Molokai Mule Ride

Saddle up for a journey to Hawaii’s remotest spot, and an epic era of the Islands’ past.

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Story by Heidi Pool | Photography by Bob Bangerter


“Hep, hep, hep. . . . Let’s go, let’s go!” Lead mule skinner Kahe Pa Kala’s tenor voice pierces the cool morning air. My sturdy mount, Ilikea, reacts by cocking one long, furry ear to the side and back; then does the same with the other. She snorts loudly and lumbers into place in a line of fourteen other mules and riders ready to begin the steep descent into the remote settlement of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai.

Accessible only by air, sea, or the three-mile-long Pali Trail, the Kalaupapa Peninsula is the most isolated community in the main Hawaiian Islands, which is why King Kamehameha V chose it, in 1865, as the location for the forced exile of persons afflicted by Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy). Kalaupapa is now a National Historic Park, but to protect the privacy of its residents, visitors must either be personally invited, or part of an organized tour. Renowned mule skinner Buzzy Sproat has been taking people down the Pali Trail on since 1973. He and partner Roy Horner operate the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour, providing a means for travelers to visit the settlement and glimpse the past and present of this extraordinary place.

A sturdy figure in cowboy boots, blue jeans, and black cowboy hat, Buzzy has the bowed legs of a man who’s spent most of his life astride beasts of burden. His short white hair and beard frame a wise, yet kind face, and friendly brown eyes mirror his demeanor. Before we saddled up, Buzzy had given our group a briefing. With a smile nearly as broad as the brim of his hat, Buzzy explained how he pairs the mules with riders: “If you look like the mule, we match you up.” He was kidding—it’s actually a person’s height relative to the mule’s—but in my case it’s true: Ilikea means “white skin” in Hawaiian, and with her pale coat and my fair complexion, we make a perfect team. The other mules have names like Elvira, Chevy, Koa, Lokelani, and Makani, and a spotted one is playfully named Stripes; they are all as diverse in looks and personality as their riders.

As we begin to make our way down the trail, Kahe cuts a switch from an overhead branch, pulls up next to Ilikea and me, and announces we’ll be taking the lead. “Use this switch to swat her rear if she slows down too much,” he says. “Oh, and you’re also in charge of clearing spider webs from the low-hanging branches.” Great. Now I’ll have to hang on for dear life with just one hand. The spiders have been busy during the night, and countless webs glisten with moisture in the morning sun.

At least we won’t be traveling at breakneck speed. The trail zigzags down twenty-six switchbacks cut into the face of a magnificent 1,700-foot cliff—the tallest sea cliff in the world. “Don’t worry,” Kahe says. “Mules are smart and sure-footed. They test their balance with each step. We’d never take horses down this trail—they spook way too easily.” The trail is steep and rocky, but it’s not precariously narrow with sheer drop-offs as I had feared, and although Ilikea lurches from side to side, and her shoes produce a sharp clink as they strike the many rocks embedded in the trail, she never stumbles. Kahe instructs us to lean slightly backward to help the mules counterbalance their human loads.

The peninsula is accessible only by air, sea, or switchback trail.

There are two ways to traverse the Pali Trail: on foot, or on a mule. Although the trail is well maintained, from my perch atop Ilikea I can see that it would be harsh and unforgiving for those who are ill prepared. “Hikers need to be above average in fitness,” Roy tells me later. “It’s extremely hard on the knees, ankles, and shins.” Buzzy says some folks mistakenly think they can hitch a ride on a spare mule if they feel too tired to hike back up the trail, but this isn’t the case. “They’ll call us up and ask for a ride, but we don’t take any extra mules down there.”

Riding the lead mule has its advantage, as I discover a short way into our journey, when the Kalaupapa Peninsula comes into view. The unobstructed sight takes my breath away: a stunningly beautiful wedge of land extending into a shimmering cobalt sea punctuated with foamy whitecaps. At this moment it’s difficult to fathom that such an exquisite place was for a century the site of heart-wrenching human suffering.

Beginning in 1866, Hawaii residents diagnosed with Hansen’s disease were torn from their families and banished to Kalawao, on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. The kingdom’s health officials hoped patients would be able to support themselves off the land, since native Hawaiians had successfully lived there for hundreds of years, until ordered to leave to make way for the exiled patients. But many of the newcomers were too ill to care for themselves. The sheer numbers of afflicted men, women and children overwhelmed the board of health. Before long, the settlement had grown to nearly 8,000 people living in squalid conditions. The situation was dire.

Father Damien of Belgium came to Kalawao in 1873 to focus world attention on the plight of Hansen’s disease sufferers, and to make the settlement a place to live, rather than a place to die. He led the construction of houses and a water system; the organization of schools, bands, and choirs; and the expansion of St. Philomena Church. He contracted Hansen’s disease in 1885, and died from it in 1889. The Roman Catholic Church beatified Father Damien in 1995, and canonized him in 2009. Soon after, students from Honolulu’s Damien Memorial High School carried a wooden box containing a relic of the new saint—his right anklebone—in a ceremonious procession down the Pali Trail to St. Philomena as part of a statewide celebration.

Damien came to make the settlement a place to live, not a place to die.

