In Search of the Red Sand Beach
by
Kathleen Ann Goonan

 

     Hana, the little Maui town at the end of fifty-three miles of bad road, is kind of a mysterious place.  You hear things about it--like, for instance, that Lindbergh isn't really in the grave that tourists see.  I don't know about you, but a pulp-fiction detective instinct surfaces in these situations.  That instinct saw us through in our quest for the Red Sand Beach, also known as Kaihalulu.

     We knew it was there.  We knew people who had been there, and had oral directions, the kind which live for a few illusory moments in short-term memory and are dislodged by television commercials.

     The Red Sand beach has the reputation of being a nude beach, though nudity is not at all required--in fact, it is to be avoided, as it is illegal.  The State of Hawaii is not particularly kind to nude bathers, and Hawaiians themselves, of which there are many in Hana, are very modest people, so it's not surprising that aficionado want to keep things quiet.  Several years ago six women were arrested for bathing topless elsewhere on Maui and chose to fight the "indecent exposure" charge in court.  A rather insulting charge, when you think about it.

     We were intrigued by the Red Sand Beach, reportedly the inner, parabolic curve of an ancient cinder cone, a red cliff rising from the beach in a sheer wall, sheltering a lovely small bay.

     As we crawled along the Hana Highway, which runs along crumbling, ocean-licked cliffs and is legendary for its poor condition, we planned what to do in Hana.  We weren't sure how much time we could spend there.  After all, how long could it take to go fifty-three miles?

     We had asked a woman in the organic grocery store in Paia, the last town before the road gets serious and also the last stand of the hippies, if she knew how long it took to get to Hana.

     She nodded, a glazed organic-whole-wheat look in her eyes.  We looked at her expectantly, and finally had to be more direct.    "How long?"

     She thought about it for another minute, and finally said, "It takes a long, long time."

     Indeed.

     I suppose if you don't dally at overlooks to view deep, primeval bays, or stop to swim in one of the many cold, clear pools amid tropical jungles (though many of them have lately been fenced off with wire and fierce no trespassing signs), you could get there in two hours.  If, of course, the road wasn't jammed with tourists stopping to gawk at every gorgeous waterfall.  Not that we don't do the same, of course.  There are hundreds of waterfalls plummeting in cool efflusion along the Hana Highway.  And someone has counted the number of bends in the road, but I don't have immediate access to that information.  Suffice it to say that the steering wheel doesn't get a second's rest, and that Dramamine is not a bad idea.

     It was winter in Hawaii.  Do you know what that means?

     Winter means that large cloud masses which stretch from Los Angeles to Hong Kong cover the Pacific Ocean for weeks at a time.  Even the fiercest winds won't budge these powerful clouds.  It's a fact that the Hawaii Tourist Bureau would rather you not know.  Every island has a dry, hot side, though, so it's easy to drive around until sunny skies are yours again.

     However, Hana is a rainy place to begin with, and winter just makes it worse.  As we drove, the sun refused to touch the bays with turquoise.

     After two hours, just short of Hana, we saw one of the red Kamehameha signs which indicate a tourist attraction or historical point.  Apparently Kahanu Gardens lay off the main road, and we decided to go.  Why not?  It wasn't much of a day for lazing in chilly mountain streams.

     We followed the directions and bumped down a road which soon turned into a mud track paved with large, smooth boulders strategically placed just far enough apart to keep us from foundering.  After five minutes I began to fear that we were on someone's driveway, and hoped it was not the driveway of someone with a highly developed sense of privacy, someone engaged, for instance, in growing one of the major export crops, pakalolo.

     I came to a creek ford and was about to turn back--no telling how far this would wind into the mountains--when I spied another Kamehameha sign up ahead under a veil of overhanging branches.

     We parked and walked up to the little gatehouse.

     There, a pleasant Hana woman explained that there was a five dollar admission fee.  With visions of gorgeous flowers dancing in my head, I urged that we go.  The gardens would prove to be mysterious indeed.  But first, we asked the attendant about the Red Sand Beach.

     She looked embarrassed.  "Yes, I know where it is," she said.  "But we don't go there much.  It's a nude beach, you know."

     "Well, we heard that you have to go by the police station," persisted my husband.

     "Yes, that's one way," she said, clearly reluctant to divulge this secret information.  We didn't press her.  We figured that it wouldn't be too hard to find once we got to Hana.  We paid ten dollars to see the garden.

     "You'll have to walk in," she said.  "It's been raining a lot and the road is really bad."

     When isn't it raining in Hana?

     We locked our car and walked past carefully labeled trees for about half a mile.  Ahead was a building I hoped might contain a bathroom, and we angled across a field to get there.

