A Journey to the Land of Kings

by Kirk Lee Aeder/IMOCO MEDIA INC.

The King Kamehaha Statue is a landmark in Kapaau Town.  photo credit: Kirk Aeder

For the most part, surfing on the Big Island of Hawaii is an early morning experience. Ask anyone who knows and they'll tell you the same thing. As dawn's first light makes it's presence amidst the towering volcanic mountain peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa Mountains, hard-core surfers are already on the road, heading for spots with names you've never heard of. Early morning brings perfection. By 10 am though, it's time to start planning the rest of the day's activities or patiently wait until the evening glasses off. The prevailing wind conditions can be brutal. No one said surfing the Big Island was easy. If so, the rest of the world would have been here years ago.

The Big Island, also known as the Orchid Isle, is the youngest in the Hawaiian island chain. The best thing about living here, other than the relatively uncrowded surf spots, is that the island is still growing! The Hawaiian Islands sit almost in the middle of the Pacific Plate, a volatile "hot spot" that moves ever so slowly in a northwesterly direction. For the past eleven years, an active lava flow emanating from the renown Kilauea Crater on the Island's southeastern end, has flowed actively into the sea. Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, is constantly in a state of creation.

One day, these same areas where lava currently flows inhibited into the sea, might well be surf spots of the future. Though creating, she has also destroyed. Close by, the Kalapana community has felt her power; over two hundred houses devastated; the infamous Black Sand Beach at Kalapana demolished; as well as the best surfing spot in the area, formerly known as "Drain Pipes" being overtaken by lava. Someday in the distant future, there will be a new Hawaiian island. Currently, "Loihi Seamount" is rising from the ocean floor some 25 miles southeast of Hilo and Puna.

Here on the Big Island, there's even "vog". A cross between fog and volcanic vapors that emanate from Kilauea's activities, have created a slight health hazard for some residents on the island. The only good thing it produces are the spectacular fiery-red sunsets. Such is life on an island with an active volcano. Frequent earthquakes and tremors only add to the experience.

Barren, stark, primitive, vast, desolate and empty. Those were my initial impressions about the Big Island of Hawaii when I first moved here over three years ago. You fly into the airport at Kona, which is built directly upon a 200 year old black lava flow that originated from nearby Mt. Hualalai. Driving from the airport in either direction you would swear you were on another planet, anywhere but earth. There's hardened lava everywhere! Long flowing intertwined fingers of centuries old brown and black ooze. The power of the legendary Pele is more than evident everywhere you look. One question immediately comes to mind. Does life really exist in such a vast and arid land? The more important question for wave seekers however is what about the surf?

The answer to both questions is yes, you just have to know where to look. Describing my perception of the Big Island today would be much different. Respect, awe, diversity, heavenly, powerful, and harmonious. If it sounds like I died and went to heaven then, you're probably right. The Big Island of Hawaii is truly a diamond in the rough. Especially, when it comes to surf. Of course, no one here wants you to know that. Yet, when you consider that the island of Hawaii is more than twice the size of the other Hawaiian Islands combined, there may be plenty of room, and waves, to go around.

Unfortunately, surfing on the Big Island is not that simple. Due to it's massive size and open accessibility to swells from all directions, there are an abundance of spots. Accessibility to them however, is the main dilemma. Owning a four wheel drive vehicle on the Big Island is the choice of serious surfers. If you don't have one, then you're quite simply going to be left out. Kona has it's fair share of decent surf. That's the civilized world though. Head south towards South Point (the southern most tip of land in the entire United States), or north towards the Kohala Coast (an area rich with Hawaiian history), and the surf experience becomes slightly more hard-core. Big Island spots are often remote meaning supplies become a definite necessity. Water is a must.

It seem ironic that the Island of Hawaii has remained so reclusive when it comes to it's hidden wave treasures. There are many reasons why. Nothing more needs to be said about Oahu, especially it's infamous north shore. Maui has more than it's share of gems. Kauai and Molokai have remained a bit mysterious over the years, but the masses are slowly finding out anyway. Often overshadowed is Hawaii, I mean the Island of Hawaii, is more of a enigma. That's just fine with the local surfers. The less people who know about the place, the better. With all of the Hawaiian cultural aspects that thrive hero though, the place is still somewhat of a mystery for visitors, but probably will not be for long.

