Sunday, May 4, 2014

Molokai Meanderings

We have been in the Ala Wai Marina on Oahu for over two months now, which means a post about Molokai is long overdue.

Small boat harbor across from the anchorage at Kaunakakai

The anchorage

We initially dropped anchor in Kaunakakai. The anchorage there is across the channel from the small boat harbor and is extremely shallow. With our draft close to six-feet, we were positioned ideally in the deeper water just forward of the first channel buoy. The bottom is soft mud, and there is a large, shallow reef directly west of the anchorage; we ended up dropping a second anchor.

There is not a dinghy dock per se, but there is room to tie up your dinghy in between some of the boats at the dock. What appears to be a dinghy dock is actually kept very busy with the comings and goings of small fishing boats. The inviting sand beach you can see from the anchorage is on private property:  If you ask the canoe club, you may receive permission to land your dinghy. We never tried it. 

A long walk down the wharf brings you right into town, where a Laundromat, fuel (via jerry cans), and grocery stores are all within the first couple of blocks. Hanging out at the local gas station (further down from the Chevron) and kitty-corner across from that, you will find the town’s two tour drivers in their big white vans when they are not on a tour. They are good resources for information. The woman who runs the bookstore on the corner is also a wealth of knowledge and local history.  


The best kept secret

I would say that Molokai is “the best kept secret” in the Hawaiian islands, except for the fact that its least-developed state is deliberate, not a secret. The residents of Molokai protect it fiercely from developers and big tourism---and while one can imagine that there is some dissention about that issue, and that island politics are probably fierce---as visitors to Molokai, we could enjoy the result without having to be party to the process. Molokai is not only the least developed but the least populated of the major Hawaiian islands. The people on Molokai are friendly and helpful, and the pace of life is slow and mellow. 

Our Lady of Sorrows church set against the background of central Molokai
The island is a mélange of diverse habitats, all with striking topography and lush vegetation. A barrier reef rich in marine life extends along most of the south coast of Molokai.

In the center of the island is a Forest Reserve containing rainforest. We didn’t get to visit the reserve, because it requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to any of the trailheads, but we did see some examples of healthy forests near the Kalaupapa overlook. This ironwood forest looked like it had been there forever, but we were told it was planted as a Public Works project.

Patrick in the ironwood forest, on the trail to the Kalaupapa Overlook
Molokai forest---I'm not sure what trees we are seeing here
Another forest view on Molokai

We visited Molokai's phallic rock, a sacred spot where the Hawaiian god, Kanaloa, is honored. Kanaloa is associated with the ocean, the winds, and with sailing voyaging canoes. Together with his traveling companion, Kane, Kanaloa is also important for locating sources of fresh (drinking) water. I'm not sure where the phallic symbol comes in, but which island's monument to Kanaloa do you prefer?

Offerings are left at the base of Molokai's anatomically correct phallic rock
Maui's Io Needle (left)
We also saw some of the oldest stands of O’hia lehua trees that we saw anywhere in the islands.


The north shore of Molokai, like the windward shores of most of the Hawaiian islands, are distinguished by dramatic pleated cliffs, or pali in Hawaiian. Rivers travel from the backs of the fertile valleys between these cliffs---where waterfalls cascade hundreds, sometimes thousands of feet, feeding the streams---before they meet the sea. The anchorages on northern Molokai are tenuous at the best of times, and winter is not the best of times. Unfortunately, we did not have a spell of unbroken weather long enough to explore the Wailiu Valley or the Kalaupapa anchorages. The mysterious heart of Molokai---its indescribably gorgeous north shore---haunts my imagination.


River mouth at Halawe Valley:  This picture does not really show the pali

Headland on the northeast shore of Molokai

Molokai Zen

The top and west sides of the interior contain a patchwork quilt of ranchland. The fences on Molokai were a thing of beauty. Wooden, made from the twisted trees found on the island, they weren’t hewn or planed into perfect posts and planks and were covered with a patina of lichen:  They looked like they belonged there. Cows ambled through the ranchland with cattle egrets sitting on their backs. The west coast of Molokai sported one of the longest, cleanest sandy beaches I have ever seen. The golden color of the volcanic sand making up the beach gave it a warm glow, even on the overcast day that we were there.

