Beach of Eden
Imagine the perfect beach. Hidden and secluded. Imagine fresh water rushing down a waterfall onto the sand. Imagine breathtaking cliff faces and lush tropical forests, where juicy fruits grow. Imagine a community of travelers, living together in peace. Imagine a place where money, time and power don’t exist. Imagine no more, because this Eden actually exists…
If you are now thinking about the well-known movie “The Beach”, you are really quite close. In the film, which is based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Alex Garland, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Richard, a young backpacker who finds himself in possession of a mysterious map. The drawing is supposed to lead to a traveler’s paradise, where a group of likeminded people lives on an isolated beach in Thailand.
The moment I had heard about the Kalalau Trail on Kauai, I knew that I had to go and see it for myself. People had told us their individual tales about the trail (and the beach at the end) for a while now, ranging from “very nice” to “the most beautiful place on earth” and from “strenuous trail” to “one of the hardest and most dangerous hikes in the world”. We had heard about naked trekkers, hidden hippie communities, plenty of delicious lilikoi (passion fruit), people falling down high cliffs into the ocean and rangers landing on the beach with helicopters to check on camping permits. It seemed like everyone in Hawaii had his own advice, warning or story to tell about this place. Beyond question, we were irreversibly hooked!
You can clearly see the Kalalau Valley in the middle with “Red Hill” on the left side and Kalalau Beach with its waterfall on the far right (pretty small) on the following panoramic image of the whole coast!
By the way: Some of you might recognize the coast from the Jurassic Park Movies! ;)
The Nā Pali Coast is one of the oldest inhabited areas of Hawaii. The last known native Hawaiians to live along this rugged coast were sighted in the 20th century. They used the Kalalau Valley to farm taro on a vast complex of terraced fields. Today the whole coastline is part of the Nā Pali Coast State Park. Nā Pali means “high cliffs”, some of which rise up to about 4,000 feet (1,200 m) above the Pacific Ocean. The Kalalau Valley itself is surrounded by cliffs more than 2,000 feet (610 m) in height. The abundant sun and rain provide an ideal environment for flora and fauna. Kalalau Beach is situated at the base of the valley, only accessible by sea, helicopter or the Kalalau Trail.
With equipment and food for five days, we start the 11-mile hike from Ke’e Beach to the Kalalau Valley in the late morning. The first two miles are quite crowded, as tourists use it to access Hanakapiai Beach. Directly the trail starts climbing up and down small valleys along the coast, often steep and muddy. For the effort we are rewarded with amazing views along the coastline in both directions. After about 1,5 hours we reach the Hanakapiai Stream, which we have to cross with our big backpacks. Stepping from one stone to another, we are trying to keep our feet dry.
In April 2014, 121 hikers had to be rescued due to the streams becoming impassible because of heavy rains. There are various stories about people drowning while trying to cross these rivers during flash floods actually. Even though we are getting quite some rain ourselves, we are able to cross the Hanakapiai Stream without any problems and continue on until we reach Hanakoa Valley on mile 6. Staying overnight, we try to make a fire out of the wet surrounding wood to protect against mosquito bites. Unfortunately we are unsuccessful due to the wet weather conditions.
In the next morning we pack our damp tents and continue towards famous mile 7, where the trail becomes very uneven and narrow. People have called it “Crawlers Ledge” for that reason, but after all it’s fairly easy and safe to cross. I can imagine though, how the trail would turn into a treacherous mudslide if it had rained heavily.
The next few miles go by rather quickly and everyone is exited about getting to the beach. When we reach the top of the “Red Hill”, Kalalau Valley lays majestically in front of us with the beach still hidden. Half a mile later we reach the first official camp spots just before Kalalau Beach. While crossing the valley we have already seen several people, obviously living in this area permanently. Here in the campground people have build nice camps, covered with big tarps and furnished with homemade shelves and kitchen areas. It’s obvious that nobody cares about the maximum stay of five days in the State Park around here. When we reach the actual beach, we find a huge communal area with a bigger kitchen space and comfortable seating options.
We find our own little spot close to the waterfall on the western end of the beach. After setting up camp, Sarah and me enjoy a cold shower in the waterfall after the long hike over the last two days. The people we see around the beach are very diverse. Even though Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t show up, men and women of all ages and characters are present. More then a few of them are clearly living here on the beach, following their everyday routines. Some have arranged a little “Beach Garden” and others make communal coffee for everyone interested.
It seems like a very easygoing atmosphere and it doesn’t take long for me to imagine staying for a longer period of time. Several people tell me how they had come for a few days and have stayed for a few months already. One guy is believed to have lived around the valley for about 20 years! Apparently the rangers don’t fly into the beach anymore, since their helicopter crashed down one day, when a loose tarp had hit its rotors. Nobody got injured, but the helicopter was badly damaged afterwards. Obviously they don’t need to control permits too much anyways. We have heard from several hikers, that permits are “sold out”. Without counting I would guess that there are about a hundred people on the beach, spreading into different clusters of camps.
On the second day we explore the caves along the beach and try some bouldering over the soft sand. There is more then enough to do around here to keep busy for a few weeks for sure. Later in the day we unite with two Americans and hike up into the valley, searching for a pool to take a swim and fresh fruits. We find both and return with our bags full of delicious oranges. In the valley we had seen a few restored taro terraces and fruit gardens. Everyone is welcome to pick ripe fruits for consumption. With every minute we feel more and more in paradise. It seems quite manageable to live off the land around here without depending too much on the outside world. There are also some deals going on with the tourist boats, which bring some basic supplies to the community. People who brought too much food also offer leftovers to the people staying indefinitely. A perfect coexistence of long-term residents and hikers seems to be going on. No need for official interference in my opinion. But being so far away from everything has its obvious risks as well. We see several people getting picked up by jet skis, to get medical help while we’re staying on the beach. I suppose that’s going to be a costly matter.
Because we are a bit short in time, we decide to leave the beach on day 4 and hike back to the beginning in only six hours. While hiking I have a lot of time to reflect on this experience and the place itself.
Having seen quite some nice places worldwide already, I still have to say:
This one is definitely one of my favorite places so far!
If I’ll make it back to Kauai one day, I might hike to the beach once more, having no return ticket in the back of my mind…