Deep South

The people of Ka Lae are as strong and spirited as the land
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by PF Bentley.

At the southern tip of Hawai‘i Island, teenagers take turns leaping from a forty-foot-tall sea cliff. The ocean is a startling blue and as transparent as a cube of Jell-O. One of the teens—seeking an added dose of adrenaline—climbs atop the skeletal frame of the boat hoist to gain an extra few feet. As he straps on his GoPro and launches out over the water, I can’t help but wonder: Does he know that this is a leina, a place where souls are said to leap into the netherworld?

Ka Lae, or South Point, juts into the Pacific like a shark’s tooth. Bordered by recent lava flows, beset with near-constant winds and haunted by the echoes of ancient battles, it’s a place where turbulent energies converge. Two powerful currents sweep down the island’s east and west coasts to ricochet off this snag of land, resulting in a rich but rough fishing ground. Ka Lae is thought to be the site of one of Hawai‘i’s oldest settlements—where Polynesian voyagers first landed in these islands—and some believe it’s the point from which they departed for Aotearoa, or New Zealand. More recently it’s become an off-the-beaten-path tourist destination.

“A lot of people are drawn here and they don’t know why,” says Jashua Viernes. His family lived here as caretakers when he was a boy, and he’s agreed to show me around. I’m sitting in his truck alongside five squirming youngsters—some his, some absorbed into his clan for the day. We watch the cliff jumper resurface in a cerulean bloom of bubbles. This centuries-old pastime, a favorite of Hawaiian royalty, isn’t particularly safe. The surge can whack swimmers against the rocks or whisk them out to sea. Climbing back up can be just as perilous. The young man below lunges toward the free-swinging metal ladder, and the next big swell pushes him up to the slippery bottom rung. “Sport of the kings,” says Viernes.

At nineteen degrees north of the equator, Ka Lae (literally, “the point”) is the southernmost extreme of Hawai‘i—and thus all fifty states. Most tourists barely register this as they zip by on Māmalahoa Highway. Between the small towns of Ocean View and Nā‘ālehu, a single lane leads twelve miles makai (seaward), past two cartoonish satellite dishes and a few lone farmhouses. Only a few square miles in size, the cape feels as wide as Wyoming. The sun beats down on treeless, tawny fields, and the relentless winds harass grazing horses. The cape’s western boundary is marked by the Kahuku Pali, a dramatic ridge along Mauna Loa’s southwestern rift zone where the earth fell six hundred feet during an ancient submarine landslide. Massive windmills march along its upper edge to the sea.

The sea cliffs at South Point attract adventurous types, but the number-one draw is the green-sand beach at Mahana bay. We’re not going there, Viernes tells me. Too much of a hassle. Instead, he pulls up to a small lighthouse, and the kids pour out of the truck. Beside the beacon, a quadrangle of lichen-spattered rocks marks Kalalea, a Hawaiian heiau (temple) where fishermen still leave offerings to increase their catch and return safely home.

“Back in the day, fishermen caught three-hundred-pound ‘ahi here,” says Viernes. The confluence of currents at Ka Lae brings prized pelagic fish close to shore—but the waters are so volatile that Hawaiian sailors often stowed their boats and crossed the point on foot. Enterprising fishermen weren’t deterred; they drilled holes into the cliffs to secure their canoes while trolling the deep water. Around eighty ancient mooring holes can still be found along the pali, right beside the concrete anchors for modern fishermen’s poles.

Into the abyss: The anchialine swimming hole Lua o Palahemo is said to be bottomless, connected to the ocean by a lava tube and guarded by a reptilian water spirit called a mo‘o.

Kalalea also has navigational significance; its outer walls align with the four cardinal directions, and certain pōhaku (stones) point toward Tahiti and Rapa Nui. The Polynesian Voyaging Society pays visits here, Viernes tells me, as do Māori tribes who come to honor their seafaring ancestors. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, archaeologists from Bishop Museum surveyed this shore, meticulously cataloging the heiau and surrounding shelters, mooring holes, salt pans and Pu‘uali‘i, a sandy hill-top full of ancestral iwi (bones). Unusual fishhooks discovered in caves offered clues about who settled this area and when. Estimates range from as early as 124 to 750 CE.

