Friday 14 April 2017

Hiking Waipi'o Valley: Journey to the Valley of the Kings

I'd taken charge for most of our Vietnam trip, so for this holiday J was responsible for arranging a majority of our Big Island itinerary. He did an absolutely spectacular job of curating experiences that we'd both enjoy, and thoughtfully left a whole day aside for me to pick out whatever I wanted to do as well. Before we flew over, I found some pictures of the Kaluahine Waterfall in the Waipi'o Valley online, and my heart was set on seeing it in person. J was up to the challenge of heading down then up  the valley with me, so on a sunny Tuesday we drove all the way to the other side of the island, armed to the teeth with our swim suits, sunblock, and bottles of water. 

According to the locals we spoke to, if you ever find yourself in the north of the Big Island, there are two eateries that are well worth a visit: Gramma's Kitchen, and Waipio Cookhouse. The day we headed up to Waipi'o Valley, we decided to check them out. Gramma's Kitchen in Honoka'a was sadly closed for a short break as Gramma was apparently away on holiday, but we hit gold further along the Hamakua Coast. Waipio Cookhouse was quiet, but very much open for lunch. Getting to the Cookhouse is easy from Honoka'a - you just follow Highway 240 west, until you see their little sign. It's also a particularly pleasant drive, involving landscapes so impossibly picturesque they look like CGI-ed screensaver backgrounds. 

Waipio Cookhouse is known for its locally-sourced and freshly prepared meals, served up on cheerful crockery with a side of breathtaking views. From the open air dining area you can take in a stunning panorama, and while we didn't see any on our visit, whales have been spotted by other lucky guests. Here, farm-to-fork isn't just a catchphrase - the fields just by the restaurant are part of a 16 acre farm where the grass-fed Black Angus beef and St Croix lamb on the menu are raised, along with other produce from their garden and orchard. The rest of the ingredients on the menu come from from other local producers, as part of an effort to eat and buy local. We tried the Kanahonua Farms Hamburger with House Cured Bacon added on, which boasted a perfectly juicy and delicious patty. Their sustainable farming project is definitely worth it. The Cookhouse also boasts its own imu, the traditional Hawaiian underground oven, which is used to slow cook the meat that goes into the Island Kalua Pork Sandwich. Once I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to have it. Melt-in-your-mouth tender, the pork is smothered in a tangy papaya BBQ sauce and caramelized onions, and served with a fresh, crisp slaw. 

Dessert was piping hot Fried Banana Lumpia, served with a drizzle of local honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon. The Singaporean in me can't help but compare all fried banana desserts against our own goreng pisang, which typically uses the sweet and ever so slightly acidic rastali banana. While not quite as good as what we have at home, it was a nice end to the meal nonetheless. These bananas were starchier and a little more like plantains, and would have made for a good breakfast snack. 

We continued down the 240 after lunch, all the way to where it reached a dead end about 5 minutes later at the Waipio Lookout. From the top of the cliffs, the vistas don't capture the entirety of the mile wide and 6 miles deep valley, but it's a gorgeous view nonetheless, and one that draws a steady crowd throughout the day. 

The only way to see any more of this dramatic and lush landscape is by hiking down a steep road to the valley floor, which, let's face it, isn't the kindest thing to do to your knees. If you have the strength for it though, it's entirely worth the trek. There is a difference in elevation between the valley and the cliffs of about 300 m, or 980 feet, and the road that takes you between the two is the steepest of its length in the whole of the US. While most car rentals specifically state that you have to stay off this particular road, 4 Wheel Drives can survive the round trip to the valley, but with a number of hairpin turns and an average road grade of 25% (Peaking at a dizzying 40%!) you're probably better off on your own two feet. 

The valley is historically significant for a number of reasons, not least as King Kamehameha I's childhood home. Known colloquially as Hawaii's Valley of the Kings, it was the capital of many early Hawaiian Kings, and the site of a sprawling settlement before a devastating tsunami hit in 1946. Today, it's home to a number of wild horses that survived the disaster, and people who relish the valley's tranquility, no matter the danger that the elements potentially pose. 

wai-pi'o means curved water, and the valley is named for the river that cuts a swathe down its length. On the side of the river are taro fields left over from the old settlement, now mostly overgrown. While the lookout is often crowded, fewer people venture all the way to the valley floor, making for a particularly peaceful walk. What few people you do see however, become what I call situational buddies. When you're in an unfamiliar place, strangers will often bestow a kindness upon you, that you do your best to pass on. 

When we reached the valley floor, we made a left turn hoping to catch a glimpse of the Hiilawe Falls at the very end of the valley, which plunge down 450 m (1500 feet). As the road curved away from the falls though, we came across another couple who let us know that getting there would require trespassing across barbed wire fences onto private property, and where exactly to stop to get a good enough view. We passed this information on to the next set of tourists we met who were likewise heading our way. It was nice that none of us had to waste time venturing too far in with no reward, and when we were once again reunited with our fellow travellers at the black sand beach at the mouth of the valley, we all gave each other a friendly wave. Moral of the story: Be good to each other!

They say that it's important to travel with the person you think you're going to marry, because there's nothing quite like spending whole days together in unknown situations that really gives you a good look at what you're in for. J and I had already survived being pedestrians in Vietnam together, so I highly doubt there's anything else that life can throw at us that we won't be able to get through. But all the same, it was so lovely traipsing with him from mountain to sea. As we picked our way across the muddy valley floor, we laughed and made joking plans about what we'd do in case we accidentally stumbled across killer dinosaurs, and other nonsense things. 

When we finally made it to the beach, we marvelled at how fine and soft and warm the black sand felt beneath our feet. This was where the final scenes of Waterworld was shot, and there's a sense of miraculousness, that such a place even exists. J cheerfully plunged headfirst into the chilly surf, while I was content to dip my feet. 

As it turns out, the Kaluahine Waterfall only appears after heavy rain, and the predicted hurricane hadn't come to pass. On the bright side, our whole trip had been blessed with sunshine-y days, which meant that the Kaluahine Waterfall was nowhere in sight when we visited Waipi'o. But after all the trouble we'd gone to get there, I found that I didn't quite care. After all, I decided, I was already having the perfect day. 

Then, of course, we had to make our way back up to the top. There was a gentleman parked by the river with a lorry, who offered us congratulatory plantains when we made it all the way down the valley. He regularly ferries visitors all the way back to the top of the cliffs for a modest fee, but when we passed him on our way back, he chuckled and said he wasn't even going to try to sell us a ride up. We both looked fit enough to survive the climb it seems, which is possibly the kindest snap judgement anyone has ever made of my physical fitness level. 

Going down took us about ten minutes, but the climb up felt interminable. Every so often, J would remind me to keep my arms up at 90 degrees so my weight wouldn't feel like a drag, and it was almost like having my own drill sergeant. I tried glaring daggers at him whenever he barked "Arms up!" whenever I let them hang limply by my side, but it was impossible to do so when he was being so wonderfully thoughtful otherwise. As the climb wore on, and I felt as though my lungs were about to give out, J remained every solicitous, ensuring I had enough water, and rest, and even offering to carry me up the rest of the way if I felt too worn out. So, I persisted. Eventually, we made it back to the car, utterly triumphant. 

We collapsed onto our seats, and grinned at each other. We'd made it through one adventure, but there were still hours left in the day, and there was only one way to properly celebrate our achievement. 

"Let's go to the brewery we passed on the way here."

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