The Drive-By Coast
story by Curt Sanburn
photos by Dana Edmunds
For most locals and visitors, the northeast coast of O‘ahu is remembered as a lovely afterthought. On their way to or from the twin attractions further norththe Polynesian Cultural Center in La‘ie and the surfing Mecca that is The North Shore’round-the-island day-trippers have no choice but to take in the lush, intensely tropical, ten-mile stretch of windward shore that lies at the heart of the district of Ko‘olau Loa. Call it the drive-by coast.
Sure, first-timers “ooh!” and “ahh!” as they wend their way north along the beach-hugging, two-lane Kamehameha Highway, thirty minutes out of Honolulu: Beginning at Kalae‘o‘io beach at the base of the 2,000-foot-tall headland called Pu‘u Kanehoalani; winding past Ka‘a‘awa’s magnificent valley and narrow ribbon of beach; around the perfectly placid bay at Kahana; then along the coconut-shaded beach colony at Punalu‘u and the fisherman-dotted reefs of Hau‘ula. And sure, they might pull off the road for a moment to take in the salty trade winds and the panoramic splendor, and click one or two digitized keepsakes. But there are few compelling dining spots, shops or other attractions to hold their attentionat least as far as most guidebooks are concerned.
The drive was lovely, they might say; and O‘ahu is, indeed, a beautiful island, they might finally conclude. But then they return to the jangle of south O‘ahu and Honolulu, where freeway traffic, clotted acres of concrete and Waikiki’s hurly-burly reasserts itself. And Ko‘olau Loa recedes to little more than an impression, a tantalizing perfume lodged in memory, redolent of O‘ahu’s deeper, older nature.
When I was a little malihini kid new to O‘ahu, that verdant stretch of coast struck me as Hawai‘i as it was supposed to be: rustling coconut trees in abundance, sandy beach shacks, limpid streams emptying into turquoise reef water, riotous greenery and valleys laced with waterfalls. A Technicolor South Sea idyll.
Twenty years ago, as a young man, I decided I wanted to live in that dreamland. I found a shack for rent right across the highway from Punalu‘u Beach Park, amid clusters of ancient ti plants, fountaining banana trees, thickets of hau and the messy litter of the ubiquitous, salt-loving false kamani tree. The overgrown backwaters of Punalu‘u Stream defined the backyard.
I settled in. Soon I was eating my eggs-rice-and-papaya breakfasts at a picnic table in the beach park, because mornings were invariably flush with sunshine and freshness. I kayaked across the reefs and up the streams and shared gossip and fresh-off-the-reef fish with my neighbors. After tending to affairs in Honolulu, my forty-minute commute home was always an unwinding, and always stirred my soul. That sabbatical in Punalu‘u was as close as I ever got to living life Hawaiian-style; after a year, I moved back to Honolulu.
Gorgeous and ripe as it was, Punalu‘u taught me the perils of trying to live a modern life on a windward (that is, northeast-facing) Hawaiian strand. My shack’s windows, nothing but screened and louvered cutouts in the walls, let the prevailing onshore trade windsmoisture- and salt-laden, stiff and constant as anythingblow right through the house, moldering my books and corroding everything metal. The winds also freighted to shore fleets of ocean-going, fair-weather clouds that piled up against the Ko‘olau mountains, cooled, and unleashed regular afternoon and evening downpours that pounded the roof so hard I couldn’t hear the TV. Giant centipedes crawled into my bed and bit me. Happy rats climbed through the rafters and into the kitchen, where they neatly hollowed-out fresh-picked bananas I foolishly left out on the counter. Egg-laying geckos had to be herded out of my shoes and my Mac’s disk drive and back onto the walls, where they kept a lid on the population of mosquitoes and other bugs. Fat cockroaches took up residence in my desk drawers and merrily ate my phone bills.
Recently, I decided to go back to Ko‘olau Loa and explore what’s behind its preternatural scenery and its earthy nature. I wanted to get into the mysterious valleys, meet some people and maybe articulate its singularity among O‘ahu’s districts. I wanted closure.
