Wednesday, November 18, 2015

This week: Kauai, HI

The Search for Kauai’s “Aloha” Bench on the Okolēhao Trail

The sweat on my forehead mixed with sunscreen as it dripped down my face, stinging my eyes, which is ironic because the trees had blocked the sun a quarter mile ago. Ferns whipped at my arms and legs. The only place with any space left was at my feet. I pressed on thinking, it can’t be much farther…Can it?

I had set off earlier that morning on a quest. The previous night a bartender told me about his favorite hike, the Okolēhao Trail. I spent my after-dinner downtime researching the trail on my smartphone and decided it was suitable for my skills. said the trail about 2.25 miles one-way and climbed about 1,250 feet in elevation. Easy peasy for this Colorado girl. The site also said there were two overlooks with sweeping views of the Hanalei Bay area. Also intriguing were some social media photos. An image search revealed several pics of a faded green bench with the word “Aloha” painted on in white. I wanted to add my photo to the collection.

Then I came across a blog by a German who had hiked trails all over the world. He had hiked the Okolehao in 2013 and divided it into two sections. The beginning section he described as incredibly easy, even with the elevation gain. The second part he called a “true adventure hike” with jungle-thick vegetation, a narrow cliff-hugging passage and four strategically-placed pull ropes to help hikers in tough areas. The blog ended with a photo he took of his girlfriend surrounded by ferns below blue sky. His conclusion? If his girlfriend can make it, anyone can.

The trail was right where the bartender said it would be. Just after the long one-lane bridge that separates the village of Hanalei Bay from the rest of the island, I turned onto Ohiki Road, which divides the lush Hanalei Valley where taro fields spread out like a patch-work quilt. Two waterways sandwiched the gravel road, the Hanalei River and an irrigation ditch. About a half mile in I found a small parking lot on the left and a wooden bridge with the trailhead sign on the right.

While sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open tying my hiking shoes, a woman popped out of the dense trees and crossed the bridge followed by a large Golden Retriever. She unlocked her small grey truck to let in the dog. As I walked over, I heard a loud splash. The woman, already in her truck, stopped and reached over to open her passenger door. Suddenly an even larger black Labrador emerged from the ditch and shook his dripping fur, spraying water everywhere. The woman called, but the canine walked over to me instead.  

“Do you see my dog?” she asked.

“Yeah, he’s here.”

“Hey, boy, come on.” she called. The dog walked over to her door and sat. “No, go to the other side.” The dog didn’t budge. With a sigh the woman exited her truck so the wet dog could enter.

“You picked a great day to hike the trail,” she said re-entering the truck.

“It sure looks like it.”

“But it can be slippery. You should find a walking stick.”

“Thanks!” I waved as she passed, but was thinking, ‘where the heck am I gonna find a walking stick?’ Then I crossed the bridge to find a pile of sticks at my feet. Laughing, I selected one that seemed appropriate for my height and set off.

Okolēhao means ‘on your butt’ in Hawaiian. The name actually refers to local moonshine, but for this predominantly vertical hike, it also fits. The beginning of the trail is a service road, so it is quite wide and consists of easy switchbacks, equal parts sunny and shady. Tree roots weaved their way across the path like veins lying underneath reddish-brown skin. The slippery roots made the walking stick useful indeed.   

After passing a few people, I quickly reached the first overlook. This overlook is the base of a giant electrical tower and the space cleared around it made for all-encompassing views of Hanalei Bay to the west and Princeville to the north. Moving on from here the trail narrowed to sidewalk-size. I noticed a trail marker that said 1.50 M. I hadn’t seen any before, but at less than a foot tall and painted the same reddish-brown color as the ground, they were easy to miss. Only the sign’s yellow numbers were noticeable.

Shortly after passing the 1.75 M marker I came to the second overlook. While smaller in cleared space, the views were even more remarkable. The westerly view over the taro fields led to the village of Hanalei. The Na Pali Mountains loomed in the distance. To the east were the smaller, but still dramatic Makaleha and Anahola Mountains.

After taking photos I looked ahead to continue, but stopped short. Below me was a pull rope going down. According the hiker’s blog, this was the start of the “adventurous” section. But I had yet to come across the Aloha Bench. Did I miss it? Based on the last mile marker, I guessed I was at two miles so it wasn’t much farther. I decided to give it a go.

I grabbed the pull rope and lowered myself. Sullenly I noticed spider webs strung from branches across the trail ahead. Apparently no one had walked this part in some time. Boy, was I glad to have that walking stick because it was now my web machete. I soon came upon another pull rope, this one going up. The hiker’s blog had said there were four ropes so I assumed I was getting close.

After many minutes of endless jungle, the qualms began. The tree roots underfoot turned into jagged rocks, soft fronds changed into sharp branches and the incline increased substantially. I wasn’t alone anymore either. Tiny lizards invisible when I lifted my leg would scamper before every footfall. Then a shiny green-grey rock moved. I gasped. It was a giant dark green cane toad. He crawled underneath a large fern when I tried to take a picture. Camera shy I guess. Then a loud buzzsaw disturbed the eerie quiet. As I scanned for the source, a small white cotton ball floated by. An island bee. Strangely I had yet to see a spider. Either they were too small or I was incredibly lucky. I chose lucky.

Continuing I held the stick out in front of me to combat webs while keeping my head down to check my footing. I hadn’t seen a mile marker since starting this part of the trail. I also had yet to see a bench. Somewhere up ahead lurked a narrow ridge I’d have to traverse and two more ropes. Where does this end? I was lost in these thoughts when, EEEEEEK! I ran face first into a spiderweb. I stopped to wipe off the web, but mostly succeeded in smearing it with my sweat.

“OK, I’m done,” I said to whatever creatures lurked nearby.

Returning was easy since I’d already removed the webs. In no time I was pulling myself up the first rope that would return me to the overlook where a couple from Utah greeted me. While admiring the view we chatted about Kauai. This was my first trip while they had been here before.

“So where’s the Aloha Bench?” I asked.

“What bench?” they responded.

I have since come to the conclusion that the overlook where I stood with the Utah people was where the bench used to be. Where it went I have no idea. If you do, drop me a comment, let me know!

Read about my visit to Kauai's Tiki Iniki @ The Drink Nation