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Maka O Hule Navigation Heiau
Near mile marker 15 on the Akoni Pule Highway is a unique navigational heiau of standing stones arranged to point to Tahiti and the other Polynesian islands.
Sometimes erroneously referred to as “the Stonehenge of Hawaii”, this one of a kind temple is actually thought to be an observatory for spotting the far-flung islands of the Polynesian Archipelago using the alignments of the standing stones with stars. The site is reached via a short, easy stroll long the dirt road leading north, away from Mahukona Beach Park on the Kohala Coastline. Lovely vistas along deep, cerulean ocean and crystal clear coves lead to a short scramble up an obvious dirt trail to the heiau.
Ancient Polynesians had a system of navigation that made long voyages across thousands of miles of open ocean not only possible, but routine. Long before European seafarers were comfortable sailing out of site of land, Polynesians were regularly plying trade routes of a thousand or two miles across the world’s most violent ocean in small wooden canoes whose planks were tied together with rope made of coconut fiber, without the aid of a compass and using sails made of tree bark.
While Europeans were making short, stuttering voyages, navigating by dead reckoning with a compass or by keeping shoreline landmarks in sight by day, Polynesians voyaged out of sight of land for weeks at a time, navigating by the detailed knowledge of the patterns of star motions, tides, winds, changing ocean currents, migration patterns of animals, knowledge of how clouds might characteristically congregate over a certain island, weather patterns and the changes in the color of the sea. Their system of navigation kept track of the way those patterns changed in relation to each-other and with changing latitude and longitude, map concepts of which they had no knowledge.
They knew intimately the interference patterns of large-scale wave-sets across the ocean and used them as a sort of Cartesian Coordinate system to plot their course. A Polynesian navigator could tell by the shape of a mid-ocean wave whether or not it had crested an island in the past 2 weeks.
Navigation lore was guarded jealously by the cadre of navigators on each island; for safeguarding this knowledge, using it by braving the ocean and for passing it on to the next generation, navigators were accorded very high status in society. At temples like Maka O Hule, this vast body of knowledge was passed on, master to apprentice, often as songs or chants, repeated and repeated until mastered and memorized.
By the time Rome had fallen in Europe, most of Polynesia had been peopled and the enormously far-flung islands connected by canoe routes, kinship and trade. At least a century before the Europeans made landfall in the Americas, Polynesians were actively engaged in trade with various peoples in South America, California and the Northwest Coast, introducing the chicken to America and returning with sweet potatoes which they introduced to Polynesia.
In fact, such was the expertise and reputation of the Polynesian navigators that, on his first exploratory voyage of the Pacific, Captain James Cook obtained the services of a Polynesian navigator named Tupaia. Tupaia’s encyclopedic knowledge of Polynesia allowed him to draft for Cook an extremely detailed and accurate map, from memory, of all the islands, harbors, shoals and shallows within an 2000 mile radius of his home island of Ra’iatea.
Among the stones of Maka O Hule one can sense the reverence and wonder of the Hawaiians as they initiated their novice navigators in this sacred place of stones pointing along unbroken vistas to Tahiti, the Marquesas and the other Southern Islands. This is a spot for contemplation and awe. Wonderful and startling sunset photos with the stones in the foreground can be taken here. Remember that this is an extremely sacred site to native Hawai’ians and be respectful; do not walk within the temple precincts, touch or remove stones.
This heiau is most easily accessed by walking north along the old dirt road from the ruins of the pier at Mahukona Beach Park, although one can also hike directly down from the Akoni Pule Highway near mile marker 15.
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All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.