Hawaiians have hundreds of names for rain. Noenoe is the misty rain; po'o-lipilipi, the heavy rain that causes people to sleep so much their heads look pointed, as if sharpened by an adze; and ua-kini-maka-lehua, "the mountain rain of countless blossom faces," as it is translated. I experienced many Hawaiian rains the day I hiked the Makamakaole Trail ¿ a challenge that lures only the most intrepid of hikers into the wild West Maui Mountains.
Like wilderness everywhere, these mountains have trees, flowers, water and moss; but here, I had heard, there are waterfalls so remote some still go unnamed. The air, they say, is as soft upon the skin as a caress, and the harmony and symbiosis in the endemic flora are palpable. I was promised fruit to pick from forest trees, delicate fern species and lichen that exist no place other than Hawaii. I wanted silence interrupted only by wind playing stands of bamboo as if they were chimes. To walk right out of the 21st century and into such a valley, less than an hour away from poolside mai tais, seemed a true adventure for someone like me who hasn't got time to go to the ends of the earth.
I've asked my friend David Mayer, who was born and raised on Maui and who hiked Makamakaole as a child, to take me there. He's happy to play hookey from his executive day-job to do it again. Mark Hamlin, a naturalist and guide from Maui Eco-Adventures (MEA), has agreed to accompany us because the trail traverses private land, and MEA has permission to use it.
The Makamakaole Trail comes in two parts: the upper and lower, bisected by Kahekili Highway. We're going to hike the more ambitious upper section, a two-mile round-trip trek that takes at least two hours. It involves 13 stream-crossings, at times wading in water as high as our thighs while scrambling over slippery rocks. The goal is a sylvan waterfall with an improvised ladder of knotted rope that leads to another waterfall and its icy plunge pool. If time permits, we'll then double back and take on the lower one-mile round-trip trail which has its own waterfalls and plunge pools.
It's February and flash-flood warnings are in effect for most of the Hawaiian Islands, but the three of us are buoyed by the blueness of the Maui sky. At Wailuku we pick up Kahekili Highway, which quickly becomes a one-lane twister as it winds along coastal cliffs and skirts deeply-notched valleys filled with mist.
Makamakaole translates¿ to "without friends." Mark was told it was once a place of banishment, where Hawaiians sent their most recalcitrant troublemakers. Despite the translation, both David and Mark have fond memories of their times here.
David remembers the upper trail, scampering with his cousins across the stream, splashing in limpid pools, screaming madly beneath waterfalls. Mark talks about the vegetation, the dense bamboo forest we will walk through, and how the Polynesian colonizers brought bamboo with them from their home islands of Tahiti and the Marquesas to plant in their new home, Hawaii. He also tells us that Jason Latas, owner of Maui Eco-Adventures, was married at the second waterfall. "Heather had her bridal gown in her backpack," Mark recalls. "When we got to the top, by the second cascade, she told us to turn our backs. We did. She changed, and presto ¿ a bride in a white gown." He finishes his story just as we drive up to a chain-link fence with a big hole in it and a "No Trespassing" sign, obviously often ignored. More forbidding is the sky above us. I watch the clouds gather into dense flannel and feel the noenoe rain begin its ghostly descent. These mountains are drenched in 300 to 450 inches of rain a year while the resort area at their feet receives a mere 20 to 30 inches.
Mark holds back a section of fence while David and I climb through. Almost immediately, we are enveloped in darkness as the trees close in around us. We break out our slickers, pulling up hoods. We're ready. I write off my white Reeboks, already caked in mud. The ground sucks at us in glutenous gulps. The rain falls heavier, bending ferns beneath its weight. We emerge from the trees to the rampaging Makamakaole Stream. This first crossing presents a certified challenge. We look at each other, no one wanting to be the chicken and state the melodramatic truth ¿ if we step into this raging torrent, we could easily be swept away like the broken tree branches groaning and hissing in the swirling water. David and Mark are here because of me. They are silent, probably praying I will have some sense. Water drips from their slicker hoods into their faces. I shrug. I don't want to spoil the excursion, but I was once caught in a flash flood and know the danger. "Well ¿"
We can hike the lower trail on the same side of the stream and still find waterfalls. So we retreat to the road, cross it, and pause at the boulders sitting at the top of the trail. The view is glorious, the rain light again ¿ noenoe. It paints the quiet valley in the delicate hues of a Chinese watercolor. The lines of the rounded mountaintops are muted and indistinct, as valleys and hills in serene loveliness descend to the ocean.
The trail immediately goes steeply downhill. I find toe holds in roots and rocks. We grab at the slender trunks of rose apple trees. Mark dismisses them as an invasive species. One of their starry golden blossoms lies unblemished atop the mud, washed and refreshed by the light rain. This easier part of Makamakaole may be our booby prize, but we are enchanted. As we move lower on the mountain, we listen to the heavy drops plopping on broad leaves, quenching tiny pukiawe blossoms, whispering through the pandanus fronds. We come upon a wild orchid, its purple face sparkling with raindrops. We hear the stream exalting through the trees, rushing over rocks. In sunshine, we might be more focused on our goal ¿ a waterfall swim ¿ and not experience the trail and the myriad small wonders that flood our senses.
About a quarter of a mile along the trail, we come to a place where Makamakaole Stream rips through a chasm. Huge boulders straddle the trail. We slide over them and come off with wet, mossy seats. Mesmerized by nature, we no longer care about being wet.
The trail bumps right into a giant banyan gripping the edge of a cliff. The tree's aerial roots dangle down to where the stream rushes over a waterfall and into a pool where hikers usually swim. They get there by climbing down the roots. We embrace the stalwart tree. The swim will have to wait for another day. Climbing back out of the valley, I feel like an orchid blossom with upraised face, kissed by ua-kini-maka-lehua. I have experienced the "mountain rain of countless blossom faces" and felt the exquisite aloneness of the "valley without friends." I will return to this trail at the first opportunity, and I hope my friends return with me.
Maui's Wild, Wild West
THE HIKE STARTS HERE: Many Maui visitors drive and trek the Road to Hana in east Maui, sometimes overlooking the west parts of the island. Instead, explore this less-crowded side:Take a guided hike down Makamakaole Trail with Maui Eco-Adventures. The lower section is part of its Waterfall Experience. Rates from $80, including breakfast. The upper section must be booked as a custom trip. Rates from $1,100 for up to 10, including breakfast and lunch. www.ecomaui.com
A FINE SLEEP: The Old Wailuku Inn has such a homey feel, you'll immediately settle in. Rates from $140, including breakfast. www.mauiinn.com