First of all, I knew the Kalalau Trail would not be easy. Backpacker.com named it one of America’s top ten most dangerous hikes. From the trailhead to the Beach (past the Valley) and back is a total of 24 miles with an elevation gain/loss of 5,000 ft.
Secondly, backpacking (which I had never done before this trip) is not the same as hiking. After our first quarter of a mile, Paul and I stopped because the weight of our bags felt so strange and aggravating. To lessen the burden on our shoulders, we ate and drank as much as we could. We found out a couple days later, when we were hungry and running out of food, that that was a pretty bad call (we’re not stupid, we just mistakenly believed we had over-packed).
Two miles in, we waded across a stream which flowed out to Hanakapiai beach. We threw off our bags. I rushed for the ocean and Paul rushed for the cairns. When I found him later on, and watched him mindfully working on his fifth cairn, I noted our common inclination to over-complicate things. While everyone else stacked large flat stones, laying them down on their largest surface area, Paul did the exact opposite. He sought only oddly shaped or lopsided ones and insisted on standing them vertically so that he could balance the stones on their smallest surface areas—their tips. I’m always reminded that things don’t have to be so hard, so why make them so. Because if I’m not spending at least a few moments every now and then feeling out of my mind, terribly rocked and/or at least a little stressed, then I wouldn’t be being me. The other tourists began taking pictures of Paul’s cairns. We ate some buffalo jerky and then left.
All along the trail we found guavas. I had read in numerous blogs or forums that the trail held mountain apples, mangoes, lilikoi, coconuts and even wild taro roots. Maybe we didn’t look around enough because we only found a lot of guavas, which were the most delicious guavas I had ever tasted.
Two miles felt like four. I began to panic when nearly 6 hours had gone by and we still hadn’t hit the half-way point. At numerous places we lost the trail. One time Paul decided to go look for it on his own while I stayed behind with our bags. After what felt like 15 minutes, I began to worry when he didn’t come back. Soon after, I began to call out his name. When he didn’t answer, my yells became screams, which grew louder and shriller at each passing moment. I remembered his story about his near-death experience not too long ago when he fell off a rather tall cliff while hiking, and I panicked harder. What would I do if he fell again? After I began to cry, I saw his head peak out from some rocks in the distance. He heard my screams and thought something had happened, rushed back, and nearly fell off the cliff.
We continued on for another 5 hours. When we finally hit the most hazardous part of the trail (mile 7-8 out of 12), the sun began its descent. This was by far my favorite part of the hike. Maybe because it was even more beautiful than it was scary that I didn’t pay attention to the 200 foot drop-off into an unforgiving ocean or the fact that the trail was only wide enough for one foot at a time and that there were no shrubs or trees to catch our fall if one mis-step should occur. How blessed we were to not meet a single drop of rain throughout the hike (especially against the weather report claiming showers all weekend)! At the end of that mile, we found a flock of goats grazing ahead of us. It was a wonderful sight! They heard me taking out my camera and ran, bleating and baaing as their hooves hit the trail with ease and swiftness. At that moment I wished I were a goat with hardy hooves, impeccable balance, and an easy-to-satisfy appetite.
Forward Paul and I moved. Our bodies became tired, our stomachs burned on empty, and we were running out of water. Finally the sun was completely gone and an almost full moon took his shift. We continued the hike in the dark with our head lamps. We couldn’t see anything past a few feet from where we were standing. Sometimes we’d hear rushing water and anonymous animals. Sometimes I’d see metallic looking creepy crawly things that sparkled in our headlamps at our feet and I’d shudder.
Past 7 pm I had grown so exhausted. I felt dizzy and nauseated. The ground swayed back and forth from underneath my feet. Worse than having inadequate food or water, was having no idea how much further we had to go. It felt like we had been hiking for forever and still we were not there. We rested for 20 minutes in the dark and just looked at the moon and the stars and tried to see the valley from where we sat. I kept thinking of showering and sleeping.
Paul carried my backpack for the next mile and we continued on in the dark. By 8 pm we saw the welcome sign: “Kalalau. He ‘aina hoano kēia. E mālama hō’ihi no ka pono o nā hanauna.” Underneath that it said “This is sacred land. Give it your utmost care.”
I jumped up and down clapping with glee, “WE MADE IT! WE MADE IT!!” I did all but drop on my back and make dirt angels at that point. I was so happy! Now to find the waterfall and shower and refill our waters and cook our first meal of the day and set up camp and sleep! I was overjoyed!!
