story by Curt Sanburn
photos by Dana Edmunds
Low tide: Hawaiians call it kai malo‘o, or dried-up sea, when the water draws away, beaches widen, the reef appears, and near-shore waters, starved of wave action, calm and shimmer.
A tattooed, pony-tailed surfer sits in the cool shadows of an old hau tree trellis at a little beach park on the steep Diamond Head shore. He gazes out at the too-small surf on the sparkling reef. Kai malo‘o.
I ask him if I can share the shade. Slender and part-Hawaiian, Paulie tells me he was once married to a girl whose grandmother lived in the old mansion that used to sit on this acre of lawn, so close to Waikďkď’s hurly-burly yet so quiet and beautiful. He tells me that Jimi Hendrix once stayed at the house and had wild parties there, back in the day. It’s not a fact that I can easily confirm, but the guitar god did visit Hawai‘i several times, and for seaside gossip it’s not bad.
It’s a sunny October midday. There’s a decisive low tide at 1:30 p.m., which is why I’m here: It’s the only chance to walk the otherwise impassable two-mile Diamond Head coast just east of Waikďkď. My hike, from Kaimana Beach to Black Point, follows a charmingly idiosyncratic obstacle course of long seawall-walkways, corroding stairs, hideaway pocket beaches, more seawalls, slippery beach rock and a few patches of knee-deep water.
Though this is one of O‘ahu’s most prominent coastlines, its cliffs, gates and walls make it all but invisible to most people, local or visitor. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been tantalized by glimpses of a golden beach far below Diamond Head Road’s lookouts. So now I’m walking the coast, looking for anything that tells me something about Diamond Head’s extremity, about the seaward landmark’s unique hold on the public imagination, and Jimi Hendrix is as good a starting point as any.
Look at a map: It is at Diamond Head that O‘ahu reaches farthest into the southern sea, and here that ocean swells roll in from the east, south and west to jack up on the fan-shaped reef and crash and ripple into the shore, to splash at the pile of volcanic ash that is Diamond Head and erode it centimeter by centimeter back into the water.
It is to Diamond Head’s roadside lookouts that nocturnal teenage couples in cars have always gravitated to look for the Southern Cross (or so they say), and whenever there are no waves anywhere else, surfers always come back to Diamond Head.
And it was along Diamond Head’s shore that Hawai‘i’s earliest oligarchs built their seaside castles, buttressing them with massive sea walls so they could, with easy conscience, gaze at the relentless lovely sea and fall asleep to the rumble of the reef.