By Cindy Ross

Kalaupapa National Historic Park Hawaii - View of the pali from Kalaupapa
View of the Pali from Kalaupapa

From a plane, if you saw the impossible trail that zigzags down the sea cliff (pali) on Molokai, Hawaii, it would look like a thin, fragile line scratched into the earth. And you'd no doubt wonder how you could negotiate it and still cling to earth. This soaring curtain of stone is the highest sea wall on the planet, two miles long and up to 3,000-feet high, forming the northern edge of the island, and it was once thought to be an impassible prison wall.

Kalaupapa, my destination, and the most famous community in the world, sits at the base of this cliff. Home to the isolated Hansen's disease (leprosy) settlement, which dates back to the late 1800's, one of the most extraordinary stories of human endurance, suffering, and heroism took place here. It is now, however, the Kalaupapa National Historic Park (NHP) and visitors are granted the privilege to enter for a brief period to explore and contemplate its residents' incredible story.

Kalaupapa, almost an island, sits like an afterthought on a two square mile peninsula. Long after the main island of Molokai was formed, a small shield volcano erupted and spread out this perfect triangle of land, perfect for sending exiles. Besides the formidable sea cliff, the peninsula is surrounded on all sides by a tumultuous sea. Jagged black lava rocks protrude through the pounding, violent surf like the maw of a beast, ready to devour any ship that ventures near. None do. The people that live on this sheltered peninsula must either fly in and out or hurdle this 3.2-mile precipitous trail.

Let's back pedal to the late 1800's, when Hansen's disease reached epidemic proportions in the islands. Chinese workers in the pineapple plantations were suspected of bringing the disease to the islands. With no cure and fear that the highly infectious disease would wipe out the Hawaiian people, a remote secluded place was sought to banish the afflicted. This leaf-shaped piece of land would become their natural prison.

Between 1875 and 1969, 8,000 victims were torn from their families, many wrongly diagnosed, and banished to live their lives completely disconnected from loved ones. The struggle for humane living conditions, a cure, and benevolent caregivers is the story that is told in Kalaupapa today.

The 20 some patients that still remain in Kalaupapa, are now completely taken care of by the Hawaiian government and the U.S. Board of Health. A cure was discovered in 1969 that entirely arrests the disease, making patients non-communicable. They no longer have to remain isolated and separated, but most stay because Kalaupapa has become their home. And, today, it feels more like a paradise than a prison.

In 1980, the site became a national historic park, dedicated to preserving the memories and lessons of the past. One hundred visitors are permitted to enter a day. They must register beforehand with the Department of Health and large, intimidating signs remind you of this fact as you ricochet down the 26 switchbacks on the pali. If not, you will be fined. It is no longer necessary, healthwise, but the historic rules remain in place and enforceable to protect the privacy and the lifestyle of the patients still living in Kalaupapa.

You can choose to walk into Kalaupapa, like me, or arrange for a burro ride. Once below, you must join Damian Tours for a four-hour, very informative and emotional tour. The other way to access the settlement is to fly in on one of the tiny air taxis that make multiple daily flights from "topside" -- weather permitting. The pilots must land and take off only by sight, so no fog or inclement weather can shroud the great sea wall. Mail, freight, and perishable food arrive by cargo plane daily for those living below. And the barge (the only boat to enter the waters) brings cargo from Honolulu only once a year. There are no food stores in Kalaupapa serving visitors, so food and beverages must be brought along.

The first thing that strikes you when you enter Kalaupapa is the peace and quiet. Simple clapboard cottages, painted mostly white, stretch out across the neighborhood. Old beater trucks sit in their driveways. Cats lounge in the middle of the blacktopped roads. The speed limit is only 15 mph, slow enough for a cat to get up and move when a vehicle approaches. Besides the 20 some patients' homes, a slew of government workers live in Kalaupapa -- construction crews working to preserve the buildings, ruins, and sites that are on the list of classified structures, to biologists monitoring the rare endangered Hawaiian Monk seal that uses Kalaupapa beaches to calve their young. You might see a nun raking leaves around the monuments or a rotund Hawaiian government worker sitting on a riding tractor, mowing the lawns, but patients live mostly private lives.

There are many interpretive signs around the settlement, illustrating the old hospital, where the ruins of concrete ramps and protruding re-bar remind you of the past. There are the old visitor's quarters where a divided wall separated patients from the healthy and The Bay View House that once served as a dormitory. Small, immaculate churches are scattered throughout the settlement. There is a social hall, community center, open-air bar, and library. The residents participate in exercise and art classes, watch movies, and conduct meetings. One of the most unusual aspects of this historic park is that the National Park Service does not own the land, waters and historic buildings. They hold many agreements with various religious organizations, the State of Hawaii departments, and the Hawaiian Homes Commission. They all work together to preserve this historic place and ensure that the remaining patients are allowed to live out their lives in the quality they deserve. The patients themselves have a say in how Kalaupapa NHP is managed.

