hiking moloka`i’s halawa valley: a glimpse into an ancient civilization – rediscovering moloka`i part 2 of 3

As we wait at the threshold of Halawa Valley on Moloka‘i’s remote east end, Anakala (Uncle) Pilipo Solatorio blows the pu four times: first facing east; then west, north, and south. Its rich, haunting sound resonates throughout the valley, providing a bona fide chicken-skin moment. Accompanying me is Julie-Ann Bicoy, director of the Moloka‘i Visitors Association. Together we stand quietly and respectfully, while Julie holds a ti-wrapped parcel representing a traditional offering presented by visiting Native Hawaiians to their host and placed on an altar.

In response to the pu, Julie intones an oli announcing we’ve arrived, how many of us there are, and our purpose for coming—which is to hike two miles up the valley to the 250-foot Moa‘ula Falls. Pilipo’s spirited answering oli welcomes us to Halawa Valley: “e komo mai, e komo mai.” Pilipo blows the pu once more, and we approach each other for the traditional Hawaiian greeting or honi, pressing foreheads and noses together and inhaling one another’s ha.

Dressed in a flowing brown and white print floor-length garment with a green ti mantle draped around his neck, his salt-and-pepper hair pulled straight back behind his head, Pilipo’s countenance is both wise and kind. He grew up in Halawa Valley and was chosen by his grandfather to carry on the legacy as the family’s cultural practitioner. Pilipo gladly shares with visitors the connection between the past and the present. “We’re all descended from Adam and Eve, so no matter where we come from in this world, we’re connected—whether we realize it or not,” he says.

Referring to the Hawaiian protocol we’ve just participated in, Pilipo says: “In ancient times when people came to visit from another district or island, about a mile-and-a-half out in the ocean they’d blow the pu. A messenger within the valley would answer by blowing back. The visitors would then paddle in, but not go ashore until they’d made eye contact with the messenger. Then they would blow the pu again as an announcement they’d arrived. I like to have visitors actually participate in the protocol, rather than just talk about it, so they can feel the spirituality.”

Halawa Valley is the site of the first settlement on Moloka‘i (approximately 650 A.D. by immigrants from the Marquesas Islands), and one of the first in the entire Hawaiian Islands. Its archeological sites and features represent nearly all of the components of an ancient Hawaiian community, and are the most complete example of prehistoric Hawaiian culture found anywhere. The valley also had the longest continuous period of Hawaiian cultural development, encompassing approximately 1,300 years. It remained an active and thriving community, at one time housing as many as 10,000 inhabitants, until the area was struck by two tsunamis—one in 1946, and the other in 1957—which destroyed the buildings and covered the valley with plant-killing salt. Now the valley is inhabited by Pilipo and a few other residents who farm lo‘i and live as sustainably as is possible in modern-day times. The land is privately held, and visitors must participate in the hike with a guide.

We walk through the lush, fertile lo‘i fields and negotiate the first of two stream crossings. As we progress along the trail, the first archeological features come into view: the remains of a stone house foundation and burial site. Bordering the trail is a wide, stacked rock wall, believed to be part of the boundary walls that separated the lower and upper valley. Farther along the way are the remains of an ancestral fireplace, a fertility rock, and several heiau. Julie tells me that in ancient days young men wishing to become kahuna came here from all the islands to learn powerful and sacred spells. Just before the falls is a fishing shrine—a small enclosure with its walls joining up with a large rock.

When we reach the breathtaking two-tiered Moa‘ula Falls we meet up with guide Brandon, who’s swimming with Bill and Katie from Arizona. Brandon is Pilipo’s hanai son, and he lives in a tent behind Pilipo’s house. Brandon tells us that legend states a giant mo‘o (lizard) lives in the deep pool fed by these falls. “Before swimming here, you should drop a ti leaf into the water,” he says. “If it floats, it’s safe to swim. But if it sinks, the mo‘o is annoyed and will not welcome you.” I wasn’t planning on swimming today, but I’ll definitely keep that in mind for my next visit!

As we hike back out of Halawa Valley, I’m grateful for today’s glimpse into an ancient civilization, and that private landowners such as Pilipo are willing to share this remarkable place with all who choose to visit. And participating in the traditional Hawaiian welcoming protocol is a cherished moment I won’t soon forget. Halawa Valley is way more than a hike—it’s a profound cultural experience that is both enlightening and deeply moving.

–heidi pool

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