Tourists visit and pour millions of dollars into the State of Hawaii's economy. That's how the Islands manage to thrive. Yet, most of the people who visit here see typical Waikiki or revamped Maui. The real Hawaii sits by, knowing that's it's time will come, and that appears to be now. One of the best kept secrets in the world is apparently no longer. The Island of Hawaii has everything all the other islands have to offer, and more. Where else in the world can you be surrounded by hot, pulsating red lava one moment, and on top of a snow covered mountain the next! There are thirteen climactic regions on earth today and the Big Island has all but two; the Arctic and the Saharan. You can be driving along and pass through deserts, fern forests, groves of coffee trees, macadamia nut orchards, hardened lava fields, wild orchid fields, and tropical jungle all within a few minutes of each other.

Raised in Kona on the Big Island, Shane Dorian provided the first hint to the outside surfing world that the Island of Hawaii had potential. Just being from the island was good enough. No pro surfer of any caliber unless you count body boarder Mike Stewart before him has returned so much recognition to his home island of Hawaii. Dorian has also shown that the Big Island was a possible breeding ground for young talent. Since then, Kona's Conan Hayes has followed in his footsteps. Now, they're setting the ASP circuit ablaze. They met each other years ago when Conan bought one of Shane's old boards. The two have been friends ever since. Together, they rode the fickle surf around nostalgic Kona. ÒBanyan's,Ó a formidable left-right combination breaking over sharp, shallow water filled with coral heads, was usually the choice. Here, the local crowd in the water resembles V-land in nature. Drop in on someone and you'll pay the price.

Across the horseshoe-shaped bay is "Lyman's". Prone to frequent speed changes, it's a long, often sluggish, but big left. Performance is the name of the game at either spot, separated by some three hundred yards. Dorian likes to tell the story that most surfers, who have lived here long enough, already know about. An estimated twelve foot tiger shark lives somewhere in the bay, often causing a panic in the water for those surfers who don't know he's been there for years and has never harmed anyone. It's good to note that shark attacks have been virtually nonexistent here, probably because the island's surrounding waters are loaded with marine life........big marine life! An example of this are the major billfish tournaments that take place annually. Fortunately, sharks are not part of the hunted creatures. Most stories in Hawaiian history about the "aumakua", seem to originate from the Big Island. These were animal helpers who were half god and half human, usually in the form of a shark. With this in mind, hopefully all the Aumakua off the Big Island are friendly. While there has not been an attack here in recent memory, sharks can often be spotted in the lineups at more recluse spots, such as mystic Waipio Valley.

Ask Shane or Conan about other good spots on the Big Island though, and you're likely to get a blank stare. No names, no directions, no clues. They would prefer you found it on your own. That includes a spot in Kona with a slight resemblance to Back-door Pipe, where coconut palms sway in the warm trades, and wild parrots squawk incessantly from among the trees.

"It has to be that way," admits Shane. "A lot of photographers have asked to come over here and shoot with me and I usually turn them down, not to be rude, but because of the wrath I'll face from the local guys. Not that it's THAT heavy or anything. It's actually pretty mellow overall. It would just bum a lot of guys out," he added. Instead, Shane's numerous pro surf friends have visited him, leaving the photographers behind. One surfer who has made a few visits here is Shuji Kasuya. In March of this year, Shuji made an appearance on the Big Island, and managed to get in some good sessions at Anaehoomalu Bay and Pololu Valley.

