KAUNAKAKAI, Hawaii — I never thought I'd go to Hawaii to climb trees and pet a giraffe on the island of Molokai.
But having braved the cliffs of Kalaupapa by mule the day before, I was primed for the promise of another Hawaiian adventure.
The road was rough, and dry earth spiraled in red dust clouds about the wheels of the van as we made our way toward Molokai Ranch Wildlife Park. Our sun-darkened driver and tour guide, Pilipo, deftly steered around large rocks and potholes in the road as if he knew where each one was.
Only 10 minutes before we had left the luxurious comfort and beauty of a resort with its miles of peaceful, virtually deserted beach, fringed with tall palm trees and grass as cool and inviting as the blue, clear water of the Pacific.
Quickly the landscape changed from the verdant tropical coastline to arid, desert-like plains covered with high, sun-bleached grasses, gnarled, almost leafless trees and tangled thickets of kiawe.
'Much Like Africa'
"The terrain through here is much like Africa," Pilipo said, making sweeping gestures at the wide expanse of open range on either side of the rutted, dirt road. "Especially Kenya and Tanzania," he went on, telling us how the wildlife park was conceived in the late 1960s as an environmental project to gather species of animals from other parts of the world.
It was hoped that their grazing would also provide a means of controlling the rapid growth of grass and brush on the 60,000-acre Molokai Ranch, the second largest cattle ranch in Hawaii.
Giant eland, Barbary sheep, ostrich, giraffe and greater kudu are just a few of the wildlife imported from their native Africa to the island.
From India and southern Asia came sleek black buck antelope and white-spotted axis deer. Exotic rheas from South America were added to the growing menagerie. These large birds resemble the African ostrich, but are smaller and have three toes instead of two.
Other animals included ibex, a variety of wild goats, sable antelope--which are absolutely gorgeous in the sunlight--and oryx, a large African antelope with long, formidable straight horns that project backward.
Shipped to Oahu
After a three-month quarantine in Bakersfield, Calif., the animals were shipped from the mainland to Oahu for a second quarantine, then on to their new home where they adapted well in the Molokai wilderness.
The preserve, which takes up 800 acres of the ranch adjacent to the Kaluakoi resort development on the west side of the island, became a tourist attraction. Daily camera safaris are about an hour long, with frequent stops for picture-taking and the opportunity to walk among the animals.
We jostled along in the van, anticipating our first sighting of one of the nearly 500 animals that roam the mile-square park, when suddenly Pilipo made a right turn onto another unpaved, unmarked road. Then just as suddenly, he brought the van to a stop.
Our eager eyes followed him as he got out and walked slowly toward a high wire fence. We watched him unlock the padlock on a double gate that blocked the roadway and, in a burst of welcome, call out, "Hello . . . hello, there! Luna, are you there?"
From the underbrush beyond the gate rose a seven-foot ostrich, her black and white feathers rustling as she ran to meet us, her long neck stretching out with each loping stride until she reached Pilipo, then darted past him to stick her head inside the van window.
Assortment of Food
I dropped my camera and wasn't sure if it was my voice or someone else's that was squealing.
Small plastic buckets filled with a curious assortment of food were passed around to each of us. The 350-pound bird, with an insatiable appetite, thrust her beak first into one container then another, feasting on corn, calf-manna and alfalfa pellets.
When the park opened to tourists the tour guides were unfamiliar with the animals and their habits, so food was dropped off twice a day and the vans of visitors merely rode through, watching from the windows. With no human interaction, the animals were virtually unapproachable, with many of the species vicious and unpredictable.
In 1981 administration of the park was turned over to Pilipo, who took a personal interest in the animals and their welfare. He would drive through the reserve more than five times a day, letting the animals watch him from a distance with their suspicious eyes.
A self-taught gamekeeper, Pilipo began a study of zoology, browsing through library shelves, reading everything he could find about the wild, transplanted creatures. He learned how to approach them cautiously and talk to them. Eventually he attempted to feed a few of them by hand.
A relationship of mutual trust developed. Some were bold enough to run up to the van when it stopped. Soon the animals became friendly and the boldest--the giraffes and the ostrich--would even pop their heads into the windows in search of food.