Kayaking Kauai’s Na Pali Coast [20]

By Jacqueline Windh

“Boss, de plane, de plane!”

Remember little Tatoo, from TV’s Fantasy Island? And remember the backdrop to the show? A rugged coastline with narrow waterfalls cascading down lush green cliffs into the turquoise sea… That is Kauai’s isolated Na Pali Coast.

I decided to buy my Feathercraft folding kayak in April last year. I had only been kayaking once in my life, six years previously, on a two-day guided tour through the Whitsunday Islands. From that moment I was hooked, even though I did not have the opportunity to do any more paddling. I was never at a stage in life that I was living in one place long enough to bother buying a kayak and could afford to buy a car to transport it.

Then last year I found out about folding boats…the perfect solution to my mobile life, flitting between my Australian home and my native Canada (with necessary stops at various Polynesian Islands). So I phoned Feathercraft in Vancouver, ordered my boat, then started investigating which Polynesian island to take it to on my way back home. I very quickly settled on Kauai.

Kauai is the westernmost of the accessible Hawaiian islands. (Niihau, further west, is privately owned). The Hawaiian islands get progressively younger to the east. The easternmost Big Island is still being formed, and is the site of spectacular present-day volcanic activity. Kauai is one of the oldest Hawaiian islands. Most volcanic activity there stopped about 5 million years ago. Since that time, erosion due to wind and waves has sculpted the spectacular cliffs and canyons that Kauai is famous for.

I had wanted to visit Kauai for years, after the visit of a respected friend who raved about its rugged beauty and its isolation. Its northern coast, the Na Pali Coast, consists of shoreline so steep that no road traverses this part of the island. In fact, half of this 22 km section of coast is not even accessible on foot! Kayaking provides the only easy access to the region.

The other reason I chose to visit Kauai was because, being a novice paddler, I wanted to go somewhere that I would be able to meet other people to paddle with. While still in Australia, I called up local outfitters Kayak Kauai, based at Hanalei at the eastern end of the Na Pali Coast. I spoke to co-owner Micco Godonez – he said just to show up there, prepared to camp, and promised that I would meet lots of interesting people.

I arrived in Kauai towards the end of August (late summer), with plans to stay for eight days. Micco arranged for someone who was driving the 50 km from Lihue, where the airport is, up to Hanalei, to pick me and my kayak up. I set up my tent near the shop, and looked at a few maps with Micco and friends that evening. I spent the next few days paddling on the river and the ocean, and making some wonderful paddling friends. After a few days of acclimatisation, the serious paddling started…

I had been hanging out to do the Na Pali Coast. Access to the area is restricted, and you must apply for camping permits (with photo ID) in advance, whether hiking or paddling. I did not have a permit, and wasn’t going to be around long enough to get one. But paddling the coast both ways, i.e. 44 km, was a bit much for me, considering chances were that I would be battling a strong headwind on the way back. Finally the day came that Micco was running a day trip along the coast, from the end of the road at Haena (just west of Hanalei) to where the road picks up again at Polihale. A van would meet us at Polihale, and transport paddlers and boats back to Hanalei. I gladly signed up.

We launched into gentle lapping waves from the beach at Haena. As “experienced” paddlers (i.e. we had been in kayaks before), our guide Mike asked my partner Belinda and me to help out, and round up the back of the group.

It was a still day…without the usual easterly tailwind it would be a bit of a harder paddle, but the trade-off was getting a clear view of the ocean bottom. The water was brilliant turquoise and very clear – we saw several green sea turtles as we paddled over the reefs from Haena.

The scenery was everything I’d expected. In spite of having the limbs torn from the trees by Hurricane Iniki less than a year before, the terrain was incredibly lush. The entire coast consists of cliffs, some tumbling straight into a pounding sea, and some with gleaming white beaches at their foot.

For me, the most exciting part of the trip was the sea caves, eroded deep into the volcanic cliffsides. Most of the caves were very safe to paddle in, at least that day. (Micco has other stories to tell!). Each cave was different – some were huge gaping holes with their roofs collapsed, some were narrow with only minimal room to turn around, and one curled around to a separate exit further along the coast. Many had waterfalls either inside them, or as welcome freshwater showers over the cave mouth.