Papohaku Beach on the west coast of Molokai
Surf on Papohaku
Another visitor to the beach
A perfect day for a beach walk

History preserved 

Along the protected south and southeast coasts are some of the best preserved of the ancient Hawaiian fish ponds.

The entrance to the fish pond is located between the two rock pillars
Another view of the fish pond giving some idea of its large size
The concept behind the design of these fish ponds is that the young fish enter when they’re small. The ponds provide a protected nursery area in which the young fish feed and grow without large predators. However, by the time the fish are ready to leave the pond, they have outgrown the entrances they came in through and are trapped in the pond. The ancient Hawaiians harvested fish from the ponds when they needed it or wanted it for a feast. Like many things in ancient Hawaii, the fish ponds belonged to royalty.

We also visited a relic of more recent history on Molokai, a restored sugar mill.


Former sugar (and coffee) mill on Molokai

The sugar press:  A mule harnessed to the wooden beam walked around the cement platform in circles to turn the press, while a man fed sugar cane between the two metal drums for crushing
The boiler (aft) and steam engine (foreground) used to generate electricity to run the sugar mill

A centrifuge seperated molasses from sugar:  The molasses was drained into a vat through an opening in the floor
Evaporation pans where the sugar slurry dried and sugar crystals were formed
In a nod to cultural sensitivy, the sugar mill also advertised itself as a cultural center. It housed a natural history museum with an extensive shell collection, a small demonstration garden of the plants that Polynesian seafarers brought to the islands, and rotating art exhibits. It was at the "sugar mill and cultural center" where we saw an excellent photography exhibit on Kalaupapa and gleaned some of the information reported below.


The Kalaupapa peninsula and the legacy of Father Damien

Molokai is perhaps best known to outsiders as the site of the former Kalaupapa leper colony. Although the term “leper” has gone out of use and is considered offensive, that is what Kalaupapa was called for many years. Since 1980, the colony has been called the Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement and National Historical Park. The leprosy settlement is located on a flat peninsula (the Kalaupapa peninsula) on the north shore of Molokai. Anything outside the leprosy settlement is referred to as “topside” on Molokai.


The Kalaupapa peninsula:  You can see a hint of the pali at right

The proper term for leprosy is Hansen’s disease, a communicable disease caused by bacteria. Its transmission is believed to be through respiratory droplets, but Hansen’s disease is not nearly as contagious as was feared at the time King Kamehameha V enacted an isolation law to prevent the spread of the disease. Starting in the mid-1860’s, sufferers of leprosy were forced to lived in exile on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Thousands of leprosy patients lived and died on Kalaupapa.

Originally, the leprosy settlement was at Kalawao, on the windward side of the Kalaupapa peninsula. It was eventually moved to Kalaupapa, on the leeward side, because it is a more protected location. The people who lived at Kalawao and Kalaupapa were forced to leave their homes, friends, and families, and move to the leprosy settlement. In the early days, the afflicted were brought to the leprosy colony by ship, thrown overboard, and forced to swim to shore. We read that in later days, nuns at the leprosy colony were instrumental in fishing people out of the water. 

Although we didn’t tour the settlement, we heard about some of the other abuses to human rights that the sufferers of Hansen’s disease faced. If two patients chanced to fall in love and marry on Kalaupapa, any offspring they had were taken away from them. Their children were removed immediately after birth and sent to a family on topside Molokai to raise. And even though the antibiotics used to treat and cure leprosy started becoming available in the late 1940’s, the isolation law wasn’t removed by the State of Hawaii until 1969!

