Hiking the Ancient Sites of Hawaii on Oahu and Nature Outings on Maui

Hawaii: Oahu, Ulupo Heiau State Historic Park

Hike Ancient Sites Oahu and Nature Maui – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Whenever paths to insight open up for travelers at a major destination, such as Hawaii, there is much to celebrate.

For Hawaii, a guidebook to the ancient historical sites on Oahu and an outstanding naturalist-hiking program on Maui are the treasures.

Ancient Sites on Oahu

When artist Van James moved to Oahu, he gradually became enamored with the silent, flat platforms of rock, called heiau, that were the ancient ceremonial sites on the island.

At the same time, the Bishop Museum, one of main cultural forces in Honolulu, saw a need to produce a guidebook to the ancient sites of Hawaii for visitors.

This convergence of energy resulted in Ancient Sites of Oahu: A Guide to Hawaiian Archaeological Places of Interest, written by Van James, photographed by Michael Weidenback, and published by the Bishop Museum Press.

With its excellent maps, photos, and lucid explanatory text, the book offers an excellent rationale for a day’s drive in a rental car around Oahu, starting with ancient sites right at Waikiki Beach and proceeding all the way to the north side of the island.

With the book it is easy to locate the five main types of ancient sites. Heiau were the temples or shrines, consisting of flat rock platforms with thatch buildings on them. The thatch structures are now gone, of course. Pohaku were the sacred, large stones, felt to be filled with special spirit. Petroglyphs recorded various images from ancient times. Caves and rock shelters were used as living spaces and as burial sites, with the bones often housed in a wooden canoe. Fishponds were the large fish-storage pens where the bounty of the sea in this salubrious climate could be kept.

Some highlights of my field exploration with the book, hiking and driving, were:

*The Wizard Stones on Waikiki. These are several large stones, right on Waikiki beach, whose position and angle suggested to Hawaiian natives that a special spiritual presence existed here. Archaeologists keep pushing back the estimated dates of the first arrivals in Hawaii from the South Pacific. The Third Century is now the estimated time.

*The Pali Lookout. This is where King Kamehameha, who unified Hawaii, decisively defeated the warriors of Oahu, pushing the remaining warriors over the 600-foot cliffs in a climactic battle. Whether the defeated warriors voluntarily jumped, rather than suffer capture, is a question. During a road excavation below the Lookout, over 800 skulls were unearthed.

*The Heeia Fishponds. This is an excellent example of the large fishponds, some still operative as late as the 1950s. In these enclosures Hawaiians stored ocean fish, preserving alive a ready supply of food. Over 100 large fishponds have been identified on Oahu.

*The Puuomahuka Heiau. This largest sacred place on Oahu overlooks Waimea Bay and offers a stunning view of the large breakers. Without the book, very few visitors would come to the site, though some native Hawaiians continue to worship here, as evidenced by the offerings of fruit or the leaf-wrapped prayer rocks. This was also a site of human sacrifice.

*The restored Hale O Lono Heiau at Waimea Falls Park. This heiau should be visited because it is restored, complete with the thatch structures. You can see the spirit house, drum house, oracle towers, and wooden images of the god, in this case Lono, the god of agriculture.

*The Kukaniloko birthing site. Set in what is now the upland pineapple-growing region, this ancient site was felt to be a favorable place to give birth. Women of the ali’i or elite class were brought here for childbirth, assuring an auspicious future for their progeny. Chiefs born here would be a “chief divine, a burning fire,” it was said.

The book can be ordered in advance from Amazon or purchased in Hawaii at the Bishop Museum.

Van James has done visitors to Hawaii a favor by gathering this critical information on the ancient sites in a lucid volume, providing an enticing rationale for a day trip around Oahu.

Naturalist-Led Hikes on Maui

Long before ecotourism was a buzzword in travel, naturalist/philosopher Ken Schmitt was guiding hikers around his beloved Maui, immersing them in a meditation about the geology, flora, and fauna. Ken started in 1983, and his guiding vision flourishes today in the Hike Maui Company. See their website at http://www.hikemaui.com/ for all details.

Many kind of hikes are presented, from more accessible rain forest walks to rigorous mountain treks. The personal encounter with a skilled guide is emphasizes on the website.

During my visit, I took a mountain hike, a half-day trip on the north side of the Waihee River. The hike was a 4.5-mile round trip, after a 30-minute drive from our meeting spot. We climbed to view panoramic displays of the coastline and 3000-foot deep Waihee Canyon. Our experiences included tall waterfalls, many wild flowers and fruits, forests, birds, and plenty of lush vegetation, both native and exotic. The elevation changed 1500 feet each way, so Ken describes this hike as moderately strenuous.

Other scheduled hikes might emphasize waterfalls, Hana Coast, exotic forest (dense forest of gigantic trees in fog-laden canyons), Haleakala Crater, coastline, and snorkel and hike outings. See the website for the evolving pattern of current hikes.

Spending a few hours with Ken was an immersion in the beauty of nature and the joy of life, described by a man who delighted in the connections and relationships between the volcanic geologic base of Hawaii and all the life forms that subsequently arose there. The current set of guides carry on this tradition.

Hawaii: Oahu, Ulupo Heiau State Historic Park
Hawaii: Oahu, Ulupo Heiau State Historic Park

Here were a few of Ken’s memorable observations:

*The beauty of the Hawaiian language. Not only does the language sound sensuous, with its heavy emphasis on melodic vowels. The sentiments behind the word are also beautiful, indicating a close connection with nature. Haleakala Crater on Maui means, typically, “house of the sun.” The west Maui volcano we hiked toward translated as “mountain of the misty breath of the sun.”

*The mountains of Hawaii are actually the tallest on the planet because the mountains begin at 18,000 feet below sea level. As shield volcano mountains, with a typical squat profile, the mountains of Hawaii, including their portion below sea level, are also incredibly massive. Mauna Loa on the Big Island is incredibly massive.

*No plants in Hawaii are poisonous to touch. The Islands boast one of the most benign environments of the planet, partly because plants did not need to evolve to escape mammals eating them. A large number of Hawaiian plants are edible. Under Ken’s watchful direction, we dined on wild sword ferns and fiddlenecks.

*Hawaii has about 3,000 species of native plants brought here by wind, by floating on water, or by seeds excreted from birds. Hawaii is one of the most isolated environments on the planet, with the closest islands over 1,000 miles away. The bird life of Hawaii is also diverse. Ken could identify every bird call, such as the Japanese bush warbler.

*The humpback whales breaching off the Maui Coast in February are believed to breach partly to slap off the barnacles encrusted on their skin.

Such were the insights that Ken Schmitt imparted.

If you want to make a future trip to Hawaii more meaningful, consider perusing Van James’s book and engaging the services of the Hike Maui Company for a hike. Both expand a traveler’s awareness and instill a more supple sense of wonder.


Insights into Hawaii: If You Go

Van James’ book is Ancient Sites of Oahu.

The Hike Maui Company is at http://www.hikemaui.com/.