It's paradise the hard way: Take a hike in Hawaii

March 14, 1993|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Contributing Writer

For $150, a helicopter will whisk you over the island of Kauai so you can take pictures of the spectacular cliffs of the Na Pali coast and the deep gorges of Waimea Canyon -- both rapidly regenerating from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Iniki last September.

Had you been zooming in on those wilderness areas at just the right moment, you might have seen 17 hikers making their slow way along the muddy trails that zigzag up the coast and into the canyon. The hiker bringing up the rear, coated in mud and gulping for breath on the steep inclines, was me.

Welcome to Hawaii the hard way.

Not for our group the leis and luaus of Waikiki. Except for the airport, we never even saw Honolulu. Brought together by a California-based adventure travel company, we were on a two-week quest for the "real Hawaii." So, gung ho, we forsook Don Ho and headed for the out-islands:

* Kauai, dubbed the "Garden Isle," now making an energetic comeback after Hurricane Iniki nearly stripped the island of its lush jungles and fragrant flower gardens. This was the setting for tropical movies from Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii" to Harrison Ford's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It was on a Kauai beach that Mitzi Gaynor washed that man right out of her hair in the musical "South Pacific."

* Hawaii, "The Big Island," home of Volcanoes National Park, a moonscape of craggy craters and two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. If their timing is lucky, visitors can follow a park path to within 100 feet of molten orange lava gushing into the Pacific Ocean.

* Maui, the "Valley Isle," where the 52-mile, 617-curve Hana Highway provides spectacular coastal vistas and merciless motion sickness. While windsurfers do double flips atop 12-foot waves that crash against the northern coast, backpackers descend deep into Haleakala, the world's largest dormant volcano, and cyclists zoom down the narrow road that winds steeply from the crater's 10,000-foot summit.

We flew between islands on small commuter planes and traveled each island in two rented vans driven by our two young guides, John and Margaret. Though the brochure had said helping out at meals and clean-up was voluntary, it was not. No matter; our contingent, ages 30-60, from across the country and across the labor force (some bankers, a policeman, a factory worker) figured that if we were paying $1,900 plus airfare to hike knee-deep in mud and to sweat our way up switchback volcano trails, we might as well peel potatoes too.

Our quarters for 14 nights were two-person tents issued by the tour operator and made more comfortable by air mattresses, also supplied. (Since my trip, the company has changed the excursion from a camping trip with some inn and cabin accommodations, to an inn- and cabin-based trip with some camping, making the experience more comfortable.)

While the order of island hopping can vary from trip to trip, our excursion began at Kauai Airport, where our guide, John, shuttled arrivals north to a campground near Kee Beach, literally the end of the road. The next day Kee would be the starting point for an eight-hour hike along part of the ancient Kalalau Foot Trail. This 11-mile path along the Na Pali coast has breathtaking views of the coast and side trails to towering waterfalls.

The first morning, our hike up the Na Pali coast (affectionately dubbed "The Death March" by John) took us through four miles of steep, muddy trails, crisscrossed with treacherous tree roots and strewn with decaying guavas swarming with gnats. The pungent fruit odor stung our noses, the mud oozed up our calves and into our boots, and the gnats buzzed at our ears and eyes. We had to cross several streams and a river, where we maneuvered from rock to rock, grabbing a rope strung overhead for balance.

One hiker fell backward into the water, drowning her camera, but otherwise was unharmed; another slipped on a rock and twisted her knee -- but no one turned back.

Two miles into the hike, respite came with the descent to Hanakapiai Beach, a glistening swatch of white sand where we ate a picnic lunch of smoked turkey and oranges and splashed in the surf before tackling the remaining two miles to Hanakapiai Falls, the turn-around point for the four miles back to the trail head at Kee Beach.

We cursed the scorching sun that made our day packs stick to our backs and the rotting guavas steam under our feet. But if you don't like the weather in Hawaii, wait a minute. A delicate mist we had hardly noticed rapidly escalated into a torrential downpour, and soon the trail seemed more like a series of mini-waterfalls as we sloshed our way onward -- and, of course, upward. Our guide assured us that this was nothing compared with the flooding his last group had encountered. No doubt, the next group would be told the same thing about us.

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