     Alas, it was just a roofed picnic pavilion with garden tools spread out on the table, a lovely place, nevertheless, to dine, with the rugged coast all around.

     We were startled when a man came around the corner and said, "What are you doing here?"

     "Uh, well--"

     "Go over to the house," he said, and pointed to our left to a little bungalow.  "She'll give you the tour."  He was clearly nervous about us being there unescorted.

     The tour.  "Okay."

     Just then "she"--a recent graduate in botany from the mainland, showed up, along with two tall Germans with large cameras.

     She took us up the hill to Piilanihale Heiau, the largest in the Islands.  It is a ten acre flat made of lava stones, much different from the quasi-pyramidal sacrificial heiaus with which I was familiar.

     "People lived right on the heiau," she said.  "It's being excavated now."  A lone man on the far side of the stone flat was bending, standing, jotting down notes.

     Hit by a sudden downpour, we scurried down the hill to the picnic shelter.  I wanted to see the flowers; envisioned a fairyland of hibiscus, plumeria, orchids.  Or the famed coconut and breadfruit collection, if it existed at all, which I was beginning to doubt, since it hadn't been mentioned other than in the brochure.

     At that point, a pickup truck came bouncing across the field.  A woman got out and told us she'd give us a ride back to our car, because the creek we'd crossed might rise suddenly and trap us.

     Soon afterwards, we pulled into Hana and cruised through a few side streets.  Frame houses were flanked by tropical plants; Hana is a typical rural Hawaiian town.  Which is to say that it is tightly knit community of aunties, sisters, brothers and cousins with a rich private history.  Things do not change often or quickly in Hana.  But that may not last much longer.

     "The Japanese are investing here," the garden tour guide had told us.  Right now, Hana has a reputation for secluded tropical luxury.  A room can cost more than $500.00, although there is at least one more reasonable establishment to be found.  But now, apparently, work has begun on straightening out the old Hana Highway, where typically workman "talk story" all day, occasionally rising to toss a shovel of gravel in a hole if it's not more than a few steps away.  Golf courses loom in the near future, part of a commercialized Hana where brown-skinned young men burst from lavishly landscaped terraces clad in ti leaves to announce, via a conch shell burst and a Tahitian wiggle of the hips, that the restaurant is now serving dinner.  At least, that's what happens on the other side of Maui.

     But now, we pulled up to a country store and a fortyish Hawaiian woman dressed in jeans and a work shirt came out to pump gas.

     "What do you want to go to the Red Sand Beach for?" she argued.  "Only tourists go there."  Well, who did she think we were?  We were driving a rental car.  "It's really dangerous," she continued, frowning, seeing that we were not dissuaded.  "You know, it's just the inside of a cinder cone.  One tiny earthquake will bring it crashing down, and everyone there will die."  This is not as farfetched as it may sound.  Earthquakes are frequent in Hawaii, though more so on the Big Island than on Maui, and people do die from the resulting high surf, flash floods, or falling rocks.     Ah, but still we were determined to risk life and limb to see the Red Sand Beach.  She wouldn't give us a clue, though, so we were still on our own.

     Parking in what we thought was a likely place, given what we remembered of our long-ago directions, we walked through tall grass past an ancient graveyard, climbed a fence, and slid down a wet clay hill.

     We found a trail about fifty feet above the ocean, etched on a cliff, carpeted by pine needles.  Could this be the way?  It was narrow in places, and we picked our way around the cliff.

     There, before us, instantly recognizable, was Kaihalulu.  The Red Sand Beach.

     Huge rocks sprawled across the mouth of the tiny bay, breaking the high winter surf in a thundering cadence.

The inside of the cinder cone curved around and above the empty, red beach in an impossible parabolic sweep.  Never mind an earthquake; it looked as if a strong wind might bring it crashing down.  Sunlight broke through for a moment, and the water turned to deep blue sapphire lit by turquoise shallows where the waves washed over the rocks.

     We made our way around to the beach.  Waves surged even within the protected area.  As we swam, we were careful to stay very near the shore; the currents set up by the enormous surf washing through the rocks only about twenty yards away could pull a swimmer into that cauldron of turbulence with no warning at all.

     Afterwards, we picnicked beneath the trees which grew at the edge of the wide expanse of rough, dull red sand.  The beach, generally crowded in summer, drew few people on this cloudy winter day, and seclusion gave that wild shore even keener beauty.

     Oh, so now you'd like to go too?  And you want to know exactly how to get there?

     I'll never tell.

     Half the fun of going to the Red Sand Beach is finding it.

If you are interested in Hawaiian history and enjoy Kathleen's writing check out THE BONES OF TIME a unique science fiction novel based on the life of  Princess Kaiulani.

 

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