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Hawaii: The Big Island

Wet and Wild : Undeveloped and at times unwelcoming, rugged Waipio Valley is where the pavement ends and the jungle adventure begins


WAIPIO, Hawaii — 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 that drops down from the ridge at a 25% 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 served as the staple of the old Hawaiian culture. Along the edge of their fields, ancient paths hint of the days when the valley served as 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 down to Waipio, he said, "Whenever the surf's up or if I just want to spend some time alone."

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 day last spring, 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, a psychology Ph.D., former journalist and onetime 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.

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