I thought seeing Pierce Brosnan was going to be the highlight of my trip. Turns out I was sorely mistaken.
My friend Silvie and I decided to hike the Kalalau Trail after one of her friends, Matt, invited us to join him. During the month prior to departure, we tried to coordinate with him regarding what we should bring and how we should prepare, but he assured us that he had all the gear and would even carry our tent (neither of us own proper hiking packs).
The trail is 22 miles round-trip and provides the only land access to Kauai’s beautiful Na Pali Coast. Most hiking books rate Kalalau a five out of five in terms of physical difficulty (comparable to the Everest base camp trek), as it is rugged, dangerous, and often eroded in certain areas. Moreover, the area is, by actual meteorological measurements, the wettest place on Earth, with over 600 inches of rainfall per year.
Silvie and I do not claim to be level five hikers; we consider ourselves to be more like day-hikers in that we like to hike during the day and sleep in our comfortable beds and eat fresh salads at night. The experience of overnight camping while carrying our own food, water and shelter was very new to us. Also, the night before we began the hike, Matt handed us the tent he had previously offered to carry; apparently he had a change of heart.
We started our journey on April 5th at the Kalalau Trailhead. The plan was to hike the entire 11 miles into Kalalau Beach on the first day and have a few extra days to rest and enjoy the sites. Despite a late start, Silvie and I took our time to appreciate the scenery and to acclimate ourselves to our 30-pound backpacks (with the additional load).
About a mile and a half into our hike, I looked up and made eyes with a strapping, blue-eyed, salt-and-pepper haired gentleman who said to me in a deep English accent, “I’m supposed to give you girls encouragement… You’re beautiful partners.” I smiled and thanked him for his kind words as he passed us by. After a split second of processing the correspondence in my mind, I turned around to tell Silvie that 007 had just called us beautiful! At the exact moment I turned to tell her that we had just passed Thomas Crown (secretly hoping to be part of his next affair), Mr. Bond also turned back around. We made eyes again, he smiled and I gave him the “thumbs up,” as if a dorky gesture such as that would serve as an unspoken understanding between us. The encounter with PB, I thought, would be the highlight of my trip, and a great story to tell our friends when we got home. Little did I know it would be a mere footnote…
We continued along the trail and stopped at Hanakapi’ai (two mile mark) for a quick snack. From there we followed a muddy, unmaintained trail for almost thirty minutes until we realized that we had taken the wrong route, which led to a waterfall in the Hanakapi’ai Valley. Retracing our steps back down the sludge-ridden deadfall, we were careful not to misplace our footing as one miscalculation could have easily ended our journey prematurely. I must admit that the hiking poles, which Matt gave us to use, and which we had originally made fun of, saved us through this part of the trail and many parts yet to come.
As the afternoon wore on, we continued up and down the treacherous cliffs. The competitor inside me wanted to pick up the pace, but I had to remind myself that it was good to slow down, especially in such an extraordinary place. I couldn’t help but think about our late start, the unintended detour, the afternoon humidity and the realization that we were slightly unprepared for this kind of hike. I conferred with Silvie to see if we should turn back and find a ride back into town while there was still daylight. We decided to go for it and told Matt that we should set up camp at the six-mile mark, Hanakoa. Matt forged far ahead leaving us to our own devices. I told Silvie that all we needed to do was make it halfway before sunset.
We arrived at Hanakoa at about five-thirty in the evening in the pouring rain. We were too cold and too tired to bathe in the fresh stream, so we used Silvie’s baby wipes to clean up. We set up our tent then ate a dinner of nori seaweed, anchovies, sprouted sunflower and pumpkin seeds, miso soup and nettle tea.
Silvie and I called it an early night – we crawled into our tent and laid our one and only sleeping bag underneath us, as if it were enough of a buffer against the hard, rocky ground, which pressed into my spine all night.
Laughter is definitely the best medicine when dealing with aching muscles, blisters and lack of rest. Silvie and I joked about how we were under-prepared (picture Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne on their moped, road tripping to Aspen in Dumb and Dumber) and how Matt was so annoyingly over-prepared for the hike.
