- Historic Sites
The Big Island On Foot
The Hawaii of centuries long past emerges from the landscapes crossed by its ancient trails
April/May 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 2
At seven o’clock one morning I started out on the island’s northwestern shore, at Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, where a temple looms large and forbidding on a hill shaped like a whale. King Kamehameha built the temple in 1790 and 1791 to honor the war god Ku and offered as a sacrifice the body of his cousin Ke#8217;f6ua K#8217;fcahuua, who happened also to be his main rival. With Ke#8217;f6ua out of the way, Kamehameha went on to conquer the other islands.
I wanted to view Puukohola Heiau as the warriors coming from their outrigger canoes would have, so I turned down the spur road to Spencer Beach, filled with the brightly colored tents of campers, parked my car, pulled on a daypack, and started the climb up the empty path to the heiau. The air was warm, the earlymorning light a quiet lavender, and the only sounds came from water sloshing in the bottle in my pack and the wind riffling dry grasses. With the sun rising behind it, the immense structure loomed large and fearsome. I paused by a tall wooden altar called a lele , where several offerings had been placed: a nest of coarse sea salt and several rocks wrapped in green leaves, a garland or lei of almost fresh flowers, modern tribute to the old gods. I thought of William Ellis and the floral offerings he came upon on his rambles.
At the base of the stone rampart that formed the seaward wall of the temple a large sign said KAPU , meaning “sacred” and “forbidden.” The sign also states that the huge walls are not stable. Below the heiau lies Pelekane, a former royal residence for Hawaii’s kings that is one of the most significant archeological sites in Hawaii. Like so many other important native places on the island, it appeared to me as if I had just happened upon it, so minimal was any official presence. I paused at an overlook to try to make out the contours of a sunken heiau in the cove below, built as an offering to a shark god. A sign said that blacktipped reef sharks frequent the bay, but the only thing I could see was a lone sailboat, bright against an empty sea. In the space of a few breaths, I had the distinct feeling that if I turned around, I would see the compound come alive, men wearing the loincloth called a malo and women in the pau , a skirt from the waist to the knees, their bodies decorated with tattoos. It gave me what Hawaiians call “chicken skin.”
Driving south along Route 19, I took the Mauna Lani exit to the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Field, excavated in 1955.
I walked through a thicket of feathery kiawe trees, hopping over large roots and lava rocks, until the path opened onto a broad field of 3,000 figures carved in the cooled lava. I had tagged along with Gary Kala Medina, who is in charge of beach activities next door at the Orchid resort and also leads a group that returns to Puako once a week. Noticing a young woman standing on one of the ancient carved figures, Medina quietly remarked, “If I were you, I’d worry about a lightning bolt.”
He pointed to several small indentations in the rock and explained that they were piko puka , holes where a baby’s umbilical stump has been buried. J. Halley Cox and Edward Stasack, authors of the book Hawaiian Petroglyphs , note at Puako “a predominance of simple lineal figures depicting family groups and birth scenes,” and they believe the site was consecrated to birth.
Kaniela “Danny” Akaka, Jr., Mauna Lani Resort’s director of cultural affairs and a kahu , or native pastor, explained: “When the umbilical cord was cut, the child was no longer attached to the mother; the stump was planted in the earth to connect the child to the land.” Akaka’s office is on the resort grounds, in a little green and white house left over from the 1920s, when the area was part of the vast Parker Ranch. “At one time the cottage sat directly on the trail,” he says, “but there were so many disturbing stories about the night walkers that it was moved.” The Mauna Lani has its own historical park too, called Kalahuipuaa, with a paved path that loops through a lava field, where you want to keep watch for flying golf balls whanged from the adjacent greens, and past ancient caves that early Hawaiians used for shelter, for rest, and as burial places.