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Las Vegas Luau: Team Aloha on the Strip.
Vol. 5, No. 3
June/July 2002


Mapping the Past  


story by Derek Ferrar
photos by Tim DeLaVega

Lunchmeat gets air
near the old Hawaiian
trail cut into the cliff

I'm standing next to a flickering campfire beneath the cathedraled cliffs of Kauai's Na Pali coast, holding hands with a grizzled guy named Lunchmeat. Lightly grasping my other hand, a soft-spoken Hawaiian mystic named Leilani chants quietly. Our little crew is circled round, heads bowed in pule before the sumptuous dinner we've assembled in a cozy, ironwood-grove campsite by the beach, just a stone's roll from the cliff walls and a maze of ancient Hawaiian structures. "Mahalo ke Akua," Leilani whispers, "for your generous blessings."

The blessings of Nualolo Kai are generous indeed. This narrow ribbon of land, part exposed reef, part rockfall from the cliffs above, is not only wildly gorgeous, but it is also the location of some of Hawaii's most famous archaeological sites. The stone remains of the Na Pali Coast's largest heiau, or temple, are here, as are several house sites that are believed to have been continuously occupied for some 800 years, from the 12th through the early 20th centuries. Scientific surveys here, particularly Bishop Museum digs conducted in the late 1950s and early '60s by the Pacific archaeology pioneer Dr. Kenneth Emory, have turned up some of the best-preserved organic relics of Hawaiian antiquity ever found.


Abandoned since the early 1900s, the ancient settlement was nearly lost in recent decades to an ever-encroaching tide of weeds. That tide began to turn several years ago, however, when the Division of State Parks and the nonprofit group Na Pali Ohana started sponsoring week-long volunteer work trips to clear and map the structures of this extraordinary place.

Since the service trips offer the only real opportunity to camp at Nualolo, I jumped at the chance when Alan Carpenter, the State Parks archaeologist who coordinates the project, called last summer to ask if I wanted to tag along. A couple of weeks later, our group of a half-dozen volunteers gathered at West Kauai's Kikiaola Harbor to catch the Na Pali Explorer boat that would ferry us to Nualolo in inflatable comfort.

After a quick gathering to ask for blessings on our efforts and travels, we were off, the big boat slicing through a light chop. We cruised past the ivory beaches and red-dirt canyons of West Kauai; past the missile base at Barking Sands; past the golden dunes of Polihale Beach, until the rock faces of Na Pali began to rise up ahead. Small valleys started to appear at first just narrow green slits in the dry rock and then gradually growing deeper and wider as we progressed up the coast.


As we rounded the final corner into Nualolo, Sabra Kauka, the wise and witty cultural educator who heads the Na Pali Ohana, stood at the bow, chanting a petition for safe entry. Etched into the cliff face, directly behind the heiau site, was a large, unmistakable X, formed where two ancient lava channels intersect in the weathered basalt face. Here, X truly marks the spot.

Buzzing out to meet us in a small, hand-built dory was the notorious Lunchmeat, a blustery Northside surf legend and a regular fixture on the Nualolo trips. He had piloted his idiosyncratic craft down the coast packing another volunteer, a broad-bellied, gold-toothed potter named Roman. The offloading process took a while, with Lunchmeat barking orders as he ferried loads of gear through the narrow crack in the reef. When my turn came to disembark, I jumped overboard and snorkeled to the boulder-lined beach past the reef's incredible tunnels and chasms, filled with luminous reef fish of enormous proportions.


After setting up camp, we had laid out the lavish dinner and gathered for pule. Now, with the feast and the day's chores done, we sit under a canopy of stars in reclined camp chairs Barcaloungers of the wilderness and talk story.

"People always ask how many Hawaiians lived here," Alan says, "but the answer is, we don't really know. When (early missionary) Hiram Bingham came by in 1821, he counted seventy people fishing on the reef, but there were probably a lot more than that once. By the time Bingham came, the heiau was out of use, but someone pretty important must have lived here at one time to commission all these major structures."

While Nualolo Kai (or coastal Nualolo) doesn't have the land area or water supply to support large-scale farming of taro the Hawaiian's primary agricultural staple the adjacent valley of Nualolo Aina (inland Nualolo) afforded plenty of taro land. The residents traveled between the two Nualolos by means of a precarious rope ladder and a narrow trail cut into the cliff.

The missionary Gorham Gilman, who visited Nualolo in 1845, described his attempt to negotiate the trail: "There I was, my chief support a little projecting stone, not sufficient a hold for my whole foot, and my hands clinging with a death grasp to the rock ... which would have proved my death place if I had made the least mistake or slip. I had strong curiosity to go forward, but discretion prevailed and I returned. I was then told that few white men had gone as far as I had, and none had ever passed the ladder."

The Nualolo locals, however, went up and down the ladder with ease, often carrying heavy loads. "What we see today as inaccessible," observes regular volunteer Randy Wichman a dashing and able historian, yachtsman and woodcutter of aristocratic Hawaiian and missionary lineage "was laughable to the Hawaiians that were here."

As the gathering breaks up and we head for our tents, my gaze is drawn to the pointed spire of Nualolo's eternal guardian, Kamaile cliff, silhouetted against the night sky. In ancient days, the cliff was famous for oahi, the "fireworks" displays that were put on here during very special occasions. Courageous climbers scaled the cliff with bundles of dried sticks, then set them afire and threw them off like flaming spears. Because the sticks were specially selected to be light and hollow, they burned spectacularly, floating on the cliff's updrafts before falling to earth.