Viernes’ parents came here from Moloka‘i in 1986 at the invitation of Ka ‘Ohana o Ka Lae, a community organization devoted to preserving these cultural treasures. As live-in caretakers, the Viernes family tried to rein in tourists, fishermen and off-roading enthusiasts who rode roughshod all over significant artifacts. “It was a big fight,” says Viernes. “We educated people, picked up rubbish and protected the sites as we could.” For over a decade his parents offered free, month-long summer camps where local kids spoke Hawaiian, played music and danced hula. They collected money from visitors for water and public toilets. On a slow day Viernes estimates two hundred people would pass through.

Eventually, for various political reasons, the family was evicted. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which owns the land, is developing a management plan for Ka Lae. In the future there may be walking paths with signage, locally owned concessions, public toilets and parking fees, but for now it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Tire tracks crisscross the sand dunes, gouging deep ruts into the windswept terrain. Viernes nods toward a plastic tarp tied to the edge of the heiau, where a fisherman has set up camp, using historically significant rocks as weights. He sighs and ushers his kids back into the truck.

On Hawai‘i Island, Ka Lae is as far south as you can go – the southernmost point in the United States. Most of the businesses on this sparsely populated landscape can claim the distinction of being the “most southern,” as Shaka Restaurant (seen above) proudly does.

Our next stop is Palahemo, a beat-up but still beautiful little oasis. At one time the brackish pool was a famed landmark due to the freshwater lens that floated on top, suitable for drinking. “Auntie! Watch me!” Viernes’ oldest daughter climbs down to dip both feet into the brownish water. Hanging from my hip, her tiny brother reaches for a yellow-flowered vine at the pond’s edge: noho, a remnant of the native ecosystem that once thrived here. Nearby violet pā‘ū-o-Hi‘iaka blossoms peek out from beneath a coat of dust. Palahemo’s seemingly bottomless well is home to rare anchialine shrimp and a mythological mo‘o(water dragon). Neither dissuades the kids from cannonballing in. “I love this place,” Viernes says, gazing back toward the sea cliffs. “It calls to me. It calls to my kids.”

That night I retire to a little cottage in Nā‘ālehu behind Hana Hou, “the Southernmost Restaurant in the U.S.A.” Outside the restaurant’s open back door, musicians are serenading diners, and I contemplate wandering over to indulge in one of the bakery’s famous liliko‘i bars. Next door, kids shoot hoops at the park until exactly 11 p.m., when the stadium lights snap off. An impressive nightlife for a town with fewer than nine hundred residents.

Mary Kawena Pukui, perhaps the greatest Hawaiian historian of the twentieth century, happens to have been born on a hillside above Nā‘ālehu. She wrote more than a dozen authoritative books about Hawai‘i, including the Hawaiian Dictionary and ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, a compendium of colloquial sayings. In The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘u, Hawai‘i she documented the rich cultural practices unique to this place.

The raw landscapes of Ka Lae and other parts of the Ka‘ū district never let one forget that this is Pele’s realm. Above, a recent lava flow in the foreground contrasts with an older, forested flow near Ocean View.

Ka Lae belongs to the proud district of Ka‘ū, the home of warrior kings, rebels and scholars. It is the rough cradle of an independent and resourceful people. How rough? One of Captain Cook’s shipmates declared it “by far the worst part of the Island … as barren waste looking a country as can be conceived to exist.” It’s true; parts of Ka‘ū do resemble the seething, smoking landscape of Mordor. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, droughts, fires and tsunamis have laid waste to this shore time and time again. Twice in the 1700s volcanic ash rained down on Hawaiians traveling across the Ka‘ū desert, forever preserving their footprints in stone. During the dramatic 1868 eruption, residents watched a mile-wide river of molten lava swallow their forests and homes as it sped to the sea.

