A Delightful Detour to a Waterfall in Waimea Canyon on Kaua‘i

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Remembering to take travel setbacks in stride.

It was a simple plan. Grab last-minute plane tickets, pack the tent in the backpack, and dip over to Kaua‘i for theweekend. Miraculously, despite it being a busy holiday weekend, I was able to get a rental car and a permit to camp at Lonomea, the most remote of the numerous campsites along the Koaie Trail in Waimea Canyon. It all fell into place nicely, and so early on Saturday we flew from Honolulu to Līhu‘e, picked up some groceries and a can of propane, and set off south towards Waimea.

With the errands and all, we got a late start. The afternoon clouds came in and out to provide cover from the hot sun, and we descended more than 2,000 feet down to the canyon floor, first over exposed red clay and then turning into thick, shaded forests. After you come to the first camp, Wiliwili, you have to cross the river several times. Things got a little hairy at that point. The water level was higher than usual, and crossing was difficult with a 30lb pack.

Our pace slowed to a crawl. It was getting dark fast in the canyon, the sun blocked by the tall walls. With the river the way it was, I wondered if continuing on was the safest thing to do. On a break, I saw a side canyon nearby. I took a short scout around the corner and saw that it was a rather big canyon and that a waterfall . I was at first disappointed we weren’t going to make it to Lonomea that night, our plan and destination.

I once read a memoir by a poet who expressed the joy his writing routine brought him. Every morning, he’d wake up at 4 a.m., light the wood-burning stove, and write. He loved to romanticize the idea that he was the only person in the world doing it, the only one up at that hour, writing poetry by the fire. Deep dude, for sure. But that image always sticks with me when I go into the wilderness, because that’s the place I go to do things that no one else is doing, to have it all to myself. In the quiet of nature, I feel fortunate in a way that no public place has ever duplicated.

This setback brought us that solitude. There are 70,000 people on Kaua‘i. A handful of them were at Lonomea that weekend. But that night and next morning, that waterfall was just for us. I’m happy to be reminded that, in the face of detours in travel and life, whether things go right or wrong is always a matter of perspective.

The next day the river was calm, and we ended up seeing other, bigger waterfalls and campsites as planned. But, for the most part, that little no-name waterfall is the one we end up telling everyone about.

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Hidden in Plain Sight at Po‘ipū

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Photo of the restoration efforts at Kāneiolouma in 2008.

We finished eating our plate lunches on one of the picnic tables at Po‘ipū Beach and returned to the car. As we turned back onto Po‘ipū Road, I noticed piles of sharp, volcanic rock in a field to my right. I made a comment to my friend that it looked like an old lava flow, and we continued north towards Līhu‘e.

I spent the next few days adventuring. I surfed a bit, and I hiked near Kalalau Overlook in Waimea Canyon. I also did a bit of relaxing. I spent one morning sitting at Java Kai in Kapa‘a, reading the news. Scrolling through, a story caught my eye, one in, of all places, a Native American publication. It told the story of an ancient Hawaiian village being unearthed on Kaua‘i. A place called Kāneiolouma.

It was this way, by complete accident, that I discovered the piles of rocks at Po‘ipū were much more than piles of rocks.

That afternoon, I drove back to Po‘ipū, to the place I passed by a few days earlier without much of a second thought. I wondered how many other times in my life I had driven by something of such importance without even knowing.

I parked in the Po‘ipū Beach parking lot. I could see many people on the beach and others at Brennecke’s. I walked mauka from the lot to the intersection of Hoowili and Po‘ipū roads. There, at the corner, I found a series of signs on a viewing platform. In front of me was an expansive complex. I could see the outline of what looked like old rock walls.

Ke Kahua O Kāneiolouma, or the Kāneiolouma Complex, has been under restoration for more than a decade. Officially, though, it all started in 2009 with the creation of the Hui Mālama O Kāneiolouma, an independent non-profit organization. Then, phase one of a four-phase master plan began.

So far, researchers have uncovered a 13-acre complex that contains habitation, cultivation, sporting, assembly, and religious structures. Remnants of house sites, fishponds, taro fields, irrigation channels, shrines, and altars have been found. Near its center, there is what may be the only intact Makahiki (ancient Hawaiian new year festival) sporting arena in the state. The complex is believed to date back to the mid-1400s and is referred to as a wahi pana, or a storied place.

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Photo of the progress and restoration efforts at Kāneiolouma in 2015.

Currently, the project is fundraising for phase three of the project, which seeks to reconstruct the internal rock walls, rebuild the traditional houses, and restore the fish ponds and taro farms. Eventually, the fourth phase of the project will connect Kāneiolouma with Po‘ipū Beach Park and begin to integrate the public. As of now, public viewing is limited to the platform at which I stand.

This project is perfectly in line with other cultural efforts taking place on the island. Despite the relatively unknown status of Kāneiolouma, one of the things I have to give Kaua‘i credit for is its movement towards educating and labeling heiaus, as might happen in, say, Asia at a Buddhist temple. For example, one of the days in Kapa‘a, I stumbled upon a heiau that used to be a navigation point for sailors. At its entrance was a sign that read, “This is not a scenic point. It is a scared site.” It had a short list of inappropriate behaviors, i.e. sunbathing.

That is exactly what most people were doing at nearby Po‘ipū Beach. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, or make myself seem superior when I only discovered it by accident, so I didn’t go around asking anyone on the beach if they knew what lay just behind them. I sat on the platform and watched the cars go by, turning into and out of the intersection at Hoowili and Po‘ipū. Further down the road I remembered passing surf shops and resorts.

“If we sit idle too much and watch these ruins become ruins and don’t look at its importance as perpetuating these places, then all it’s going to be is a forgotten tale,” said Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, High Chief of Maui.

Hopefully now, unlike me, you can discover it on purpose.