Our mental and emotional states were much better the next day. Matt started like Seabiscuit out of the gate, leaving Silvie and me to fend for ourselves. We took our time, basking in the mystical beauty of the Na Pali Coast. The intoxicating landscape had lush vegetation, towering green palis (cliffs), turquoise blue ocean water and white pounding waves; the birds even sang to us as we passed, as if their songs were a way of sending us reassurance.
We also talked to the people making the trek back into civilization from Kalalau Beach; one man said he hiked the trail every month, calling it his “health insurance plan.” Another man lived in a nearby valley – a leather-skinned drifter who warned us about certain dangers along the trail. We also met a nice man from Los Gatos who gave us his iodine tablets because our water was running low, and Matt had taken the only water filter with him (the fresh water streams are often contaminated with leptospirosis, a nasty bacteria that causes hepatitis-like symptoms).
We finally arrived at Kalalau Valley in the late afternoon. We decided to rest and meditate for awhile. The view was absolutely stunning – red dirt juxtaposed with emerald cliffs whose peaks hid under gray clouds. We could see the mile-long stretch of white sand beach just beyond the valley and knew we were close. As the clouds encroached on us, we decided we better get a move on.
The rain started to fall as we loaded our packs. The dirt path that led to the Kalalau River became like mud soup. My windbreaker didn’t serve as much of a shield against the rain, so I took out a large black garbage sack from my backpack and pulled it over my body, pressing a hole through the top for my head to peep through. I was quite an unfortunate sight.
We continued to slide down the muddy trail, using our hiking poles for leverage. Silvie complained about her throbbing feet, so she took off her hiking boots and uncovered a massive red, white and blue blister underneath one of her big toe nails, along with four other black and blue toes. Her foot was obviously infected but I didn’t want to scare her by stating the obvious, so she hobbled and I continued to slide down the muddy path.
We forged the rising Kalalau River in our bare feet. There would have been no way to get across if we had waited 20 minutes longer, as the river was rising rapidly and the swift current almost took us with it. As we crossed, I saw warning signs staggered along the bank:
The first sign was white and rectangular. Between the word “WARNING,” which was written in thick orange letters, and the phrase “SLIPPERY ROCKS” was a picture of a stick-figure man falling backwards into the river.
The second sign showed another stick-figure man falling head first into the ocean inside a peaking wave. The wave reminded me of the ‘less-than’ sign in a math equation: person < big crashing wave = death. Math is not my fortay, but this one was easy to solve.
The third sign didn’t have a picture. It asked visitors to please not go to the bathroom within 50-feet of the river, which thankfully didn’t have a picture to go along with it.
After crossing the river, we entered the campsite area and met the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Kalalau,” or “Uncle Trouble,” as some call him. He gave us a quick run down on how everything works around Kalalau, that most people are nice, albeit with unusual quirks. There is a community of people living there, hiding from the rangers and enjoying their squatter lifestyles. They have gardens, eat the wild fruit, harvest shrimp and hike out once a month for supplies. “Uncle T” gave Silvie a leaf to wrap around her infected toe and told us that a supply boat was coming the following day and could take us out if it got any worse. We asked him if he had seen our friend and gave him a detailed description of Matt. Unfortunately, he had not.
The rain started to pick up again as we continued to search through the campsites. The rain got so heavy that it felt like God was farting marbles.
The rain got so heavy that it felt like God was farting marbles.
We temporarily called off the search for Matt and asked a group of more “normal” looking people if we could join them under their tarp. They welcomed us and made introductions. The rain was not letting up and we started to worry about where we would sleep that night, so Silvie decided she would leave her pack with me and go search for Matt.
After about 40 minutes, Silvie returned with a look of defeat on her face. She said she looked everywhere and couldn’t find him. Looking down at the tarp below us, she noticed that the stream of water next to our packs had grown from a trickle of water to a four-foot wide river. A torrent was now rushing down the hill, carrying with it everything in its way, including the campsite. Silvie remembered she had seen a ranger station and told me that we needed to get there. I looked her in the eyes breathing heavily. My knees were knocking. I was shivering. I felt like I was going to faint. “Silvie,” I said, “I think I’m having a panic attack.”
She grabbed my hand and we fled the tarp making our way into the rain and onto the dirt trail, which was now a torrential flow of water. We sludged through the leptospirosis and staph-infected current until we could no longer stand up against its force, then made our way down to the beach and crossed another river of water, which led to the ocean.
