Tell locals in Hawaii that you're going to the island of Niihau, and they invariably exclaim, "No way! " Or, "Do you know the Robinsons...
Tell locals in Hawaii that you’re going to the island of Niihau, and they invariably exclaim, “No way!” Or, “Do you know the Robinsons?”
Yes, way, and I do not know the Robinsons.
And even though I’ve now been to Niihau, I can’t really say I know this Hawaiian island.
But I do know that there are few places that I have anticipated visiting for as long and from which I’ve come away so changed.
Since my days as a child on Oahu, I’ve known Niihau as the Forbidden Island. It has been privately owned since 1864, when Elizabeth Sinclair bought it from King Kamehameha V. Her descendants, the Robinsons (brothers Bruce and Keith), continue to own it.
The 72-square-mile Niihau is everything the major Hawaiian islands — Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and its neighbor Kauai — are not. It has 130 residents, give or take, and they live in the tiny town of Puuwai. They don’t have running water, and electricity is produced by the sun or by a generator. There are few cars. The people live off the land, hunting, fishing, growing their own fruit and vegetables. Sunday is reserved for church. Smoking and drinking are not allowed here. “Ohana” — family — is the center of life.
Simple? Yes. But it is more than that. As Margit Tolman said after our trip here, “It is so pure.”
That’s well beyond the word “unspoiled,” which we travel types like to use when we stumble upon a stretch of beach or a piece of wilderness humans haven’t yet trashed.
But pure? Not in my lifetime. Not until now.
There is no real mystery in getting to the island. Niihau Helicopters (owned by the island’s owners) has been offering half-day trips since 1987. It’s just that few people seem to know about the tours, the only way to visit the private island.
Five of us gathered at Niihau Helicopters’ offices on the neighboring island of Kauai in the little town of Kaumakani. After we were weighed and given a safety briefing, we headed for the helicopter.
We were like a group of kindergartners about to go on our first field trip, and it was only the thinnest shred of adulthood that kept us from running in circles. We were practically bouncing on our toes to get the first look at the chopper, whose main purpose is the emergency evacuation of Niihau residents. The tours help underwrite the cost of the helicopter.
Pilot Dana Rosendal, who grew up on Oahu and has been flying for the company for eight years, got us settled and seat-belted, and we were off, whisking the 17 or so miles across the sometimes-rough Kaulakahi Channel between Kauai and Niihau.
“Kauai steals all the rain,” Rosendal explained.
Parts of Kauai bathe in rain (the summit of Mount Waialeale is said to get 400 inches a year), but Niihau gets only a dozen or so inches a year.
Back in 1863, Elizabeth Sinclair’s sons, James and Francis, first saw the approximately 17-by-5-mile island. It had rained heavily the previous two years, and the land was electric green. It would be, the men thought, a good place for a ranch.
So Sinclair passed on other parcels of land she had considered on Oahu and offered King Kamehameha IV $6,000 for the island. Not enough. She increased the offer to $10,000. Sold. (Kamehameha IV died before the transaction was completed, so the details fell to King Kamehameha V.)
The new owners would raise cattle and sheep. They didn’t know the land could be arid and unforgiving. True, there are three freshwater lakes on Niihau, but as we spied them from the air that day — and evidently on many days — they were nothing more than mudholes.
I couldn’t imagine what the Sinclairs must have thought when they realized they had made a slight purchasing error.
Flying over the eland
“You guys aren’t susceptible to motion, are you?” Rosendal said into our headphones as we flew over Niihau. “I’ll try not to dive more than I have to. I’d really like to show you the eland. I know where they’re hiding right now.”
As if on cue, out of the brush sprang two of the African antelope. As we followed them in the helicopter, the score from “Out of Africa” swelled in my mind. The eland bounded with the grace of a running back headed for a touchdown.
“As pretty as they are, they taste a heck of a lot better,” Rosendal said.
The people live off the land here. Fish are a staple, but the wildlife here, including wild boar and eland, is fair game.
Reeling from this Meryl Streep moment, I was unprepared for the village of Puuwai, where about 35 houses, a church and a school are clustered. The flyover was brief; the Robinsons do not want the Niihauans’ privacy invaded.
Ah, yes, the residents. We would not get to meet them or interact with them in any way, and that was a disappointment. But the outside world is an unwelcome guest.
“It’s a privacy issue,” Rosendal told me later. (Island owner) Bruce Robinson “really loves these people. His motto is always, ‘It has to be good for the people in Niihau. If it’s good for them and the ranch, which is the business, we’ll consider doing it.’ If it’s not good for the island and the people he’s not going to do (it).”
We turned toward Nanina Beach on the north shore, where the helicopter would land. The sea was calm, the water and sky a warm blue. The sand stretched before us, unending, untrammeled, unpopulated.
We landed and scrambled out of the helicopter and immediately sank ankle-deep in sand. The short hike to a rustic shelter was like walking through cotton batting. We dropped our belongings, then spread out.
For the next 3 ½ hours, we were free to swim, snorkel, have a bite of lunch (Niihau Helicopters provides sandwiches, chips and drinks), walk the beach and hunt for the tiny Niihau shell, which islanders make into leis and sell for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.
The shoreline was covered with smooth lava that formed tide pools, brimming with sea life, including monk seals, an endangered species. Here we met the only resident of Niihau we would encounter — a monk seal nicknamed Mahina. She was lounging in a tide pool.
“If you see 40 of them, there are probably 120, because the rest are out fishing,” Rosendal, who had seen Mahina grow from a baby, told us.
We kept a respectful distance — it is illegal to get too close and certainly illegal to harass a monk seal — but the seal rolled and batted her eyes, as curious about us as we were about her. As a fully grown adult, she might weigh as much as 600 pounds, and if no oceangoing or human predators get to her, she and her 1,200 remaining kin, once hunted almost to extinction, could live as long as 30 years.
Heading back to the beach shelter, we could see tour participant Margit Tolman, who lives on Maui, dancing a hula called “Hoi Kealoha i Niihau” (“Love Returns to Niihau”).
“Hula is not just dancing. It’s a style of living. It’s learning about culture and history,” she told me later.
“The dance was about Niihau, and dancing it there on the place was just taking it home,” Tolman said. Home to the pristine beaches where few have ever walked, where the absence of the world translates into a kind of elegance and intimacy.
The day was slipping away, and it was time to leave Niihau and return to whatever our reality was.