to carry her away. Hi'ilawe's water has been diverted for irrigation, so that only one of its two spouts cascades abundantly.

All over, however, Waipio's 2000 feet of towering lava walls are bejeweled with green emerald trees and silver threads of water, the marriage of forest and falls. Closer to the beach, facing the stream and looking upward to the look-out point, tumbles Ka-luahine, 'the old lady', in a majestic 620 feet drop.

At Waipio the Kohala mountains start, its valleys so deep and rugged that no road leads through. Here too, awe-inspiring waterfalls cascade down the harsh mountain sides. These mountains, now unforgiving, were once immensely populated. There are traces of old taro terraces in the remote depths of this rugged land. In Pololu, on the Kohala side, and Waimanu, on the Hamakua side, people continued living up till the 19th century. Then the prospect of easier lifestyles lured even the strongest farmers away. To go through these mountains today, the traveler must drive from Waipio, via Waimea, to the town of Kapaau on the other side.

At Pololu, one can see on a clear day the immense falls of Oniu, Ohiahuea and Waikaloa. Chiseled by the winds and pounded by the waves, the cliffs of the Kohala mountains offer a fierce glimpse into the heart of the Hawaiian wilderness. The sometimes gentle rivers and falls of Hamakua and Kohala can also ravage and kill all life they encounter.

The water that gives life and brings food, belongs truly to the wild forests of the gods.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.