At the base of Kauai's Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest places on the planet, Hawaii visitors can enjoy an unconventional island experience: the pitch black of an unlit stone tunnel. That absolute darkness actually only lasts a moment or two during Kauai Backcountry Adventures' mountain tubing expedition, a three-hour activity focused on a lively and highly enjoyable float down the Hanamaulu irrigation ditch.
Built more than a century ago, the four-mile collection of open canals and tunnels brought water from Mount Waialeale's waterfalls and streams to the Lihue Plantation's sugar cane fields.
The ditch was dug entirely by hand by hundreds of immigrants, according to Sean Stogner, general manager of Kauai Backcountry Adventures.
"Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino, Japanese ... they all had their levels, their compasses, their pick axes, and they had to keep the irrigation ditch at a gradual slope, so when they ran into a mountain, they couldn't go around," he said. "They'd have to go right through it, and they'd start with one group on one end and one group on the other end."
Coordinating both digs, however, proved difficult.
"What's neat about some of the longer tunnels is that you can see that they had trouble meeting in the middle," Stogner said with a laugh. "So all of a sudden you'll be tubing down the ditch and run into a wall because they dug a big curve. None of the longer tunnels are straight." Dressed for the occasion
For my recent trip, I joined a small group clad in swimsuits and hard hats who giggled as we bounced up a rocky Kauai road in the back of a six-wheeled Pinzgauer military transport vehicle. A trailer loaded with shiny, blue inner tubes rattled behind us while I fiddled with the lantern on my headgear.
"It's on now," the woman across from me said with a smile. "Oops, now it's off again."
By the time we arrived at the irrigation ditch, I had mastered that light, and after a brief safety presentation, I was snugly centered in my tube, whizzing down a narrow, open waterway, grinning ear to ear.
"Our tubing trip is one of the most popular excursions or activities on the island," Stogner said. "One of the reasons is there aren't a whole lot of activities or tours on the island that the whole family can do. We've had 5-year-olds, and we've also taken 90-year-olds out. It's something everybody can do. Grandma and grandpa, the parents, the kids and grandkids, they can all go on it together."
Those considering the trip should definitely be comfortable with tunnels.
"I call it cave spelunking on an inner tube," Stogner said. "About 70% of the tour is underground."
He's also right about all those curves. Much of the fun for me was jostling through the dark, following the light from my helmet as I made my way through the twists and turns. Preparing clients for a few vigorous collisions is also a good idea.
Toward the end of the trip, at the middle point of the longest tunnel -- about three-quarters of a mile in total length -- our group was gathered together midstream.
"We stop and tell a little story and have everybody shut their lights off, so you can see just how dark it is," Stogner said. "And it is dark."
The trip is also loaded with great views of Kauai's lush interior and offers people an up-close look at some of the Garden Isle's otherwise hidden beauty. And when it's really warm, the 66-degree,waist-deep water is a treat.
"As we like to say, it's invigorating, refreshing," Stogner added. "On a sunny day when it's hot, that water feels so good. But the nice thing about our tour is even on a cooler, rainy day, it's not like snorkeling, where your body is totally submerged." History, culture and grub
On the ride up to Hanamaulu ditch, the Backcountry Adventure guides share a great deal of history and culture with tour goers, including a look back at the Lihue Plantation, which officially closed in November 2000, and the diverse range of people who worked its fields for so many years.
"We don't just take people up there and ask them their names and tell them ours," Stogner said. "It's not only a fun tour but also a very informational tour about Kauai and what made the Hawaiian Islands famous and how many of the immigrants came to Kauai."
Diana Saint James, owner of Novato, Calif.-based Dimensions in Travel, tried Backcountry's mountain tubing excursion last November and said she'd absolutely recommend the activity to her clients, especially those staying on Kauai's southern side.
"I would send clients that would be the same people who enjoy white-water rafting, or clients who might like mountain biking," she said. "It's certainly not an age-based decision. It's really for those looking for something a little different, a 'wow' experience, those with a sense of adventure."
Saint James also appreciated the deli lunch spread offered to guests at a nearby picnic spot right after the tubing.
"I thought that the lunch was handled very nicely," she said. "The food came out fast and quick. It was very healthy. It was nicely presented. The whole ending was handled very well."
Commissionable to travel agents, Kauai Backcountry Adventures' mountain tubing excursion costs $102 per person. Participants must be age 5 or older.