On a drive through lush North Kohala, there’s an abrupt change of scenery as you loop south down the coast from Hawi. Suddenly, the greenery disappears and a stark, almost brutal landscape emerges. There are a couple of beach parks and then the land goes bleak, somehow sustaining spindly haole koa trees, which, in the heat of summer, have turned to black skeletons. Even a desert would seem more hospitable.
And yet, more than six centuries ago, Native Hawaiians managed to create an oasis here in this formidable place, eking out a living from the rugged terrain, trading fish for taro with the natives who farmed the richer uplands.
Today, at Lapakahi State Historical Park, visitors can take a self-guided tour on the 1.1-mile loop trail to get an insight for how the ingenious Hawaiians scraped by and eventually made Lapakahi a vital coastal settlement. Fishing was a key to the village’s success. The inventive natives were able to launch their canoes from the rugged shore to fish the abundant seas by rolling the canoes on logs to get them into the ocean, since there is no beach here.
On a leisurely stroll through this re-created village, you can see the native plants that were a source of food, medicine and building materials. Among the plants are hau, whose bark was used for lashings, while its light wood was ideal for a canoe’s outriggers. The fruits of the noni plant were utilized as both medicine and dyes. Other plants of interest are hala (whose leaves were used in weaving), wauke (which provided kapa material for clothing and decoration), ulu (breadfrut) and milo (a prized wood for bowls).
There are also remains of a fishing shrine, where natives gave offerings, and a series of hollowed-out lava rocks that were used to collect salt through the evaporation of sea water. Salt was used to flavor and preserve the catch of fish. You probably won’t see any of the varieties of fish hunted by the Hawaiians of antiquity, but you may occasionally see whales breaching in the deeper sea, from November through May. The offshore area beyond the rugged shoreline has been designated a Marine Life Conservation District.
Lapakahi State Historical Park is located on Highway 270 (Akoni Pule Highway), about 12 miles north of Kawaihae Harbor and Puukohola Heiau, another popular historic attraction along this coastline. There are portable restrooms, but no drinking water. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., except on state holidays.
Photos by Chris Sold, Brett Uprichard