We passed several white sand beaches nestled at the bottom of the cliffs – Ke’e, Hanakapiai, and idyllic Kalalau. Kalalau marked our halfway point, and is the end of the hiking trail. Everything ahead of us was accessible only to kayakers. The surf was roaring at Kalalau, so we continued on to the next sheltered beach at Nualolo Kai for our lunch stop.

After filling our guts and sprawling in the sun for a while, Mike showed us the remains of an ancient Polynesian settlement. Nualolo Kai once supported a thriving fishing and agricultural community. The stone walls that formed the food storage area, and part of the heiau, or temple, were still preserved. A small stone-walled spring still contained some fresh water, and the areas excavated to cultivate taro could still be seen. This settlement was occupied only a few centuries ago. Apparently some of the Na Pali Coast’s steep valleys contain remains of settlements that pre-date the Polynesian settlement of Hawaii (c. 400 AD). It is not known who these early inhabitants of Hawaii were.

Sufficiently rested, we re-loaded our boats and continued the last 7 km to Polihale. All parties safely negotiated the surf. In varying states of exhaustion (most people on the trip had never paddled before) we loaded the van and trailer, and drove around to Hanalei.

I spent the next few days leisurely paddling and sailing with my new friends. For my last evening in Kauai, Mike arranged for a moonlight paddle around the northeast corner of the island. Here, the cliffs face directly towards the oncoming swell and wind, and conditions get pretty hairy. We set out from the river at Kalihiwai, just east of Hanalei, at sunset, and explored the cliffs and a seacave in the fading light. The sun had set by the time we rounded the point at Kilauea Lighthouse.

Around the point conditions suddenly changed, and we were tossed and thrown around by the erratic waves rebounding from the cliffs. It was great! In the last purple light as darkness fell, Mike took us through a cave that made me really glad I was not in my own boat (I was in a near-indestructible plastic sit-on-top-of number). The cave was double-ended, and oriented parallel to the shoreline, with a beach at either end. The surf roared upon the the beaches, curled into both ends of the cave, and met in the middle in a shower of spray. I trusted Mike, and followed him in. A wave roared in behind me as I neared the middle. I was tossed all around with my head near the roof. Just as quickly, the wave sucked out, and I felt the boat bottom out on rocks. As the water rose again, I dug my blades in and followed Mike out the other side. I hung out with him in the surf zone for about two seconds, then dashed back through the cave and landed at the beach.

The next morning, our last morning together, Mike, Belinda and I paddled out to a quiet beach just out from Hanalei. Just as we beached our boats, a dophin lept out of the water. (I have to confess, I thought it was a tuna). The dolphins here are very different to Australian or Canadian ones. They are smaller and paler grey than dolphins here. They are called Hawaiian Spinners, and with good reason. They leap out of the water and, rather than doing the usual flipping type of somersault, they corkscrew their body, spiralling upward, landing with a slap on the water (that’s why I thought it was a tuna).

As we looked for it to come up again, another one lept up, then another. We jumped back into our boats and raced towards them. As we approached them, the size of the pod became apparent – there were about one hundred of them, suddenly all around us, leaping and spinning. I kept my speed up, and suddenly they were swimming with me, along side and under me, bobbing up for breaths. Belinda stopped paddling and lept out of her boat to swim with them. But as soon as we stopped paddling they moved ahead and left us.

That experience was magic. Paddling with wild dolphins – they came to me! Did they know it was my last day?

That was almost a year ago. Since then, letters have been flying across the Pacific regularly, between Belinda in California, Mike and others in Hawaii, and me Down Under. Not much time to go now…the Feathercraft and I have seen a fair bit of ocean since that trip. We’ll catch up with Belinda for three weeks in California and Mexico in early August, then with Mike (who will get permits for an extended trip to Paradise, I mean Kalalau) in August and September. If anyone needs paddling contacts in British Columbia, California or Hawaii, get in touch with me.

If you are planning to go to North America, make sure you stop through Kauai! The folks at Kayak Kauai rent boats and lead guided trips. (They also rent mountain bikes). You can contact them at P.O. Box 508, Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii USA 96714, or phone Micco’s shop on 0011-1-808-826-9844, or fax 0011-1-808-822-0577.