There are some stories of adventure and travel that come about from meticulous planning and forethought. These experiences, whether successful or tragic, have at least as a basis some fore knowledge of what the players were getting themselves into. On the other hand, there are other stories concerning people who stumble blindly into a situation, sometimes of tragic proportions, and only later realize to themselves “how did THAT happen”? I think you can guess where this one’s going.
The island of Oahu is a beautiful yet strangely exotic place. Millions of dollars are spent by tourists to explore and soak up the sun, surf and visit endless places to waste money. Like most places in tropical venues, just slice away that thin veneer of beauty and what lies beneath is a dangerous element.
I’ve been to Hawaii several times, and all of them related one way or another with my work in the Air Force. Most military people transiting Hawaii on official business will stay just overnight, sometimes a little longer. Just enough time to stay and visit Honolulu’s exquisite shores, overpriced commercial fronts, drink expensive Mai Tais on the beach – there’s always an exercise to indulge as much as possible in the little time there because we’re either flying back home the next day to some cold location with overdue bills waiting for us, or in the other direction to some barren spot.
It so happened that during one of my stays in Hawaii, again on Air Force business, that I was with a crew and we were looking for something to do in what little time we had there. It was a somewhat large gaggle of people, about a ten in all, and we headed off in rental cars away from Honolulu to avoid the same staleness of the same tourist shores of Diamond Beach, the overpriced commercial fronts, and to find different expensive Mai Tais.
I was kind of like a backseat passenger on this trip. Most of the other crewmembers had been through Hawaii more times than you could imagine. One of the crew members, Liam, had actually gone to college at University of Hawaii (but…I don’t know if he ever graduated though). So, when the announcement was made that a road trip was happening, I had the option of either visiting another commercial front store selling t-shirts alone and sitting by the beach by myself, or taking part in a group adventure.
If you’ve ever been to Honolulu, you’ll know that the traffic on the H1 highway and within the tourist district is close to, but definitely not as bad, as Manhattan. The traffic doesn’t flow, it plods along like some advancing lava flow, so in this regards they don’t have the suicidal death-match one experiences in the Beltway of Washington DC, or on the roads of Cairo or Manila. But once you get past the lava flow, driving on the back roads of Oahu is calm…boring but calm.
We were driving along and I’m not sure who had the plan, but there was some premeditated desire to “do the Mokuluas”. I now know who had the insipid desire to place innocent people in dangerous positions. But back then, and during the ride, everything seemed alright. A lot better than sitting alone at a crowded beach full of sallow tourists.
The Mokulua islands are two very small islands on the eastern coast of Oahu. In fact, they’re protected animal habitats but frequented by migrating hordes of birds, locals and foolish tourists. Mostly locals since any tourist in their right mind would rather spend the time walking along Diamond Head or visiting the Dole pineapple plant. We arrived at a kayak rental place late in the afternoon, car loads of Air Force personnel, armed with several 6-packs of cold beer and an appetite for something crazy. The first requirement before any sane rental agency would hand out kayaks was to have us watch, en masse, some short cheesy video in the back of this store about boating safety. Some sort of safety and legal requirement so that we couldn’t come back later and sue the hell out of them for renting implements of destruction. We were sternly told that the kayaks had to be back before the place closed, in about 2 hours or so – or else – they’d keep the steep deposit fees and our per diem would be wasted on plastic boats we’d never see again.
Once we hit water, this armada of pale-skinned military men in life vests and cold beer headed out for a 45-minute jaunt across the strait to the Mokuluas. The voyage of the Kon Tiki had better preparations and intent. We paddled, all six or seven double kayaks, across the waters with some of us giving more physical exertion than what was envisioned. Some of us never paddled in a kayak in our life. Some of us couldn’t kayak to save our lives. Some of us took it as a challenge and began racing each other, as if some golden trophy or over-sized cardboard check was waiting for us on the other side.
So, once ashore on this terra firma there was the catching of breath and the surveying of this new place. We were the only ones on that island that particular time, on that particular day. Still, I thought the kayak trip across shallow waves with dark coral underneath WAS the trip. Little did I, nor some of my mates knew the next part. A gaggle formed and folks started heading off, led of course by Liam. “Where you guys going?” someone asked. “The other side” shouted back Liam. “Are you coming?” asked Dave to two of the guys standing behind. Joe, an aging middle-aged man and an expert sharpshooter, lit his cigar and yelled back “Screw that”.
The Mokuluas, like most of the islands in the pacific are formed out of lava and this one rises straight up. There’s a larger island, but we hit the shores on the smaller one which is about less than a quarter mile in diameter but 2/3rds of a mile in circumference. There’s really not much of a beach to speak of, just one small area with the rest crags and rocky edifices that get pounded constantly by the Pacific Ocean.
As we started off, the climbing of hard black lava, the twisting of ankles, the jumping between rock formations (sometimes 2, sometimes 3 feet apart) with the waves lapping at your feet was an unintended surprise. As I said, this island rises up and there’s not a lot of territory to navigate from. Ten minutes into this jaunt over the lava, with beer being spilled and more physical exertion than expected, the gaggle began to dwindle. Dan was the first to call it quits and head back, “I’m leaving. It’s always the black guy that gets killed first in the movies.” He was soon followed by 2 others. So, in short order this expedition to the other side of the island consisted of just me, Dave and Liam.
