Chasing True Adventure in the Hawaiian Islands

Finding the unknown in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Water rages past our legs at knee high depth. We struggle to stay upright with each uneven step of the rock bed as we forge our way against the current. 

Much of the trek so far has been uneventful with the first several miles on a muddy forest road winding its way through thick Hawaiian jungle before dumping us into the river.  Suddenly, we round a bend and looking out to the west, my brain feels scrambled because I am trying to process the view ahead. Miles upriver, an amphitheater of 5,000-foot walls loom, meeting with fog from above, hiding any semblance of a horizon. The silver streams of the tallest waterfalls I have ever seen weave their way down these cliffs, illuminated against the contrast of the vegetation.

I reflect to myself that this is a place that few people ever venture. What must it have been like for the first people that discovered it so many generations ago?  I am not a religious person, but I have had spiritual awakenings before, brought on by the beauty of wilderness. This one has transcended all others before. It was an out of body experience that is beyond explanation. I feel like I do not deserve to be in a spot so devoid of human presence, sculpted so perfectly by the natural processes of the earth. At the same time, I feel fortunate to be in this place, trying to embrace a moment that will surely be placed upon a pedestal for the rest of my life.

Those walls in the distance are our destination. Following the contours of the river, we aim to reach the base of the distant mountains. Mt. Waialeale is said to be the rainiest spot on earth, with easterly winds engorged from the ocean rising up these cliffs and dropping almost 500 inches of rain each year.

Ten hours after we started, we arrive back at our car, every inch of us having been soaked, muddied, and then soaked again several times over. But we had made it to our destination. We had trekked upriver for hours, scrambled up thirty-foot waterfalls, navigated across vertical ridges, and skirted shear drop offs, but we had made it. 

At the foot of Waialeale, a combination of rain and waterfalls chilled us to the bone. The air surrounding us made it feel more like we were treading water as we took in the surroundings. The water was streaming out of the cliff walls in every direction.  There ceased to be a point where one cascade ended, and another began. I was frozen by the scenery, barely able to believe that this place existed, and that I was in its presence.

At the apex of the mountain, the cliff walls become so steep that they actually invert on themselves, creating an almost cave like aspect where sheets of water pour down from above. Most travel guides and publications tote this place as only accessible by the hyper-popular helicopter tours. It was a special feeling to know that we had arrived on foot and endured the elements of an untouched paradise to get here. No trails. No guides. No mile markers. Just wilderness.

This is the beauty of Hawaii. We came here seeking to understand and witness the cultural, geological, and natural history of the parts of these islands that have been preserved as they were before the resorts, the airplanes, and the development. We found that at Waialeale. It reminded me why I love to travel, to camp, to photograph: the adventure.

These days, there is so much information on the internet. The ability to see pictures of any place in the world is a reality that can be achieved in a matter of seconds. Pinterest. Instagram. Bloggers. Photographers. It is all out there. I have used a plethora of these resources to plan my own trips and to discover places I probably would never have seen otherwise. They are amazing, but there is a tradeoff of desensitization when you have already seen photos of a place. When you almost know what to expect around the next turn.

Not this time. This was a different experience. Without trails, we forged our own path. We backtracked, we fell in raging waters, slogged through knee deep mud, losing any perceivable route at times, never really knowing whether we would reach our destination. This is what true adventure is. We were not following a path someone had spelt out for us, and it was exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time.

As I already yearn to return, this is how I remember Hawaii.

Published: October 9, 2018

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More