Briana and Matthew Ramelb emerge from the head of Kaawaloa Trail, sweaty and flushed but victorious. Among a few dozen hikers picking their way along Kealakekua’s steep, ancient trail to the sea, the couple descended 1,300 feet to the bay, visited the Captain Cook Monument and explored waters teeming with fish.
And they returned the same way they came.
For several hours, they’ve successfully held their bowels.
They haven’t had much choice.
“I think if you took kids down, it would be difficult,” Briana tells me. “You can’t expect kids to hold it. Maybe there should be more more signs so people understand the cultural importance of the place and are more respectful.”
Are less disciplined hikers desecrating Kaawaloa? So long as a steady stream of people use the nearly 2-mile trail to the ancient village and endure hours without the prospect of a restroom, the question isn’t going to go away.
Gordon Leslie, for one, will see to that.
Leslie and other locals have been upset about the lack of facilities for years. They’ve tried to prod government into action, with little result. It’s not clear if the county controls the trail, or whether the pathway falls to the state’s kuleana. Meanwhile, the excrement remains behind trees and stone walls, heiau and grave sites.
“Why can’t we get any of our government agencies to realize how bad this is and do something about it?” asks Leslie, chairman of Hoala Kealakekua, a local stewardship group. He is the point man for conversations between the group and state and county officials.
Leslie would like to see the trail completely closed until toilets are installed at the bottom, the midway point on the hike. For years, he has been leaning on local and state politicians to put this kapu in place.
“Kaawaloa is perhaps one of the most sacred pieces of real estate in all of Hawaii,” he says. “It was a center for the highest Alii of the time. Today, so many people go down there. You can have 60 cars parked at the trailhead. There’s tons of evidence of defecation all over the land.”
The state is finalizing a master plan whose end goal is to transform an essentially sleepy bay front into a significantly upgraded area with new parking lots and trails, restrooms, canoe rides and other possible amenities. At a minimum, Kaawaloa would receive restrooms, and interpretive trails, under the plan, whose environmental impacts have yet to be studied.
It’s hard to know the particulars about restrooms until the plan is finalized, says state parks administrator Curt Cottrell. The department has considered several options for providing relief for hikers, including composting toilets and flying waste out.
The situation is complicated by the fact that vehicles and shore landings of vessels are prohibited in the area, Cottrell says. The state could also subsidize portable facilities on county property at the trailhead if the county requested it.
Meantime, the situation at Kaawaloa improved somewhat when individual kayak landings were prohibited, Cottrell says. Between that and cleanups by State Parks and the three kayak companies allowed to bring guests across, there have been fewer reports of problems with defecation, he says.
But a broad vision for the bay has been slow to unfold, and planning efforts have sputtered along, starting then folding again while residents worried about over development.
Hoala Kealakekua was formed last year to clean up around the sites and press decision-makers to put toilets at Kaawaloa on the front burner, rather than the back burner where plans to improve the bay languished for three decades.
Ultimately, the group would like to serve as advisors in the park’s development, working to ensure that the history and culture of the region is respected, that concessions are operated by and for the benefit of local residents and that the area does not become another theme park.
But it’s been hard to break the paralysis. Leslie, who is linked to the bay through a web of blood ties that go back generations, was excited a couple of years ago because he thought he had talked then-Mayor Billy Kenoi into hiking the trail and seeing conditions for himself. That walkabout never came to be.
“I’m still trying to get everyone on the same page,” he says.
On Kaawaloa Trail, you’ll hear multiple languages spoken on any given hike. Explorers in various states of preparation chug along the rocky byway cut through elephant grass and brush.
Some swoop along with grim determination, slathered in sunscreen, water bottles swinging, tackling the slope like it’s the first event in a new kind of endurance sport. Others putter along in flip-flops, skin exposed, with no water in sight.
Still others sit, parched and trying to regain strength for a climb that’s a lot steeper and hotter than they bargained for.
New arrivals are often puzzled by the lack of hiking opportunities, given that the island is billed as a rugged outdoor destination. To these folks, there has to be a better solution than closing the Kaawaloa Trail.
“It’s so beautiful here. We need more marked trails with real facilities,” hiker Abby Frederiksen says. “I’ve lived here six months and they’ve been really hard to find.”
Triathlete Howie Nordstrom pauses in his training on Kaawaloa to level the charge that closing the trail would play into the same dysfunction that marks the way the state handles other problems on its trails and popular spots.
“So you close it off. How you gonna police that?” he asks. “Better to put the effort into a solution rather than cutting people off. People want to do this trail, no matter if you close it down. Make it a positive experience rather than a kapu experience.”
“Set up an old-style outhouse where you collect waste. Have someone come from the other side on a boat. That’s what we do all the time in Sweden at remote locations. It’s no big deal.”
Kaawaloa is one of the most significant cultural and historical sites in the state. Originally a royal and religious center and the final resting place of Captain James Cook, the peninsula of land has been left largely overgrown, walls crumbling. Trails that might have once been well-trod avenues come to dead-ends in the woods and pass by tumbled rock structures of undetermined history and value.
The bay itself holds some of the healthiest and most abundant reefs found in the islands, and is a prime snorkeling destination both for visitors who arrive over water and those who hike down the trail. Devoid of vehicular traffic, Kaawaloa is a dense and quiet grotto, serene and in no hurry to offer up the secrets of its past.
Easy to see why it’s been tempting to just let things lie. But with this uncut jewel increasingly on the traveler’s bucket list, the status quo may not be possible for much longer.