One of the ongoing challenges for the patients are the long-term effects of the disease. Because Hansen's disease makes it difficult to blink, blindness is prevalent. However, many patients who have less than adequate vision, still drive, and the smashed vehicles that peruse the streets stand witness to this. They may drive with two wheels in the gravel to help guide them along. Residents know who they are and steer clear when they are on the road. Their fingers and toes may be atrophied and frozen into tight balls, but they all are extremely resourceful and do whatever they can to help themselves. The problem arises when they accidentally place their hand on a hot burner because they lack feeling in their extremities, or accidentally break their bones.

Meals are delivered three times a day, and healthcare workers do their shopping, clean their homes, and shuttle them. Some patients wear unique platform type shoes, still made at a shoe factory in Kalaupapa where their feet are Velcroed in place. Twice a month a doctor visits the settlement (only nurses reside here) and they fly over to Honolulu on a regular schedule to get treatments, check-ups or to see a show. The most amazing thing about these people is the level of warmth they extend, the gratitude that wells in their hearts, and the general good nature and sense of humor most possess. It had been so bad for them for so long, they have never become jaded or complacent when their quality of life finally improved. Many are very cautious, however, about visitors, especially those toting fancy cameras (photographing patients is strictly forbidden) or journalists with notebooks.

To really get to know the folks of Kalaupapa, you have to be sponsored by a resident and stay longer than Damian Tours normally allows, or volunteer for one of the many jobs available in the settlement. But the four-hour tour is still an amazing, life-changing experience, with the highlight being the short drive across the peninsula to the oldest part of the settlement, Kalawao.

The first leprosy victims arrived on this leeward side of the island via a small boat. The sea was so wild that many boats didn't make it. A platform still rests on the ground, with a boom that fished the drowning victims out of the surf. Three hundred small and humble buildings once stood in Kalawao, but all that remains is St. Philomena Church, built by Father Damian, the saintly man who made it is life's mission to help these forsaken people. Before he arrived in the settlement, there was no one to bandage their sores, grow food for their bellies, and construct coffins for their graves. The Catholic Church is in the process of canonizing Father Damian and Mother Matrianne Cope, the sister who helped him care for the lepers.

Inside the church, in front of the pews, are small rectangular holes cut into the floor. Father Damian took a large leaf from the ape' tree, curled it, and placed it in the holes. The patients spit in here during the service. Chewing tobacco numbed their mouth sores. Next to the church is a small fenced in cemetery. Father Damian's grave is here, as is a mass burial ground where thousands of souls were hurriedly buried in shallow graves.

Scattered throughout the forest are many unusually shaped graves. Since shovels couldn't easily penetrate the rocky soil, lava rocks were just mounded over the remains, and mortar spread over it in an arch. Deep cracks now open the coverings. Trees grow in and around the graves, as the tropical forest tries in earnest to take over.

On Okala Island, which sailors used as a landmark to enter Kalawao, palms sway in the breeze and sunlight dances on the ever-present sea wall. The wall is everywhere you look in Kalawao and Kalaupapa, the backdrop of every scene. It is the symbol of the settlement; a formidable barrier to those exiled here, yet a great source of beauty and inspiration. I send out a heartfelt wish of peace to all the souls who suffered and died here. In my fleeting visit, they have taught me much about the human spirit.


Since patients were not allowed to keep their children on Kalaupapa, seeing children is still difficult for some, so anyone under 16 years of age is not permitted to visit.

Hiking down takes approximately 90 minutes. The trail is well graded and maintained and only mildly strenuous. Hiking back up is a different story. Some arrange to be flown topside on their return trip, but still get the experience of walking in.

Sometime in the future, when all the patients in Kalaupapa have lived out their remaining years, the national historic park will change too. Visitors will be allowed to come and stay. Much work is now being down to ready the park for that era.

Until then...

-- Father Damian Tours, owned and operated by Kalaupapa residents, 808-567-6171 Arrangements are made for airport pickup after the 9:45 a.m. flight at the Kalaupapa Airport, or at the mule corral at 10 a.m. for those who wish to hike or ride down. Cost is $32.

-- Molokai Mule Ride, a National Park concession, 808-567-6088 or 800-567-7550.

-- Mule rides are about 90 minutes each way. Operating daily from 8 a.m. except Sunday. Tour runs $150, which includes the ground tour of the settlement and lunch.

-- Kalaupapa National Historic Park, 808-567-6802.

Youe May Also Like:

Kayaking Kauai Hawaii

Ono Grinds: Where Oahu's Top Chefs Eat

In Search of the Aloha Smile on Oahu


© Cindy Ross

Hawaii Travel | Kalaupapa National Historic Park Hawaii