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A “Friendly” Ride to Kalaupapa

By Donne Dawson
From Spirit of Alohamagazine, April, 1998.
Reprinted with permission. Aloha Airlines.

Hawai’i has been my home all my life. I’ve lived on Moloka’i the last two-and-a-half years. It’s a beautiful island, truly the last vestige of Old Hawai’i that’s accessible to everyone. It’s an island whose rural qualities and remote natural beauty stir a protectiveness in the hearts of all who are exposed to them. But just like many locals, it’s not often I get around to doing what the visitors do—experiencing Moloka’i. We get so caught up in the rat race of living that we take for granted the beauty that surrounds us.

It’s only when we have family or friends visit that we take the time to appreciate the breathtaking wonders of this island—or, when your editor says you have to go on the Moloka’i Mule Ride.

I wasn’t going to argue, even though I was nervous about making the steep descent on the back of a four-legged creature I had never ridden before. This was the chance of a lifetime, I told myself. I was actually going to get to ride a mule to Kalaupapa.

I’ve been to the settlement on a number of occasions, met many of the 50-plus Hansen’s disease patients still living there, and am well-acquainted with the tragic history of the 10,000 people who have lived and died on this tiny peninsula. I have been to Kalaupapa—only never on a mule. Every time I’ve visited Kalaupapa, I have either hiked down the 1,700-foot cliff or flown into the tiny village.

No one can enter the settlement except as a registered guest of one of the residents, the state of Hawai’i, the National Park Service, or through Damien Tours. So unless you know one of the patients or are on official business, your only choices are to contact Damien Tours directly or go through the Moloka’i Mule Ride. There are tour packages that allow visitors to fly in or hike in on their own and meet up with Damien Tours. I have to say that now I’ve made the journey all three ways, the mule ride is the most exciting and colorful way to go.

Driving up toward the small town of Kualapu’u toward the mule stables in Kala’e, I was amazed at how chilly it was. Granted it was 8 o’clock in the morning. But living on the beach in Kawela, which means “the heat” in Hawaiian, the coolness of the mauka (inland) region comes as a welcome relief. And because most of the island’s visitor accommodations are along the sun-baked leeward coastline and at Kaluako’i on the arid west end, the majority of the island’s visitors don’t realize that Moloka’i has an Upcountry too.

Once I arrived at the stables and saw the mules saddled and ready to go, the butterflies began to flutter. I felt rather stupid as I walked up to a group of out-of-towners who all looked relaxed and ready to ride and I, the local girl, was as nervous as my first day of school. Little did I know that by the end of the ride I would have such confidence in the four muleskinners who escorted us down the back that I would recommend the mule ride to someone who had never even ridden a horse before. These guides exuded so much confidence, and had such rapport with the mules, that I knew that none of these animals would dare to misbehave or run off. And even if the mules tried, they wouldn’t get far. The muleskinners were definitely in control.

The first person I met was Kalele Logan. As the head trail guide, he immediately made everyone feel comfortable with his kolohe, or rascal, sense of humor and an uncanny knack for remembering people’s names. He was joined by his son Pono, and two other muleskinners named Barney Keanini and Robert Hill.

After meeting the guys, and in an effort to quiet the butterflies, I wandered behind the stables to meet Buzzy Sproat who co-owns and operates the Moloka’i Mule Ride with Roy Horner. I had heard that Buzzy was an easygoing guy with a good sense of humor. I’d heard right. Buzzy, like his brother, Hawaiian musician Kindy Sproat, is a great storyteller and jokester, and made me feel right at home.

And, because he’s the man who hand-picks each mule (most come from California) and prefers to do the mule shoeing himself, he assured me there was nothing to worry about. Mules are much more sure-footed than horses, Buzzy insisted. He even joked that when it comes to steep cliffs, horses have “suicidal tendencies.”

Sproat and Horner had kick-started the mule ride again in 1995 after the previous owner had to shut it down for two-and-a-half years because of difficulties in obtaining liability insurance. Now that the insurance issues have been worked out, the mule ride is back in business, doing better than ever. The hiatus also gave the National Park Service a window of opportunity to refurbish the trail to Kalaupapa, which for hikers and mules both, came as a welcome improvement. Horner and Sproat supported the trail restoration effort by providing mule- and man-power.

As I waited for my mule assignment, I learned I would be riding with visitors from Iowa, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Oregon. These folks were first-timers to Hawaii who really had no idea of the beauty they were about to witness. As a Native Hawaiian who has lived here all my life, my biggest high comes from sharing our culture and history and seeing people soak in the real Hawai’i for the first time.

