Secrets of Puna is KapohoKine Adventures' signature tour and the one I had been looking forward to taking since that cold day in January 2009 when I met the company's owner and founder, Gary Marrow, in Philadelphia.
The Puna area of the Big Island is an area that most visitors never see and to which I had only been on one occasion, almost ten years ago. My recollection of that earlier visit had largely faded despite having a number of old, now also slightly faded, photos.
From Hilo to Kalapana and the New Kaimu Black Sand Beach
I was excited as I met up with the rest of my tour group. It was a small group, just four of us plus our Guide Emma Kela, or Cousin Emma as she asked us to call her. The others in our group were honeymooners Anthony and Allison from Vermont and Joan who was visiting from Australia. Anthony and Allison were picked up in Kona and Joan at her hotel in Hilo.
From Hilo it's about a 30-40 minute drive to the Puna District. Emma explained that we would be driving to the most distant point in our tour and then working our way back along the Puna coast on State Highway 137, otherwise known as Kapoho Kalapana Road. At one point Highway 137 ran all the way from Kapoho to Kalapana, but the lava flow in 1990 that destroyed the town of Kalapana also terminated the road at Kaimu, which was to be our first stop.
After parking the van, we proceeded to walk across the 1990 lava flows to the new Kaimu Black Sand Beach at Kalapana. All of the lava we crossed was once land just 20 years ago.
Along the path we could see signs where life once thrived - a fish now embedded in lava and the imprint of a fallen coconut tree. Yet all is not destruction. Along the way, new plant life has already started to grow within cracks in the lava. Locals have brought coconuts which have already begun to grow and which someday will form a new coconut grove. The beach itself is black and grainy but so beautiful.
Life at the End of the Road
The end of the road, where we parked, has become a popular spot for locals and the rare visitor that reaches this area.
Vendors sell lava photos, hand crafted items and food products. A local resident has a small compound that features a kava bar and live entertainment at night. He also offers his own lava walking tours.
Just a few feet away is a small convenience store and a cafe that is quite busy in the evening. The take-out plate lunches/dinners are excellent as I discovered the following night when I returned.
As we boarded the van and drove away from this area we were left impressed of how amidst all of the destruction in this area just 20 years ago, the resolute locals have not only survived but made a new life for themselves.
Driving down State Highway 137 we were never far from signs of lava flows that still dominate this area of the Big Island. It's a clear reminder that once this entire island looked much like the lava flows we had just walked across. Each side of the highway soon becomes lush with monkey-pod trees, often forming a tunnel virtually hiding the sunlight.
MacKenzie State Park
Our next stop was MacKenzie State Park along the coast at the Malama-Ki Forest Reserve. The park is dominated by gigantic ironwood trees which were first introduced to the islands on Kauai in 1882. More than 70,000 trees were planted on the forest reserves of the island; many others were planted on private lands.
In the days of Kamehameha I, the Kings Highway passed through this area. Today, the park is popular with locals for weekend picnics.
The shoreline here is jagged - with steep and ever eroding drops into the ocean. I got the impression that if I were to return here in a few years and photograph the same shoreline, with its many sea arches and lave tube openings, it will look quite different. Such is the power of the ocean and the wind.
Everywhere are remains of old trees which have died from salt & erosion to the cliff line.
Continuing in a northeast direction on State Highway 137 we passed Isaac Hale Park, from which I had departed several days previously before dawn to view lava flowing into the ocean with Lava Ocean Adventures. The park is more developed than MacKenzie State Park with a life-guarded beach, picnic facilities and ample parking. There is also a boat ramp and the nearby bay is a popular surfing location.
We made a left on Pahoa-Pohoiki Road, also known as Mango Grove Road due to the large number of mango trees along each side of the road. Our next stop was our lunch stop at Puna Girl Farms.
Puna Girl Farms
In 1996 Cherie McArthur and her husband Ian bought this 8-acre macadamia nut farm, a fulfillment of a life's dream to live and work in paradise.
The farm was in bad shape with trees literally buried in the jungle. It took the better part of two years to clear the land and bring the trees back to a point where they could produce a harvest.
Cherie did most of the work herself, since her husband was often on the mainland working in his profession as a special effects expert in Hollywood. The work she did is even more impressive when you consider that Cherie did the work literally single handed since she was born with a right arm that stops just below the elbow.
In 1998 the farm produced its first harvest; but things were not to be easy. A series of tropical storms damaged the grove and then the price of macadamia nuts hit an all-time low in 2007 due to foreign competition. Despite a contract to sell her harvest to Hawaiian Host Products things looked somewhat bleak.
It is here that KapohoKine Adventures comes into the story. Cherie and Ian had a sizable area of the farm that they called "the park", a cleared area with great views of the coast. If only they could find a way to make use of this area to produce income. The answer came in a chance conversation with the receptionist in her doctor's office. The receptionist worked part-time for KapohoKine who was at that time looking for a place to host lunches for their tours.