Pu'u Ma'eli'eli

Richard "Dick" Davis, now in his 80s, is one the most experienced and respected hikers on Oahu. He has traversed every trail on the island, including several he blazed himself, such as Likeke (which means "Richard") and the Maunawili Demonstration Trail. I have read several articles about Davis, a man referred to as "the mountain goat" by the hiking community, and something he was quoted as saying in one of them remains glued in my mind. "It's just a matter of time," said Davis, "before everyone gets into trouble on the trail."

Not one to take undue risks, I've never experienced any major difficulties while hiking aside from the usual aches and pains brought on by long tramps over rugged terrain. However, that all changed recently when I tackled a Windward Oahu gem-of-a-hike called Pu'u Ma'eli'eli.

I had read about Ma'eli'eli in Stuart Ball's _Hikers Guide to Oahu_ and had often wanted to give it a try. Unfortunately, the trek is categorized as "closed" by Ball, which meant that trailhead and trailside directions are non-existent. "A short, steep hike between Kaneohe and Kahaluu" is the extent of Ball's description of this windward-side pu'u.

With no written directions for assistance, I perused a US Geological Survey map of Kaneohe I had bought (my girlfriend said my obsession with hiking has advanced to the fanatical stage since I have begun purchasing topo maps). There, at a point on Kamehameha Highway, about a quarter mile past the Heeia Kea Boat Harbor, was a snaking dotted line on the map indicating a trail existed. I had my starting point.

Since it was late in the afternoon, I knew I wouldn't have time to hike that day. However, because I live only 10 minutes away from Heeia Kea, a quick jaunt to scout out the trailhead was in order. I was off and in minutes I was cruising slowly in my Cherokee along Kamehameha Highway past the pier.

The land mauka of Kamehameha Highway along that half-mile stretch past the boat harbor once was populated by pockets of homesteaders. In the late 70s and early 80s, a Japanese corporation purchased the land with the intent to build a golf course and upscale homes in that small amphitheater-like valley. With the residents of the land evicted or bought out, the new landowners were ready to develop their parcel and rake in huge profits. However, a lack of government approval, an groundswell of anti-development sentiment by locals, and unanticipated financial setbacks stalled the project. Consequently, the land between the highway and Ma'eli'eli has sat unused for over a dozen years.

Aware of all this historical background but not really interested in it at the moment, I spotted what I believed was the trailhead. Just past an abandoned Hawaii Electric baseyard was a chained-off gravel road. That had to be it, I thought. I headed home to prepare for the hike the next day.

The new day, a cloudless, humid one, arrived. Confident that I'd find a well-defined, and not-lengthy trail, I decided to park near King Intermediate School, a mile and half from the trailhead, so I'd had have a lengthier workout. That was my first mistake.

Mistake two came when I arrived at the supposed trailhead and found out that it wasn't. Ten yards past the chained entrance to the gravel road was a wall of thick "California grass" (that's what we called it as kids), the kind of choking foliage that leaves an itchy powdery residue on one's skin. No trail.

Not one to bail out easily, I waded through the wall of weedy vegetation. All the while, my legs--exposed because I was wearing shorts (mistake number three)--were being scratched and plastered with that aforementioned white chalky stuff.

But I was progressing, albeit slowly. When I wrestled my way to a small, relatively clear spot in the jungle of California grass, I scanned the terrain around me. With a hundred yards of sickening weeds dead ahead, I decided to veer right toward a steep hillside strewn with fungi-covered haole koa trees. Grunting and dripping with sweat about halfway up the hill and its crumbly, loose soil, I paused to gulp a drink of water. There was none. Thinking that the hike would be a quick in-and-outer, I had left my water bottle in my car. Mistake number four.

I reached the top of the hill in about 15 minutes and had expected to find the trail there. Instead, another wall of grass, this one reinforced by haole koa, taunted me. Now I was mad. After all, here I was, Mr Been-there-done-that-top-dog-hiker getting my okole whipped on what was supposedly an easy novice hike.

