KAUAI, HAWAI’I — I looked back in awe at the sheer crag of Crawler’s Ledge. It was about noon. The winds were strong enough to rustle a few small rocks, forcing some to drop 20 storeys down into a furious cluster of Pacific whitecaps.
Perhaps I was supposed to feel relieved or triumphant at this point of the gruelling hike. But with eight kilometres left, I couldn’t muster the energy to care.
My boyfriend and I had come to hike Kalalau Trail, a long, narrow, winding footpath along the Nā Pali Coast that leads to the crown jewel of Kauai: Kalalau Beach. I was keen to understand what made this beach the most exclusive in the world.
With decent hiking experience, I assumed the journey to be tough, but manageable.
It was not supposed to be this hard, I told myself, pausing for a moment to reflect on our journey, which began when the early morning air was cool and night still shrouded the long coastline.
Friends and family had warned me to “invest in a pair of good hiking boots” and “pack lighter, train harder, be ready.”
For my part, I felt ready enough. I borrowed a pair of boots, secured our permits and purchased an exorbitant volume of backcountry camping gear. All that was left to do, in my mind, was get here.
Left: Isabelle sets out on her challenging hike.
That witlessness even endured as I strapped on my backpack and ambled past the rather ominous trailhead sign that read: “Kalalau: 11 mi. Currents have killed. Trail is narrow and steep. Use at your own risk.” Eagerness and curiosity had clouded my sense of caution. I was still blissfully unaware of what lay before us. In the dim light of dusk, we sauntered up and down sharp mountainsides, kept awake by the spicy scents of guava trees and the soft sounds of the jungle calling us deeper.
The sunrise began to reveal the remarkable vistas — mammoth cliffs enveloped in flora that plunged abruptly into the ocean. The wild Pacific pummelled the coast, shaping its breathtaking drop-offs.
Just a few kilometres into our hike, we needed to conquer a 244m elevation gain. This was when my legs began to wear out. I could feel the edges of my feet rubbing raw against boots that were already a size too small. While the day grew hotter, we lumbered up never-ending switchbacks, each one getting steeper the higher we climbed.
The trail was its wettest in Hanakoa Valley, a dense region of jungle with a 122m waterfall where we endured a constant deluge of rain. This is the halfway point, where many hikers make a night’s stop before arriving at Kalalau Beach.
At the river crossing, we threw off our packs and rested our throbbing ankles under a fallen boulder that provided marginal rain cover. After a quick lunch, we pressed on.
It was a muddy hike out of the valley, but soon the jungle all but disappeared and the trail became strikingly more exposed. We were approaching the most feared part of the trail: Crawler’s Ledge, an impossibly narrow cliff section that hangs over a sharp and menacing drop into the ocean, where some hikers have sadly lost their lives.
Left: What hikers get to see on the trail is breathtaking.
The ledge was akin to scaling a side of the Grand Canyon, only with no safety ropes, no barriers and no means of contacting the civilized world. I shuffled along the narrow section, clinging to the rock wall for dear life, before suddenly hearing a blood-curdling sound. It was a couple of oncoming hikers on the other side, both too worn-out to wait.
So, for a few nail-biting moments, I was forced to release the wall, my only security, and hobble even closer to the edge of the cliff to let them pass.
Successfully scaling Crawler’s Ledge provided little comfort. Our brief moment of triumph was quickly throttled by the realization that there was still a very long way to go.
Every subsequent stream was a deluge of swarming, biting ants, which made water refills nearly impossible. The trail remained ruthlessly steep and at the top of each climb I instinctively sped up, anticipating a view of the beach, only to find yet another massive bluff in the distance. With nothing but bare rock, there was no respite from the afternoon sun.
I began this trail hike full of wonder, determined to spot this mysterious stretch of sand. Now, I was on the verge hopelessness and my focus had shifted from the beach to simply finishing the trail.
After several more hours of unremitting bends and mounting dehydration, the soil began to turn an otherworldly red that gently descended some 150m down. Knees quivering, ankles swollen, throat parched, we were almost too exasperated to shift our gaze forward. But then we saw it.
Kalalau Valley appeared like the ghost of a long-lost relative. It was the sight we had nearly forgotten along the way.
We were dwarfed by cliffs that soared hundreds of metres skyward, glowing auburn in the afternoon light, with deep folds as though the landscape were draped in satin.
The beach sat at the mountain’s base with its cumin-coloured sand bounded by lush greenery and endless blue extending from it.
The valley appeared like some archaeological mock-up of a mythical kingdom; elusive, implausible and finally within my grasp. Our mangled feet took us into the final few kilometres of thick jungle before we lurched onto that beautiful shoreline.
Never had I felt so relieved and overwhelmed.
The sensations endured even as flocks of helicopters careened overhead, packed with camera-toting vacationers.
The campers we met, almost all of whom had opted to take the more leisurely three-hour kayak route, were surprised to meet people who had arrived by foot.
It’s slightly ironic that to have deep humility one must first have a prevailing sense of self-worth. Kalalau Beach has the unexpected power of revealing both of these qualities to even the most witless of people if they choose to take the harder road.