There are many places on the Big Island of Hawaii that have undeserved infamous or unsavory reputations for one reason or another–the reputations of the road to South Point and Saddle Road come immediately to mind. Once difficult, even dangerous, to drive, they have been more or less tame for decades–yet the reputation remains, passed on to unsuspecting visitor’s who trust what they are told. Recognition of this must be balanced with the sure and certain knowledge that in the same breath they condemn the South Point road, someone may tell the same visitor of the hazards of, say, the road to the summit of Mauna Kea or The Road To The Sea in South Kona–both of which can be truly dangerous roads requiring skill, good weather and four-wheel drive to negotiate.
We here at Tour Guide have endeavored to collect and present the most up-to-date information on visiting over 500 locations on the Big Island, coloring the material with our decades of personal experience living on the Big Island. Today, you may access that information here on this blog or by renting our GPS unit which shows location aware video presentations about all these sites. Recently, we have released a version of our tours downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch that covers more than 50 areas of island, highlighting the popular and the uncrowded, the famous and the secluded, the adventurous and and the relaxing.
Our goal is to insure you have the most fun, most interesting and enjoyable vacation here in Hawaii–that you are provided with all the information you need to decide where to go and what to see, and that you are not burdened with out-dated or incorrect information…
So, let’s talk about going to storied South Point on the Big Island which, despite what you may hear to the contrary, is a delightful drive and an amazing place to explore.
Hawaii’s South Point
Haunting, windswept, wild, empty, beautiful. Imagine the gratitude and wonder of the first Polynesians who, after voyaging at sea without sight of land for more than a month, finally made land here at Ka Lae. This sweeping landscape arches openly and inviting from the tumultuous shore break at Ka Lae to the icy heights of Mauna Kea’s summit almost 14,000 feet above.
South Point is the farthest point south in the entire United States…not Key West Florida, as some guidebooks claim. The road to Ka Lae from the Hawai’i Belt Road is infamous, but has been greatly improved in recent years, although it’s still only 1-lane wide in many places. Even today some rental agencies admonish you not to take their cars down this road. Relax. The road is fine, although blind turns and hills command your attention and should curb your desire to speed. Also, all the roads, beaches, boat launching facilities and parking are free and public, despite what some signs and unsavory characters might try to tell you. Just don’t leave valuables in your car, and be sure to lock it up (there also is no “Visitor’s Center”, contrary to the sign).
Along the road to Ka Lae are the brooding and dilapidated wind turbines of the Kamaoa Wind Farm. This wind farm, when all of the turbines are operating, can generate enough electricity to power 100 homes; unfortunately, usually 1/3 to ½ of the turbines are out of service at any given time. The surreal setting on the green plain with the cows grazing unconcernedly, coupled with the eerie, “sci-fi” sound of the generators makes this a unique place to stop, look and listen.
At South Point proper are a number of dilapidated structures and foundation ruins. The Army had a barracks here during World War II; the paved road was built in 1955; during the sixties, the Navy built a missile tracking station which the Air Force later took over and renamed South Point Air Force Station, which closed in 1978.
History: The Polynesian pioneers who first reached South Point routinely made incredible voyages that put European seafaring and exploration of a millennium later to shame. More than a thousand years before Columbus, in tiny, twin-hulled canoes that were entirely of carved wood lashed together, using no nails or wooden pegs and employing sails made of tree bark, Polynesians embarked on a voyages that were thousands of miles farther than those of Christopher Columbus, and without the aid of a compass or charts with which to navigate. Using the stars, currents, patterns of migration of the birds and fish, patterns in the waves, water temperature and the color of the undersides of clouds, these explorers navigated, explored, sailed and paddled all across the Pacific spreading their culture, language and peoples at the time when the Roman Empire was crumbling and centuries before the Age of Vikings.
It is thought that voyagers from the Marquesas first landed on Hawai’i, at South Point, quite early in the fourth Century AD; certainly the earliest archeological artifacts found in the Hawai’ian Islands are found here. At Ka Lae the Polynesians established a thriving colony based upon the incredibly rich fishing grounds just offshore. The colony was connected to the rest of Polynesia by trade routes to the Southern Islands and regular trade and travel between the Marquesas, Marshals, and Tahiti continued for centuries. Evidence of their colony can be found at Kalalae Heiau, just below the light tower at the Point.
