Kalaupapa Mule Tour, Molokai, Hawaii: Saints in exile
The rain is, at least, typical; and it doesn't bother my mule. Head down, long ears pricked, Tita takes the track in her stride, titupping sure-footedly along for over an hour, descending more than 1000 metres down a cliff by way of 26 switchbacks.
The track is narrow, rocky, running with muddy rainwater, its 1400 steps crumbling and treacherous. Both sticky and occupied, giant spider webs hang across the way between the guava trees, to the discomfort of the rider assigned Stripes, the lead mule.
Even so, our entry to the Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai, one of the Hawaiian islands, is a much more civilised affair than for most of those once sent to live here. Sometimes forcibly thrown overboard from ships, they waded reluctantly ashore to this inhospitable, wet and windy place — still, today, only accessible on land by the mule trail — to try to scratch out some sort of existence with, initially, minimal assistance in the way of food or shelter. To make it worse, these were not adventurers: they were sick people, many of them children.
That, sadly, is precisely why they were here.
In 1865, Hawaii enacted its Leprosy Isolation legislation, and for the next 100 years anyone suspected of having this feared disease was without ceremony shipped out to the peninsula, chosen for its remoteness. At the foot of the world's highest sea cliffs, Kalaupapa is 3000 hectares of flat land, sticking like a shark's fin out into the sea, green against the blue and edged with black rocks and white sandy beaches.
Today, even in the rain, it looks neat and attractive: the grass is trimmed, the buildings are in good repair, there's plenty of space. Too much space: despite the comfortable look of the place, there's not a soul to be seen, the residents — just 14 of them remaining voluntarily onsite now, aged from 70 to 90 — staying indoors while the tour takes place.
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Leaving our mules in a yard to rest for the return trip, we're driven by Norman to have a look around and learn something of the dark history of Kalaupapa. Most of the site is closed to visitors, who must all have permits and escorts; but in the bookshop there are crafts made by residents, and copies of the book 'Olivia: My Life in Exile'.
Her story is typical: diagnosed with leprosy — now curable and called Hansen's disease — aged 18, she was taken from her family and sent first to Kalihi hospital on Oahu and then, as punishment for repeatedly running away back home, to Kalaupapa, where she spent her entire life, dying at the age of 90.
Norman drives us around, pointing out the places that defined her life, and the 8000 others who were banished here: the hospital, the Boys' and Girls' Homes, the lighthouse, the cinema, churches, monuments, and cemeteries. These last, despite the 1946 tsunami that swept away many of the headstones, are much larger than would normally be expected for a settlement of this age and size. Of course, most who came here, died here.
The story is, however, not unremittingly grim.
On the other side of the peninsula, through woods where we spot deer and wild pigs and goats, are the deserted remains of Kalawao with dramatic views of mist-shrouded cliffs plunging into the ocean. This is where the first patients were abandoned to their fate — but also where their salvation came, in the form of a Belgian priest, Josef de Veuster. He is now better known in the Roman Catholic world, since 2009, as Saint Damien of Molokai, and became more widely famous after the 1999 movie Molokai starring David Wenham and co-starring Sam Neill.
Norman takes us to the church Father Damien built here with his own hands: St Philomena, a simple wooden affair behind a basalt wall.
Inside is a bust of the bearded priest, hung with colourful leis, as are the railings around his tomb outside. Only his right hand is buried here, the rest of his body exhumed and returned to Belgium after his beatification; but Norman is adamant that his spirit remains in Kalaupapa.
Damien spent 16 years on the peninsula, fighting for the patients' rights, organising their community, tending to their spiritual, emotional and medical needs. In a bitter irony, despite 96 per cent of the world's population being naturally immune to the disease, he succumbed to it and ended up as a patient himself.
This is where Marianne Cope enters the scene: a nun from New York, she answered the king of Hawaii's call, which others refused out of fear, and travelled to Oahu in 1883 to care for the patients there.
"I am hungry for the work… I am not afraid of any disease," she said. Five years later she moved to Molokai to nurse the dying Father Damien, taking over his mantle and continuing his work until her own death, of natural causes, in 1918. She too was canonised, in 2012.
So, one small settlement on an isolated peninsula on a dot of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean produced not one, but two saints within three years of each other.
Looking around, at the mown grass, the neat buildings — the peninsula is now under the care of the National Park service — it's hard to imagine the despair driven by disease and isolation that must have blighted the lives of those unlucky people evicted from society at a time when they most needed support.
A clue to the grim details of their lives lies in the small square holes neatly cut in the floor of St Philomena by Father Damien, to enable the drainage, through rolled-up palm leaves, of some patients' involuntary drooling.
It's quietly horrifying to consider — but also inspiring that, in their greatest need, a man should come who could help in such practical, as well as spiritual, ways.
We climb back on our mules for the return to the real world. Because of the rain, our lunches didn't arrive. Nobody complains.
Getting there: Fly with Hawaiian Airlines to Honolulu, and then either fly or take a ferry from Maui to Molokai. See hawaiianairlines.co.nz
Staying there: There's only the Hotel Molokai, which is friendly but not flash. They will drive you to the mules for $20. See hotelmolokai.com
Touring there: Kalaupapa Mule Tour: This operates six days a week (not Sundays) and costs US$209 (NZ$303.6) per person. You must be at least 16 years old, weigh less than 113kg, and be reasonably active. No riding ability is required. The ride begins at 7.45am and returns mid-afternoon. A coach tour of the peninsula and lunch are included. See muleride.com
The writer was hosted by Hawaii Tourism.