By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
KAHUKU, Ka‘u — Would you know what to do if a treasure dropped in your lap? What about if this treasure were, say, a tract of land almost as large as the combined islands of Kaho‘olawe and Lanai, with a rich history and a bounty of natural wonders?
That’s the challenge that has faced Hawaii Volcanoes National Park ever since it acquired the 115,653-acre Kahuku unit in 2003. Comprising the southern flank of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano, the land extends the reach of the national park from the summit region down Highway 19, between Waiohinu and Ocean View.
The area has a long and distinguished history. In the old days, Kamehameha I won control of Kahuku after the 1790 sacrifice of his cousin, Keoua. Charles Harris bought the property from the Hawaiian government in 1861 for $3,100.
The land changed hands several times; a large portion unsuitable for agriculture was developed as Hawaiian Ocean View Estates. The National Park Service bought the ranch from the Damon Estate for $22 million in 2003. Lava flows have repaved it numerous times from 1868 to 1950.
This section of the national park is still a work in progress. There’s no potable water, no commercial services and no camping. All these things will be addressed in HVNP’s General Management Plan, a long-term document that will chart the future of the park, including the Kahuku unit.
It’s only open on weekends, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., except the first Saturday of the month. A handful of trails are available in the lower areas, and the network of former ranch roads are rough. From the highway, you can drive up to the 2,730-foot elevation, but you’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach the higher trailheads around the 4,000-foot elevation, where adventurers can hike to a forested pit crater. Dozens of visitors, mostly local people but an increasing number of tourists, come to check out these hikes.
Every month or so, there’s a two-hour, two-mile guided tour.
It’s called the “People and Land of Kahuku,” and it focuses on the human history and natural beauty of Hawaii’s largest ahupua‘a.
The number of people who show up for this hike often averages around half a dozen, although that has varied from a high of 30 to a low of one. Saturday morning, this reporter was that one person.
The hike — or rather, an easy stroll with many stops — was led by two volunteers. Ruth Levin, a retired park ranger did most of the talking; Noel Eberz, a retired cosmologist and geologist, was there for crowd control.
The turnoff to the Kahuku unit is on the Kona side of the 70-mile marker, off Highway 11. A short, winding road will bring you to a parking area where a ranger notes your license plate. Unlike the main park entrance, there’s no entry fee to this side of the park.
The sky was mostly cloudy when Levin and Eberz trudged along the base of an ancient cinder cone, Pu‘u o Lokuana.
“It’s a traditional place name,” Levin said, adding that there is no known English translation. They walked past enormous ohia lehua trees, perhaps 200 years old and bursting with red blossoms. Levin pulled out a picture of the Kilauea ‘Iki eruption of 1959 to illustrate the eruption that formed the cone.
“The southwest rift zone of Mauna Loa is one of the most volatile (places) on the planet,” she said.
Crossing the access road, the group entered an area where the trees were smaller, hanging on to crevices in the lava rock. In 1868, following the most devastating earthquake in Hawaii’s history, the earth tore open and lava flooded from a fissure more than 2 miles long. The fast-moving flow reached the ocean, 10 miles away, in just three hours. This area was the margin of the 1868 flow.
A bulldozed trail through the lava flow led to what Levin calls a “secret pasture.” Past a low stone wall, and a forest of flowering ohia lehua blossoms, is a 28-acre kipuka. This large open area was created when the 1868 flow split, preserving an area of old forest. Levin said archaeological evidence has suggested this area was used as a dryland field system for the ancient Hawaiians.
Here, Levin stopped and told the story of Robert Brown, a former whaling captain, and his family. Brown and his brother bought Kahuku from Charles Harris and had the misfortune to be living in the area during the seismic crisis of 1868. Brown, his wife, and his nine children survived the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the coastline in March and April of that year.
Then, around 5 p.m. on April 7, one of Brown’s daughters told him she heard a sound “like grinding coffee,” Levin said. It was the lava pouring out of the ground. The family fled to a safe place, believed to be Pu‘u o Lokuana, where “they would see their home and all their belongings engulfed in lava.” The former location of the Brown home remains lost.
From the kipuka-turned-pasture was a short walk to a low ridge of lava, a part of the fissure system that opened during the five-day eruption of 1868. Levin picked out a green olivine crystal and described how a massive flank eruption of Mauna Loa would dwarf one from Kilauea.
The experience of treading over undisturbed ground, carpeted with the reds and greens of the ohia forest, was interrupted by the sight of an airstrip in the middle of the lava field. The Damon Estate bulldozed the strip as a landing spot for its crop dusters; these days it’s used for overflow parking by park staff.
The final destination on this hike was Pu‘u o Lokuana. During World War II, Levin said, Parker Ranch leased the cinder cone to the U.S. government, which burrowed into it and installed a secret radar tracking station.
At the top of the pu‘u, under a light rain, Levin knelt in the grass to tell the legend of the two arrogant Kahuku chiefs, who engaged in a holua, or sled contest with a mysterious and beautiful stranger, and competed to win her affection. As the story goes, the chiefs became suspicious that this woman might be Pele, and withdrew from her.
The goddess, her cover blown, became overcome with anger. She stamped her feet, shaking the land. Then the torrent of lava broke from the earth and chased the two men to the sea. Trapped, they perished and were entombed in two cones called today Na Pu‘u a Pele, the Hills of Pele. Geologists believe this is an accurate account of a flank eruption that happened around 1660.
“This is our latest treasure chest,” Levin said. “And it has a lot of things to see.”
Email Peter Sur at firstname.lastname@example.org.