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The rocks of Ulupo Heiau continue to keep their ancient vigil, as new sets of hands maintain their massive formation in present day. Heiau are traditional places of worship in Hawaii.
Ulupo Heiau stands as a platform at the edge of Kawai Nui Marsh in Kailua on the windward side of Oahu. It is built with thousands of rocks, carried and placed by hand and stands at 10 by 180 feet. Its walls are up to 30 feet tall. Tradition points to those rocks coming from Kualoa, which is more than ten miles away.
The heiau is thought to be one of the oldest on the island, already abandoned by the time Kamehameha I conquered Oahu in 1795. Some legends credit menehune (mythical people of Hawaii, similar to pixies or trolls) with the construction, which is more a confirmation of its antiquity than its craftsmen.
The Kailua area may be the oldest settlement on the island. When the first Hawaiians arrived, they would have been able to sail into a bay where the marsh now stands. It was known to be a favorite location of alii (Hawaiian royalty). It is said that Kamehameha I worked at the 450-acre Kawai Nui fishpond, after the bay was converted to provide abundant fish. At the time the heiau was built, it would have been surrounded by large taro fields.
After those days of construction and cultivation, the heiau was neglected. The area was used for crops, such as sugarcane and rice, truck farming and later for cattle. In the early 1960s, the area was placed on the National and Hawaii Registers of Historic Places. Local civic groups began caring for the site by the 1980s before eventually getting blessed and re-dedicated in 2005 as an agricultural heiau.
Two groups are officially designated as co-curators of the site. The Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club and Ahahui Malama I Ka Lokahi (Hawaiians for the Conservation of Native Ecosystems) are working to recreate a Hawaiian landscape of the 1700s. That involves removing alien plants and introducing plants that are native to the island or introduced by Hawaiians when they arrived, according to ‘Ahahui administrator Kaimi Scudder. It is a labor of love by volunteers; they receive no state or federal funds and generally no donations from tour companies.
Although the entrance to the site is unmarked, it is receiving many more visitors these days. That causes a problem, according to Scudder, because the area is wide open. Nothing but respect prevents visitors from walking on the rocks or trampling off the footpaths and onto plants. Even cultural notions of respect can cause problems when people leave food as an “offering,” which attracts rodents. Occasional visitors are no issue, but the site is now on the stop for many tour busses, which puts so many people in the small area at once, that they sometimes disrupt service projects.
If you’d like to visit Ulupo Heiau, you’ll find it behind the YMCA at 1200 Kailua Road. (You won’t see the signs until you’ve already parked and walked to the clearing.) There is a stop for TheBus very nearby. How should you show respect? “It is a very special place, very sacred,” says Scudder. “Do not walk on it (the heiau), go around below on the path. Don’t take anything but pictures, leave things where they are. If you want to make an offering, make a donation through our website.” If you’d like an authentic experience of Hawaii on your vacation, consider joining one of the community workdays. They’re from 8:30 am to noon, generally on the second Saturday of the month.