I immediately thought of my former next-door neighbors in Punalu‘u, the Keolanui family: two young boys, a father and grandfather. Their house, more substantial than my shack, was a two-story, wood-frame job the family built in 1947, after the 1946 tsunami had lifted up the old homestead and dumped it into their taro patch on the other side of the stream in the backyard. The most damaging tsunami in Hawai‘i’s recorded history, the 1946 wave killed 158 people in the Islands, mostly on the island of Hawai‘i. On O‘ahu, six people died along the windward coast. I remember when, twenty years ago, Eli Keolanui Jr., a big man, a school teacher in his fifties and father to the boys, stood in his front yard and showed me how high the water got during the tsunami’s surge. He pointed up to telephone lines strung along the highway.
And so, on my return to Ko‘olau Loa, I dropped by to see if anyone was home at the Keolanuis. Surely, somebody would still be there; they were landowners after all, connected by marriage to the Kauka clan, who had the original kuleana land claim to the area. The neat, linear neighborhood in which I lived, a collection of 5,800-square-foot lots strung along the mauka side of the highway to face the beach park and the sea, is thick with Kauka relativesOberles, Ka‘apus, Trevenens, Mattoons, Harbottles, Wiggins, Auldseven today.
Everything looked the same at the Keolanui homestead, except that the house, hammered by the trade winds and eaten alive by termites, was showing its age, the white exterior wall paint flaking off and the dark trim pitted by termites.
I find Eli Jr., alone and sitting on a stool, wedged in among a jumble of orchid pots, flame ginger and ti plants, by the side of the house. Wearing a baggy T-shirt, board shorts and slippers, he whittles at a corroded strip of window frame with a hammer and chisel. His thick head of hair has gone completely white, like that of a distinguished elder statesman.
When I say hello and explain that I was his neighbor briefly twenty years ago, I can’t tell if Eli, now seventy-five, remembers me or not, but he happily invites me to come sit down in his ocean-facing carport. Slow moving, he disappears into the house and comes back with two cans of passion-orange juice.
His conversation is free-form, moving from his football days in high school where he was called “the bull”; to college at Utah State on a sports scholarship (“You never get to love your home until you leave it,” he says.); to the admissions policies at Kamehameha Schools where his son studied; to working hard on the family’s taro patch and fishing on the reef with his father, Eli Sr., who, he tells me, arrived on O‘ahu from Hilo at age fifteen in 1919 to attend Kamehameha Schools “with fifty cents in his pocket, one pair of trousers, one pair puka pants, and one shirt. Ten cents was for catching the bus.”
For more than thirty years, Eli Jr. taught English and coached football at Kahuku, Ko‘olau Loa’s only public high school, several miles north of Punalu‘u.
“Education was big for us,” he says, talking and smiling at the same time. “Everybody said this was a poor community, but I'd say, ‘We’re not poor!’ I always thought we were rich, because our supermarket was right here it’s the ocean, see? It’s plentiful! Get mullet, manini, kumu and aholehole in the reef holes, so you spear ’em.”
We both look up and out across the highway to the blazing morning reef yards away, all milky blue and green, with a distant horizon of thumping, hissing white breakers. The narrow beach park screens the brightness a little, with its purple and violet silhouettes of coconut trunks, spiky hala (pandanus), wispy ironwood and milo.
“Get plenty he‘e [octopus] right out here, too, you know,” he says as if telling me a secret, motioning his head toward the reef and the outflow of Punalu‘u Stream.
“It’s a haven for them. You know why? ’Cuz the ‘opae [shrimp] come down from the stream, and you get all the different shellfish that coagulate there to eat whatever washes down, and the fish, the mullet, they also need little bit fresh water to spawn, so the octopus eat the little mullet, too.”
I flash on a dim, slightly spooky childhood memory: The sight of dozens of octopus strung up on clotheslines like laundry, tentacles dangling, in this very beach park.
“Plus, we get bananas, coconuts and our taro!”
A hundred yards or so down the highway from Eli’s property is an old lava-rock wall and gate that opens to a lush overgrown estate, spread out under a towering coconut grove. Small rock-lined ponds and pathways and mature milo and breadfruit trees denote years of careful tending and cultivation. Two modest houses and a stranded canoe sit in the silent, cool shade amid a ground cover of laua‘e fern and an encroaching bank of hau.
This is the old homestead of the famous David Ka‘apu, aka Prince David of Punalu‘u, Eli Keolanui’s deceased uncle. Born a Kauka and the brother of Eli’s mother, David was, in the Hawaiian way, adopted by the Ka‘apu family at birth as a hanai son. But it was through his biological family that he gained ownership over the idyllic three-acre plot sandwiched between Punalu‘u Beach Park and the ancient, now-overgrown fish ponds and taro patches carved out of the sluggish muliwai of Punalu‘u Stream. (A muliwai is the typical Hawaiian ponding of a stream near its mouth, caused by a barrier beach or sandbar that slows the water’s progress into the sea.)