Like a raging mad dog, I plowed through the foliage now, oblivious to the scratches I was inflicting to my exposed legs and arms. I was fortunate that in my haste I didn't make mistake five and go plunging blindly off some hidden dropoff along the trail. Mistake five would come. But later. In minutes, as if submitting in defeat, the jungle backed off and opened up. I had found, finally, the Ma'eli'eli trail, which followed the ridge leading to the top of the pu'u. About five minutes after breaking free, I reached a secondary peak where I could relish the sights around me. About a quarter mile mauka was Ma'eli'eli (elevation 718 feet), a small upswelling in comparison to the towering 3,000 foot Koolaus hovering to the west by southwest over Temple Valley. To the northwest, in the direction of Waiahole, stood a pyramidal peak called Ohulehule (elevation 2,265) and the adjacent Mo'o Kapu o Haloa Ridge that separates Kualoa from Kaaawa. Makai was the wide turquoise maw of Kaneohe Bay and the quiet Heeia Kea boat harbor.

After tramping in an open stretch for a few minutes, I soon began ascending a wide, tree-covered 4-wheel-drive road, obviously not used in years and now overgrown with patches of lauwa'e ferns. At the top of that section was a flat, open saddle that connected to the base of last hill to be climbed. After negotiating the saddle, I scrambled up the fairly steep 200 foot slope, breathing in heaves as I short-stepped the concluding yards.

Atop Ma'eli'eli was an abandoned concrete bunker, now defaced with graffiti. Hauling myself onto the roof of the structure, I closed my eyes momentarily to absorb the sweet wisps of tradewind that brushed over the ridgetop. When I opened my eyes, I had a view even more superb than I had earlier. In addition to what I had observed before, I could now scan points southeast, including residential areas of Kaneohe (even Keapuka where I live) and further away, triple-peaked Olomana. I had never expected such beauty from a such a nondescript hill.

Waterless, I spent only ten minutes or so at the summit. Instead of retracing my steps, I took another trail that descended the opposite side of the pu'u I had climbed. This path was more obvious, well-used, and ribbon-marked, and I was delighted with the thought that my egress would be less cumbersome than my aggress.

That was another miscalculation number five.

I continued on the defined trail until I realized it was leading down to the townhouse project on the Temple Valley-side of the ridge. Proceeding on that route would get me to civilization quicker but would require a long tramp to my vehicle along Kahekili Highway to Haiku Road and back to King School. So when I reached a saddle in the ridge, I veered off the trail and headed makai toward Kamehameha Highway instead of mauka toward Temple Valley.

The way out was akin to the way in: a maze-like march through thick undergrowth, mud, and paths that meandered back and forth in the jungle. At times I picked up a distinct trail, followed it for a distance, only to find that I was heading mauka when I should have been heading makai. When this happened, I veered off the trail, or what appeared to be a trail, and bee-lined in the direction of the highway, which I couldn't see because of the dark barrier of trees and brush. I knew I was fairly close, for I could hear cars whizzing along about a quarter mile from where I stood.

As the highway neared, signs of human presence became more apparent. I passed piles of old glass bottles, mostly the dark- colored ones used for Primo beer, junked autos, and assorted heaps of trash. At that point, I followed what I thought were pig trails because hoof prints, some alarmingly large in size, spanned the path. "All I need is for some huge boar to come rampaging after me," I thought, as if I hadn't been through enough already.

Just a minute or two away from the highway, I heard a commotion in a clump of shrubs about 20 yards from me. My heart skipped. Was this the huge boar whose tracks I had seen earlier? Suddenly, three hulking animal things went scampering left-to- right in front of me, plummeting through the brush. They were cows. Cows!!

Not wanting to get gored by an angry bovine and add another tally mark to my mistake total, I jogged makai-ward until I found the wire-fence border that kept trespassers from entering and animals from exiting the property. Fortunately, I located an unfenced segment atop a drainage passage that ran under the highway, and using the guardrail as a handhold, I hauled myself up and onto the shoulder of the road and began the mile and a half haul back to my vehicle.

To say that I learned a few things from my experience would be a severe understatement. Obviously, Davis was right. We all do get into trouble on the trail. And my time came more than once on my expedition up to and down from the deceivingly rugged and beautiful pu'u between Kahalu'u and Kaneohe called Ma'eli'eli.

Read another account of hiking Ma'eli'eli I wrote.

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