Southbound (Part 2 of 2)

By Kelly Moran

[Part 2 of 2 – Click here for Part 1]


No place in Ka’u is more compelling than Ka Lae: literally “the point,” but popularly (and on road signs) called South Point.  This is probably where the first voyaging Polynesians made landfall in the Hawaiian Islands.  You might not think its barren lava, rocky bays, wind-blown sand dunes and incessant currents would make for an inviting anchorage, but after months at sea in a double-hulled canoe, it must have seemed sheltering indeed.

[Graffiti artists made this “signboard” at Ka Lae.]

Those famously brisk winds are why two wind-turbine “farms” have been built along the road to South Point.  The first, erected in the 1970s, was later dismantled – you’ll see the segments of its towers piled up like giant abstract  sculptures.  The newest wind turbines, though, are fully up and twirling, and contributing their share to the island’s electrical grid.

[Cliff-jumpers and lookers-on gather at Ka Lae.  Wind turbines in the distance contribute to the Big Island’s electricity grid.]

At the end of the road, you’ll want to see two sights: Ka Lae itself, the southernmost point in Hawaii, and the bizarre “green sand” beach.

[At the end of the trail , the first glimpse of the green sand beach in Ka’u, with its eroded cliff of layered lava and sand.]

[Looking down on the green sand beach from the clifftop above it.]

A panorama, seen from the green sand beach: its rocky shoreline and the beach itself ….

A panorama, seen from *above* the green sand beach ….

At Ka Lae, and especially on weekends, a few vendors will be opening fresh coconuts for drinking, or selling other snacks; and there’ll be a pair of porta-potties as well.  But what you’ll remember best is the sight of youngsters jumping off the high cliffs into the sea, and climbing back up ladders and ropes so they can plunge in again and again.  The guidebooks are right: don’t try this if nobody else is doing it, and even then, be very careful.

[A video of how it’s done at Ka Lae: you stand on the wooden platform on the cliff top, then step off … ]

[Young women jump off the cliff at Ka Lae …]

Four miles away, however, is Hawaii’s most unusual beach.  To get there, drive one mile east from Ka Lae, park where other cars are parked (lock yours, too), and be prepared to hike three miles over lava and sand.  Lather on the sunblock; there are no trees and no shade.  Wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots; there isn’t much groundcover vegetation to cushion your feet.  And pack in whatever you’ll want to eat and drink – there are no vendors, no services, no water and no toilets.

Don’t try to drive the trail yourself, even if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.  The dunes have been deeply rutted, over the years, by off-road vehicles and motorcycles.  So only folks who live nearby are likely to be experienced enough to know which tracks can be followed without getting stuck in sand or hung up on rocks.  (Some local guys do offer rides, which you may well want to accept, one way or both; but tip the driver if you take him up on it.) 

Why put yourself through the heat and exertion of trekking along this windiest, dustiest edge of the Ka’u coastline?  Because at the end of the trail is a small bay whose steep beach is like no other.  The “sand” there is mostly bits of olivine – a green, glassy mineral that exploded into billions of tiny fragments when the molten lava that carried it reached the cold sea.  Mixed with black sand, which formed from regular lava in the same way and at the same time, olivine crystals give the beach a greenish tint that’s easy to see, but the color is surprisingly hard to capture accurately in a photograph.

Don’t even think about keeping a handful of olivine; taking any amount is against the law, and you could be fined much more than the price of a legal sample that you can buy in many souvenir shops.  This isn’t a beach for sunbathing or even swimming: even more than on other Ka’u beaches, you should be cautious about going in the water if the weather is anything but pleasant, if the winds are more than slightly brisk, and especially if no one else is swimming.

Stand on the cliff top and look out beyond the beach to the sea: there’s nothing but ocean all the way to Tahiti.  Turn around, and look up at Mauna Loa, and imagine how such a huge mountain must have looked to the first voyagers, and how far from anything familiar they must have felt.  In Ka’u, you are more-or-less equidistant from urban Hilo and suburban Kailua-Kona – not only in distance but in feeling.

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