Kauai Nature Tours explores Mahaulepu region


MAHAULEPU -- In May and June of 1986, Chuck Blay hiked most of Kauai's 111-mile perimeter to study the geology and sedimentology of the shoreline.

A self-described naturalist with a doctorate in geology, Blay initially was interested in the island's beaches.

However, he soon became intrigued by the variation of the shoreline in different parts of the island.

What particularly struck him were the lithified sand dunes here in southern Kauai, some rising 80 feet above the rocky coast. Delving into research, Blay had learned that the dunes record the history of sea level changes over the past 350,000 years.

For him, that was the beginning of what has become an enduring fascination with the area.

Blay moved to Kauai in 1995 after a 25-year career as a teacher, researcher and consultant in Indonesia, Ecuador and throughout the U.S.

The following year, he founded The Edge of Kauai Investigations (TEOK) and its subsidiary, Kauai Nature Tours, which offers educational hikes to magnificent wilderness regions such as Mahaulepu, which Blay regards as one of the "shining jewels of Kauai's natural wonders."

Here, the aquamarine ocean provides a brilliant contrast to the ocher-limestone cliffs and ledges that border it. Patches of vegetation -- including beach naupaka, ilima, akulikuli, pohinahina, pohuehue, pau-o-Hiiaka, Australian pine, kiawe and lantana -- brighten black lava and strips of cream-colored beach.

"The main thing [Kauai Nature Tours] offers is interpretation of the natural history and cultural past of the areas where we take people," Blay said. "We don't do van tours; we hike. Hiking enables you to touch, smell, hear, even taste the environment in addition to seeing it. There is nothing like being face-to-face with nature."

Because Mahaulepu lies smack-dab in Hawaii's trade-wind belt, it is refreshed by warm, moist breezes most of the year. Old-timers say this is where Kauai takes its breath.

Kauai Nature Tours' Mahaulepu Coast Nature Walk covers the 2.5-mile stretch from Keoneloa (Shipwreck) Beach to Kawailoa Bay.

According to Blay, this area harbors a trove of historical, geological and archaeological treasures.

The region's geological history is documented by its dramatic sand dunes; Kauai's oldest volcanic rocks (more than 5.1 million years old), which make up the base of Haupu Ridge; and lava flows and cinder and spatter cones estimated to be 250,000 to 1.5 million years old.

Hawaii's largest limestone sinkhole, Makauwahi, is located in the oldest of the lithified dunes. The sediments of that sinkhole, which have been excavated by scientists from New York's Fordham University and the Smithsonian Institution, reveal a 9,000-year paleoecologic history.

"The most amazing aspect of that study, which is ongoing, is that it provides a record of the character of the natural environment -- flora, fauna -- before humans discovered Hawaii, and then a detailed account of the impact of the first human occupants," Blay said.

"This is one of only a handful of such localities in the world that displays such a record, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture," he added.

Numerous land snails and plant and bird species disappeared within tens to a few hundreds of years after the arrival of the first Polynesian voyagers to Mahaulepu around the year 800.

"I don't blame the first settlers for the impact; they were just humans doing what they needed to do to survive," said Blay. "But that's why we need to learn how to better coexist with our environment."

Archaeological and anthropological history is represented by rock walls and platforms, stone fence lines, sand-dune burial sites and mounds of boulders that likely are remnants of houses and religious structures.

The largest concentration of petroglyphs on Kauai is located along the Mahaulepu shoreline, albeit on slabs that are buried beneath several feet of sand most of the time.

Book it: Kauai Nature Tours
Pick-up in the Poipu area or meet at Poipu Beach Park.
Days: Available upon request.
Time: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Cost: $87 for adults, $54 for children ages 6 through 12. Tour includes bottled water and lunch.
Commission: 10%
Phone: (808) 742-8305 on Kauai or toll-free at (888) 233-8365.

To contact reporter who wrote the story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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