The outfitter calls this the “Everest of sea kayaking,” but as I paddle through a sea cave on the Na Pali coast of Kauai I quickly realize the day’s peak experience will have nothing to do with a high mountain.
It’s all about the sea caves.
I knew I would see a cave or two on this 17-mile, all-day paddle along the Hawaiian island’s fabled Na Pali (“high cliffs”). I had heard we might even paddle into a cave. But I had pictured, well, sort of a modest indentation at the base of a cliff. Something we might meander in and out of with a few quick paddle strokes — never losing sight of the sunshine — and then tell folks back home how cool it was.
But halfway through the morning, here I am in pitch darkness, bobbing and rocking and still moving forward as my guide in the back seat steers us into a side tunnel in what is clearly a deep, multichamber cavern created by the pounding Pacific.
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“I hope you know where we’re going!” I chuckle nervously as the total loss of vision adds a little stress to the already challenging adventure.
Not a problem, done it many times, says Nick Oliver, the lanky blond and tanned, chin-whiskered guide, now in his mid-30s but still looking every bit like the swaggering Southern California surfer dude of his youth.
Shortly later, as we leave another cave, I take revenge on my boat partner for thrusting me into the netherworld without warning: I paddle straight for a waterfall that partially drapes the cave entrance, a stream tumbling thousands of feet from the pali’s velvety emerald spires. “It’s cold!” another paddler shrieks.
“Uh, you really want to do that?” Nick asks.
“Yes!” I respond, loosing a primal howl as the frigid spring water crashes over my head.
For just a moment I am the swaggering surfer dude from Seattle.
A daunting dawn
The day had started inauspiciously.
Rain pelted from a dirty-dishrag sky as our group of eight visitors met at 6 a.m. at the Kayak Kauai office in Wailua, on Kauai’s opposite side from our northwest-shore launch point.
It was a somber van ride to the launch at Ha`ena Beach Park. Pollyannaish comments about it being “warm rain” and how we wouldn’t get overheated while paddling offered little comfort as we glanced at brooding clouds cloaking Kauai’s jagged peaks.
But the rain was tapering off as our three guides gave us a safety lecture, sat us on our kayaks and shoved us into the surf a little before 8 a.m., making the launch as easy as valet parking.
The route would take us southward, with prevailing wind and current at our backs, along the island’s rugged, roadless west coast to a late-afternoon landing at Polihale Beach State Park. There, the van would meet us for a 6 p.m. return to Wailua.
My other sea-kayak experiences have been in fiberglass craft in which the paddler nestles inside a cockpit with a spray skirt to keep the sea out. But these were plastic sit-on-top kayaks that leave the paddler exposed. Why go with sit-on-tops when Kayak Kauai’s website thoroughly warns (with, yes, some hyperbole) that this is “the roughest and longest sea kayak (day) trip offered on the planet”?
Because they’re easier to get back aboard when we flip, we’re told.
Not “if” we flip, but “when.”
Also comes this website warning: “Pick your shipmates well and be galvanized for a long and hard day on a capricious ocean ready to test your mettle. At one point you will question the wisdom of paying Kayak Kauai and having to work your butt off.”
We’re barely off the beach when our first boat turns turtle, dousing New Yorkers Eduard, a pre-med student, and Mae, an interior designer.
But they manage to clamber back aboard and, with equal parts anticipation and trepidation, we paddle.
Beyond Bali Ha`i
In a mile, our little fleet passes Ke`e Beach Park, at road’s end. We’re told this is the bailout point for any paddlers who decide they’ve made a mistake (but nobody is offered a refund). Beyond here the only land route back to civilization is the notoriously difficult Kalalau Trail, which we’ll occasionally see skirting the sea cliffs.
At this corner of the island is the fingerlike Bali Ha`i hill featured in the movie “South Pacific.”
Known to natives as Makana, or “the gift,” this mountain is where Hawaiians would practice “firebranding,” building large bonfires and pushing them off a cliff into the trade winds for a display like fireworks, Nick tells us.
The peak is so much like a raised middle digit it’s as if Kauai is taunting the ocean to do its worst.
Happily, the Pacific doesn’t take the challenge this day. As we turn southward, a swell gives us a brief thrill ride, like hanging 10 on a surfboard. “Woo-hoo!” cries paddler Patrick, a newlywed from New York City.
But the sea is atypically calm for the rest of the day. The lack of following wind and current makes us paddle harder to get to Polihale. The upside: Nobody else goes for an unplanned swim. And nobody gets seasick, another major hazard.
Sun streams through the clouds as lush green cliffs, some 4,000 feet high, beckon us southward.
Along our paddling route there’s not just one cave, but an amazing bunch.
Besides dark Pama Wa`a (meaning “enclosure of canoes”) and the waterfall-draped Ho`olulu (“protected waters”), there’s a crowd-pleasing “paddle-through” cave — a loop with two entrances — with a waterfall inside, called Waiahuakua (the magically named “water from the altar of the gods”).
Nobody seems to know if there was ever a Hawaiian name for one of my favorites, so it goes by the unromantic title of the Open Ceiling Cave.
The name tells the story: We paddle from the sea through an archway of rock in the most vividly electric-blue water I’ve ever seen and quickly find ourselves in a large chamber with towering rock walls and sky above.
It’s an old lava tube. You can clearly see the bottom in this protected alcove, though the water is 50 feet deep. I take this opportunity for a refreshing swim.
Jumping in is also the recommended strategy for relieving your bladder during this long morning paddle, but looking at the beautiful water around me I decide to hold it until lunchtime.
Stories along the way
As we paddle onward Nick points ashore at “Crawler’s Ledge,” a narrow stretch of the Kalalau Trail edging a high cliff, often the turnaround point for weak-kneed hikers. He tells the story of valleys and beaches, such as Honopu (“Conch”) Beach, where boat landing is forbidden because it is an ancient burial ground. Conch shells were blown at the burial of royalty.
Just in time for lunch, at our 12-mile point at Miloli`i Beach, rain returns.
It is, in fact, warm rain. In just shorts and a nylon shirt, I get wet but not cold.
Onshore our group huddles under a tin-roofed picnic shelter as shower turns to downpour. “Oooh, my butt is sore,” groans Kevin, from Boise, as he starts to sit at a picnic table but quickly rises again.
Standing, we eat sandwiches, taro chips and pineapple and watch with fascination as instant waterfalls form on the 2,000-foot-tall cliff above us. They start at the top and take 10 minutes to reach the beach. Because these are born of flash floods, carrying lots of topsoil, we dub them “chocolate waterfalls” and reminisce about Willy Wonka.
The rain stops but on this final stretch of paddling along the island’s dry southwest shore, much of the sea has turned brown from runoff.
“It’s like suddenly we’re paddling on the Mississippi,” says Morgan, another Boise resident.
Blue, 10-inch needle fish thrash to the surface, and a scream is heard as unlucky Mae and Eduard are struck by flying fish.
“Fish don’t jump unless something is chasing them,” Nick says, discouraging us from taking a rest break to loll with feet in the water until we’re clear of the brown stain.
Later, I learn that Hawaiians know not to swim in murky water because sharks like to prowl there.
We’re content with seeing noddy terns, boobies, green sea turtles and frigate birds.
Polihale Beach, at the end of our trip, is sunny and hot and we all welcome a cool rinse in an outdoor shower. We’re all proud that we made it.
“We heard horror stories, ‘your shoulders will be dead!’ ” Patrick says. “But it’s good — you can do it, it’s OK if you’re in OK shape.”
“Wait till tomorrow,” someone mutters.
Maybe. But tomorrow is when you get to tell friends about those caves.