kalaupapa guided mule tour: saddle up for an enlightening adventure

“Hep, hep, hep . . . let’s go, let’s go!” Lead mule skinner Kahe Pa Kala’s tenor voice pierces the cool morning air like a rooster’s crow. My sturdy mount, ‘Ilikea, reacts to his call by cocking one long, furry ear to the side and back; then does the same with the other. She snorts loudly and lumbers into place in a line of fourteen other mules and riders ready to begin the steep descent into the remote settlement of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka‘i.

The Kalaupapa Peninsula is the most isolated community in the main Hawaiian Islands, which is why King Kamehameha V chose it, in 1865, as the location for the forced exile of persons afflicted by Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy). Renowned mule skinner Buzzy Sproat has been taking people down the Pali Trail on the backs of mules since 1973. He and partner Roy Horner operate the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour, providing a means for travelers to visit the settlement and glimpse the past and present of this extraordinary place.

A sturdy figure dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a black felt cowboy hat, Buzzy has the bowed legs of a man who’s spent most of his life astride beasts of burden. His short white hair and beard frame a wise, yet kind face, and friendly brown eyes mirror his demeanor. Before we saddled up, Buzzy had given our group an instructional briefing. With a smile nearly as broad as the brim of his hat, Buzzy explained how he pairs the mules with riders: “If you look like the mule, we match you up.” He was kidding, of course—it’s actually a person’s height relative to the mule’s.

The three-mile-long trail zigzags down twenty-six switchbacks cut into the face of a magnificent 1,700-foot cliff—the tallest sea cliff in the world. “Don’t worry,” Kahe says. “Mules are smart and sure-footed. They test their balance with each step. The trail is steep and rocky, but it’s not precariously narrow with sheer drop-offs as I had feared, and although ‘Ilikea lurches from side to side, and her shoes produce a sharp clink as they strike the many rocks embedded in the trail, she never stumbles.

A short way into our journey, the Kalaupapa Peninsula comes into view. The sight takes my breath away: a stunningly beautiful wedge of land extending into a shimmering cobalt sea punctuated with foamy whitecaps. At this moment it’s difficult to fathom that such an exquisite place was for a century the site of heart-wrenching human suffering.

Beginning in 1866, Hawai‘i residents who’d been diagnosed with Hansen’s disease were torn from their families and banished to Kalawao, on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Before long, the settlement had grown to nearly 8,000 people living in squalid conditions.

Father Damien of Belgium came to Kalawao in 1873 to focus world attention on the plight of Hansen’s disease sufferers, and to make the settlement a place to live, rather than a place to die. He led the construction of houses and a water system; the organization of schools, bands, and choirs; and the expansion of St. Philomena Church. He contracted Hansen’s disease in 1885, and died from it in 1889. The Roman Catholic Church beatified Father Damien in the year 1995, and canonized him in 2009.

Each of the Pali Trail’s twenty-six switchbacks is numbered with a plaque put in place by the National Park Service. As we ride, members of our group cheerfully call out the numbers: “Twenty-five, twenty-six. . . .” Wait a minute . . . aren’t we there yet? But no, Kahe tells us there’s about another half-mile to go. We enter a dense forest, then emerge onto pristine golden sand. It’s absolutely quiet as we continue our trek; even the mules’ hooves are silent, as all of us soon become. We reach a makeshift corral at the end of the trail and dismount. It’s taken one-and-a-half hours to complete the descent, and my legs feel as bowed as Buzzy’s!

Norman Soares, a guide with Damien Tours, helps us board a weathered yellow school bus, then slides into the driver’s seat. He tells us Kalaupapa has approximately 100 full-time residents, 17 of them former patients. (Sufferers of Hansen’s disease have been called “former patients” since a cure was discovered in the 1940s).

We stop at the bookstore, which also functions as visitor center, I pause outside to fill my water bottle and notice the usual spigot has been replaced with a long, slightly curved handle. Norman explains that Hansen’s disease caused bones and cartilage to shrink, so that noses, fingers, and toes retract into themselves. He says the faucet handle is just one example of how implements of daily living had to be modified for the patients. Inside the visitor center, displays show how zipper pulls were extended and spoon handles were curved to form a closed circle so patients could dress and feed themselves.

We visit a monument dedicated to the memory of Mother Marianne Cope, who arrived at Kalaupapa in 1888, and continued the work of Father Damien after his death. Although she never contracted Hansen’s disease, Mother Marianne chose to live the remainder of her life in Kalaupapa, where she died in 1918. She was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 2005, and may soon be canonized.

Our next stop is St. Francis Church, where numerous photos on display in the social hall show former patients before and after treatment with sulfone antibiotics, which in some cases partially reversed skin lesions and disfigurements caused by Hansen’s disease. Although the photographs are difficult to view, many of the faces in the “after” photos are smiling broadly, seemingly pleased with the results of treatment.

Back aboard the bus, we bump along the unpaved road to Kalawao, site of the first Hansen’s disease settlement and St. Philomena Church and cemetery, where Father Damien was laid to rest in 1889. Then it’s on to the Bay of Kalawao, where boats dropped off thousands of the afflicted to begin their exile. It’s a gorgeous spot, with lush green cliffs and several large rocks jutting up from an indigo sea, but I contemplate how terrified the patients must have been as they struggled ashore, the area’s innate beauty insignificant to them.

How different our perception, as we sit at picnic tables beside the bay, enjoying lunch. Afterwards, Norman drops us off at the corral and it’s time to saddle up for the return trip. Fed and rested, the mules know it’s almost pau hana: like children pushing to the front of the line at a carousel, the animals jockey for position at the gate. Back on the trail, they settle into a comfortable cadence and I settle into quiet reflection on the paradoxical nature of Kalaupapa: incomparable natural beauty versus unimaginable human tragedy.

For seven months during 2010 the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour had to close down while repairs were made to a storm-damaged bridge near the top of the trail. During the lengthy closure, Roy suggested to Buzzy maybe it was time for them to hang up their saddles and retire. Buzzy said, “No way. I want to do this business until I die.” Buzzy turned 74 this past November and his dad lived to the ripe old age of 103, so I think it’s a safe bet the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour will be around for many more years to come.

–heidi pool



The Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour takes guests to the remote settlement of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka‘i for a glimpse into a fascinating past and present. Riders must be at least 16 years old, no more than 249 pounds, and physically fit. The $199 per person fee includes mule ride and guided excursion with Damien Tours, National Park Service entry permit and trail-maintenance fees, picnic lunch, and bottled water.


The mule barn is located on Highway 470 at the 5-mile marker.


Tours operate Monday through Saturday. Check-in is 7:50 to 8am, and tour ends at 3pm.


Space is very limited. Reserve at least two weeks in advance by calling 800-567-7550, or visit the website at ­www.muleride.com.

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