The people of Ka‘ū were famously as rugged as their homeland: weathered, resilient and known to rebel against oppression, even killing ali‘i (chiefs) they deemed tyrannical. The current that barrels down the east coast is named after Hala‘ea, a greedy ruler. When he demanded too many fish from his people, they flooded his canoe with their catch and watched as he was swept away. The great chief Kalaniōpu‘u lived here at Wai ‘Ahukini, a strip of white coral beach visible from the sea cliffs. His young nephew Kamehameha trained here before leaving to conquer the archipelago. Kamehameha’s army fought Keōua on the plains of Ka Lae—and many locals are still loyal to Keōua.

A volunteer hauls away fishing nets washed up on Kamilo beach on the eastern coast of Ka Lae. Every year ocean currents push tons of debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch ashore at Kamilo. In ancient times, Hawaiian canoe-builders would scour the beach for redwood logs that had drifted there from the Pacific Northwest.

But battles are only half the tale; poetry also springs from this place. Pukui recorded dozens of local chants and poems. One proverb is a fine description of the historian herself—a play on words that praises a woman’s intelligence. No Ka Lae nō ka wahine. She is from the forehead. Ka Lae can mean headland or cape, but it can also refer to the forehead, the frontal lobe and all of the wisdom it contains. Another old saying acknowledges two-year-olds who’ve passed an important threshold: Ka nui e pa‘a ai i ka hue wai. Big enough to carry a water gourd. That’s an essential skill out on this sunbaked plateau. To this day the keiki of Ka‘ū are expected to carry their own.

The green-sand beach at South Point is one of only four in the world. Travel guides call it Papakōlea, but locals refer to it as Mahana bay. The beach’s alluring greenish hue comes from olivine crystals that collect at the base of Pu‘u Mahana, an olivine-rich cinder cone more than 49,000 years old. As the hill erodes, it sheds sand-size gemstones.

The dirt lot at the end of South Point Road is clogged with cars—some working, some not. A local family runs an informal shuttle service from here to the beach. It’s $15 round-trip in the back of a pickup truck. The other option is a five-mile hike in the midday sun. I go for the shuttle and hop in beside visitors from New Jersey, Germany and South Africa. I can see why Viernes avoided bringing his gang here yesterday; it’s a bit of a circus with four-wheel-drive trucks coming and going, each one packed solid with sunburned tourists.

Ka‘ū native Nohealani Ka‘awa greets the dawn from a heiau (temple) at Ka‘ie‘ie, overlooking the shore at Nīnole. “Our kūpuna [elders] named everything that surrounds us,” says Ka‘awa, “so we share a personal relationship with our environment.”

We reach Pu‘u Mahana, and everyone files down the steep bowl of the cinder cone to the beach. The water is light turquoise, fringed with foam. The sand granules, more brown than green, sparkle marvelously in the sun. Couples photograph themselves holding handfuls and grinning against the backdrop of the collapsing cinder cone. A driftwood sign warns visitors not to take sand home with them. Our driver has allotted us only thirty minutes at the beach, so before long we’re back in the truck trundling toward the parking lot. We stop along the way for a photo shoot at a tiny cove where the sand is even greener. I’m not the only one spellbound by this singular landscape.

I haven’t yet had my fill of sightseeing, so I head a few miles northwest of Ka Lae to the Kahuku Unit of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. From its narrow entrance off of Māmalahoa Highway, this section of the park looks small. It’s actually tremendous; it merges with the Ka‘ū Forest Reserve to become the largest land preserve in the state by far. Nearly all of O‘ahu could fit inside the wide spread of native forest that reaches up the slope of Mauna Loa. In every direction ‘ōhi‘a trees burst with red pompoms, the flowers sacred to Pele, the volcano goddess. Gray cinders crunch under my boots as I trudge uphill through the partially restored ranchland. The path is flecked with glittering green, the same olivine as down at the beach. At this higher elevation I can see the Kahuku Pali and the long black tongues of lava that poured down the hillside in 1868.

