The chilled stream, which traverses through peaceful botanical gardens in the depths of Iao Valley, once turned a vibrant crimson from the bleeding bodies of fallen soldiers. In 1790 Kamehameha I, in an attempt to unite the Hawaiian Islands, battled Kalanikupule, leader of Maui and Maui’s army. Maui’s army, equipped only with spears and rocks, proved an infantile challenger to the muskets, bows and arrows, and canons that Kamehameha I’s army brought. Even though Maui’s army was victim to a slaughter, the geography of Iao Valley extended the fighting time.
The Iao Needle, Kuka’emoku, proudly stands in the center of the valley and provides a 360-degree view. Kuka’emoku once connected to the West Maui Mountains that roam the coastline, but heavy rainfall has eroded the surrounding sediment. Iao Valley is one of the wettest places in the U.S., rivaling only Mt. Wai’ale’ale on Kauai. The 1,200-foot spire is the last survivor of that battle. While it provided a vantage point for Maui’s army, the soldiers lacked the weaponry to successfully counter Kamehameha’s persistent attacks.
It’s difficult to fathom the macabre history of this valley because of its present lush, manicured beauty. Sturdy guava trees arch over the stream, occasionally dropping fruit for guppies and crayfish. Various species of heliconia dangle amid the bounty of banana palms, which are like the shoji screens of the forest. From the palm trees to the myriad orchids, Iao Valley breathes life that was once taken away from it. While exploring the trails reveals Dr. Seuss-like floral scenes, visitors fail to notice the valley’s tender scars. I have stood in Kepaniwai (damming of the waters) the stream that was duly named because of the bodies that dammed the water. The water is fresh and calm, yet can transform into a vicious, rushing river in a matter of minutes because of the severe rainfall.
Reaching the summit of Kuka’emoku, while not an arduous journey, is incredibly rewarding. Umbrella trees shade the valley’s floor, Haleakala, Maui’s 10,000-foot tall dormant volcano, ascends into the clouds to the west, and if fog isn’t haunting the valley, the ocean is visible. I can’t even imagine the fear those Maui soldiers had, watching from the top of Kuka’emoku as the enemy swarmed the sacred valley. Could they have known that it would one day surpass the beauty before the battle took place? Perhaps they only hoped that it would be treated with the respect it deserved.
The state of Hawaii now protects Iao Valley, where visitors flock to in order to hike muddy trails and explore the luscious, botanical gardens. I am continually taken aback at the valley’s beauty each time I return. And seeing the glistening ocean, colored by sharp oranges of the sunset, from the top of Kuka’emoku proves that natural beauty still exists in the world. That view parallels the splendor of witnessing a green flash at the culmination of a sunset. Even though the moment is brief, it’s an image that sticks in your mind forever. And then there’s an ounce of questioning of whether it will be as beautiful if you see it again. It’s unpredictable, but dwelling in the past clouds whatever beauty the future holds.
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