The Kalalau Story (Island of Kauai, Hawaii):
Last year while in a book store in Zurich we got the idea of hiking the Kalalau trail as we found a book with the 25 most beautiful hikes around the world and under it the Kalalau trail on Kauai, Hawaii. At around the same time also some friends were on Kauai and wanted to do the hike but didn’t manage to in the end (hi Gery & Nicole 🙂 ).
As you do need permits for the trail, we went on the official website in about November and purchased a permit for two nights. You can purchase the official permit over the government website of Kauai. There is also a short description of the trail with information about water sources and distances. The trail is a one-way trail to the Kalalau valley beach at the end. We were planning to hike in two days and hike back the third day. Nothing too special. All in all, it seemed it will be (Patrick would say) “a walk in the park” 🙂 .
As soon as we arrived on the island we bought everything we needed for camping. We rented a tent in a shop in Hanalei Bay which is the closest town to the start of the trail. We bought food for two days and got enough water treatment pills.
The forecast for the weather looked promising, mostly sunny with scattered rain showers it said. Everything looked perfect for some days out in the nature…
In the morning we drove our rental car to Haena Beach Park which is a parking lot one mile before the trail starts. We didn’t park directly at the trailhead because we left some of our belongings in the car and heard about some car break ins at the trailhead from time to time.
Once we started the trail and were a few steps in, our shoes were already covered with mud due to the rainy weather the previous weeks. The start of the trail was pretty busy because of day hikers doing the first two miles, which can be done without a permit. After we crossed that point we were walking mostly alone on the muddy and narrow path. On our further way we had to cross some rivers either by balancing over stones or walking through the water.
Sometimes the trail was almost invisible with all the plants covering it. The first day it was raining a little bit and because of all the mud the trail became very slippery. The heavy backpacks made it even more challenging to walk without loosing grip and balance. The scary thing was that you were mostly walking right at the edge of a cliff. So slipping would mean a free fall down the cliffs and serious injures or death… Somehow the trail homepage didn’t really mention that .
Because we got a permit for two nights we decided to walk until the halfway and camp there for the first night and walk to the end for the second night. The end of the trail is a beautiful beach in the Kalalau valley which you can either access by hike or by boat (illegally).
There was not a specific reason, but during the hike we actually both had a weird feeling and because of the conditions on the trail we were discussing for some time to turn around almost before we got to the halfway. But because we felt too tired to walk back again the same day we decided to put up our tent, sleep over it and see how we feel about it the next day.
The campground was very small. Shortly after we put up our tent, two other hikers arrived and took the spot right next to us. The 61 and 63 old brothers spent four days on the trail and were already on their way out. They were really enthusiastic about the hike and the beach at the end of the trail. They highly recommended to continue our hike also because they said the trail will be dry and in better conditions on the second half.
As we got up the next morning we had perfect weather. So obviously we decided to continue…
The second day was way better even when the trail got more narrow and you had to walk around some cliffs with the ocean directly under you (crawlers ledge). But the views were spectacular! As we finally reached the beach in the Kalalau valley it was magic. The huge mountains formed by volcanoes in the back, the waterfall with fresh water and the ocean in the front. There were a few other tents, but because the beach is so long you have plenty of space to put up your tent with no one around. Especially because most people camp a bit further back in the forest and not directly at the beach. We found a beautiful place under a tree directly looking at the ocean. Sadly, after we arrived the clouds came up and the sky got greyer and greyer. Tired of the hike and also because we thought we have to walk the entire way back the next day, we quickly made some food and went to bed early.
During that night and after some hours of sleeping the wind started to blow heavily and it started to rain as we haven’t seen it before. So of course, after a while water started to come through our tent and some rain starting dropping onto our faces. We tried to fix the problem, but in the end there was no way of stopping the rain from coming in our tent, the rainfall was just too heavy.
After being awake almost the whole night we decided to walk out with the first sunlight. Luckily the rain stopped at 5am, so we were in good mood again when packing up and starting to walk at 6:30 am. At that point the whole campground was flooded and covered by mud and newly formed lakes… After we hiked about 15minutes we got to the first river that we had to cross. And we didn’t really recognize it any more. It was so swollen up with the tons of water that came down during the night. As the river was so rapid and the water turned brown, there was no way to cross it without getting washed down towards the ocean.
We stayed at the river for an hour to see if the water is going down and to wait for some of the other camper that also wanted to hike out that day. After a while a family arrived with their two kids. We met them the evening before as we dried Nina’s hiking boots at their fire (I did not know at this time it will be raining the hole time).
While waiting it started to rain again and no less intense than during the previous night. In the end we decided to walk back to the campground and to check back later that day. As we reached the camp ground we were wet down to our underwear and with it most things in our backpacks as well (we took only a small dry bag).
The Kalalau trail is actually not only famous for the beauty of the beach at the end, but also for a hippie community that lives at that beach for most of the time. While we didn’t meet any of the locals the day before we were just about to meet the most welcoming and hospitable local. On our way back to the camp, we stumbled into the local Will (we promised to not spread his real name) who was sitting under his shelter. He told us it is way to dangerous to walk out, because the mud and the following rivers on the way will be even worse to cross. Several people lost their lives trying to cross rivers like this over the last years (also something that the trail website doesn’t really tell…). So first thing he did was to invite us under his tarp and handing us over some coffee. Also when we told him that we’re running out of food, he assured us not to worry, he’ll cook a big meal for us later that day. So all of the sudden, the weather didn’t look that grey any more 🙂 .
