On the northwest coast of the Island of Hawaiʻi, in Kona ʻĀkau (North Kona), pele that flowed from Maunaloa and Hualālai interfinger. Though casual passersby may see a barren landscape, some kamaʻāina understand the rich histories of place the ʻāina pōhaku of Kekahawaiʻole, the “waterless lands of Kekaha,” offer.
Kaha lands are dry hot places along the shore. In Kona ʻĀkau, unrelenting sun, baking untold acres of smooth undulating pāhoehoe and rough clinkery ʻaʻā, causes the phenomenon known in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi as hulili, when the air above scorching bare flows shimmers or vibrates as a mirage. This adds to the discomfiture of travelers without water to drink or shade in which to rest. Much of that pele, up to a few thousand years old, is little-altered because of the arid climate.
In 1801, when Hualālai erupted in the uplands of Huʻehuʻe, Pelehonuamea sent her pele ma kai, and filled the vast loko iʻa Pāʻaiea. That fishpond was a prized chiefly resource of Kamehameha I at Keāhole, and is now the site of the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport.
Then in 1810, Kamehameha decreed the building (some say reconstruction) of a great loko iʻa at Kīholo, perhaps to compensate for the loss of Pāʻaiea. The pond, at the north end of the shore at Kīholo was completed by 1812. As William Ellis, who travelled down the coast by canoe in 1823, described it:
“About four in the afternoon I landed at Kihoro, a straggling village, inhabited principally by fishermen. This village exhibits another monument of the genius of Tamehameha. A small bay, perhaps half a mile across, runs inland a considerable distance. From one side to the other of this bay, Tamehameha built a strong stone wall, six feet high in some places, and twenty feet wide, by which he had an excellent fish-pond, not less than two miles in circumference.”
Then, in late January 1859, a vent opened at 11,000 feet, high on the side of Maunaloa. On Jan. 31, 1859, a week after the eruption began, and after traveling 40 miles, an ʻaʻā flow reached the Pacific. It had buried the hōlua (sledding course), loko iʻa, and fishing village of Wainānāliʻi, just north of Keawaiki.
Hawaiian newspapers at the time describe the activity vividly. After the first in a series of flows reached the sea at Wainānāliʻi, ʻaʻā descended toward the south to Keawaiki, but did not damage any of the homes there. Instead, it flowed out to sea, and into the waters off Kanaupaka Point.
“The houses and plants, sugar cane, coconut, hala, and everything there disappeared, and nothing old can be seen there now. The beauty of the place is gone. It was a good place for traveling canoes to rest or for overland traveling parties. That area has fine sand. It has all become naught and disappeared now…The shore and the land of Wainānāliʻi were turned into a high, flat mound of clinker lava. Many fish were killed and washed ashore.” (Ioane, Kailua, Feb. 5, 1859, translation by Puakea Nogelmeier)
The pele continued, incessant and unpredictable. Pāhoehoe moved in relentless succession, first here, then there, sparing Keawaiki, but burying Wailea and Wailoa, neighboring villages to the south, toward Kīholo. Over the course of the next 11 months, flows of that same luaʻi pele would resculpt the shores of adjacent ahupuaʻa Puʻuanahulu and Puʻuwaʻawaʻa. Laehou was created, as well as the familiar turquoise lagoon at Kīholo. The works of volcanic elemental Pelehonuamea would continue to astound and amaze.
Kamehamehaʻs loko iʻa at Kīholo, as well as the one at Wainānāliʻi were both filled with acres of pele. Runways can still be discerned for hōlua courses at both Kīholo and Wainānāliʻi, their termini at now-buried shorelines. Pāhoehoe ponded then inflated and tilted against walls of loko iʻa. Stone-walled village structures at flow margins, as well as portions of anchialine pools survived the onslaught. Trails emerge from under the flows, their networks that traverse the coast then lead to cooler regions ma uka reconfigured and still in use, all of this evidence left by Native Hawaiians of their adaptability and creativity in the face of forbidding odds as they created livelihoods in Kekaha.
Perhaps wanting to enable more efficient passage through these then-remote and arid coastal lands, Lota Kapuāiwa, Kamehameha V, funded construction, in late 1871 and early 1872, of an improved trail connecting Lāhuipuaʻa and Kīholo in a somewhat straight line. Traveling on that recently constructed Alanui Aupuni or Government Road that many today call the “Kingʻs Trail,” George Bowser, writing in 1880, commented wryly:
“There is nothing to be seen all the way but lava; lava to right of you, lava to left of you, lava ahead of you, lava behind you, and lava beneath you; the road for a dozen miles or more is composed of nothing but clinkers of every size.”
Today, though thousands of acres of ubiquitous invasive alien fountaingrass, introduced to Kona ʻĀkau in about 1910, blanket the ʻāina pōhaku, we imagine, in our mindʻs eye, the quotidian tasks that enabled past inhabitants to survive on those lands. We aloha them as we fondly recall our times wandering and wondering there, in Kekahawaiʻole, our ʻāina aloha.
Go. Be outside. Pay attention. Noho i waho. A maliu.
Author’s notes: Me ke aloha pau ʻole a me ka mahalo piha iā Kihalani Springer, Puakea Nogelmeier, a me Kīʻope Raymond.
“Lava” is the Italian word for molten rock. It is not used in this article, unless part of a quote. Rather, we use the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi “pele” the product of Pelehonuamea, elemental force of volcanism.