After a short hike I sit down to talk story with ranger Leilani Rodrigues. Straying from the norm, this national park unit only hires residents from the surrounding area. It’s a win-win; locals get good jobs, and visitors get access to people who really know the area. Rodrigues says that she left Ka‘ū after high school but jumped at the chance to return and raise her four sons here. “It’s so rough and tumble, it’s the perfect place for boys. They learn to jump off the cliffs, how to swim above the reef. My boys are so resilient now. They appreciate things more. You don’t need a lot here.” Like most Ka‘ū kids, Rodrigues spent her summers down at Ka Lae. She describes jumping from the cliff for the first time as a terrifying rite of passage. She was ten years old. “I remember standing at the edge and almost wanting to cry. My older cousin and I counted to three together, and she jumped; I was still standing there.” Eventually Rodrigues took the leap.

Usually, before she was allowed to swim, she had to pick up a bag of trash. Her uncle Bernard Keli‘ikoa was part of Ka ‘Ohana o Ka Lae, the group that hired the Viernes family. He taught her to mālama (care for) places of cultural significance such as Pu‘uali‘i. “My uncle was really into saving the land and active in the sovereignty movement. He’d take us on these ‘adventures,’ but they were really protest movements,” she laughs. I hear echoes of the rebellious nature for which Ka‘ū residents are famous. She recalls the time when developers were preparing to build a spaceport at South Point. Her uncle helped form a blockade to stop the bulldozers. “He told my mom we were going camping, but we ended up camping on the road!” Mom found out when she saw her daughter on the evening news.

As an adult, Rodrigues finds herself stepping into her uncle’s shoes, helping coordinate local conservation initiatives. She wants to influence how Ka Lae is developed. “Of course, everybody wants to build a hotel down there,” she says. “But how can we make it sustainable for the people who live here?” She recently accompanied an archaeologist to Waikapuna, a few miles northeast of South Point. As they inspected petroglyphs and artifacts, she felt a nagging sense of déjà vu. When they reached Poninau heiau, Rodrigues remembered: Her uncle had brought her and her cousin here, to a nearby cave. He made the girls crawl on their bellies into the womblike cavern. Once they were wedged inside the darkness, he asked them to ponder their future, to think about who they wanted to be. Years later Rodrigues finally understood the context of his seemingly bizarre request. A translation of the nearby heiau’s name, pō (darkness) nīnau (question), suggests that rituals of this sort have occurred here for centuries.

The people of Kā‘ū are as famously rugged as their homeland; weathered, resilient and known to rebel against oppression. Here, a lone homestead on the stark landscape.

My final South Point encounter proves to be the deepest. I had hoped to volunteer for a beach cleanup at Kamilo, a remote bay between Ka Lae and Waikapuna. It’s known as a place where things wash up. Ancient canoe builders would scan the shoreline for redwood logs that routinely floated over from the Pacific Northwest. The swirling currents were so predictable here that people used them to send messages: Travelers heading north from Ka‘ū would cast lei or malo (loincloths) into the sea upon reaching Puna; when the personal effects washed up at Kamilo, relatives knew that their loved ones had reached their destination.

Today debris of a different kind comes with the tide: plastic, and lots of it. Kamilo has been called “the dirtiest beach in the world” and is regularly buried beneath tons of fishing nets and random rubbish. Unfortunately, I’ve just missed the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund’s volunteer workday, but I meet the crew at the local transfer station, where they are unloading their recent haul. I climb up to the truck and help yank out a tangle of nets. The knotted, barnacle-encrusted strands are destined for O‘ahu, where they will be burned as fuel for a power plant.

