Louise Southerden faces one of the longest, roughest sea-kayaking challenges in the world, off the coast of Kauai.
It's still dark when the taxi drops me at the Kayak Kauai shop in Hanalei, on the north shore of Kauai, the only place in this hippie-chic town that is open so early. But the pre-dawn start is necessary for the journey I've booked: a full-day, 27-kilometre paddle along Kauai's rugged and roadless Na Pali coast.
If that sounds strenuous, it's meant to. Billed as the "Everest of sea kayaking" and "the roughest and longest sea kayak [day] trip on the planet", the Na Pali paddle is offered only between April and September, when there's less chance of encountering big swells than in the northern winter. But it's a wild stretch of coastline any time of the year.
Kayak Kauai's website warns of strong currents, intimidating seas and my old nemesis, seasickness, the No. 1 reason people pull out of the trip. "There's a whole different 'rock and roll' on the Na Pali coast that even experienced kayakers can succumb to," says Micco Godinez, who pioneered kayak tourism in Kauai with his brother, Chino, 30 years ago.
Even travel writer Paul Theroux, who paddled the Na Pali at the end of his odyssey across the Pacific, wrote in The Happy Isles of Oceania: "I had never felt pukesome in a kayak before but, bobbing like a cork in this chaotic chop, I felt distinctly nauseous."
To ensure clients are up to the challenge, Godinez and his team do a "reverse sell".
"We try to talk folks out of it," he says. "There's no candy-coating on this tour." Still, isn't the Everest reference a bit extreme? Not according to Godinez, who, in 1984, was the first Cuban to climb Denali, the highest peak in North America. "It is very much like climbing; a paddle in the horizontal can bring on the same emotions and fears you see at high altitudes," he says.
For my part, I'd rather be on water than up a mountain. Besides, having hiked part of the Na Pali (literally, "the cliffs") on a previous trip and seen it from a helicopter (called "the state bird of Hawaii" by peace-loving locals), I want to experience it up close. "Careful what you wish for," I think to myself, as my fellow paddlers and I clamber into a van for the 20-minute drive to the north-west tip of Kauai, and our launch spot: Ha'ena beach. Apart from two Canadian men in Lycra shorts, everyone looks reassuringly non-athletic: the thirtysomething German guy, the Chicago couple in their 60s and the two pairs of honeymooners from California, including a lesbian couple from San Francisco.
The two-person kayaks look reassuringly seaworthy, with sit-on-tops and backrests, storage hatches and foot-operated rudders. Our guides, Brett and Nick, run through the safety briefing and issue lifejackets, dry bags and lightweight carbon-fibre paddles as the sun comes up. Then, two by two, we punch through the shorebreak and are officially at sea.
Navigating is easy: just keep right of that never-ending coastline of cliffs, some of which are 1200 metres high. The hard part is paddling in a straight line. Rolling swells make bucking broncos of our sturdy boats and a 20-knot tailwind howls in our ears. We get into a rhythm - paddle, paddle, flip, climb back on board, paddle, paddle - but the water is tropically warm, blue-footed boobies and tropicbirds soar overhead and seeing the Na Pali from sea level is every bit as impressive as I'd hoped.
Around us are great buttresses of rock and jagged peaks, sheltered coves and verdant valleys once inhabited by Kauai's original inhabitants.
We pass flawless beaches devoid of footprints - Hanakapi'ai, Kalalau, Honopu - though some have seen the bare feet of movie stars (Kauai is one of Hollywood's favourite locations).
The beauty of seeing the coast by kayak, rather than by catamaran or speedboat, is that we can access places they can't. We paddle under waterfalls and into caves - including one that's open to the sky, its roof having collapsed and formed a small island. Paddling out again, Brett, the guide who's also my paddling partner, suggests we try to catch a wave. We paddle hard until one catches us and our little plastic boat careens down its face. Leaning back to avoid nose-diving, we're drenched when the wave overtakes us. High fives. My watch is torn off my wrist by the whitewater, a sacrifice to Huey the surf god, so I don't know the time when we stop for lunch at Miloli'i beach.
After such a long, romping morning of sea-play, the afternoon is a doddle. Because we've rounded a headland, the sea is calmer. We use sarongs as sails until the wind drops, then slip out of the kayaks into deep, clear water to swim with turtles.
It's late afternoon when we reach our destination - Polihale, halfway down Kauai's west coast and accessible by dirt road from the nearest town, Kekaha - and pile into a van for the two-hour drive back to Hanalei. I look around at my companions. Twelve hours ago we were nervous strangers. Now we've circumnavigated Kauai by sea and road and, as our certificates say, completed the "Everest of sea kayaking" - which, I have to admit, does have a certain ring to it.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Qantas and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.
- Sydney Morning Herald