Untreated, Hansen’s disease is a disfiguring disease which attacks the nerves and skin. Many sufferers from leprosy had unsightly skin lesions, lost their vision, or lost extremities due to lack of sensation in their fingers and toes and repeated injuries. The social stigma accompanying leprosy is perhaps the most painful thing for the residents of Kalaupapa to bear, because even today, lack of information about the disease causes people to be afraid.

When the isolation law was repealed in 1969, many former patients left the colony. Some who had been at Kalaupapa since they were children remained, because it was the only home they knew, and some were concerned about how the outside world would perceive them. Some of those who left came back, because assimilating into the outside world proved too difficult. Even though they were cleared of the disease and no longer contagious, people would stare at the former Hansen’s patients or ostracize them, even members of their own families.

Originally from Belgium, Joseph De Vesteurs was ordained a priest in Honolulu in 1864. In 1873, Father Damien (as De Vesteurs became known) voluntarily came to live at Kalaupapa to help those suffering from Hansen's disease. With his arrival, conditions for the leprosy patients dramatically improved. Prior to Damien’s arrival, the residents lived in caves, rock shelters, or rudimentary huts made of sticks and leaves. Damien appealed to the outside world for help and built homes, churches, hospitals, and schools on Kalaupapa. Damien also administered to the faithful on “topside” Molokai and established several churches outside of Kalaupapa, such as Our Lady of Sorrows, pictured above. It wasn't clear to me why Father Damien could come and go from the leprosy colony, but the patients themselves could not. In any case, Father Damien was devoted to the patients on Kalaupapa, living and working alongside them for sixteen years. Damien contracted leprosy in 1884, and in 1889, he died of leprosy at Kalawao. To this day, Damien remains the only visitor to Kalawao/Kalaupapa to have contracted leprosy.

Kalaupapa today:  Saint Philomena church (center) was established by Father Damien

Father Damien was not alone in his devotion to the Hansen’s patients, but he was perhaps the most successful in calling their plight to the attention of the outside world. Other priests worked at Kalaupapa before and after Damien. Joseph Dutton (who never took vows and has a colorful life story of his own) joined Damien at Kalawao three years before he died and helped carry Damien's work into the next century. Dutton remained at Kalaupapa for 45 years. Mother Marianne Cope and some of the Sisters of Saint Francis also arrived at Kalaupapa the year before Damien died. Mother Marianne never left Kalaupapa. She died there in 1918 after thirty years of ministering to both the physical and spiritual needs of the leprosy patients. Mother Marianne never contracted leprosy. 

Today, visitors to Molokai can visit Kalaupapa on foot, or by mule ride. Both methods require negotiating a steep, three mile trail down the almost-vertical sea cliffs, the same trail on which escapees from Kalaupapa were intercepted. (Escapees were returned to exile and sent to jail.) Whether you visit by foot or by mule, you cannot enter the settlement without a permit (unless you have a direct invitation from a resident) and must obtain the permit through Damien Tours. Tours of the settlement are conducted by the residents and as such, are a rich source of living history. As with World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors, the inhabitants of Kalaupapa are dying of old age. As their numbers dwindle, there is the same concern that their stories won’t be told, and that history will repeat itself. After the last resident dies, the settlement will be administered as an historical park by the National Park Service.


Molokai Triptych

When I was on Maui, I walked into an art gallery one day and discovered the work of surrealist painter,Vladimir Kush. I was instantly attracted to Kush’s work. As I said in my post on Maui, Kush’s work is full of images of transformation, hope, and love. Many of Kush's paintings also contain sailing imagery. One of Kush’s paintings became associated in my mind with some images from Molokai.


Original painting by Vladimir Kush

A poor picture of the Molokai Light, on the windswept tip of the Kalaupapa peninsula

A statue of Father Damien, still gifted with leis today


  1. The islands look beautiful and your description of the islands and history was beautiful. The photographs only add to it. If you had to be exiled somewhere in this world with Leprosy then the island looks the perfect place.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Mark. Regarding your comment, yes and no. The Kalaupapa peninsula is on the windward side of the island, so relatively speaking (relative to the islands, that is), it is probably some of the most inhospitable real estate on the island.