Following breakfast the next morning, Alan leads a tour of the archaeological sites. First among these is the heiau, which rises up the hillside in a series of terraced stone platforms. Although the original name and function of the

Na Pali Ohana's Sabra
Kauka on KP duty

heiau have been lost, there are indications that the area may once have been an important canoe-building center. One translation of the name Nualolo relates to a hog-sacrifice ceremony that was traditionally performed to celebrate the completion of a canoe. Alan explains that early Hawaiian historians recorded a strong connection between Nualolo and the now "forbidden" island of Niihau, which lies a dozen miles to the west across the Kaulakahi channel.

Below the heiau, and similarly paved with intricately placed stones, is a small, spring-fed pool that is Nualolo Kai's only source of fresh water, and adjacent to that is a large, sunken area that might once have been a ritual bathing pool, or possibly an area for growing temple taro. Scattered throughout the landscape are other stone structures that are likely the remains of dwellings, sweet-potato growing mounds, canoe sheds, a burial ground and more.

At one point, as we tour walled enclosures above the heiau, Leilani is suddenly overcome with emotion. A deeply spiritual woman who grew up in foreign lands before returning to her ancestral island, she later explains to me: "Hawaiians, at least my family, believed all things have energy we call it ha, the breath of life. These rocks still have the ha; they're still alive. I think about the love my ancestors had for this place, and I feel that I'm part of that living tradition."

After the tour, we get to work. While the project's jocular photographer, Tim DeLaVega, and I assist Alan with the mapping, Randy fires up his trusty chainsaw with Roman in tow as brush hauler; Lunchmeat goes off to attack the marauding castor bean that continually threatens to overrun the sites; and Sabra and Leilani pull weeds by the main path, giggling nonstop. "Our intuition is that there were great parties here," Sabra says. "That's why when we pass certain spots, we just have to giggle."

Periodically throughout the day, sightseeing boats deliver groups of a dozen or so sun-pinked tourists with local guides leading them on the trail that winds a respectful course through the sites. At pau hana time, I grab another snorkeling session among the reef's ravines and sumo-sized fish and then join Roman, who's cooking steaks at the fire. Although he's lived in the Islands since the '60s, this is his first trip to Nualolo. "My interest in coming out here," he explains, "is in taking care of an island that has taken care of me so well. This place is a gift, and you return a gift with a gift."

As the day's last golden light plays on the ocean, a lone Hawaiian monk seal cruises in through the reef, surfacing at the end of the beach where Sabra and Leilani are bathing, scaring them half to death. For the rest of the trip, they erupt into laughter as they recall the sea's startling snort, even working the whooshing sound into a private, chuckling chant.

Lounging in a camp chair after dinner, I work up the nerve to ask Lunchmeat (a.k.a. Scott Ferguson) how he got his name. "Well," he starts out, "the true story isn't as interesting as some of the others" then he launches into a tale dating back to his days as a teenage Santa Cruz surf rat in the early '60s. After he managed to spill a can of resin over a stack of wetsuits at the surf shop where he hung out, the owner yelled at him: "You're a ham! No you're lunchmeat!" And it stuck.

"Of course, in proper circles," he adds, "I m known as Luncheon Meat."

Paddy Boy Malama

The next day, our party is graced by arrival of a local luminary: Paddy Boy Malama, known as "the King of the Na Pali coast." There's even a well-known song about him, The Ballad of Paddy Boy Malama, sung to the tune of Davy Crockett.

A legendary Westside hunter and fisherman now in his late fifties, Paddy Boy has deep family ties to Nualolo and has been coming here since, he says, "I was one little kid in diapers." He remembers coming out in his uncle s home-made redwood boat, "twenty-one feet, twenty-one people all bailing the whole time." Both his father and his uncle worked on Emory s Nualolo digs, but Paddy Boy remembers that when he was young, the elders in the family gave strict instructions to stay away from the ruins. "We wouldn t go behind there," he says, "because the old folks would say that s kapu, because sacred, yeah? So we never knew too much about the old-time stuff in this place."

In the evening, the day's work behind us and the setting sun silhouetting the ridgeline, we plop wearily into our chairs. "There's a sense of timelessness, of patience, here," Randy observes. "I think of all the hands that had to touch those rocks to get them into those walls. These rocks saw the first humans that placed them there, and they've seen everything since."

"Ae, agrees Sabra. "So many hands in the stone."

That night, with cries of a baby pueo (Hawaiian owl) echoing off the cliffs, the Perseid meteor shower arrives. We lie out on the beach oohing and aahing as the fireballs streak across the sky, leaving glittering trails behind. It s impossible not to think of the ancient "fireworks" displays that similarly lit up the face of Kamaile.

On our last full workday in Nualolo, everyone puts in overtime to finish our projects. Then, after dinner, we come together for a final-night hoike (performance) by the fire. We drink a little awa (the traditional mood-altering libation of the Pacific); I plink out a few hapa-haole tunes on my ukulele; the ladies dance a couple of uproarious hulas; old jokes and chicken-skin ghost tales are traded back and forth.

The next morning, we haul our gear down to the tin-roofed shelter by the channel. As we wait to catch our boat back to the everyday world, I overhear Sabra talking to one of the tourists who has come ashore to check out the sites. The woman is asking Sabra about some of the heartbreaks of Hawaiian history: the loss of lands, the terrible epidemics, the sweeping changes that caused people to abandon such idyllic places as Nualolo.

"We're done crying," Sabra tells the woman softly, as she gazes back toward the heiau. "Now we're ready to move forward into the future, fully informed by the past."