Life Always Finds a Way | Back to Hawai’i (Day 4: Waipi’o Valley)

One beautiful thing about the Big Island is that it so perfectly mirrors the life of Earth; 4.6 billion years are fit into only 1 million. Which is still an unimaginably long time but in the scope of things cosmical, it’s less than a blink of an eye. On this fourth day of the expedition, the Hiking Team headed out to descend the steepest road in the U.S. and see the oldest part of the island: that which shows not only present but offers a peek into the future of Earth.

Loulu (the main photographer of our team) and I have fallen into our routine of waking up, devouring breakfast on the ocean shore, and meeting at the car with the rest of our team (Ki, the leader, Mao, who together with Loulu focused on species ID, Koa, who did trail descriptions and logistics, and Iliee, the master of GIS).

(Yes, these are all nicknames to help keep the identity of my teammates turned friends safe. You can read about where Ki, Mao, and Koa came from in the previous post, linked here. Loulu is an endemic endangered Hawaiian plant. There are 19 species of loulu ranging from 4ft to 100ft tall. Iliee is a small shrub with delicate white flowers, indigenous to Hawaii.)
Yellow-Billed Cardinal on driftwood at the Waipi’o Black Sand Beach (if you desire a higher-quality photo, feel free to contact me)

Same as always, we made our way to the car and left the base comparatively early. The drive to Waipi’o Valley was a long one, and we drove over the flanks of four of the five volcanoes Hawai’i is made of; Hualalai, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and, finally, the oldest Kohala. Kohala is about 1 million years old, so old it even recorded Earth’s latest polar change. Its last eruption happened roughly 120,000 years ago—humanity was just starting to learn how to make clothes and etch symbols into bones then.

Since then, the once-hot and glowing lava fields of Kohala cooled off, becoming pitch black. Oxidization followed, turning them rusty red. Water started breaking them down, then the first life came and helped with the erosion. Life evolved and spread and today, Kohala is one of the most fertile places on the Big Island, overflowing with life, while its shores are slowly being washed away by the ocean, disappearing, just like Earth will one day.

Waves break against round pieces of volcanic rock of Kohala

I can’t reveal all of Kohala’s secrets here; I dug deep into the parallels between Earth’s life and the Big Island in the geology section of the upcoming guide to Hawai’i’ by Global Treks & Adventures. Its publishing is still about a year away but I shall link it here—or write its own post—once it’s out there.

We headed out and down, down, down we went. I realized that my shoes, broken from the day before, were really a poor choice of footwear for such a steep terrain; the sole moved independently from the rest of the shoe. Telling myself that I’d survived worse, I kept trudging on and dreading the climb back up with the rest of the team.

A close-up of the trees on the top of the valley as seen from Waipio Valley Road at the bottom of the valley

The mood was bright, even when a rock collapsed from the steep cliff above right behind Koa and me. We reached the bottom of the valley in no time; it took us only a bit over 20 minutes and we placed bets on how long it would take us to get back up. Kowing how *proficient* I am at climbing hills when I run, I was ready to spend about an hour and a half on getting back out of the valley.

Waipi’o Valley is on the oldest part of the island. Rainforest covers the flanks of Kohala volcano here, and rivers flow, fast and slow, all around. We decided to leave the beach for later and head out towards the over 1,000 feet tall Hi’ilawe waterfall, which turned out to be one of the most breathtaking things we were going to see in the whole week. Taro plants grew all around, some taller than Koa herself, and water stood in puddles on the muddy road, making this adventure a really fun one as we tried our best to keep at least a semblance of dry feet.

Hi’ilawe waterfall (if you desire a higher-quality photo, feel free to contact me)

The 2,500 feet tall cliffs surrounded us on our way to the waterfall, as we passed taro fields next to the Hi-ilawe and Wailoa streams and found a Black-Crowned Night Heron. It observed us with as much curiosity as we observed it, and looked completely unperturbed by our presence. Loulu and I stayed behind to get a few shots before dancing our way through the mud to join the rest of the group who, by then, were admiring a Rainbow Eucalyptus just down the road.

Waipi’o Valley, or “Curving Water” Valley, was devastated by a tsunami in 1946. Until then, it was home to many, including King Kamehameha I who established the most long-lasting Kamehameha dynasty and united all the Hawaiian islands. Looking as far back into history through the legends that converge in Waipi’o Valley as possible, gods and siblings Kane and Kanaloa who opened Hawaii’s springs lived in Waipi’o, together with a few other gods. (1)

At one time, the valley might have been home to up to 40,000 people. Waipi’o Valley is a place with the most legends and history of all places on Hawai’i (1), and it wasn’t hard to understand why. The valley, incredibly alive, didn’t cease showing us its treasures. Medinilla plants, lizards, birds, fungi, trees—everything pulsed around us in so many colours we wouldn’t be able to count them, the same way we can’t count the stars in the sky.

Same as the way to the waterfall, the walk to the beach was filled with colours and wonder. The ground smelled of earth and our steps were softened by the soaked forest floor.

Papyrus Sedge
Yellow leaves on the forest floor
Campanella Tristis
Spring Polypore

The Waipi’o Black Sand Beach proved to be a perfect lunch spot. A yellow-billed cardinal sat on a piece of driftwood only a few feet away from us and a few different birds hunted in the wild waves of the open ocean. We could see three storms out on the ocean and soon realized they were about to converge right on top of us. It was time to make use of our rain jackets.

“Don’t forget them, you’re gonna need them!” Ki reminded us a hundred times before we left the base that day. Guess which member of our team didn’t bring one…?

The storm started to dump ropes of rain on us, and the wind decided to contribute and made it rain sideways. Eventually, it was nearly impossible to discern what was rain and what was seaspray.

Wailoa Stream poured over the beach and out into the rough waters at incredible speeds and volumes as the past weeks were riddled with rain showers. The Waipähoehoe Stream waterfall was visible from the beach, although it remained partially hidden behind a cliff. We couldn’t continue our hike to the top of the waterfall, as the trail had been washed out by floods.

Waipähoehoe Stream waterfall

One mystery we didn’t resolve what the trunk of a tree, a part of which was completely white. The color always appeared around large cracks, looking like some form of scar. There were several like that, however, we were unable to identify the species or figure out what stood behind this coloration.

Before we started the dreaded climb back up the steepest road in the U.S. (yes, it is imperative I mention this fact again), we found a banana tree. The curious thing about banana trees is that each of them will grow to produce only one bunch of bananas and then die and return to the earth.

Tree with a white “scar”
Banana tree with a bunch of unripe bananas

In the end, the climb didn’t take us nearly as long as I thought it would. We were back up and out of the valley in about 30 minutes, which was way faster than any of us had predicted, although our ascent might have been sped up by the constant rain.

We stopped for hot coffee and pastries in Honokaa to sustain us on the long wet drive back to the base and then left Kohala and all its beauty behind.


Previous posts from Hawai’i:

2021 research trip:

2018 solo trip to Hawai’i


  1. Handy and Handy, Native Planters in Old Hawai`i, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 233 (1972), p.535.

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