But then we lost the trail. We completely. lost. the trail.
We trudged this way and that way, back and forth, back and forth, trying to find the trail in the dark. We tried backtracking but couldn’t even find the welcome sign anymore. In front of us lay a 200 foot drop-off into the heart of the lush and jungly valley and no walk-able way down. To our right was the beach, the glorious beach where everyone was surely camping, but we couldn’t find any safe way down that cliff either. To our left, we could see far into the end of the valley, but it went several miles deep and it was much too dark. On a ridge from the other side of the valley, we could see a tiny camp light in the distance. Somebody was over there, but we couldn’t ask them for help or directions. How badly I wanted to get down to the beach.
But at that point, we were puttering on empty—really, truly empty. So we threw down a tarp and I collapsed. Dizzy and irritated and thirsty and hungry and dirty and disappointed and nauseated and itchy and sore and feverish, without intending to, I immediately fell asleep. When I came to half an hour later, I found abnormally large ants and other weird bugs crawling on me and about my feet, and Paul cooking soup with the last bit of water we had. It smelled so good! Fish, dinosaur kale, several kinds of mushrooms, red quinoa all in a miso broth. Even though I felt dizzy enough to throw up, I gobbled the soup down and passed out again.. too tired to fight off the bugs for once. I surrendered this time.
I had never gone camping before, but everyone had always assured me it wasn’t as rough or uncomfortable as one would think. Campsites have wi-fi and bathrooms and showers these days, they said. We did not have wi-fi. We didn’t even have a tent or sleeping bags. Not even a small blanket! Just a blue tarp to lay on the floor and another tarp meant to shield us from rain that we used to cover our bodies like a blanket instead, and one small inflatable pillow.
Like that, we slept directly under the stars with the roar of the sea tauntingly close by. At 2am I woke up thinking the sun was about to rise because the moon shone so bright. It illuminated everything! I could see Paul clearly, I could see the shrubs surrounding us, the mountains, and the trees. The sh** part was that I could see all the bugs crawling on me too. Every so often I would wake up with a start when I felt one bite. Around 3am the mosquitoes began to surround us, buzzing in our ears. At 5am they went away. By 6am the sun was well on its way back to us.
At 7am with the sun hovering pretty high over me, I woke suddenly and bolted out of the tarp. I felt surprisingly cheerful and excited. I found more water in my backpack! Paul made us more miso stew and then we packed up and backtracked. We found the trail and made our way down the bright red dirt cliff and a mile later, after passing the long-haired topless hippy man playing his wooden flute, finally found ourselves on the beach. Kalalau Beach.
No words, nor photographs (nor videos) could ever adequately represent this place. In all my travels, I had never felt what I felt then and there.
At the end of the beach we found the waterfall and showered. We brushed our teeth, washed our clothes, refilled our waters, and then set up our camp literally just several yards from the sea, underneath a tree, tucked away from all the hippies.
I discovered 8 bug bites on the right leg, most of which swelled up, harden, and grew really hot, 5 more on the left leg, and 2 on my right arm. I didn’t mind them too much… until I began to run a bit of a fever.
After we rested a bit, we played on the beach; Then we played in the stream about half a mile away, hunting for prawns and sitting in the small pools getting our backs and shoulders massaged by the babbling water; Later, we climbed the rocks by the ocean, hungrily eyeing the opihi shells sitting on the boulders safely away from any hunters who would be swept away by the 20-ft waves. In my deliriously hungry state, I kept insisting we at least try to go down there, just quick enough to grab a few of the shells. I explained to Paul that if we hid behind a large enough boulder, the waves wouldn’t be able to pull us in. And I told him how flavorful these snails are, and high in vitamins too. He stopped arguing with me, realizing how gone and sick I was, and pushed me back towards camp.
We went back to the beach and looked for volcanic rocks to bring home and use as exfoliants. In the late afternoon, I found a drowning bee that Paul spent almost an hour after trying to resuscitate. I didn’t think we were bored, so I guess he just has a thing for bees. They’re dying out, he explained.
When I began to feel faint again, we headed back to our little camp and rested some more. We received a tip from passing hippies that the best way to find prawns is at dusk or night. Paul began to carve spears with his “cool new” knife. He also carved a special spear for the s’mores that I kept talking excitedly about.
