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​The Other Face of Molokai


Hannah Hindley, Expedition Guide, Safari Explorer

Our visits to Molokai usually carry us into Halawa Valley on the far eastern corner of the island. It’s a quiet place, dripping with vines and alive with the sound of creeks wending through the forest.

Families have lived in the valley for fifty generations, and traces of deep Hawaiian culture are evident in the landscape: lava-rock walls rise out of the undergrowth where irrigation ditches ran, where shrines were raised, and where taro grew along wide terraces.

This is the Molokai that we know: gentle, hospitable, and lush. However, this week we were fortunate to witness the wilder face of the island.

As the sea settled into a rare calm and the sun began to dip low, we cut across the Pailolo Channel from Maui on a mission to sea Molokai’s legendary north shore before nightfall.

The volcano that made up East Molokai was once nearly 10,000 feet high, and the cliffs along its northern edges are still extraordinary to behold. A landslide sheared off the edge of the volcano 1.4 million years ago, leaving behind high rock walls that rise thousands of feet—nearly vertically—out of the sea. These are among the highest sea cliffs in the world, and they’re difficult to access.

A few brave explorers are allowed to climb down a mule trail to the Kalaupapa Peninsula, where they’re treated to views of the cliffs, and swarms of helicopters zoom in from Maui every day to view the iconic cliffs that became world-famous in the opening scene of Jurassic Park.

However, as our boat pulled around the north shore, we encountered an unpeopled wilderness. The helicopters had all gone to roost for the night, and the lighthouse shone quietly on the far-off Kalaupapa Peninsula.

The low sun turned the misty air orange. Waterfalls threaded their way down the vertical walls like silver ribbons hung from on high. We stood together on the bow, bathed in golden light, awed into silence.

Sunset at the cliffs

It was clear that we couldn’t stay—eventually the swells would grow and those rugged cliffs would boom with the noise of mighty surf. But for now, as the last bit of brilliant color stained the rock walls and as stars began to appear above our little boat, we found ourselves in the remote and seldom-witnessed heart of Hawaii: rugged, uninhabitable, and grand.

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