By Léo Azambuja
For more than 1,000 years, Maha‘ulepu Ahupua‘a’s rich fishing grounds and a valley floor blessed with a self-replenishing aquifer, perfect for agriculture, supported a thriving Hawaiian community.
Today, the uninhabited 2,700-acre ahupua‘a is considered a crown jewel of Kaua‘i’s South Shore. Despite development threats and a former sugar plantation that leveled precious historic sites, Maha‘ulepu still stands as a rich cultural and archaeological site.
“It’s the last accessible undeveloped ahupua‘a on the South Shore,” Malama Maha‘ulepu CEO Greg Peters said. “There’s a tremendous amount of importance with that.”
In January 1778, coming from O‘ahu’s leeward side, Capt. James Cook sailed the HMS Resolution past Maha‘ulepu, and draughtsman James Webber drew grass huts lined up along the coastline, according to Kaua‘i-based geologist Chuck Blay.
“This was one of the first parts of Kaua‘i that Cook saw up close,” Blay said.
From Mount Ha‘upu down to the ocean, the whole area is a “critical landscape” with early native Hawaiian sites, and a natural history dating back millions of years, said Peters.
“It’s a living museum with scenic beauty, unique geology, endangered and threatened species, native Hawaiian sites and stories,” he said of Maha‘ulepu.
And there’s the recreational value: Fishing, surfing, hiking, kitesurfing and windsurfing, said Marty Kuala, a longtime board member of Malama Maha‘ulepu.
The area, however, nearly became a resort destination. In 1974, a group of young Hawaiians successfully fought against a massive development.
“I was 19 years old; we were the youngest boisterous group of teenagers on the island. We just got a whole bunch of local people together and basically … saved the place,” said Napua Romo, one of the original founders of ‘Ohana Maha‘ulepu, later reborn as the nonprofit Malama Maha‘ulepu.
Developers were seeking approval for a marina, two golf courses, four hotels, bike trails to the sand dunes, 2,667 condo units and 952 homes.
“Can you imagine this whole area becoming golf courses?” Romo said.
Those plans may have failed, but Maha‘ulepu’s demise as a thriving Hawaiian community began some 180 years ago, when sugar plantations first came to the island.
In 1835, Ladd & Company opened Koloa Mill, near Maha‘ulepu. Surrounded by fertile soil, it was the first sugar mill in the state of Hawai‘i. By 1898, the sugar plantation was producing 225,000 tons per year. The mill ceased operations in 1996.
The valley floor at Maha‘ulepu is a self-replenishing aquifer, with several wells there and nearby adding to Koloa’s water supply, according to Peters.
A nearly 600-acre dairy farm with 2,000 milking cows is being planned for that valley, and the issue has caused quite a stir in the community.
Waiopili Stream comes through the valley floor and runs adjacent to Makauwahi Sinkhole before discharging south of Maha‘ulepu Beach. It’s currently the most polluted stream on Kaua‘i, and officials can’t pinpoint the exact cause of the pollution, though it’s likely from feral animals in the valley. Despite supporting agriculture, Malama Maha‘ulepu is concerned with potential added pollution, and is against the dairy.
Near Makauwahi Sinkhole, the Waiopili Heiau suffered extensive damage due to a limestone quarry that operated there for decades. In the last few years, the limestone quarry moved to a different location, but it is still inside the ahupua‘a.
Alongside the top of Ha‘upu Ridge, many platforms are home to ancient heiau, said Romo, who has been to one of those heiau.
Kuala said it’s “really quite extraordinary” that there are many historic sites left and being found, despite all the bulldozing during the sugar plantation days. All the way down to Kukui‘ula, she said, the land was covered with Hawaiian homes and heiau, and now it’s all gone.
The caves in the back of Makauwahi Sinkhole, one of the area’s most precious geological features, harbor a blind amphipod and a blind spider that exist nowhere else. The sinkhole is also key to many secrets about the area’s past.
The sinkhole was formed when an 80-foot-tall sand dune solidified. Over the years, underground freshwater gradually dissolved the limestone, forming a massive cave. Later, the cave’s roof collapsed, creating a sinkhole.
When Capt. Cook arrived on Kaua‘i, there was still water inside the sinkhole, according to Blay. It had a much wider entrance, and Romo said Native Hawaiians used the area to store canoes.
Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered layers of sediments dating back 9,500 years, and many plants and bird species were detected in those sediments. When the digging reached a timeline of 1,200 years, human presence became evident, with artifacts, fish hooks and bones being found, Blay said.
But it’s not just the cave that is rich in historic sites.
“This whole area is an archaeological site,” Blay said of the ahupua‘a. “If you start digging, you’ll find remains all along this coastline.”
Though rare, in the past, large storms have uncovered a shoreline limestone carved with a “tremendous array” of petroglyphs, said Blay, who has seen them only once.
Romo said Maha‘ulepu was the site of a major war hundreds years ago, killing many warriors.
“They haven’t found big burial sites yet, but we found bones in the valley,” she said.
Suzanne Kashiwaeda, another longtime board member of Malama Maha‘ulepu, said it is important that visitors know the area is a large burial site, and they should be respectful.
“This incredible bounty of resources — cultural, historic, environmental, recreational and educational resources — is also what makes it so attractive for development and exploitation,” Peters said.
Among many misconceptions about Maha‘ulepu, he said, is that it’s a protected place, but it is vulnerable to development and there are competing land uses, sometimes incompatible.
Yet, Peters said, Malama Maha‘ulepu tries to find what resonates with every stakeholder or resident or visitor, and then find a way to appeal to them in that level.
Visit www.malama-mahaulepu.org for more information on the nonprofit.
Blay will hold a free lecture about Kaua‘i’s geologic time at Island School in Puhi, behind Kaua‘i Community College, Jan. 22 at 6:30 p.m. Call Kaua‘i Historical Society, sponsor of the lecture, at 245-3373 for more information.