Trying to navigate along rocks of black lava with the waves splashing on one side and no room for error on the other certainly does take a degree of concentration. As you step, or sometimes leap, you have your eyes darted on the next safe spot to rest your foot, and with sudden changes in height and rock texture. Imagine walking briskly on a treadmill, but instead of a flat rubberized mat going around, it’s a new surprise coming at you every 2 feet, and if you miss or slip, then it’s head first into either the Pacific Ocean or falling onto huge coarse rocks. Not fun times. So the three of us navigated ourselves around this island, all the time blindly following the lead of Liam. The minutes were adding up. The precarious plodding along the rocky coastline was taking much longer than we thought. If I had to guess it was at least 30-45 minutes since we arrived on shore, and the kayak rental place had plenty of our deposit money to make it necessary to get back in time. Besides, we weren’t about to kayak back to the airfield and load these things onto the plane.
Finally, we started climbing a little higher and higher. It was about 30-40 minutes of Lava Rock Obstacle Course and we now found ourselves inching our way along a cliff at least 50-60 feet above the ocean with the northeast wind rushing to us. As we were turning the corner of this cliff, our backs were braced against the cliff wall with only a foot wide ledge to navigate along, taking one step carefully at a time. As we turned the corner, we saw it. The geography of the area makes a tightly curved “U” with a large rock formation about 40 feet high and jutting out 40 feet or so from the cliff wall sitting right in the middle. Looking down, you see this effect that happens as the ocean waters rush in, the water levels rise above, rest for about 10 seconds, then just as fast flush rapidly back out to the ocean with a torrential force. It’s a toilet bowl effect, with a rhythmic rushing in and rushing out. And when the waters rush out, looking down off this 50 foot cliff you can see the cold, hard black lava plateau that’s staring right out at the ocean level, about 10 feet out from the cliff down below, covered in sea anemones, algae and such. When the waters rush back in, the lava disappears and the waves churn and crash into the far end of the “U”. Dave and I just looked at each other in horrid disbelief.
At this point, besides the stunned amazement, there’s also the thought that there really is no turning back. The long and arduous trip to get to this point in the first place, with no time left to spare, also means going back means going back alone the way we came in. Not fun and not really an option. If you’re dancing around the rocky coastline with other witnesses, trip and fall, at least there’s someone who will either pull you up or call your next of kin. If you’re doing this dance alone, it just makes a messy operation.
To make this plunge, not only do you have to calculate the rising waters and the time it takes to come in, but you also have to jump at least 10 feet from the cliff wall, and that wall is not a vertical rise but is slanted to a degree. If you misjudge the time for the waters coming in, or don’t jump out far enough, your body is making a forceful embrace on the lava rocks. I’m no expert but I don’t think too many people who jump out of 50 foot buildings to land on hard concrete get up, dust themselves off, and whistle to themselves as they stroll away down the sidewalk.
Liam immediately takes his sandals off, places them on his hands, waits for just a moment then suddenly disappears into the waters. And when you land in the water, you also have to swim like a sonofabitch to the shore or else the waters will carry you out to the Ocean, tossing you along the craggy lava on the way.
“Come on” he shouts from below on the shore, “jump”. Dave and I just look at each other, not saying a word. He’s next in line along this narrow ledge, which ends right at where we jump, so there’s no option of continuing the shuffle along the cliff. Dave takes a bit longer to do the calculation in his head. It may have been 3 minutes but it seemed like 82 years at the time. I can tell that this was not what he had signed up for and was on the same wavelength as me. Eventually he does the same routine, sandals on hands, fixed concentration, then jumps into the rushing toilet bowl. Now my turn.
There are times in most everyone’s life when you figuratively have to make a leap of faith into the abyss. You come across a situation, oftentimes not of your design, that you are faced with two difficult and painful choices. Do you take the one path of retreat, expend precious time and face the judgment of others. Or, do you make a bold and crazy act, one that could mean the end if you guess the timing and distance wrong. Most times people have a figurative struggle like this. Seldom do people REALLY have to make a leap of faith.
If I had been to the Mokuluas before, had done this crazy act or even seen someone do this I might have been more at ease. But here I was, alone on the ledge with only the warm Pacific winds keeping me company. Faced with the potential for disaster, what goes through one’s head? The calculations about jumping and the timing run over in hyper speed in your mind with absolutely no room for mistakes. I thought of my wife and kids, and the hope that they’d understand if I slipped, fell or made a horrible misjudgment and wound up as ocean shark bait. I took my sandals off, calculated the incoming waters, closed my eyes and jumped as hard and far as I ever did in my life.
The jump seemed to last a few seconds. With my eyes closed and in complete darkness, I distinctly remember the feeling of being embraced by the warm swirling waters and then knowing that I had survived this crazy act. And after I landed in the water I knew I had succeeded and spent another of my 9-lives. As we all got on shore, after the initial shock wore off, Dave turns around to Liam and asks, “Have you ever done this before?”, to which Liam nonchalantly replies, “Yeah, but never sober.”
I come to find out that immediately past the “U”, about 100 yards is the beach where our kayaks were waiting along with the rest of the crew. I have been back to Oahu several times since then, and asked locals about jumping off the Mokuluas. It seems that what most people do is to take the shorter route and jump off a smaller cliff, about 20 feet into the ‘toilet bowl’. The longer trek and the crazier jump is reserved for those people like us.
So, when you find yourself in some unforeseen situation, one that you stumbled upon by accident, you need to find faith in yourself. Sometimes it takes a situation where you just have to close your eyes and take a leap of faith. Removing your sandals and putting them on your hands is optional.