Today, each of that trail’s twenty-six switchbacks is numbered with a plaque put in place by the National Park Service. As we ride, members of our group cheerfully call out the numbers: “Twenty-five, twenty-six. . . .” Wait a minute . . . aren’t we there yet? But no, Kahe tells us there’s about another half-mile to go. We enter a dense forest where the air is alive with birdsong: the cheerful trill of the Hawaiian amakihi, the canary-like melody of the apapane, and the curious “rusty harmonica” sound produced by the iiwi. It has rained recently, and I inhale the rich, woodsy scents.

We emerge from the forest onto pristine golden sand. It’s absolutely quiet as we continue our trek; even the mules’ hooves are silent, as all of us soon become. We reach a makeshift corral at the end of the trail and dismount. It’s taken one-and-a-half hours to complete the descent, and my legs feel as bowed as Buzzy’s. I’m already saddle sore, which doesn’t bode well for the ride back “topside.”

Norman Soares, a guide with Damien Tours, helps us board a weathered yellow school bus, then slides into the driver’s seat. Old signs posted above his head state the rules of conduct: Do not eat or drink, yell or swear, fight or smoke.

Norman tells us Kalaupapa has approximately 100 full-time residents, 18 of them former patients. (Sufferers of Hansen’s disease have been called “former patients” since a cure was discovered in the 1940s). Although forced isolation was abolished in 1969, most chose to remain in Kalaupapa, which had become their cherished home. To respect residents’ privacy, the Park Service restricts the number of visitors to 100 per day, and the grocery store and post office are off limits.

Life in this remote community presents challenges most of us would never think of. Perishables and medical supplies are flown in twice a week, but nonperishables come by barge only once a year, usually in July or August, when the sea is at its calmest. A notice written in white chalk on a green board is posted in the window of the settlement’s grocery store, letting residents know—well in advance—the date by which they’ll have to place their annual orders.

We stop at Fuesaina’s Bar, once owned by the late Richard Marks, one of Kalaupapa’s most respected citizens and its honorary “mayor.” Here alcoholic beverages may be consumed after 4 p.m. at long metal tables covered in butcher paper. Outside the bookstore, which also functions as visitor center, I pause to fill my water bottle and notice the usual spigot has been replaced with a long, slightly curved handle. Norman explains that Hansen’s disease caused bones and cartilage to shrink, so that noses, fingers, and toes retracted into themselves. He says the faucet handle is just one example of how implements of daily living had to be modified for the patients. Inside the visitor center, displays show how zipper pulls were extended and spoon handles were curved to form a closed circle so patients could dress and feed themselves.

Also in the bookstore are several memoirs by former patients.

We visit a monument dedicated to the memory of Mother Marianne Cope, who arrived at Kalaupapa in 1888, along with two other Sisters of St. Francis. She continued the work of Father Damien after his death. Although she never contracted Hansen’s disease, Mother Marianne chose to live the remainder of her life in Kalaupapa, where she died in 1918. Her remains were returned to her hometown of Syracuse, New York, in 2005, the year she was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church.

Our next stop is St. Francis Church, where numerous photos on display in the social hall show former patients before and after treatment with sulfone antibiotics, which in some cases partially reversed skin lesions and disfigurements caused by Hansen’s disease. Although the photographs are difficult to view, many of the faces in the “after” photos are smiling broadly, seemingly pleased with the results of treatment.

Back aboard the bus, we bump along the unpaved road to Kalawao, site of the first Hansen’s disease settlement and St. Philomena Church and cemetery, where Father Damien was laid to rest in 1889. Then it’s on to the Bay of Kalawao, where boats dropped off thousands of the afflicted to begin their exile. It’s a gorgeous spot, with lush green cliffs and several large rocks jutting up from an indigo sea, but I contemplate how terrified the patients must have been as they struggled ashore, the area’s innate beauty insignificant to them.

How different our perception, as we sit at picnic tables beside the bay, enjoying lunch. Then Norman drops us off at the corral and it’s time to saddle up for the return trip. Fed and rested, the mules know it’s almost pau hana time: like children pushing to the front of the line at a carousel, the animals jockey for position at the gate. Back on the trail, they settle into a comfortable cadence and I settle into quiet reflection on the paradoxical nature of Kalaupapa: incomparable natural beauty versus unimaginable human tragedy.

Buzzy Sproat and Roy Horner had been helping people experience Kalaupapa’s unexpected insights for nearly forty years, when on April 13, 2010, extensive storm damage to the bridge near the top forced closure of the Pali Trail. Buzzy and the mules helped the National Park Service with repairs by hauling cement, wood, and other building supplies down the trail. The work seemed to take forever. “If it hadn’t been for the patience and consideration of our landlords and the feed store, we’d have gone under,” Roy says.

When the trail finally reopened, in early November 2010, the mules had to be retrained. “They didn’t work for seven months, so they were weak,” Buzzy says. “I had to get them back into shape and show them the new bridge.” He began with Makani. “I rode him down to the bridge. He paused a little, then tiptoed across.” For the next several weeks, Buzzy and his family rode the mules down to Kalaupapa every day. On December 6, the mule ride officially reopened for business.

During the closure, Roy suggested to Buzzy maybe it was time for them to hang up their saddles and retire. Buzzy said, “No way. I want to do this business until I die.” Buzzy will turn 74 this November, and his dad lived to the ripe old age of 103, so I think it’s a safe bet the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour will be around for many more years to come.

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