Photo: Aunty Sarah Pule-Fujii with visitors at the Pololū Valley lookout
Aunty Sarah Pule-Fujii educating visitors all at once at the Pololū Valley lookout as soon as E Lei ʻO Pololū finished. - Photo: Aoloa Patao

By Aoloa Patao

It’s still dark outside when Aunty Sarah Pule-Fujii wakes up to get ready for work. She works just three minutes away from her childhood home – the place she has always lived. She rises early even though she doesn’t start until 8:00 a.m. because but her job is just that important.

It isn’t the aroma of the dark roast coffee brewing in the kitchen that gets her going, or the barking of Niuliʻi’s many dogs – it’s an internal passion that she has to protect a valley that has become a popular tourist destination.

Photo: Aunty Sarah
Aunty Sarah at the Pololū lookout during work. – Courtesy Photo

Remote Pololū Valley in Kohala has increasingly become overwhelmed by visitors – no thanks to the ravings of hotel concierges and social media influencers about its pristine natural beauty. So Pule-Fujii’s presence there each day is a must.

She, along with longtime Makapala resident, Uncle Paul Ishikuro, comprise the Pololū Trail Steward Program at the Pololū Valley lookout in the ahupuaʻa of Makanikahio.

The program was created in collaboration with the Protect Pololū ʻOhana, Nā Ala Hele Trails & Access System, the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, and KUPU. Pule-Fujii and Ishikuro’s kuleana includes managing the tight 12-space parking lot, documenting the number of visitors, and most importantly, educating visitors about the dangers of the shifting ocean currents, providing safety guidelines and precautions, and warning them about the culturally significant areas that are off limits. With an average of 500 daily visitors (and sometimes as many as 1,000) this is no easy feat.

“The parking lot is busy all day,” said Pule-Fujii. “Cars [are] parked all alongside the road. When I’m done working at 12:00, while I’m leaving, I count them. The most was 53 vehicles.”

Not only does Pule-Fujii share facts and information about Pololū with visitors, she is also authentic and honest. This dose of “real Hawaiʻi” creates empathy and understanding, helping to ensure that visitors enter the valley with respect.

It’s not what she says, but how she says it. There is a juxtaposition in her voice between love and sadness. A love that shouts pride and loyalty. A sadness that cries heartache and hurt. Pololū is just not the same.

“When [I was] growing up here in Niuliʻi, there was no traffic heading to Pololū,” Pule-Fujii recalls. “Pololū was busy only on weekends [and there were only] six cars in the parking lot – all Kohala people. Full moon nights [we’d] park up at the lookout watching the moon rise, and listening to the makani blowing against the trees. So peaceful. But [Pololū] got discovered.”

Currently, Townscape, Inc., an environmental and community planning organization, is in the planning process to address protection of Pololū with the state. According to their factsheet, they will “engage with kūpuna, descendants of the place, cultural practitioners, and residents, to explore alternatives and develop stewardship solutions to protect the area from overuse.”

After the plan is finalized, there will be an environmental review process. These efforts are absolutely necessary following the sharp increase in “revenge vacations” – an unpopular trend in this post-pandemic world. Short- and long-term solutions are needed to maintain the preservation of one of the most pristine places in Hawaiʻi.

At least once a year, for the past three years, Pololū Valley gets to breathe.

There, overlapping footprints on the trail fade away and the crash of waves reverberates all the way to the back of the valley. “E Lei ʻO Pololū” is a time where the community helps mālama the space and to reflect upon and honor one Pololū descendant’s dream to surround their iwi kūpuna (ancestral bones) with lei lāʻī (ti-leaf) of protection and aloha. From 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., “the Kohala-grown ʻohana comes together to protect Pololū and it warms my heart,” Pule-Fujii said.

Photo: Kamalani Manantan bringing two horses down to the valley floor
Kamalani Manantan bringing two horses down to the valley floor to help relocate fallen trees for E Lei ʻO Pololū. – Courtesy Photo

This year required a special kind of mālama, as fallen trees were too heavy to be hauled out of the valley. A few volunteers took on this challenge with rope and their horses.

There’s something different yet familiar about paniolo descending into Pololū Valley on horseback. Different since today’s Pololū traveler usually has two legs, not four. Familiar because it reminds us of our history and the ʻohana who lived there.

The residents of the villages surrounding Pololū get it – there’s nothing quite like driving up the winding road toward the lookout and coming over the very last hill to see the dark blue ocean open up before them, contrasting with the wondrous green cliffs as the ʻohana islands of Mokupuku, Paoakalani, and Paʻalaea slowly reveal themselves.

And let’s be honest – visitors’ vacations will not be ruined if they are unable to check “hike Pololū Valley” off of their “Hawaiʻi To-Do List.” Visitors will still be able to cruise their rented convertible Mustangs along the Kohala coastline from Kawaihae to Hianaula Point, sip a milky-sweet cappuccino from Kohala Coffee Mill in Hāwī, and take a selfie with Kamehameha ʻEkahi in Kapaʻau.

But Pololū Valley is overpopulated and needs help. Let Pololū rest.

At about 1:30 p.m., a half hour before “E Lei ʻO Pololū” is pau, visitors line up near the trailhead ready to embark on their self-imposed, mandatory journey – some in sandals, some with professional trekking poles. Pule-Fujii is ready to speak to them all at once: all 60 of them.

The clock strikes 2:00 p.m. “Circle up!” she yells. They stand and listen intently, some a little apprehensive. They don’t know this yet, but they’re about to get an education from the Trail Tūtū. “I need to tell you about Pololū Valley…”