HAT Blog Maui dispatch: Petroglyphs, Blowhole

After having done the obligatory “tourist-y” trip into Lahaina on Maui, we decided on outdoor activities for the next day. Our next excursion would be to see the petroglyphs in Olowalu (which are not at all far from the bustle of Lahaina). They are estimated by scientists and cultural experts and practitioners to be over 300 years old. It is a holy site. The markings were created long before the arrival of Captain James Cook in the Hawaiian Islands.

There were a couple of main reasons I wanted to see the petroglyphs. First, I am a proud history nerd who has spent most of his life living in Hawaii (minus 3-5 years as a touring musician on the mainland). I’m not Native Hawaiian, but I was raised to respect and honor the culture. I am grateful for the privilege of growing up here. I wanted to see the cryptic glyphs for myself.

The other reason is that the site was recently and senselessly vandalized with paint-gun pellets in a juvenile, delinquent act of cultural violence. There’s a phrase in Hawaii used to identify childish mischief: “Damn keedz!” I wanted to honor the work of the groups of volunteers who cleaned up the mess by appreciating the work of the people who created the 100-plus images centuries ago.

It’s a short, quarter-mile walk along a nondescript dirt road. We were the only people there during our visit. The petroglyphs are carved into an inaccessible cliff face. Special hoists and cranes were needed to remove the disgraceful vandalization at the site.

Some of the figures are easily seen from a distance, hula dancers, perhaps, or images of chiefs (ali’i) or representations of spiritual entities. But if you take your time and let your eyes adjust to the sunlight and subtle differences in the color of the volcanic rock, many otherworldly images emerge: a sailing canoe with a spiral-like sail, a paddling canoe, a mysterious warrior figure.

Thankfully, none of the ancient figures were affected. It made me wonder why. My guess is that the vandals themselves knew the gravity of their offense, of the grave threat of supernatural reprisal from their ‘aumakua (ancestral spirits). Bad mana, brah. That whole place is sacred.

The petroglyphs at Olowalu may technically be called a “tourist attraction”, but this a solemn cultural site. I was grateful that we were able to experience it without a throng of tourists milling around. It was quiet. Only the song of the wind and the stream that runs along the site could be heard. The importance of the site will be lost on anyone who can’t appreciate the cultural and spiritual experience places like it offer. We agreed that there is something vaguely spooky about the site, but not in a menacing way. The peacefulness I felt there seemed a gift that comes with one condition: respect. Ignore it at your peril.

After lunch we headed for the Nakelele Blow Hole. It’s a lava tube that shoots water high into the air regularly due to its windward (and windy) location and near-constant ocean swell activity. It is located on Maui’s jagged, inhospitable northwest coast. It’s a good hour’s drive from Lahaina, the last stretch of it very much like the famous twisting Road to Hana. Signs warn drivers to honk their horns when rounding the many hair-pin switchback turns leading to Nakalele.

It’s a short, steep, rocky hike down to the tidal area that is home to the blowhole. The climb back up to the parking area will be challenging for people with physical limitations. But there is a refreshment stand in the parking area to cool you off.

There were 30-40 people there when we arrived. Many were milling about the tidal area, harmlessly taking pictures and selfies. A handful of foolhardy souls got dangerously close to the blowhole. Water shoots from the lava tube with a blast as strong ten or twenty firehoses tied together.

I remembered the news a few years ago of a visitor to the similar Halona Blowhole on Oahu, who died when the blowhole erupted, sending him 20 feet into the air and depositing him, head-first, directly back down into the blowhole. Needless to say, the tourist didn’t survive. Ocean Safety at nearby Sandy beach responded immediately, but their efforts to save him were not enough to save him from himself. As the “youngs” say: SMH.

There are no lifeguards at Nakalele. A dangerous situation can turn deadly in the blink of an eye. There is a difference between a “rescue” and a “recovery”, the latter being the most likely outcome for anyone who gets into trouble there.

We kept a safe distance. If you go to see the Nakalele Blowhole, you should, too.

Posted by: Jamie Winpenny