After unloading the last net, I join Nohealani Ka‘awa at nearby Wai‘ōhinu Park. Ka‘awa works for the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife and partners with multiple conservation agencies, including the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy. As we talk, I discover her roots here run deep. She was born at home, not far from here, and her grandfather built this park. She describes the euphoric scent of a rainstorm on its way and the sweetness of blooming alahe‘e, a white-flowered indigenous shrub.

Ka Lae is thought to be the site of one of Hawai‘i’s oldest settlements, where Polynesian voyagers first landed in these islands. More recently it’s become a destination for adventure-seeking tourists.

“One thing that makes this place special,” she tells me, “is that our kūpuna [elders] named everything that surrounds us, so we share a personal relationship with our environment.” She gestures toward the forest beyond the park’s fence. “These are all family members. When we look at all of the tall trees, those are our kūpuna; the mid-canopy plants, that’s our mākua [parents]; and all the little ferns on the ground, that’s our keiki. Same in the ocean. Those shark guardians are our kūpuna. Scientists say, ‘Oh, you can train sharks like dogs,’ and we say, ‘Uh yeah, who do you think showed us how to get here? Who pulled our wa‘a [canoe]?’”

Ka‘awa shows me a picture on her smartphone: a handwritten scroll detailing fifty-one generations of her family. It begins with the queen of Bora Bora and includes the ruling chiefs of Ka‘ū and Ho‘ohoakalani (also known as Hina, the moon goddess); Hina’s two supernatural sons, Kana and Niheu; and Lilinoe, the mist goddess. Each ancestral name is written in beautiful script, right down to her own mother. Historically, her family members were sought out as dream interpreters, she says. Being in tune with a place, evolving with the environment, allows it to speak to you in certain ways. “Our family’s last name is Ka‘awa, which is the kino lau [physical form] of Kanaloa, the ancestor of the depths of the ocean. Things of the unconscious can be brought to life if you connect to that source.” She offers this example: After her grandfather died, she and her husband went down to Ka Lae to spearfish for the ‘aha ‘aina make, the funeral feast. “We’ve dived in these currents all of our lives,” she says, “but on this particular day the ocean was a bit different.” The water was flat; not one whitecap nicked the surface, but the current coursing underneath was strong.

Ancient fishermen drilled holes into the cliffs to secure their canoes while trolling the deep water. Around eighty ancient mooring holes can still be found along the pali, right beside the concrete anchors for modern fishermen’s poles.

“It almost felt like swimming in thick syrup. I got swept out pretty far. My husband, his friend and I all got separated. I was scared, on the verge of thinking maybe this is it.” She cut the current back to shore for forty-five minutes, a swim that ordinarily takes fifteen. “When I finally came out of the water, I jumped up on the rock and just lay there in massive pain.” Her husband took her to the hospital, where a doctor told her that she had ruptured a tendon in her chest and, by the way, she was pregnant.

Well, Ka‘awa, thought. That explains why swimming had been such a struggle. But she also intuited that there was a deeper message being communicated. “The literal translation of Ka Lae is head-land or cape, but it’s also the forehead, the place in your brain responsible for processing emotions.” At the time, she was grieving her grandfather’s passing. “He was the last of his generation. All of his knowledge, if he hadn’t shared it, went with him.”

Discovering that she was pregnant that day felt like receiving a message from beyond the veil—a reminder that new generations come, with new knowledge. Ka‘awa went into labor on her grandfather’s birthday and named her son Kaiko‘o—rough sea—to commemorate the story. “He reminds me so much of my grand-father,” she says. “He’s only four years old, but he can be quiet and observe. He’s not scared—not of the dark or the deep ocean.”

Ka‘awa’s shining black hair reaches past her hips. She sweeps it behind her and looks straight at me. “When you talk about Ka‘ū and the people,” she says, “we are shaped by the winds. The food that grows on this land is what feeds us, the fish from the ocean feeds us, and so we become embodied by this place. When people say,‘Where are you from?’ I like to say, instead of ‘I come from Ka‘ū,’ I just tell them, ‘I am Ka‘ū.’” HH