The small, but extremely well-preserved, Kalalae Heiau is classified as a ko’a, or fishing shrine, to the god Ku’ula. Just below the shrine and in the rocks to the west, one can find grooves and holes cut into the rock. These are attachment and guide points for anchor lines for ancient fishing canoes. The currents at Ka Lae are so strong, and flow uninterrupted to Antarctica, that Hawai’ians could not fish and keep their canoes from being driven away simultaneously, so they fed ropes, secured to the rocks out to the canoes, to keep them from drifting away with the currents.
Like most animists, Hawai’ians invested worship and respect and intuited spiritual power in a range of natural objects and phenomena: rain, volcanic eruptions, the sea, sharks, fresh water springs, the surf and rocks, among many others. Pohaku O Kane, or sacred rocks, were among the most common spiritual objects of worship, whether they were naturally occurring in the landscape (pohakuia loa), or set on platforms (pohaku amakua) or carved (pohaku iki). Kalalae Heiau has numerous examples of the former two. On the main platform outside the heiau is a pohaku amakua referred to as “Kumaiea” which means “female”. On the smaller stone terrace just north is another standing stone associated with the god Kanaloa and referred to as “Kanemakua” (male). Inside the heiau wall is a stone called “Ku’ula” after the patron god of fishermen; north of the structure stand Makaunulau (named for a navigational star) and ’Ai’ai (a dependent or ward), south is Wahine hele (“place from where the women leave”). Examples of pohakuia loa include the Pohakuwa’a Kauhi (literally “canoe rock by the shrubs”) right at the shoreline, which was used to focus meditations before long canoes journeys, and Pohakuokeau (“stone of the currents” or “stone of the years”), which stands offshore. The name Pohakuokeau reflects the Hawaiian belief that the stones would turn over when there was a political change in government.
Hike to Green Sand Beach: Absolutely unique to the island of Hawai’i, beautiful and strange, are the handful of green sand beaches composed of crystals of the semi-precious mineral olivine (also known as peridot). The green sand beach at South Point is the best known, largest and most accessible of these.
The sand grains on this beach are formed from olivine crystals weathering out of the lava and cinders from the cone over an eruptive vent that has been partially breached by the sea. The beach lies in the interior of the cone, and the somewhat protected cove formed by the remnant of the cone makes for a wonderful swimming/snorkeling spot. Be very wary of currents and do not go out far nor in at all if the surf is high or there are strong winds. The bizarre color of the water shrieks for color photographs, particularly underwater photographs taken while snorkeling.
To get there, turn left onto a signed, patchy-paved and dirt road immediately when you arrive in the Ka Lae area following signs to the Kaulana boat launch. Proceed down the road and park just to the left (south) of the Kaulana boat launch, where there is a dirt road that leads to the green sand beach; there is gate ¼ mile down this road. The gate is almost always locked and the road primarily provides access for hiking, ATVs or mountain biking: private vehicles are prohibited. Hiking distance is 2 ¼ miles each way along rolling tropical prairie (and if you cannot envision that, you really need to do this hike). Despite the multiplicity of dirt roads, you really cannot get lost as you are never out of sight of the shore.
When you reach the end of the trail, you are a hundred or so feet above the beach on the rim of the remnant of the crater. Look closely for the faint track to scramble safely and easily to the beach (there is occasionally a blue trash barrel to mark this spot, but always there is a cairn of rocks). There is one sort of tricky spot where you have to inch your way over a 3-foot ledge, but almost anybody from senior to child can negotiate the hike to the beach. One can also easily scramble down from the middle (easternmost) of the cone where there is a short ladderway at the top, but this can be slippery. Although tricky to spot on the way down, from the beach looking up, either way back to the crater rim is easy to follow.
Snorkeling: The waters at South Point are wild, crystalline turquoise and wicked. It is obvious from the surf and the currents that swimming is right out along most of this coastline. However in a few protected areas by the boat hoists there is reportedly safe snorkeling, close to the cliffs and only when the sea is calm. Hardy spear fishermen with mask and fins tether themselves with ropes to the steel ladders in the cliff-side; this is obviously risky for the casual snorkeler. The only recommended snorkeling is at the Kaulana boat launch or at the Green Sand Beach and then only in calm seas. But it is beautiful; perhaps as beautiful and wild a spot to snorkel as anywhere in Hawai’i
There are no services. At all. None. And a goodly long way to drive to get to any…plan and act accordingly.
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All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.