At dusk we headed back to the stream with headlamps and a bag to hold prawns, feeling confident that we would be able to catch some. A girl walking behind us asked if we needed any “ganja.” She was originally from Boston and had moved to Kalalau Valley over a year ago where she had been living illegally since. Camping at Kalalau requires a permit which costs $20/night and the longest you can stay is 10 nights. I knew that there were a handful of people (mostly hippies and a few outlaws or bandits) hiding out in the valley, farming taro and marijuana, and bartering with hikers for whatever else they might need. I told her we were more interested in the prawns than ganja (I was sick, hungry, and delirious enough as it was, smoking might have just put me in a coma), and she gave us more advice on where to look for the prawns.
The hippies were right, it was much easier to see the prawns at night. When you shine a bright light into the water, their eyes reflect the light back at you, and even better than that they get stunned and freeze, staying still long enough for you to stab them.
It sounded easy, but it was not. We failed miserably, pool after pool. We found several small ones and several giant ones. But no matter their size, we weren’t quick enough to spear them. Paul gave up on the spears and tried catching them with his hands. We even tried teaming up on one: Paul stood behind it with his bag and I tried scaring it from the front. But the big ones, I discovered, can actually jump out of the water.
After over an hour of creeping along the stream in the dark, we gave up and found a large boulder to sit on and talk. The moon was 97% full. The crickets were loud. And the frogs were huge! Big yellow-green frogs. Paul wanted to spear one, but the thought of us failing and it getting angry and hopping after us was more than I could handle. So I ran away and Paul followed.
Back at the camp, I crashed from fatigue and hunger again, but Paul wanted to make sure we had enough food for a hearty breakfast tomorrow. He tried to make me feel better by building a fire and making s’mores. We ate four or five of them and then got ready to sleep.
I knew it was going to be ice cold, but I needed to shower again and wash off the sand before sleeping and cool off the bug bites which were itching and burning. We hiked back up to the waterfall and I jumped into the freezing water. It felt amazing! To shower naked in a waterfall in the dark of night, under a starry sky and a glaringly bright moon, and right next to a giant and energetic ocean too! I felt so glad to be there.
—Until I found out that the bugs were relentless. At 1am I woke up screaming and pulling at my hair in frustration because the bugs wouldn’t stop biting me, they wouldn’t let me sleep. Paul sat up and held me, rocking back and forth trying to get me to fall back asleep but he couldn’t shield me from the bugs that were all determined to get a piece of me. Finally we moved our sleeping pads onto the sand right in front of the ocean. We figured the closer we were to the sea, the greater the winds, and the less bugs could get me. We really regretted not bringing a tent.
There were less bugs on the beach; however, there were still sand-fleas. It was another otherworldly experience to sleep right out in the open on such a beach like that, at the foot of the waves, just far enough to ensure they wouldn’t disturb us. But the mist from the sea began to soak our clothes and we didn’t have a blanket (or even a tarp this time) to cover us. I woke up every now and then shivering. At 4 am I woke up and found a deep red moon setting behind the ocean. I thought I was imagining it until I heard Paul’s voice confirm in his groggy admiration of it.
At 5 am Paul shook me and said we had to go. We ate the last of our meals, packed up, and headed back onto the trail.
Oh the despair I felt at times on this day. Lack of sleep over several nights, a hunger that had been cultivating for days, and shoes that completely wore down and no longer gave any protection from the jagged rocks and stones… all combined with the now 27 bug bites covering my body… to make me feel tortured. The majority of these bites had become inflamed. And I worried that the exposed ones on my legs that kept rubbing against the shrubs along the trail would become infected.
When we were only 4 miles in (which really felt like 6), I searched frantically for the Hanakoa falls (the midway point). We had planned with our ride to meet at the trailhead around noon. It was already 11am—we had been hiking for 3 hours, and we still had not reached Hanakoa. It took another hour, and in that hour I felt terrible. Questions like “how will we hike the rest of the way in just a few hours??” kept hanging over my head like a rotten, stinky carrot. Just making it to the end (regardless of time constraints) seemed really impossible.
A small family of 3 hippies walking by saw us struggling and stopped to tell us a story about how they had once brought their father into the valley. He sprained his ankle on the way back with 6 miles left to go. It took him over 12 hours to hobble on one foot out of the trail. The story was meant to inspire me. While it did touch my heart a bit, it also overwhelmed me with horror and dread as I imagined hiking in this state for the next 12 hours. (It ended up taking us only 11, by the way.)
When we finally did reach Hanakoa, the worst was yet to come. The 4 miles between Hanakoa and Hanakapiai are said to be the most difficult. The trail, even though mostly dry (thank God), was still slippery. Numerous times I nearly fell off of it, stumbling over rocks and roots. The waves, only hundreds of feet below us, were as monstrous as ever. At times Paul and I would stop just to watch the 25-30 foot waves steadily rise up and crash against the cliffs. I was impressed (and maybe a bit unnerved) by the ferocity with which they licked off the rocks.
