Hawaiian lava sledding is as extreme a sport as it got for ancient Hawaiians. Racing headfirst downhill at speeds of 60 or 70 miles per hour sounds death-defying. But it’s how alii (royalty) enjoyed spending their free time, even if it meant getting a few injuries along the way.

Hee holua, as it was called in Hawaiian, is a 2,000-year-old tradition involving a specialized sled and carefully constructed runway. Rocks and soil were piled up on the side of a hill and covered with ti leaves to make for a smoother surface. Because the track was so narrow, only one person could race at a time. The sled would usually extend out onto a plain or into the ocean at the bottom of the slide.

The sled itself took time to make. It consisted of solid wood and two narrow runners (as long as 18 feet). Matting, usually lauhala, was stretched along the cross bars. Today, you can see an 800-year-old sled on display at the Bishop Museum. Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll see the handful of modern-day riders practicing this ancient sport.

Tom “Pohaku” Stone has been among those daredevils trying to bring back Hawaiian tradition. The longtime waterman even builds and sells sleds today. In a Star-Bulletin article, he said he wanted to recreate a mile-long rock slide on the Hawaii Island, where he’d hope to host the first hee holua event in more than 100 years.

According to him, the only ancient tracks in rideable condition today are two on the Hawaii Island and one at Kaena Point on Oahu. Not sure if it was my imagination, but I could still see marks in the grass where it looks like some recent sledding occurred. Pretty cool to know that an ancient tradition such as hee holua lives on in today’s modern world.

Source: Hulihee Palace and “ Thrill ride” by Alexandre Da Silva, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

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