It was here that David Ka‘apu built a cluster of grass houses, beginning in 1930, and here that he lived according to the old Hawaiian way with his haole schoolteacher wife Myrtle and their two children. Son Kekoa went on to graduate from Harvard and became a Honolulu city councilman; daughter Kapua, a retired teacher, now lives on the property.
In 1936, Myrtle Ka‘apu wrote an unpublished article claiming that, “In all the Hawaiian Islands there is today not one family except my husband and me that makes its home in a grass house. And, so far as I know, my husband is the only man who habitually wears for his clothing only his fine brown skin plus the historic malo, or loincloth.”
The Ka‘apu grass shacks, nestled along the ’round-the-island highway in scenic and remote Punalu‘u, became a bona fide curiosity. President Franklin Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Shirley Temple were early visitors, along with thousands of tourists who paid a quarter to have themselves photographed with the five-foot-seven-inch, bronze-skinned, nearly nude fisherman-prince who never tired of championing the efficacies of Hawaiian living and sharing the joys of his simple, healthy life.
Eventually, David and Myrtle Ka‘apu petitioned Hawai‘i’s tourist industry and its territorial government to subsidize their popular attraction with an annual salaryor some kind of compensation. When refused, the Ka‘apus closed down their home to visitors and thereafter opened it only for school groups and special occasions.
“I remember he had one big pond, with yellow, lavender, and white water lilies in it and pink lilies always blooming. Oh, it was so beautiful!” Eli waxes, remembering the colors his uncle brought to Punalu‘u. Prince David died in 1971 after spending his later years creating and caretaking the beach park, still in his malo and lauhala hat.
“He was terrific people. He had the gift of gab, that’s for sure. He’d tell you all about the history of the valley and the sea. He educated himself about Hawaiian ways and learned through trial and error. He kept the knowledge alive.”
There was plenty of lore to draw from. For instance, the exploits of the mischievous demigod Kamapua‘a, half- pig, half-man, who for a time lived nearby in misty Kaliuwa‘a and regularly rooted up the taro patches of Punalu‘u. Farmers took their grievances to the fire goddess Pele, who subdued him. Seeking revenge, Kamapua‘a drank enough water to relieve himself on the eruptions at Lae‘ahi (Diamond Head) and extinguish the volcano for good.
There was also the ancient high chief Kekuaokalani, born on Hawai‘i island but raised by the priest Kahonu in the upland forests of Punalu‘u. Kahonu was the kahuna of the chief’s Ka‘umakaulaula heiau, a temple erected on the beach, where human sacrificial offerings were madeand where mysterious and magical things continued to happen long after the heiau itself was gone. Punalu‘u old-timers recounted tales of pigs’ eyes turning red when they approached the site; during the sacred nights of the god Kane, one could hear the sounds of drums, nose flutes, whistling gourds and the prayers of kahuna, rising up out of the ground.
Other royals have made their home at Punalu‘u. The Kawananakoa clandeclared princes of the realm by King David Kalakaua in 1883has long lived on this splendid and punishing shore, along the waterfront strip just south of the beach park. The most visible and impressive of the current Kawananakoa properties is a big, two-story white house set in the middle of a regal lawn just behind the low beach dune. Originally erected on Diamond Head in 1885 by sugar baron James Campbell, the house was gifted to his daughter, Muriel Shingle, who shipped it by barge to Punalu‘u around 1915. Another of the Campbell daughters, Abigail, married Prince David Kawananakoa in 1902. And it was their granddaughter, Princess Abigail Kekaulike Kawananakoa, who bought the house from her Shingle cousins in the 1970s.
Punalu‘u beach has in its time also been a summer colony for such redoubtable Honolulu names as former territorial governor Charles J. McCarthy, the Kanakanui family, the Kepplers, the Guards and Sheehans, the Hustaces and the Moons.
Just south around the bend from Punalu‘u is the bay and valley at Kahana. The wide, powder-soft crescent beach, fringed by a tall, shaggy bank of ironwood trees, must be one of O‘ahu’s most beautiful and serene spots, especially in the mornings, before the west-bound sun disappears behind the valley’s thickening roof of clouds.
