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Catching a break at Malaekahana, on O‘ahu's windward coast.
Vol. 11, No. 3
June/July 2008

  >>   The Giving Tree
  >>   Green Chic
  >>   Town & Country

High-wire Acts 

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Dana Edmunds


Orange is the new black,” declares Rip Delisanti, trying to make us feel better about the goofy hard hats with Plexiglas eye shields we’ll be wearing for the next three hours. He’s in charge of wardrobe for the Kapalua Adventures zipline tour. In this case, that entails asking everyone to bend over and stick our backsides out to ensure our lounge-chair-style harnesses are properly adjusted. After a few minutes of wiggling and giggling, we’re all snug in ‘okole-hugging straps, and we climb aboard a biodiesel-powered Unimog (a German military vehicle repurposed for heavy-duty passenger transport) that hauls us wanna-be 007s up a dusty, red-dirt pineapple road to the Kapalua Mountain Outpost, where the adventure is to begin.

Eight cables, totaling 2 miles of distance, traverse the landscape. They pass at heights up to 200 feet above foliage-blanketed valleys, connecting a series of wooden platforms. An intricate network of knots and carabiners hanging from our harnesses tethers us to a hand-held trolley, which will carry us effortlessly along the cable—we hope. Our job is simple: We’re to hurl ourselves into oblivion and zip (hence the name) down the cable at speeds much faster than a human ought to go.

After a brief procedural explanation, we head to the first tower for our initial zip. I volunteer to be the guinea pig. I get anxious sitting there like a helpless infant dangling in a baby swing, prevented from zipping away by a closed wooden gate.

“Line one, brake check, both sides!” he calls into his radio. Roy, the guide on the receiving end 500 feet away, radios back that he’s ready. “Zipping, line one, left side!” Andrew responds. He unhooks my safety line, flings the gate open and gives a 3-2-1 countdown. I take a breath, pull my knees up, and the floor disappears.

I’m off and zipping. The cable vibrates with a soft “zzzzz” as the ground below me whizzes by. As I approach the other side, the guide awaiting me spreads his arms and legs in a jumping jack, a position they call “starfish,” which is said to slow you down. Taking the direction, I pull my own starfish, as we’ve been told to do, and enter the landing zone safely. My trolley smacks against a block that absorbs my momentum and recoils; the report sounds like a gunshot. Pretty exciting—and that was just the trainer!

With each traverse, everyone’s confidence builds; the worst part is waiting your turn. By the time we get to line five, which stretches 1,600 feet across a deep gorge where a waterfall spills into a bamboo forest, we’re finally comfortable enough to take in the view—we are pros. Well, except for me. It just so happens that the Kona winds—blowing the opposite direction of Hawai‘i’s typical trades—thwart my momentum enough that I stop short of the landing platform. So I lie back and check out the waterfall upside down, waiting as Roy locks onto the cable and maneuvers himself to me hand-over-hand, retrieving me via a process they call “pineapple picking.”

“Come here often?” he jokes, offering me a tow rope.

“Wanted to see if anyone would pick me up,” I reply.

The rescue is successful, and as my feet return to the ground, everyone applauds.

I ask Dennis, a zipper visiting from San Diego, why he signed up; he’s here for the scenery, he says. Before us, squat guava trees dot a grassy pastureland. In the distance, the royal blue of the Pacific dissolves into the horizon, and I can make out the outline of Moloka‘i. Dennis says these are views he couldn’t see otherwise. True enough. This and other mountainous regions on Maui are part of the wao akua, the place of the gods. It’s the domain of Hawaiian spirits, says Kapi‘ioho‘okalani Lyons Naone, the kahu (priest) who is the zipline tour’s cultural advisor.

Maybe this is what it’s like to be an akua, I think, endowed with the ability to fly—how beautiful, if inconsequential, everything appears below.