Wouldn’t you know, nervous as I was, I ended up with a mule named “Friendly.” How appropriate, considering the popular nickname for Moloka’i is the Friendly Island (I prefer to call it “The Most Hawaiian Island”). I couldn’t have asked for a more gentle mule. We warmed up to each other right away. But then, all of the mules seemed pretty mellow.

Mellow is part of their makeup. After all, mules are half-horse, half-donkey, and while there are male and female mules, they don’t make babies. So in that sense, they don’t have much to distract them.

After Kalele issued rudimentary instructions on how to “control” our mules, explaining they basically have one speed–“slow”—we were off, moseying down the trail like an old Western movie.

The trail down to Kalaupapa has 26 switchbacks, each of which is marked at the turn. I had read that the trail was built in 1886 by Manuel Joao Farinha, an immigrant from Madeira. It is believed that Farinha followed the course of an ancient Hawaiian footpath. With the settlement established in 1865, and the only other means of access being the rough ocean surrounding the peninsula, the trail came in very handy for mules transporting visitors and much-needed supplies to the settlement.

I didn’t take much notice of the switchback markers, since Friendly was on auto-pilot. I decided to sit back and enjoy the ride. Once we got started down the trail, all I had to do was hook my reins around the pommel and relax.

I noticed right off that the mule ride is by far the more scenic way to descend the cliffs because you’re not watching your feet, worrying what you might step in or on, if you know what I mean.

Friendly insisted on bringing up the rear of the pack of 18 riders on our tour. That was fine by me. I preferred to take my time and soak it all in. Not that the others were traveling at lightning speed – it takes an hour-and-a-half to get down the trial and an hour and 15 minutes to get back up—but Friendly’s meandering pace gave me time to reflect on the beauty around me and prepare myself for the sobering tour of the settlement that lay ahead.

Just as the mule ride is not for the fainthearted, neither is the tour of Kalaupapa. At the bottom of the trail, we gathered outside an old school bus as the guides took our mules into a shade-covered corral. For the next two hours, we drove through the settlement with a young woman named Bobbie as our guide. We stopped at few places along the way, but Bobbie filled the time with stories about what life was like for the Hansen’s disease patients who lived and died there long ago. She also gave us a feel for what life is like now for the patients who have chosen to remain in Kalaupapa, even though modern medicine keeps the disease in check and they are free to go.

Often the tour is given by former patients like Richard Marks. I highly recommend requesting a tour led by one of them, simply because they can lend a personal perspective on life in Kalaupapa. To get the most out of the tour, it helps to know a little about the history of the place and its most famous caregiver, Father Damien, the Belgian priest who lived with and cared for this colony of outcasts for 16 years, until he succumbed to leprosy himself and died in 1889. One of the stops along the way is the Kalaupapa bookstore, which is run by one of the residents and features a wealth of excellent reading material. There seems to be an unending interest in the history of Kalaupapa, Father Damien and the people who were cut off from society and forced to live there.

As always the highlight of the tour in Kalaupapa was a visit to Father Damien’s church, St. Philomena, and his gravesite outside the church. St Philomena is located in Kalawao, the original settlement on the east end of the peninsula. Although the Belgian government exhumed Father Damien’s body from the grave in 1936 and took it back to Belgium, the pope beatified the priest and in 1993 ordered that a relic of Father Damien’s be returned to his Kalaupapa grave. Damien’s right hand was sent back to Hawai’i. Meanwhile, the Vatican is awaiting confirmation on a third and final miracle that is attributed to Father Damien before the pope will grant him sainthood.

The final stop on the tour was for a simple picnic lunch, included in the price of the tour, at a park overlooking the rugged northeastern coastline of Moloka’i. The stunning beauty and geographic remoteness of this area make it seem like the dream locale for any adventurer, but that natural splendor is tempered by the knowledge of the settlement’s tragic history. When you visit this place, you can’t help but feel sadness and reverence for the pain and suffering that took place here. Lunch for me, and the others on our tour, was spent in quiet reflection.

When we returned to the corral, Friendly was there to greet me, as were the muleskinners who had spent the time eating lunch, napping under the mango tree and practicing their lassoing techniques for an upcoming roping tournament “topside” in Kaunakakai.

The ride back up the trail provided some welcome levity after Kalaupapa and a great chance to get reacquainted with my mule. We had started down at 8:30a.m. and by 3:30p.m. we were back at the barn. The mules headed straight for the dinner trough while we were all presented with certificates signed by Buzzy Sproat making us official members of the “Order of Ali’i Mule Skinners of Hawai’i.”

I now have a much greater appreciation for the famous green bumper sticker that has been seen all over the world since the ‘70s: “Wouldn’t You Rather Be Riding a Mule on Moloka’i”  Yes, I would.

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