Standing on the beach, we stopped, looked up, and stood in awe at our surroundings. A Willy-Wonka-like chocolate brown waterfall was dumping its water from the top of the cliffs; I was humbled by Mother Nature’s jungle fortress, and realized my powerlessness against her brute force. Silvie best described the drama:
“Yup, this is the jungle. This is the freakin’ jungle.”
We made our way to the ranger station (which ended up being a small, covered porch with a locked room and no one inside) as the rain settled down. We immediately toweled off just as our new friends from the tarp arrived for the night. One of the girls from Venice Beach recommended we play a game of volleyball. I was all for the escape.
I changed into my swimsuit and ran down the beach to join everyone in the most joyous match I have ever played. A pink sunset formed at one end of the beach while horizontal orange lightning flashed at the other. The dewy lime green cliffs shone in the light. I thought I was going to die ten minutes prior to this, and now I was laughing with complete strangers, serving aces and spiking slides in this jungle by the beach. After the match (my team won, but who’s counting?), we jumped into the ocean and played around, but only briefly because the rip was incredibly strong – a reminder that we weren’t completely safe.
Silvie and I went to bed laughing. I don’t know why because our situation was anything but funny.
We slept on the hard wooden porch of the ranger station that night. Our sleep was wet and restless. Silvie woke with an awful pain in her toe and could hardly move. I went to fill up our water in the waterfall, as we couldn’t the night before because the river was full of sediment (we had only 30 ounces of water between us since the previous afternoon and were partially dehydrated). I returned from the waterfall to see my friend in a much worse condition.
Silvie had just watched her only hope of getting out of Kalalau that day slip away. The supply boat had just arrived to offload its cargo into the massive rip of the ocean. She stood in the misty rain and watched the freight get pulled out to sea, time and time again. There was no way of getting on that boat. Even if she tried to swim out without her pack, she would not have made it through the powerful current.
She returned to the tent in a state of shock – her breathing was short and staggered, she was shivering, and no matter what we did, she could not get warm. I tested her blood sugar (Silvie is diabetic) and it was high, so I helped her administer insulin. Her condition worsened; her body was sore and sensitive to the slightest touch, and her face looked pale. A friend and I wrapped her in two sleeping bags and gave her hot tea. Eventually she told us that she couldn’t feel her foot and she started to talk about all potential ill fates. Infection and fear were setting in.
After several unsuccessful attempts to make Silvie feel better, she looked me in the eye and said, “Rachel, I have to get out of here.” It was more the look in her eyes than her words that said to me I had to get my friend out of there.
I asked the volleyball crew to write “SOS” in the sand while I sprinted to find help. I never ran so fast in my life. I found a girl carrying two pitchers of water up the beach toward her camp. I told her we had a medical emergency and to please get help. I ran a little further and while panting, explained the situation to a guy on the beach and asked him to find someone with a radio and to call a helicopter. He reassured me he had Naval training and that he would get help (he ended up using a mirror to signal the tour helicopters that fly by).
I ran back to the ranger station just as the hippies arrived carrying noni (a healing tropical fruit) and herbs. Although their idea of a remedy was not exactly what Silvie needed at the time, they were there to help. The girl I met down the beach carrying water arrived with flowers in her hair and said to Silvie in a soft voice,
“Don’t worry, we’re a family out here. We take care of each other.” She then added, “The water will heal you.”
The hippie vibe wasn’t helping Silvie, as it was the water that probably gave her the infection in the first place. She needed real medical attention at this point. Thankfully, a trained EMT arrived and checked her blood sugar once again. She was stable but her foot was anything but. While the EMT attended to Silvie, a nice man arrived at the station and told me that a military training helicopter had just arrived (they were on Kauai training at the missile base from San Diego, and had seen the SOS while doing their rounds), on top of that, the ride would be free.
Just then, a naval officer named Justin stepped onto the porch wearing what looked like a costume straight out of Top Gun. He introduced himself to Silvie and said he could help. She asked if I could go with her, he looked at me and asked if I was family, I yelled, “I’m the closest thing to family she has right now!” My not going with them was out of the question. I was told that I could take only the essentials so I grabbed our I.D.s, Silvie’s insulin, a credit card and my camera – this was way too good to not have documentation.
