Dust in the Wind
The South Point of the Big Island of Hawaii is a mysterious place. Not in that we lack knowledge about it, but rather that it has many layers. It is the southernmost part of the United States, a triangular jut of land on the flank of Mauna Loa, sloping gently downhill until ending abruptly in cliffs were it meets the sea. The word ‘windswept’ is defined by this landscape, where the wind, uncontested for thousands of miles, is finally broken. It is open and grassy, and what few hardy trees and shrubs exist grow sideways.
Ranchers are the current occupants. The joke is that if the wind stops, the cows will fall over. A windfarm stands guard at one edge. Along the only road is a space tracking and communications ground station, little more than two antennas and a blockhouse. At the end of the road, you encounter the second natural force that shapes the landscape. Huge ocean swells rhythmically pound the land, angry at the audaciousness of Pele’s creation. The currents here are strong and the water is crystal clear, forced up from the depths of the Pacific. For this reason, fishing is and always has been exceptional, though hazardous.
This area is thought to be the first habitation of the ancient Hawaiians. The story goes that Polynesians from the south Pacific found Hawaii by following the migratory kolea (plover) bird. The kolea winters in several locations, including Hawaii, and travels to Alaska in the summer to breed. Fortunately for these early explorers, they did not have to sail all the way to Alaska before reaching new land. South Point, with its excellent fishing, was a good location to found a new colony that could survive until the crops they brought with them could mature. Ruins of this settlement dot the landscape, including heiau temples and many walls. A unique archeological feature here is stone anchors. Fisherman could easily be swept into the open ocean by the strong currents, likely to never be seen again. Before carefully lowering their boats down the cliff, they would tie it to a rope that extended to one of these stone anchors on shore.
This area holds another gem, one that my wife and I were determined to see: a green sand beach. Unless you have 4-wheel drive, you have two options, paying $30 per person ($40 if you do not want to wait for a large group of people) to a local who will shuttle you there and back, or a 2.5 mi mostly flat hike. The sun and wind are unrelenting, but I would highly recommend the hike. Just bring plenty of sunscreen, water, a few snacks, and a flashlight/headlamp if it’s getting late.
We set out with a few hours of sunlight left, late enough that the merciless sun was waning. Walking toward the ocean, we passed what was once a US military outpost, now reduced to concrete slabs. We then turned northeast to follow the coast. The wind was in our faces and battered our ears like a brown noise generator turned to nearly unbearable levels. Our path led through deep orange trenches, dug out of the green grasslands by the locals’ trucks. Salt kicked up from the thunderous waves slowly coated our glasses and gear while kolea skittered out of our way.
As we moved through this landscape, you could feel its ancient and timeless presence. The ruins of a civilization to our left bearing witness and testament to the eternal battle of land and water to our right. Forcing our way through the wind felt like we were struggling through eons of time. The song “Dust in the Wind” was so apropos that it spontaneously sprang forth in both our minds, where it refused to be dislodged until long after our trip was over. “…just a drop of water in an endless sea. All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.” Slowly but relentlessly, the wind coated us with dust until we too were part of the song.
At last we stood above a large cove calved from the side of a little greenish hill. A careful scramble down the cliff-face, hunkering down with each monstrous gale, delivered us to the beach. Olivine, a mineral deposited by the volcano, eroded from the hillside, and polished by the waves, is what gives this location its color. However, as lovely as it was, what made the trip truly worth the effort was the tremendous display of power by the natural elements. The livid, frothy water battered about the cove, while powerful gusts showered us with dust and salt, and the sun lit up the hill with a blinding glow.
Once we had our fill, we were offered a cheap ride to our car in the back of a truck. By then, the sun was low, so we figured it would be nicer than a night hike. Along the bumpy ride back, we were presented with a spectacular sunset, the colors of an Adirondack fall that deepened to a majestic purple set against the bowing green grasses. Just as the first stars broke through the firmament, we made it back to our car.
Reality set back in as the power of the landscape faded to black. Our minds were full but we realized our stomachs were not. It was a long, contemplative drive to the nearest food.
Take Mamalahoa Hwy (Rte 11) to west of Naalehu, turn south on South Point Road and park at the end of the pavement.
South Point GPS Coordinates: 18.910728, -155.680750
Green Sand Beach GPS Coordinates: 18.936148, -155.646401
Nearest Recommended Restaurant: Hana Hou Restaurant in Naalehu (closes at 7 pm)