There’s a place on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, known as the Alaka’i Swamp, that is said to be the rainiest place on the planet. Naturally, we had to go there.
The Alaka’i spreads over 18 square miles in the high country of Hawaii’s oldest and most northerly island. It is nothing like the grassy Florida Everglades, nothing like the mangrove swamps of the Mississippi bayou country, with snakes and gators hiding around every corner. The predators here are rain and mud.
In the very distant past, 6 million years or more, the Alaka’i was the caldera of the volcano that gave birth to Kauai. It gradually filled with porous lava and nurtured twisted trees and shrubs fed by rainfall from Mount Wai’ale’ale, which rises 5,148 feet above the Pacific.
The average annual rainfall is something like 460 inches. It is an approximation. The gauging station on the mountain slope has been known to overflow, leaving inaccurate readings. That’s what happened in 1982, when the gauge maxed out at 683 inches. Apparently there’s a place in eastern India that has recorded more rain in a single year, but its precipitation is not as consistent, month after month, year after year, as that of Kauai.
All that rainfall has to go somewhere. It certainly feeds the rivers, short but wide and deep, that flow into the Pacific Ocean in every direction. The Waimea, Hanapepe, Wailua, Hanalei, Wainiha and other streams continually drain the mountain’s central massif.
But there’s a substantial amount that doesn’t go anywhere, and so it seeps into the boggy soils of the Alaka’i and stagnates on its surface. This landscape is a last refuge for birds and plants that have nowhere else to hide. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaii accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. landmass but 75 percent of its plant and animal extinctions.
Mount Wai’ale’ale (the name means “too much water”) is more or less permanently wet. At the Kilohana lookout, 3.8 miles from the trailhead, we spoke to two men who had hiked in just before us. One told us he had been a groundskeeper for the past 12 years at the Limahuli Garden, a national tropical botanical garden at Ha’ena. In those dozen years, he said, he had seen the summit of Wai’ale’ale only seven times.
I have been fascinated with the Alaka’i Swamp since I was a young journalist working for Honolulu’s morning newspaper. My interest in exploring Kauai had been piqued by a trek on the Kalalau Trail into the magical Na Pali Cliffs. Here I had discovered a colony of largely unclothed “hippies” who dined on wild tropical fruit and harvested their own marijuana. That society was later flushed out, and today, the 11-mile trail into Kalalau is considered unsafe.
With a 90-mile coastline and a population of fewer than 70,000, Kauai doesn’t attract the same number of tourists as Honolulu or Maui, for example, but its scenic charms are well known to movie goers around the world. (Think “South Pacific” and “Jurassic Park.”)
Barb and I began our adventure at Koke’e State Park, just above glorious Waimea Canyon. We starting walking from Pu’u o Kila Lookout at the end of the paved highway. Natural obstacles limited us to a pace of not much more than 1 mile per hour, making this adventure a highly rewarding, all-day pursuit.
The hike into the Alaka’i began along the broad scar of a failed attempt to build a road in the 1950s. About a half-mile from its start, it narrowed and became markedly more rugged. We found ourselves clinging to tree roots and scrambling for footholds as we clambered up and down steep embankments of wet red clay. Mists swirled in and out of the ohi’a trees until we reached a trail junction that pointed us downhill.
We descended about ¾ mile to a four-way junction, turned left through a thicket of yellow-barked lapalapa, then continued downhill nearly 300 steps to a crossing of the Kawaikoi Stream. We climbed again into an ohi’a forest, birds whistling their warnings all around us, then encountered a final boggy boardwalk.
The route was even more rugged before 1991, when the “boardwalk” (two planks laid side by side) was placed, and hundreds of steps — covered with chicken wire for traction — were installed on steep hillsides. More recently, a line of mesh fencing has been built to keep wild boars (introduced centuries ago and now widely hunted) from ravaging the environment.
Flowers and birds
We scrambled to find our footing after miles of climbing clay embankments, descending scores of hand-hewn steps, and brushing aside the gnarled branches of ohi’a trees on level ground. With our goal less than a mile away, Barb and I were well and truly in the bog that we had come to see.
A quarter-century after the boards were laid in the Alaka’i, many of them were rotting away. Where they had fractured or disintegrated, our boots sank into gray mud and water redder than rust. We continued at a slogger’s pace.
Around us was an almost unimaginable wilderness, one which time seemed to have forgotten. We were captivated by the sights of bright red lehua flowers and the hand-shaped leaves of olapa trees, by the licorice-like smell of mokihana berries and the pungent, earthy odor of the hapu’u fern.
Moreover, the constant calls of native birds — red-feathered ‘apapane and i’iwi, the lustery green ‘amakihi honecreeper, the wren-like ‘elepaio, and others that have not been heard for decades beyond this swampland — enraptured us with nature’s symphony, even if our ears couldn’t tell a puaiohi from an o’o.
If ever a journey was itself the destination, this was it. But the climax was also worth the hike. The path finally rose past the swampy Alaka’i turf, reentered an ohi’a woodland and emerged at a tiny lookout atop the contorted cliffs of Wainiha Pali. From a rustic wooden platform barely large enough for eight people, a view extended across the entire north shore of Kauai, from Hanalei Bay to rocky Kilauea Point.
The panorama is subject to weather, of course. And here, atop a 4,000-foot cliff, visibility is no guarantee. We were, after all, further from those clear sandy beaches than from the rainiest place on earth.