Justin led me across the beach toward the hovering helicopter. He warned me that I might need to shut my eyes because the sand would be spraying everywhere. I could hardly hear him over the loud buzz of the copter’s whizzing blades, but I soon felt what he was trying to tell me. The sand felt like a million BB gun bullets were pelting me; I thought if I opened my eyes I would see my blood everywhere. As we took the final steps toward the hovering helicopter, I positioned myself behind Justin and used him as a shield against the sand bullets. He strapped me into the cord and gave me a pat on the shoulder.
I gave him a big smile. I remember that my heart was pounding, but I wasn’t scared. In an instant, I was jolted up, hugging my backpack, hanging only by a piece of wire above the beach. I told myself to open my eyes because this was a once in a lifetime view. I saw the staggering cliffs, the blue horizon blend into the azure ocean, and all the people watching from the beach.
Once I was safe in the helicopter, another military man unhooked me and sent the cord down to pick up Justin and Silvie. Together, they arrived in the cabin of the copter and Justin laid Silvie on the ground. They checked her vitals and I held her ears to protect her from the thunderous noise. I wanted my touch to infuse her with healing energy.
We landed at the military base and an ambulance took us to the hospital. I had no idea where we were until I asked a nurse and he informed us that we were at West Kauai Medical Center (WKMC) in Waimea. Silvie was treated for dehydration and an infection, as her white blood cell count was abnormally high. She said she felt like a wilted flower being brought back to life.
After an antibiotic IV drip and six hours in the hospital, we were told that she would have to stay overnight for observation. Silvie managed to talk the doctors out of it. I filled her prescriptions just as her friend, Wayne, arrived to pick us up. He took us to Kmart to buy clothes and to the health food store for dinner.
Wayne took us to his house, a peaceful sanctuary where we could rest and heal. Silvie’s healing was aided by Percocet; mine by vodka – the one time I actually felt like drinking (sometimes self-medicating is not such a bad thing). That night, we took warm showers, ate a nice meal and sat around laughing at a story Wayne told us about a man falling off a treadmill. Again, laughter was our saving grace.
April 7th officially marked our rebirth. Silvie and I each found our own sense of peace and clarity after such an intense ordeal. High-pressure situations can definitely make or break a person, and this one proved that Silvie and I are, in fact, beautiful partners.
I am grateful for Silvie’s angels who helped her survive. There were also so many people who offered their support – the man who gave us his iodine tablets, all the friends we met along the trail, the hippies with the noni fruit, the EMT, and the military man who saved us. Also, for Wayne, a true friend who gave us a safe place to stay, which allowed us to process our thoughts. All these people played a vital role in our survival. It’s comforting how people rally together in crisis situations.
As we hitchhiked into Hanalei town the next day, two Dodge Chargers pulled up next to us. One of the men inside rolled down his window and asked, “Were you the girls who were rescued on Kalalau Beach yesterday?” I looked closer at the gentleman and saw Justin. His military brigade drove us to town as he told us his side of the story. Apparently, the rescue was on all the news wires including FOX and CNN; he also said it was the highlight of their training trip and a good drill for one of his trainees, he even came to the hospital the previous night to check on us, but we had already been released. We thanked Justin and the rest of his team for their kindness and great timing.
We ended up hearing from Matt two days after we were saved. He hiked out with most of our belongings, and for that I am grateful.
I learned many important lessons from our adventure, which I’ve included below in a brief summary:
Lessons Learned From the Kalalau Trail:
1. A windbreaker does not substitute for a rain jacket.
2. The only person you can rely on is yourself.
3. You can learn a lot about someone’s character in high pressure situations.
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff (nothing seems to bother me anymore – not even a bad mattress!).
5. Don’t keep score in life, it’s not a competition; give what you have and then give more.
6. Take time to stop and smell the roses; otherwise, life will pass you by.
7. Most people want to help you even if their remedy is not necessarily the right one.
8. People are ultimately good at their core; have compassion for others because you don’t know what they’ve been through.
9. Clean, available water is taken for granted.
10. There is always an end to suffering, but suffering will come again.