Kalaupapa (photos) is a flat peninsula extending into the ocean on the north side of Molokai. It sits in the shadows of the pali, the sea cliffs that soar up to 2,000 feet above sea level along the north side of the island, said to be the highest sea cliffs in the world. Kalaupapa is a National Historical Park due to the fact that from 1866 until 1969, people from Hawaii who were afflicted with Hansen’s disease or leprosy, were isolated here.
In the mid 1800’s little was known about this disease, what caused it, how it was contracted and how to treat it. It was thought that the best course was to remove those afflicted so that they could not affect others in their community. Kalaupapa was chosen because of its isolation. It is bounded by the sea cliffs to the south and by the ocean in all other directions. Initially, the patients were brought to an area called Kalawao on the eastern side of the peninsula and were left to struggle for survival in very primitive conditions. The Catholic priest Father Damien was the best known of those who came to Kalaupapa to help improve the lives of those who were brought here. I won’t try to relate all of the history here. There are many good resources available on the internet that provide the history of this very moving place.
Due to its isolation, in order to get to Kalaupapa you can fly, go by boat or come down the trail that descends the face of the pali. There is a Kalaupapa Mule Tour that allows you to ride the trail on a mule if you don’t want to take on the hike. We chose to walk the trail. After all, we’re fairly active and keep in pretty good shape so “we don’t need no stinking mule”. This is a 3 mile trail that drops 1700 feet. It’s like walking down 100 flights of stairs. Along the way you find that this is a type of exercise that you’re not accustomed to. Most of the trail is actually structured as steps with concrete “bars” imbedded in order to keep the trail from getting too torn up when it gets wet. So you are constantly stepping down as you do when you descend stairs. By the time we reached the bottom our legs were wobbly. But the good news is that since you are coming down the face of the sea cliffs you are afforded beautiful views all along the way.
When you get to the bottom it is necessary to wait until the mule riders reach the bottom and join them for a tour of the peninsula. Visitors are not allowed to move around on their own. There are many ex-patients that still reside here and have been provided a place to live by the state of Hawaii for the remainder of their lives, if they choose to stay. The tour bus took us to several important sites around the peninsula, including to Kalawao, the original site where the first patients settled. The tour guide gives you a sense of how those in Kalaupapa consider themselves apart from the rest of Molokai and Hawaii due to it’s geographic isolation and the fact that those who were brought here were removed from their original homes.
If you make your way to Molokai, it’s definitely worth your while to visit Kalaupapa.