Haleakala - Day 3
By nine o'clock on our third morning in Haleakala, Bill, Willie and I had eaten breakfast, dismantled our campsite at Holua, and begun our 6.3-mile journey east to green Paliku. I'd wager that few people could ever imagine such a lush place like Paliku existing in the house of the sun. It's more likely that when people picture the interior world of Haleakala, images of a stark, inhospitable tableau inhabit their minds. Actually, that landscape exists in much of the crater, but as one ventures further and further east, a palette of dark browns, grays, and reds is replaced by one dominated by friendly, greenish hues.
The first two and a half miles of our journey that day meant traversing the trail we had tramped upon while day hiking to Kapalaoa Cabin the day before. By 11, we had climbed gradually to the trail's highest point just past the Bottomless pit and had moved onto virgin trail (virgin for us, that is). We were blessed with another near cloudless day, and if we weren't 7,000 feet above sea level, we'd undoubtedly be fried by the sun's intense heat. Fortunately, a sweet, cool breeze and copious slathers of sunblock made our journey pleasant. What's more, our decision to layover at Holua turned out to be the right one, for the extra day there gave us a chance to relax, to do some exploring and picture-taking, and to lighten our packs (less food and water).
At around 11:20, while on a rest break near a small lava cone named Na Mana o ke Akua ("the powers of the god"), we greeted three hikers westbound for Holua (we had seen this threesome the day before at Kapalaoa Cabin). To the north, Kalapawili Ridge (8,000+ feet) hovered 1,500-feet over us. Huge rocky fingers, some appearing like hands clasped in prayer, jutted out of the mountainside in the lower regions.
We continued on, passing north of a cone called Honokahua, and then crossing a wide ravine marked by two expansive a'a lava flows. A mile off dead ahead at the ravine's far end was a large cone named O'ilipu'u ("hill appearing'). Upslope to the northeast, we could make out a switchback trail leading to a point on the crater rim called Lau'ulu.
Just before 1:30 p.m., we reached the base of O'ilipu'u and a junction with the Sliding Sands Trail. A sign told us that Paliku lay 1.3 miles away. We continued around the north side of the cone, a plethora of bushes bearing sweet reddish-yellow ohelo berries crowding the trail. Not missing a good thing when it presented itself to us, Bill, Willie and I picked berries and popped them into our mouths as we plodded along.
From the O'ilipu'u junction, we reached the Paliku campsite (elevation 6,300-feet) in 45 minutes. Along the way, we treaded along the maw of the massive Kaupo gap to the south. In the distance through the gap, the summits of the Big Island's Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa peeped over white cloud tops.
At Paliku, two cabins sat nestled in a splendid, thickly- vegetated enclave in the crater's far northeastern corner. The first cabin, an eight-bunk abode, is available to hikers on a reservation basis. The park staff conducts a monthly lottery for cabin spots, and one must make requests a minimum of three months in advance of the proposed hike dates (we had no reservations and were going to tent camp). Fifty yards east beyond the hikers' cabin stands a ranger's cabin. A large several-acre fenced meadow for horses, with a handful of animals grazing there when we arrived, lay adjacent to it.
Rising 1,200 feet above us to the southeast was a majestic peak named Kuiki. Sam Gon, an 'net buddy and an ecologist for the Hawaii Nature Conservancy, had told me of the splendor of this place (he's 100% correct) and recommended that I climb it if I had the chance. Unfortunately, time didn't permit an ascent this time. The mountains and ridgeline leading to Kuiki, so green and lush were they, reminded me much of Oahu's Koolaus. Clouds snuck over the high point of the mountain and wafted south down the gap. So far away from home was I yet so at home did I feel at beautiful Paliku.
Tent campsites dot a gentle hillside about 60 to 70 yards before the first cabin. By 3 p.m. Bill and I had decided on a relatively-level spot in a semi-protected cubbyhole amongst a head-high thicket of pukiawe. Our research told us to expect rain and whipping wind at Paliku, and occasional gusts and damp ground made it clear that our sources were accurate. Accordingly, we reinforced our tents' anchor points just in case less than ideal weather hit.
Our shelters now in place, we could tend to other tasks. For one, we filled our bottles and treated the water in them (iodine tabs and vitamin C) for that night and for the final leg of our trip down Kaupo Gap the next day. A gravity-flow-fed water faucet is situated midway between the cabin and the tent grounds but water just trickled from it. Scouting around, we found that the faucet from the water tank in back of the cabin worked well. We also located the trail leading to a single pit toilet about 25 yards behind the cabin. We treaded quietly around the cabin, for the ranger at park headquarters had asked us to respect the cabin occupants' privacy and be as inconspicuous as possible. Making like invisible hikers, we tiptoed past a lone female napping on the grassy lawn fronting the cabin. Willie and I plucked fruits from ohelo, akala (Hawaiian raspberry), and Methley plum bushes around the cabin.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and enjoying Paliku's beauty. At around six, we walked over to the ranger's cabin and struck up a nice conversation with Jimmy Korm, a park maintenance worker. He told us he horsebacked to Paliku for two- to three-day work trips once a month. A crew of eight volunteers, mostly intermediate-school-aged kids, had accompanied him this time to help tidy up the campgrounds. They also had come in on horseback via Sliding Sands.
Jimmy was a friendly sort and bore a likeness to country singer Willie Nelson, ponytail and all. He shared with us tidbits about the history of the cabins, the method the watertanks were fed, the park's goat and pig eradication efforts, and an unfortunate incident where a mule in a pack he was leading did a 500-foot header off the Halemau'u switchback trail. Jimmy's tales mesmerized us, and if darkness wasn't approaching and our stomachs weren't rumbling, we could have listened to him for several hours more.
With sunset nearing, Willie, Bill and I made the short walk back to our tent site and fired up our Coleman stoves for our final night "luau." That night's menu included ramen, sweet/sour pork and rice (dehydrated store kind), MRE entrees, bagels, hot chocolate, power bars, and mountain-cold water. While we ate, Bill mentioned how the air seemed noticeably colder than we had experienced on the other end of the crater at Holua. We attributed this to the damper surroundings. By 7:45 we were full and content.
We retired to our tents, the final faint light of the sun dropping over the horizon. Behind us, far up the mountainside, ghost-like clouds hurtled down the slopes toward us then were swept upward and enveloped in darkness. Bundled up in our tents and sleeping bags, we reveled in womb-like warmth while the temperature outside dropped into the 40s. By 9:30 we were asleep in Haleakala's embrace for the final time. The next morning, day four of our journey, we'd rise at 5:30 to prepare for the final leg of our journey--a 6,000 foot descent of the awesome and rugged Kaupo Gap.