Will is living in Kalalau for most of the time since almost twenty years and has seen already all kind of weather and situations. A scary thing on the Kalalau trail is also that there is no cell phone signal the entire hike. So it was impossible for us to tell someone if we would be in real trouble. Not talking about that no one knew that we were on that trail those days…
So here comes again our rescue Will, who told us after some time that he’s the only one in the valley with a satellite phone and he would try to reach his friend who lives in Hanalei Bay and owns a boat. The friend first confirmed to pick us up by boat later that day. But after a while he texted that the road from his house to the next gas station is blocked by a mud slide and he is unable to get us out. Via Will’s satellite telephone we also got the information that the trail is officially closed by the government and the whole town Hanalei Bay was without electricity.
So there was no way to leave the beach. Because the family with the kids never returned back to the campground Nina decided to walk up to the river again to see if they are still there to let them know that they will be in danger if they try to cross it. Luckily they did not and after telling the news that the trail is closed they walked together back to the camp. Meanwhile and due to the rain that still continued, the whole campground got flooded and the water reached already over the ankle… There was basically nowhere to hide. So we stayed the entire day under Wills shelter and had an awesome dinner together with Will, the family and another couple who were also stranded.
It continued raining the whole day and as we set up the tent for another night everything was already wet. Even worse, our tent was again flooded with our mattresses floating on water. We decided to sleep in our rain clothes and tried to keep us warm by cuddling tightly. During the night a massive thunderstorm joined the party and almost ever minute there was some intense lightening, so bright that you had the feeling someone is switching on the light in our tent. We prayed that hopefully everything will be over soon and we can finally go home again.
The following day some helicopters of the coast guard were flying over and over around the mountains and the beach. After a while they dropped a walkie-talkie from the helicopter that we could communicate more easily with them. They asked if anyone had some injuries and we are ok food wise. After confirming everyone is ok, they let us know that they have to rescue people who are in serious life danger first that’s why we have to wait. What we actually didn’t know at that point was that in the north of Kauai, things were pretty bad with streets and houses being washed away completely and electricity complete gone. Some people even had to spend the night at the roof of their houses because of the flood. So we understood that we had to stay and wait another night.
That day, it finally stopped raining and we used the sun that came out to dry our sleeping bags and other things. This time we set up the tent really rain proof and we couldn’t wait to sleep in dry clothes in a dry sleeping back inside a dry tent.
Until we heard again from the coast guard the following day we spent most of the time with the family and another couple. Because everyone was running out of food we were sharing everything and helped each other with everything else. The spirit was really great. The next morning an army helicopter landed on the beach and the pilot told us they will rescue all of us by helicopter, before he disappeared again. We packed everything together as fast as we could. After another 5 hours waiting we finally another helicopter landed and we were flown out one after another by the US national guard.
As we overflew Hanalei Bay we saw for the first time what exactly happened and it was shocking. It was a big natural catastrophe and Kauai even called out the state of emergency for the north of the island. In the end it was the worst natural disaster since 25 years. It also was the worst 1 day and 2 day rainfalls in history of Kauai.
The US Army and people from the Red Cross came over from other islands and the mainland to work on rescuing and evacuating people non stop. After we landed they brought everyone to the Red Cross shelter where we could get some food and sleep in the hall. As we arrived and signed in, Cathy who helped as a volunteer introduced herself and she invited us over to sleep the night in her house. She and her husband live close by and she promised us a warm shower, food and a comfy bed to sleep in. We didn’t have to think twice. We were unbelievable hungry, exhausted and dirty. We fell asleep right away and it felt good to have a dry and solid bed.
So if you remember from the beginning of our story, we had our rental car parked at a parking lot at Heana Beach. And in it, most of our important belongings. So the story unfortunately continued, because by now it was impossible to get to our car any more. The
whole street to it got washed away by water at multiple points and it was by now accessible only by helicopter. But we also could not leave the island without our essentials that we need for our further travels…
Luckily the people of Red Cross were of tremendous help and were nonstop trying to find a solution for us. And it indeed worked out already the next day when the US army took the keys to our car and flew in a helicopter once more to get the most important bags out of the car.
We were incredibly happy after we retrieved our things and incredibly thankful also to the Red Cross and Cathy who gave us shelter and drove us around in absence of our own car.
Up until today, our car is still stuck in Haena, most likely still for a very long time. People are saying it will take months until the roads will be fixed and accessibly again. What will happen to the car and costs we don’t know yet, but our insurance should cover (fingers crossed).
In the end it was an experience of a lifetime which we will never forget. We were happy to have been cautious enough to not cross the river that day as other hikers actually did later on. We’ve met some unbelievable nice people and got to know a special spirit of unselfish people doing as much as they can to help out each other in times of crisis.
So in that respect, thanks to Will from Kalalau for convincing us not to try to walk out the trail, for organizing the rescue and for the food and shelter. The US Army and coast guard for flying us out. The Red Cross (Esther and Bill) for caring so much and helping us to get back our belongings. And Cathy for the food and giving us a warm house and bed when we needed it the most.
It was an adventure we won’t forget and we can now say we really felt the Aloha Spirit! <3
And here some further pictures we’ve found showing the damage on the North shore and on the trail: