Morning at Iao Valley

Iao Stream

Has anyone ever visited Iao Valley and not been moved, impressed, forced to ponder life in a new and meaningful way?  Nearly vertical mountain spires, green and lush, carve a jagged outline from an impossibly blue sky.  Perfectly white clouds, that appear like cotton balls, sail effortlessly from one side of the sky to the other. The peaceful sound of a gentle wind in the trees and water splashing noisily on mossy stones soothes the soul to the point whereby the quiet reflection of life’s deeper meanings seems not only effortless but somehow mandatory. I’ve been here many times over the years and it never fails to deliver at least a few hours of life-altering nourishment for my soul. With lofty expectations and camera gear firmly in heart and hand respectively I set off for a morning of enlightenment and documentation.


I fly over to Maui in the early morning from Molokai on Mokulele Airlines to visit my girlfriend and also get some photos and material for my blog. I love Mokulele because the pilots take in to consideration not only the weather and fastest/safest flight route but also which route will afford the passengers the best views of these amazing islands. The wind was lightly out of the south which seemed ideal for a flight that hugged the north coast of Molokai.  I always ask the pilot which way they intend to go before I board so I can get situated on the proper side of the plane for viewing. The pilot confirmed my guess of a northerly route so off we went.    Within a few minutes out of Hoolehua we were over the deep blue ocean adjacent the Kalaupapa peninsula and right off the bat I saw a large pod of Humpbacks breaching and playing. Only a few hundred feet up during our flight I saw at least 25 whales during the short 25 minute flight! I’m not math wizard but I quickly deduced that is one whale per minute which is arguably the most cetacean bang for the buck anywhere in the world! If you’ve never seen whales from the incredible viewpoint of a relatively low flying Cessna then I highly recommend it. Mother and baby whales, whole families of whales and single huge whales (which I assume were grumpy older males) seeking alone time. It was a spectacular flight but I was starting to grow concerned about the deepening vog that seemed to be collecting in the distance on the isthmus of Maui. For those of you not familiar with the term “vog” it means volcanic fog. Basically it is the exhaust emissions from the various active craters on the Big Island. When the trades become light or the winds are out of the south (called Kona Winds) then vog envelops the islands. Today was such a day. It was my intention to get lots of photos on my short weekend stay on the Valley Isle so this volcanic haze was not a welcome sight. As we neared Kahului Airport I realized this would not be a good day for photos of grand sweeping vistas so I decided to head for the Kepaniwai Heritage Park in Iao Valley to get some close in shots of the beautiful temples and art they have exhibited there.


I grab a cup of java on my way up to the Park along with a spam musubi or two. The vog is fairly significant and blankets much of Maui yet as I drive up the winding little road to Iao the sky becomes clearer and it soon becomes apparent the only part of Maui which might be considered photogenic on this day is Iao. I reach the Heritage Park and pull over and park by the Water Company’s little pumping shack and start getting my camera and tripod ready. The Kepaniwai Heritage Park honors the various ethnic groups which comprise the melting pot that is Hawaii  with shrines commemorating their religious preferences and statues of the people who came here.. I love the concept of a park which brings together all these different cultures  to honor their unique qualities. Perhaps it was the designers intent that if they built a park with various temples and shrines, with the religions and philosophies they represent, coexisting so peacefully and seamlessly, that it would give hope for all of us to follow suit and embrace our differences. To me this is actually one of the keys to the allure of these islands. A wide range of cultures with their beliefs, language, ethics and of course food were all thrown together. After some time, the best of each culture was adopted by the whole and a new culture sprang from this sorting and melding. You could conceivably go to a potluck and put on your plate a Portuguese patele, Filipino adobo, Hawaiian poi, Japanese sushi, Chinese noodles and a American hot dog or hamburger. Language of course is also very blended here. We speak English, Hawaiian, Japanese and Portuguese words often all in the same sentence or exchange. Some words are just so descriptive and closely associated with what they mean that regardless of their origin, they get adopted. A good example would be shishi (sheeshee) which means to pee. “I need go shishi!” After only a short time here it’s easy to pick up the local vocabulary and embrace the lack of formality and the inherent superiority and flexibility of being able to populate words in your vocabulary from many sources. By all means don’t just emulate…innovate!

