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The left-handed hermit crab, one of the many creatures living in Hawai'i's intertidal zone
Vol. 11, No. 6
December 2008/January 2009

  >>   Teaching Aloha
  >>   Inside Fortress O'ahu
  >>   What Lies Beneath

Heiau Rising 

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Monte Costa

A few miles south of Kailua-Kona, the community of Keauhou awakens to a tranquil dawn. Two nimble sandpipers flit from stone to stone along the shoreline of the Keauhou Beach Resort. In the black lava rock tidepools, a sudden flutter of fish breaks the water’s glassy surface. Surf washes over the reef 200 feet seaward; beyond it the open ocean stretches to meet a powderblue sky. Besides the soft crackling of water flowing in the shallow pools, the world is silent.

At the pool’s edge, a massive stone structure catches the sun’s first rays: a heiau (pronounced HAY-ee-OW), or ancient Hawaiian temple. This one, Hapaiali‘i, is among several heiau that dot the Keauhou shoreline. Built some 600 years ago, the restored 15,000-square-foot platform is so imposing, so solid, it breaks the silence without making a sound. Just southwest of Hapaiali‘i, the partly rebuilt walls of another, even more colossal heiau, Ke‘eku, rise from rubble. Ke‘eku was once a heiau of the highest significance: a luakini, a place of human sacrifice. Its north wall is a formidable stone platform 121 feet long, 11 feet high and 32 feet wide. A raised stone marks the location of the hale pahu (drum house), one of four hale (houses) that would have once stood within its perimeter. A structure of this scale—built from boulders weighing up to eight tons—may have required the work of tens of thousands of people over a decade.

But time and tide dismantle even the most impressive human endeavors. Over the last two centuries, natural forces— earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and high surf—buried these heiau and collapsed their walls. Until recently the site looked like an unremarkable pile of overgrown rocks tumbled into the placid mirror of the tidepool. Only about eight inches of the original walls testified to the incredible feat of ancient engineering that once stood here. In December 2007, after six months of labor, the restoration of Hapaiali‘i was completed. Behind an orange mesh construction fence, the black stones of Ke‘eku wait in mounds like the pieces of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.