Old Sea Dog Paddles Again! The Na Pali Coast of Kaua’i


Everybody said that the North Shore of Kaua’i was the most magnificent part of the Hawaiian Islands. It features rugged, volcanic mountains with waterfalls plunging to the sea and long, white, sand beaches, the most extensive in the islands. And, the North Shore is relatively free of tourists who tend to flock to the glitz of Poipu on the South Side. All this tropical munificence has been the backdrop for a number of films including Tropic Thunder, South Pacific, Blue Hawaii, Jurassic Park, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is also the home of Puff the Magic Dragon, who lived by the sea at a place called Honah Lee.

Sue and I flew into Lihue, on the east coast, picked up our rental Focus and headed for Hanalei, 50km away. The one lane bridge over the Hanalei River filters out the big tour buses and is the gateway to the laidback town. Fields of taro extend to the base of steep mountains with waterfalls begging to be photographed.

There is plenty of accommodation in Hanalei, but we had booked a place on the Wainiha River to the west and near the end of the road at Ke’e Beach. Beyond Ke’e the Na Pali coast extends roadless and spectacular for 26km.

Early on our stay I gravitated to Kayak Kaua’i, a rental outfit on the Hanalei River with seemingly endless stacks of yellow sit-on-tops. For $28/day, I rented one of the craft and soon had very sunburned legs. I had never had much experience with SOTs and started on a very steep learning curve. Since you sit ON the thing, there is no real connection with the boat and leaning is useless. I didn’t see a real sea kayak anywhere on Kaua’i except for a forlorn pile of much-patched fibreglass ex-rentals out the back.

To compensate for the SOTs, I found that ALL the paddles were high quality with NO OFFSET! I used a carbon fibre Aquabound, which was a fine paddle indeed. I had made my old three-piece fibreglass paddle into a luggage-sized four-piece and hauled it all the way from Oz because of my previous experience with rental paddles, but I needn’t have bothered.

I paddled down the river to Hanalei Bay most days to surf, snorkel, and get ready for the Na Pali Coast paddle, “The Everest of Sea Kayaking” according to the brochure. It might be Everest in winter, with BIG waves, but in June it was more like Mt. Kosciusko. Anyway, I paid my $US205.44 (including landing fees, but excluding tax) and fronted up at 6.00am in a drizzle to drive to Haena Beach. EVERYTHING was furnished. Dry bags, PFDs, paddles, and lunch, carried by the guide. A trailer behind the bus hauled our kayaks, Ocean Kayak Cabo’s.

We drove along the coast past Pierce Brosnan’s house to Haena and got unloaded. This was done mostly by our guide, Doug Kilpatrick, and his offsider. The brochure guaranteed one guide per six paying paddlers so he was it for us. Our official party consisted of a Russian couple, the male member of which couldn’t speak English and smoked a lot, one other guy and me. It was obvious that Karl and I would be paddling together.

This turned out to be a very good thing, as Karl was a tri-athlete who had climbed mountains in Alaska and South America and had also been a kayaking and rafting guide.

Doug gave us an extensive briefing, translated into Russian by the svelte female half of the duo, the Ice Maiden. Boris seemed a bit hungover and didn’t grasp the picture too well. Not the ideal member of a team challenging the Everest of Sea Kayaking. I was even uneasier about the other boat on our expedition, soon to be paddled by a California couple who were 25 metres down the beach nattering to themselves. I pointed out to Doug that they were missing the briefing. He explained that they were just tagging along, having rented their kayak separately. The guy, Jim, had done the trip previously, but his partner Olina had only ever paddled once before, on a river. Being full of residual angst over duty of care and all that, I was uneasy about the situation for Doug’s sake.

