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Kaimu Black Sand Beach at Kalapana, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

By Donnie MacGowan

On the southeast coast of the Big Island of Hawaii runs the Kapoho-Kalapana Highway, perhaps the only road in the world named for two cities that have been buried by volcanic eruptions. Before the destruction of these towns, this area harbored some of the last refuges of the native Hawaiian way of life–it was a safe haven from the ravages, temptations and noisome encroachments of western civilization. Here were villages of Hawaiians, living as they have for hundreds of years, fishing, farming and keeping their culture, their way of life, their people, alive and vital.

But life on an active volcano is uncertain. Life on an island with 3 active volcanoes, as Hawaii has, is perilous. And for this particular corner of Hawaiian paradise, Madame Pele, the Goddess of the Volcano, began to have other ideas.

In 1990 Pele determined it was time for some serious geographical reorganization. Lava flows from Kilauea’s East Rift swarmed down the mountain and engulfed the villages of Royal Gardens, Kaimu and Kalapana, destroying virtually everything. Immolated and buried were centuries-old fishing villages and a world famous black sand beach. The road ends today where Kaimu Black Sand Beach once stood, and is now a thousand yards and more inland.

When the lava came, it wiped out not just homes, gardens, crops and material things, it wiped out a way of life and a landscape cherished by generations. Imagine the staggering losses to the community. The coconut grove by the beach where, for a thousand years, the Kahunas had blessed the fishing canoes, was not only wiped away and covered with lava, but the landscape was altered so permanently and completely that none are even sure where it used to be. The spots where generations of fathers taught their sons to fish, gone. The groves where mothers sat with their daughters passing on the arts of weaving along with the family stories, gone. The beach where thousands of young lovers had walked the moonlit surf, arm in arm, for centuries, and where perhaps not a few babies had also been made, gone beneath 50 feet and more of lava. Everything gone; a landscape, a way of life, an entire culture.

It was from her vision of strength and a refusal to let her community die, rather than feelings of loss and desolation, that inspired one local resident to replant and reestablish the area. Not to just replant her land, but the entire village. Inspired, tirelessly, steadily, she worked planting hundreds, then thousands, of sprouted coconut and other palms and encouraged others in her community to join in. Even when she discovered she had a terminal disease, she selflessly redoubled her efforts, continuing her campaign to replant and recover the village, the community pitching in even more after she passed away.

Today there are literally thousands of young trees growing on the no-longer barren lava, and a new geography for new lives and new memories is being born. Her vision of rebirth, now being realized, is a moving testament to the power of love of ones’ community and commitment to ones’ culture. This living vision of young palm trees is an amazing, enduring monument to her optimism, faith and perseverance, and to that of her community. One of the truly most moving stories in the Islands, this place has to be seen to be appreciated.

When you visit Kalapana today, the devastation of 20 years ago is still obvious, but so is the vision of rebirth. Although none are yet as tall as a man, the rebuilt trail to the new black sand beach, Kaimu Beach, is lined with the young palms. You should take time to wander out to the beach, over the acres of new land, and look back at where the village of Kalapana once stood. Near the parking area along the path are fossils, lava casts, of palm trees, coconuts, pandanas fruit and other plants…keep a sharp eye out, they are everywhere. Swimming is hazardous at the new beach, so is surfing, the ocean currents being strong and treacherous. But take some time to relax, wade, feel the sand beneath your feet and amidst the lunar desolation of the fresh lava flows, contemplate the drive of one dying woman to rebuild a world she loved from a devastation few of us can imagine.

From the lava hillocks along the trail you can get nice views of the eruption plume at Pu’u O’o, up on the flank of Kilauea as well as the steam clouds down a few miles along the coast where the lave enters the sea at Waikupanaha. This is one of the few places where both can be seen easily and at the same time.

Back at the parking area at the road’s end, look a bit farther to the west and find Uncle Robert’s House, one that was spared the destruction, where a display of photos of the lava flows and the village in pre-disaster times in a miniature museum can be found, along with an interesting nature trail. The stop is worth your time, and be sure to leave a donation in the offering jar.

The extreme devastation suffered by the people of Kalapana may be a long way from our own life experiences, but we should take inspiration and example from their vision, their optimistic perseverance and their deep love of, and commitment to, their way of life.

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and touring the Big Island in particular, visit and