The entire bayfront and valley, with only the most minimal intrusion of human habitation, is now owned by the state and managed as a 5,300-acre “living park” called Ahupua‘a ‘O Kahana, but the only signs of this are the parking lot and restrooms across the highway from the beach, tucked in under an old coconut grove that was planted circa 1909. A little ways up Kahana Valley Road is a down-at-the-heels “Orientation Center,” which, sign-less, is closed on a weekday morning. Further inland, the overgrown roadway opens onto a hillside clearing where the gardened plots of a handful of newish houses extend for a few hundred yards.
The little subdivision was built after the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources acquired the valley in 1969 in order to protect the most intact ahupua‘a left on O‘ahu from an ambitious development scheme. The state relocated most of the valley’s thirty-odd resident families (who were, for the most part, the Hawaiian descendants of the valley’s original farmers and fishermen) inland, to this mid-valley settlement. Since then, management of the valley has been an inconclusive tug-of-war between residents and bureaucrats, with little to recommend the well-intentioned transaction except for some measure of security and stability for residents, a few maintained hiking trails, a brochureand a blissful peace and quiet.
Near the new settlement’s entrance, a small trash fire crackles in the middle of a big empty lawn that slopes down to the road. A border of infant plumeria trees and ti plants encloses the plot. At the top of the lawn, at the edge of the forest, an elderly man sits in one of two lawn chairs, watching the smoke rise from his fire. The vacant chair next to the man seems like an invitation, so I walk up the lawn and introduce myself, telling him I’m writing a magazine article about the area. Friendly yet circumspect, he invites me to sit down.
George DelaCerna, 72, was born in Kahana Valley, as was his Hawaiian mother. His father, of Spanish descent, was from Maui. A retired superintendent with the refuse division for the City and County of Honolulu (“Good pension!” he exclaims), he lives with his wife and grown daughter, one of seven children, in a substantial house next-door to the empty lot.
We chat for awhile, about how he planted and tends this empty lawn though he doesn’t own it; about being stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army during the Korean War; and about the monthly meetings that the lease-holding residents of Kahana have with the state’s landlord bureaucrats.
“My wife goes to the meetings,” George says, “but I’m not the type of person who sits in meetings and listens to all what they need to say, because I understand already what it’s all about. I don’t need to hear it again.”
The lawn chairs offer a view of much of the valley’s floor and overgrown streambed where there were once abundant taro fields, wauke (paper mulberry), bananas, breadfruit and sweet potatoes. On the other side, the velvety ramparts of its east wall. Near the head of the valley, the dreamy, sculpted 2,265-foot peak of Pu‘u‘ohulehule punctuates the view.
One of the wettest spots on O‘ahu, Kahana’s mauka sections absorb more than 250 inches of rain each year. During the first half of the twentieth century, sugar planters engineered an unprecedented network of tunnels and canals into the Ko‘olau mountain spine to capture an average of thirty million gallons of water per day and ship it to the sprawling sugarcane fields that covered the flat, dry leeward plains of O‘ahu like a giant lawn. The on-going water transfer (which now irrigates the thirsty suburbs that replaced the cane fields) has significantly reduced many windward stream flows, including Kahana.
The mosquitoes begin to gather, and the conversation lags, so I prepare to take my leave and turn off my palm-sized digital recorder. But George signals that I should sit back down. He isn’t finished and wants to talk. The fire has subsided to glowing embers. I turn the recorder back on.
“Actually, what we want, here in the valley, is we want our land back.” His voice firms up. “We don’t want to be controlled by the state the way they’re doing now. We did all right, back when this valley was private. We used to have farmers up here and taro patches, and it was beautiful. The people kept it clean. But then the state came in and said, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t own anything, you can only do this.’ They took the land away from us. They gave us no choice, so to speak. Who are they to do that? They don’t own the land to begin with. It’s ours; it belongs to us, the Hawaiian people.”
“See, here’s the log that those stampeding dinosaurs jumped over in Jurassic Park, and right over here is where they filmed the golfing scene in Lost, when Hurley found the golf clubs,” says twenty-two-year-old Novite Waiolama, my jeep-driving tour guide, in the middle of a Hollywood tour of spectacular, wide open Ka‘a‘awa Valley, just on the other side of Kahana’s eastern rampart.