My stomach began to really ache. My feet began to swell. All of the above made me move at a literally snail-like pace as I dragged my feet all up and down, up and down, up and down the cliffs, for hours and hours along this never ending trail. What made things worse was hiking in silence. Paul and I grow quiet when we need to conserve energy. The quieter my voice, the louder my thoughts, and the latter can be stupidly cruel. For 8 hours, nothing was said between us, just heavy breathing and grunting, and the occasional shriek or cry when I would stumble or fall. Every now and then Paul would say something encouraging, like how proud he was of me. No matter how slow or irritable or whiny or dramatic I became, Paul stayed completely calm and only said encouraging things. He would even carry my backpack at times. I asked him if I annoyed him as much as I annoyed myself; he laughed and said that he only thought of ways to help me, and the only way he could do that was by lightening my load. In moments like those I felt especially grateful towards him. (Though, I still do believe some conversation would have taken our minds off of the pain we felt or at least made the time seem shorter. I’m just saying.)
I moved so slow that all my emotions kept passing us and eventually I became empty, even my thoughts went away.
By miles 8 and 9, my feet reached their threshold for pain. We hiked all 24 miles in vibrams, which may be great and comfortable for short distances, but after about 14 miles, they become absolutely useless. I may as well have been hiking barefoot at that point (and to be honest some hippies who regularly go in an out of the trail can be seen hiking barefoot. My feet, unfortunately, are much daintier than the average hippy’s, so I could only feel hurt and regret for not bringing thick, sturdy hiking boots). As I grew tired, I grew clumsy. Every stone I accidentally kicked or tripped over would send a shooting pain through my foot, and sometimes even up my legs.
It was past 4 pm when we finally reached Hanakapiai, which meant we only had to hike 2 more miles! My legs gave way and I crawled into the stream and washed my bug bites, pulled off my vibrams, and looked at my feet. Because the shoes had been wet for several hours and the skin on my feet had been pruney, blisters began forming all over.
The last 2 miles were excruciating. Even knowing that we were so close to the end, I felt somewhat tortured. Once again, despite how exhausted he appeared (I’d never seen him in such a state), Paul took my bag and climbed up the steep hills alone while I staggered yards behind.
By the time we finally made it back, it was well past 6pm. Our ride had JUST driven away (we watched the truck leave) and Paul ran after him. I sat there next to all our things and a bunch of chickens pecking at the ground next to me, thinking hungrily of dinner and of how much fried chicken I could eat. Crispy, spicy, hot, juicy fried chicken; buttery biscuits with honey; mashed potatoes with gravy. Maybe a grass-fed hamburger too (with cheese) and skinny-cut cilantro, garlic fries. I thought of that delightful crunch when you bite into a pickle.
Understand the disappointment I felt when we finally arrived at our inn, showered, and headed back out to eat dinner—our first REAL dinner in days—to find that a tsunami alert caused the whole island to evacuate the south end of the island. Cars and policemen blocked every street going in every direction. No restaurant anywhere on the island would serve us food, despite my pleas with all of the hostesses or waitresses that picked up the phone. If the 24 mile hike and the 27 bug bites did not completely break me, the prospect of dealing with my hunger certainly pushed me over the edge.
Paul grabbed my hand and dragged me into a “Big Save” mart. He briskly picked up a basket and went through the aisles while I gloomily sauntered around wondering “whaaat is this buuuulllshiiit happening to meee -_-.” Paul pushed a container of salsa into my hands and asked me to find a bag of chips to go with it. When he saw the look on my face, he chuckled and said “We’re just going to have to make the best of things, okay?” And that’s when I saw the organic sausage in the meat aisle. I immediately thought of pasta and sausage and told him. As he laughed at me, I trotted down the aisles to find sauce and linguine, and he continued going through the produce.
An hour later, we went to our room at the Kauai Banyan Inn, found hot plates in our kitchenette, pots and pans, butter, oil, balsamic vinegar, spices, etc. I prepared an avocado salad and diced up some garlic and onions as he boiled water for spaghetti, fried the sausage, and prepared a ginger, white radish, mushroom, egg soup.
At some point, after eating half my plate of food, I conked out and had the best sleep I had ever slept. We spent our last day just eating and visiting every smoothie/juice shop on the east and north coast of Kauai.