We got shoved off the steep beach into a small shore dump and were on our way about 7.30am. We were scolded at first for not having our rudder down, but that subsided when Karl exhibited his nifty bow rudder stroke. The drizzle stopped and we paddled past the stunning spires of Makana, the Bali Hai of the movie South Pacific. A couple of kilometres of easy paddling in the light following wind and we were off Ke’e beach. This is the best snorkelling spot in the islands. I hung out with the turtles there on most afternoons. Ke’e was the last chance for any seasick paddlers to quit the trip.

Karl (mostly) and I had hit our straps and had the Cabo going well. (Or as well as you can go in a wide, draggy SOT). Doug, in his Scupper Pro, flagged us down to wait for the others. This was a new experience for me, as I am usually one of the “others”. The Californians soon came alongside and Olina flashed her great smile. Unfortunately, the Russians had capsized and took a while to arrive. The Ice Maiden looked suitably stylish in her bikini, but Boris was even unhappier than before, although it’s hard to tell with Russians.

The Russians were made of stern stuff and didn’t want to quit. I asked Doug if he had a tow rope. “Nope,” he said. “They just have to keep going.” He did say that in case of dire emergency, we could flag down one of the tourist boats, black monsters powered by outrageously big outboards. At 40 knots, they obliterated anything in their path, including sea turtles, which they referred to as “Speed bumps.”

So, we entered the wonderland of the Na Pali coast. It is truly a strange and beautiful world of sculptured volcanic rocks, waterfalls and huge sea caves. We paddled past a giant arch on a white sand beach, which was the backdrop for a King Kong movie in 1976. We drifted in dark caves where the water was an unbelievable blue from the outside light. Every point we rounded revealed some new delight. It was sunny where we were, but there were clouds inland, and the occasional rainbow appeared. It was like being on a giant movie set made up of all the Pacific Island clichés, but it was REAL.

At one stage, we paddled past a beach which was overhung by a large, wide cave. A bunch of kayaks were pulled up on the shore and tents bloomed under the ledge. I wished I were in one of them. This is not a coastline to do in a day. It is also possible to hike in on the Kalalau trail, a very tough slog that follows the route of the old Hawaiians who once lived in these isolated valleys. We saw one party cautiously inching along, high up on a cliff face.

The Kalalau trail ends in the verdant valley of the same name. In times past it was the home of many Hawaiians. In later years it became a hippy settlement. Now only a few ferals live there, dodging the law and growing pakalolo.

We stopped for lunch at Milioli. The beach is steep with a nasty surge even in the summer. Doug broke out the lunches he had been carrying: roast beef sandwiches, potato chips, chilled soft drinks and a big, delicious cookie.

While downing potato chips, I asked Doug how many times he had done this trip. He thought for a moment and then admitted to “about four hundred”. He was trim, fit and obviously loved his job. It was certainly an improvement on his previous occupation as a bike courier in Seattle.

After a leisurely lunch and a wander around looking at the old Hawaiian heiau (shrine) Boris put out his cigarette and we got back on the water. The paddle from here on was a bit of an anticlimax. The cliffs were less spectacular and I was suffering sensory overload anyway.

With Polihale beach in sight, Karl and I gave it a burst and flew up onto the sand, knocking aside the poor driver who was trying to help us. I wasn’t tired at all after the 26km, which may have been due more to having a triathlete in the front seat than my fitness.

The driver and Doug loaded up the boats, Boris lit up, the Ice Maiden almost smiled and we had a shower and more cold drinks. We knew we were back in civilization when we passed the domes of the Pacific Missile Range at Barking Sands. An hour later, we were back in Hanalei, after circumnavigating the entire island.

This was the first time in my life I have ever been on a commercial kayak trip. I have to admit that it was kind of nice. Was it worth the money? Absolutely! Just avoiding that horrendous car shuffle alone was good value, and the lunch was great.

The Everest of Sea Kayaking? The second best adventure in the country? Well, the paddle certainly didn’t create much adrenalin, but the SCENERY! Until now, the most spectacular coastline I had paddled was the Daintree or perhaps Alaska’s Prince William Sound. But Na Pali beats them all!