“And if you ever watched 50 First Dates, this is the road where Adam Sandler put the penguin in the middle of the road, and near where he got beaten up by the bad guys.”
Novite, a burly, tattooed young man, jams the gears in the jeep as we lurch over hills and across muddy gullies, following a dirt road into the rolling, cattle-pasture meadows at the heart of the picture-perfect valley, with its drop-dead seaward views framed by fluted cliffs on either side. Simple signs memorialize some of the movies and TV shows that have been filmed here: Mighty Joe Young, Pearl Harbor, Godzilla, The Brady Bunch Movie, Windtalkers, Along Came Polly, ER, Magnum PI and something called Krippendorf’s Tribe, but neither Novite nor I have seen it.
We pass what looks like a giant lizard’s footprint carved into the dirt, about twenty feet across. “That’s Godzilla’s footprint,” Novite tells me. “We kept three of ’em. They used to be ten feet deep, but cattle from the ranch fell in, so we filled them in a little bit, made it more shallow so cows can walk in, walk out.”
Novite, who says he’s “ninety-five percent Hawaiian,” was raised in Kahalu‘u, in the neighboring district of Ko‘olau Poko. He says he was a tough, angry kid and got into more fist fights than he could count at Castle High School, so he wound up in the Olomana correctional school in Kailua. After that, he says he got his head together and now “stays away from trouble.” He has a girlfriend and two kids, a regular gig playing keyboards with a local reggae band called Pride Rhythm; and he has this job as a jack-of-all-trades, driving jeeps and boats for visitors to Kualoa Ranch.
The historic, 4,000-acre Kualoa Ranch, which encompasses three mountains, two valleys and five miles of coastline, was established in 1850 by Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, an American missionary who became a key advisor during the early years of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Still owned by Judd relatives, the Morgan family, the land-rich, cash-poor cattle ranch began to transform itself into a visitor-oriented, low-impact activities center in 1985. This was done to protect the spectacular land from developmentand, at the same time, to keep up with the property taxes. The strategy proved to be a win-win: In 1980, there were five employees; now there are 140and with not a hotel, condo or golf course in sight. The ranch first went Hollywood when Hawaii 5-0 began to film there in the early 1970s; the standard shooting rate is now $2,000 per day.
Novite, who studied to be a paramedic but fears he might not qualify because of his tattoos, has nothing but good things to say about his employers at Kualoa Ranch.
“The Morgans are solid,” he says, “real solid. They keep our land the way it’s supposed to be, and they give locals good jobs. I’m not just saying that cuz they’re my bosses, but I can tell you, these Morgan guysJohn, Dave and Andrewthey’re out here every day busting their ‘okoles. They don’t act like the high mucka-muck kine.
“They take care of us, and we take care of them.”
When I lived in my shack at Punalu‘u, I often found myself mentally trying to configure this portion of the Ko‘olau Loa coastKa‘a‘awa to Kahana to Punalu‘uinto its own entity, especially as I drove home and entered into its blessed array of reefs, beaches, trade-wind-battered beach houses and mysterious, quenching valleys.
I got stuck on the notion that it must be a place apart, a separate, somnolent kingdom: O‘ahu’s Separate Kingdom. But there was no king, no queenjust this distinct feeling of a separate, riper beauty. Maybe it was the brunt of the trade winds and the feeling of being afloat; maybe it was the spilling mountains.
Via telephone, I ask Punalu‘u native Cathleen Mattoon, a Kauka relation like Eli Keolanui, about this idea.
“Well, I guess you could call us an almost stand-alone area,” the seventy-two-year-old community leader and mother of five says. Four of her children have stayed in Punalu‘u to raise their own families.
In the 1970s, Cathleen coined the phrase, “Keep the Country Country,” which has since become a battle cry to rally the troops whenever the rural nature of O‘ahu’s northern reaches is threatened.
“We’re preserving what we have, because it’s the way we like to live,” Cathleen explains. “Community, ‘ohana, lifestylewe’re protective of thesethis is what we can contribute to the rest of O‘ahu.”
I ask her if she’s happy most people just drive by. “Yes,” she says. “Well, we have a few stores Ching’s and Kaya’s but yeah, we hope people will go straight by.” She pauses, and thinks better about sounding too exclusive.
“You know, we share our water,” she offers. “Most of it goes far awaythis is what we can share. And we’re happy to share our shoreline. We have lots of shoreline.” HH