Keeping with Shane's desires, very few places mentioned within the remaining text of this article will reveal names and locations. On the Big Island, there are river mouths, point breaks, beach breaks, and some very shallow, nasty reef breaks. Perhaps the most epic spot, a picturesque right surrounded by a lush, uninhabited valley, is only accessible by boat or helicopter. On the Big Island, one thing is for sure, don't expect to surf at a lot of places with white sand beaches. In fact, there may only be just one, Hapuna Beach along the Kohala Coast. At the southern end of this half mile long stretch of white sand is Hapuna Point, a lodging right that breaks up to eight feet. Hapuna, which means "Springs of life," in the Hawaiian language is hardly a secret. It's currently the number one rated beach in all of America. Having a world class surf point here only helps matters. The winter months here are the best, and the more west in the swell direction the better. The Point at Hapuna is actually a 114 mile paddle out from the white sand beach. You CAN however, surf at places with black, green, or even gold sand. How's that for variety Speaking of which, variety is the name of the game here, whether it's surf or the numerous other things one can become involved in.

Take snow boarding for example. When measured from their true base upon the ocean floor, both 13,680 foot Mauna Loa and 13,796 foot Mauna Kea would respectively, be the tallest mountains in the world. Major storms often deposit snow at the summit's top. It's a sharp contrast to be standing amidst the warm sand at Hapuna Beach, surfboard tucked under your arm, and gaze up towards two massive snow capped mountains. Then the thought hits you, "Snow in Hawaii?" Most surfers on the Big Island have discovered it's best to have a snow board on hand too. You surf in the morning and head to Mauna Kea for the afternoon thaw-off. What possibly could be better than that?

While exploring for surf spots, it's best to keep in mind the incredible amount of Hawaiian history that presides here. British explorer Captain Cook was killed just south of Kona while trying to institute the policies of outsiders in 1779. Resistance was strong. The Hawaiians are a proud people, and most indications of this today are found on the Big Island. Ancient heaiu's (places of sacrifice and worship) are numerous, especially along the Kohala Coast where configurations of lava rock walls mark the ancient path once known as the "King's Trail." A youthful chief named Kamehameha controlled the Kona and Kohala districts after the death of his king, Kalaniopuu, in 1782.

Over the next few years, Kamehameha took power on the Big Island through a series of fierce battles with other chieftains on the island. In 1795 he began to invade the other Hawaiian islands, and in 1810 ruled all of the islands in Hawaii. He died in 1819, and rumor has it that he was buried somewhere along the Kohala Coast. The focal point of Hawaii's history, the Big Island is currently a reflection of that past.

It takes approximately six hours to circle the island by car never stopping! It would take three hours to drive from South Point to Kohala town along the northern most edge of the island. By comparison, on Maui you can get from Maalaea on the south shore to Hookipa on the north shore in twenty minutes. Inaccessibility to spots and long drives to the better ones, are perhaps the key reasons why Hawaii Island has maintained a low surf profile over the years.

One recent occurrence on the Big Island may change the relatively obscure appearance it now has. This occurrence even attracts some of the best surfers in the state including Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, and Brian Keaulana to name a few. They weren't here to surf, although they did manage a few sessions in between filming for the most expensive movie ever made in Hollywood history. "Waterworld", the recent Kevin Costner/Dennis Hopper film that was released in 1995, and was filmed entirely on the Big Island. Or should I say off the Big Island. The futuristic thriller takes place entirely on water, 500 years in the future, after the ozone layer vanishes and Antarctica melts. Several Hawaiian surfers played roles as extras and stunt men. Keaulana was there to ensure the crew's safety. In between takes, the surf crew could be found stalking the coastline for waves and wound up, primarily, at Anaehoomalu Bay; a fast breaking right. Suddenly, the locals who had such a serene place to themselves for years, found out how the other half lives. The crowd in the water had quickly quadrupled. The aggressive tactics left a lot to be desired. Everyone seemed to rejoice once the show finally left town and the locals had the spot back to themselves.

In all honesty, Hawaii island is growing in popularity, but at a very slow rate. Surfing here will undoubtedly someday feel a bit of the onslaught. The massive configuration of the island however, will keep the crowds at bay. Few serious "outside" surfers take up residence here. You have to want it bad. Unemployment on this island is low. Even those who do move here, find that you can live here for years, and still only know fifty percent of the surf spots available. That's all part of the mystery of the island. Yet, for those who seek, they will find the hidden treasures that await.

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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.