Kitty Kat

There are a few people in the park. Families having picnics, a tourist group listening to a Hawaiian chant and several geeks with cameras like myself, agonizing over the perfect angle or perspective. My first stop is the Portuguese tribute. There is a replica Portuguese oven and several Catholic shrines set in a garden with many colorful flowers. A Portuguese oven is a wonderful thing. A domed structure made of stone, brick ect.. A fire is started and kept going until the stone structure is sufficiently hot. The coals and ashes are then scooped out. Portuguese bread is then set inside and baked until the oven eventually cools a bit. Then a big pot (or pots of stew) are set inside to cook for hours. I own a property on the Big Island in North Kohala which actually has a Portuguese oven. I never used it because it was kind of overgrown and dilapidated but the sellers told me it was a great way to make brick-oven pizza although quite a bit of work was required to do so.

Portuguese Oven

There were several Catholic Shrines. Two of which I found particularly pleasing photographically. There is something eerie (to me) about the various Saints and Idols. Maybe my Catholic upbringing adds undo context to my interpretation of their meaning but I find the images compelling nonetheless. As I took the picture of Mother Mary the Beatles song “Let it be” starts it’s refrain in my head. “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be”

Mother Mary

Let it be indeed. I snap a few more pictures, one in particular of an angel holding a dove is so compelling to me I get down on my stomach to capture a better perspective of the 12″ statue. As I’m laying there trying to get an ideal depth of field, a couple walk up and stare disapprovingly at my prostrate form hogging the photo-op. I get up and brush off with as much dignity as I can muster and move on to the Chinese Temple. I get the feeling the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost want me to move on.

Angel of Peace

The Chinese Temple is colorful and peaceful. Set next to a reflective pond that contains many lively Koi. I gaze at the magnificent scenery all around me, the colorful temples, fish and flowers of many kinds adding to the kaleidoscope of hues that seem to be everywhere! It’s a veritable feast for the eyes as well as the soul. In a moment of metaphorical whimsy I envision all of the various colors representing the many ethnic and cultural groups as well as their qualities and religious preferences. All of these separate entities unique and alone with their own singular colors but also joined as one, as if a rainbow. Requiring not only to be held in admiration for their individual beauty but also needing a communal nurturing and bond to thrive and coexist.

Chinese Temple

Life for these early immigrants must been incredibly difficult. The long days of backbreaking labor via their indentured servitude as sugar workers  combined with the fact that they were so far from their homelands must have weighed heavily on them. I wonder if they viewed this same picturesque valley back then as I do on this day?  Did they feel as moved by it as I do as paradise or was it a wolf in sheep’s clothing for them? Or perhaps more appropriately a Hell wrapped in Heaven’s clothing. One thing is for sure though, no one that comes to Hawaii or Iao remains the same. No one that resides here for long remains unchanged.  Although life in those early years must have been difficult and lonely, eventually the familiarity of their homeland was replaced by a new feeling of home and community in the plantation camps. For every story I have read concerning how hard life was for them there equally as many stories relating the nostalgia for the good old days in the camps. In the end i’ll choose to believe that everyone who comes to Iao and perhaps Hawaii is moved and changed in a positive way. Finding meaningful context by linking what I believe those who came before me here must have felt to how I feel today is perhaps a way for me to sort out my own life’s ambiguities  and have better understanding of things that ultimately may have no understanding. Exercises in futility are my specialty!

Filipino Sugar Workers

With my poor brain literally swimming in a philosophical miasma of my own creation I retreat back to my car to pack up and head to my home in Kula. The vog again greets me as I leave the Valley reaffirming what I consider to be a wise choice in location for the day. The ghosts of yesteryear which I have conjured leave as quickly as when I summoned them and by the time I reach Queen Kaahumanu Mall I am firmly back in the present dealing with traffic. It was a great morning at Iao and I will be back. Another of those enchanted spots here in Hawaii that I am so thankful for and find great comfort in knowing they simply exist.




Published byMichael

Originally from Long Beach California I migrated to Oahu back in 1986 to chase the huge perfect surf of Hawaii. I instantly fell in love and knew I had found home. Thirty years later I find myself on the beautiful island of Molokai after residing at some point on all of the major Hawaiian Islands. My love of Hawaii and the history of this amazing place gives me a unique perspective of life here as both a Kama`aina and an outsider. I hope you find my musings and images entertaining and perhaps a little enlightening. Aloha, Michael

1 Comment

  • James

    March 9, 2016 at 15:36 Reply

    I wish I could share this image, but will do my best to describe it. As you pull into the park, to the left of the valley there is a ridge that comes down off the cliffs. One morning a born and raised local gave me a ride into the park I was hiking up. He showed me a picture of something he “had never seen in the 30 years he’s been on the island.” A rainbow was coming just over/off that ridge with about 25 bars of color. Red yellow, red yellow, red yellow green, red yellow.. etc and so on. And the way the light was hitting the park just as the sun was coming up over Haleakala, it looked like a ladder going up that ridge to a cave underneath the rainbow.

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