going ‘over the edge’ with rappel maui: have you walked down a waterfall lately?

RAPPEL_Ben at top of 50 footWhat’s the most adrenaline-inducing outdoor activity currently offered on Maui? If you guessed rappelling down a waterfall, you’d be correct! Since June of last year, Rappel Maui has been offering experienced canyoneers, as well as complete novices, an opportunity to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of walking down a waterfall.

My grown-up son Tyler has been accompanying me on outdoor adventures since he was a little tyke, so he was the logical choice to tap for this activity. We meet the Rappel Maui van at the park & ride lot in North Kihei where our guides for the day introduce themselves. Manager Dave Black has been canyoneering for nearly 50 years, and wrote the book on the subject. Literally. His “Canyoneering: A Guide To Techniques For Wet and Dry Canyons” is the only guide that’s been endorsed by the American Canyoneering Association. Dave’s colleague today is Mark Paranada, a 30-plus-year firefighter who’s now retired and leads trips for Rappel Maui a few times a week.

There are four of us on today’s adventure—Tyler and I are accompanied by Jason and Colleen from Buffalo, New York, who are as eager as we are to participate in this unique Maui experience.

Dave says Rappel Maui waited years for permission to conduct tours at privately owned Puohokamoa Valley, location of the visitor attraction Garden of Eden, which is about an hour out on the Road to Hana. This incredible valley is so picturesque that producer Steven Spielberg shot the opening scenes of the movie “Jurassic Park” there.

Dave tells us we’ll start with a practice dry jungle drop of 60 feet to get the hang of things, so to speak, before we attempt our first waterfall rappel, which is 50 feet high. The second waterfall rappel (the third in total for the day) is a mere 30 feet, and while it’s technically more difficult than the larger one, it will seem easier because we’ll be seasoned rappellers by that time.

Safety is the name of the game at Rappel Maui. Dave says their gear is rated to thousands of pounds, the ropes to three tons, and it’s impossible to break gear or an anchor. “If you let go of the rope, Mark [who will be positioned at the bottom] will take over and stop you from falling. If you get stuck, we’ll lower you down. The riskiest thing on this tour is driving the Road to Hana,” he says with a grin.

Dave finishes our safety briefing with two caveats. “In a canyon, there’s always the potential for falling rocks,” he says. “If you hear someone yell ‘rock,’ don’t look up; instead, lean into the slope and let it fly by.” There’s also the possibility of a flash flood, although it’s only occurred three times since Rappel Maui has been in operation. “If you hear the words ‘get out’ repeated three times, or three whistle blasts, proceed immediately to higher ground,” he instructs.

We enter the Garden of Eden via a private gated road, and park next to a structure that contains all of Rappel Maui’s gear. We four new recruits are outfitted with harnesses, helmets bearing our first names, backpacks, dry kegs for cameras, and black felt-soled “ninja boots” that will make it possible for our feet to adhere to wet, slippery rocks.

Dave and Mark haul out a portable picnic table, replete with umbrella, and we sit down to enjoy a yummy lunch prepared by Jon and Ya from the Garden Gourmet food truck located inside Garden of Eden. Turkey wraps, Maui Gold pineapple slices, and decadent cookies disappear rapidly.

Well nourished, it’s time for our motley crew to gear up and head out. We hike a short distance to our first rappel—the “practice” dry jungle drop. Mark demonstrates expert technique as he descends backwards, one step at a time, down the 60-foot vertical precipice, until he disappears from sight. Jason, Colleen, Tyler, and I immediately make a pact: “What happens at Puohokamoa Valley stays at Puohokamoa Valley.” One by one, we follow Mark down to the rocky streambed below. I go last, following Dave’s instructions from above, and make it to the bottom in fairly good order. Dave and Mark are full of praise, and our group is feeling confident.

Until Dave and Mark walk us to the top of the 50-vertical-foot waterfall, that is. Suddenly, an urge to chicken out washes over me. Again, Mark demonstrates while we watch him, wide-eyed, until he disappears from sight. Holy smokes. What have we gotten ourselves into?

Tyler displays a sense of bravery that makes me proud when he volunteers to go first. With Dave’s encouragement, Tyler makes it to the bottom of the waterfall and swims towards dry land. Colleen and Jason follow suit. And then it’s my turn. To say that I was petrified would be a gross understatement. Standing backwards at the top of a surging waterfall, and being expected to make my way to the bottom, is definitely outside my comfort zone. But with Dave’s gentle encouragement, I follow his detailed instructions on foot placement for the first four steps.

Dave had said earlier it would be like being under a brisk shower. He wasn’t kidding. The powerful waterfall envelops me as I take a deep breath, remind myself to trust the equipment and my guides, and begin my descent. I focus on taking one step at a time. A short way down, I begin to list to the left, and end up perpendicular to the waterfall. I don’t think this is what I was supposed to do. With all my strength, and Mark shouting, “Use your legs! Use your legs!” I throw my body to the right and end up with both feet on solid rock again. Whew. Then it happens again, and I somehow manage to center myself and continue downwards. When I finally reach the bottom, I’m breathless, exhausted, exhilarated, and proud all at the same time.

We scramble over boulders to reach our third rappel of the day. The 30-footer seems like nothing compared to the previous one. (I’m not serious, of course.) After once again conquering our fears, and enjoying a refreshing swim in the waterfall pool at the bottom, our adventure is coming to a close.

But what goes down must go up, right? We hike out of the canyon up an especially steep trail Dave calls the “Stairmaster.” Rappel Maui has kindly put up ropes to assist with our ascent.

After swapping our completely soaked clothing for dry in the handy changing rooms, we find ourselves back at the van. Jason and Colleen say Rappel Maui has been the best part of their entire vacation. “The whole time I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, I’m going down a waterfall!’” enthuses Jason. “I wanted to go again—I wanted more,” declares Colleen.

The next day, Tyler and I sport a few bruises and sore muscles. But it’s a small price to pay for earning serious bragging rights. After all, how many people can say they’ve walked down a waterfall?

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

­­­WHAT •

Rappel Maui, a unique, bold, and adventuresome outdoor activity. Tours are approximately 6.5 hours long, and cost $200 per person plus tax. On high-water days, when it’s too dangerous to rappel in the waterfalls, the day will consist of three dry canopy rappels—still very exciting and fun.

WHERE •

Meet at the Park & Ride lot in North Kihei; then board the Rappel Maui van for an hour-long drive on the Hana Hwy to gorgeous Puohokamoa Valley.

WHEN •

Two tours daily:

8am-2:30pm, and 11:30-6pm.

HOW •

270-1500; rappelmaui.com.

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