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by Cherie Thiessen
For Travel Writers' Tales

"Trust the mules", says Buzzy Sproat soothingly. But before I trust the mules, I have to trust the man himself: a grizzled, grey-bearded muleskinner in signature leather chaps. Nine of us are about to mount a bevy of nonchalant equine relatives and plunge down the tallest sea cliff in the world.

One of Molokai's highlights, the mule trek

'The man' is a gold-plated Molokai fixture, well known in the Hawaii rodeo circuit and one of the islands' foremost experts on mules. Over 40 years ago, he was the first to ride one down the route we are about to take and when the previous owner closed the business in 1993, Buzz was the one who started it up again with local businessman Roy Horne. "We've never lost anyone," he assures us. "Mules don't want to commit suicide." So, okay, now I trust the man and I give my mule, Stripe, a pat, anxious to bond as soon as possible. Its coat is actually spotted not striped, but Buzz tells me he named the mule Stripe to remind him that this was not a democratic operation but a dictatorship. I hope Stripe got the message.

Then we're off, a lumbering gait that suits us all fine, because soon we're starting down the 1700' sheer drop. Consisting of 26 switchbacks, it's 1.5 mules wide and almost 3 miles down to the Kalaupapa National Historic Park, an infamous leper colony on Molokai's central northern coast. Open by invitation only, the well maintained community is still home to some Hansen's Disease patients and it's dedicated to the preservation of the past and the education of future generations about a little understood and much feared disease.

An hour and a half later, dismounting on rubbery legs, we board the bus waiting on the verdant field. In a tour lasting several hours we learn all about the colony's history and hear stories of the remarkable, now sainted Belgian priest who arrived here in 1873, Father Damien. It's a history lesson of the best kind, replete with all necessary 'visual aids', and steeped in atmosphere.

All too soon we're heading back to the mules and the plod up the cliffs. Part way up we squish against several pairs of intrepid hikers who have paid for their permits to visit Kalaupapa and are now paying again-in sweat.

Kepuhi Bay near Ke Nani Kai resort

While some may consider this laid back little island of 7,500 a little too quiet, even after we've crammed all of our adventures into two weeks, we still feel we're leaving too soon. The adrenalin continues on our next experience-hugging the coastal one-way road en route to Halawa on the easternmost part of the island, prodding the fringes of the road as much as we dare. Turning a final corner, we all uniformly gasp as we find ourselves staring at the iconic tropical nirvana scene of twin waterfalls streaming from jungle cliffs. It's the stuff Hawaiian movies are made of. Once we've inched our way down to the end, we're off to eat windfall coconuts, watch surfers, and tumble in the friendly breakers ourselves on a wide sweep of beach shared only with two others.

Hiking the skinny boardwalk in Kamakou Preserve

High up on the adventure scale is also the hike in Kamakou Preserve's thriving rain forest in the mountains of East Molokai. Guided by a naturalist who knows every inch of this pristine natural habitat, we teeter on the narrow boardwalk, eagerly crowded on both sides by over 200 species of native plants. Traversing a mountain bog we then picnic on an aerie high above Pelekunu Valley.

One of Molokai's best beaches. Papohaku Beach on the west side.

And then there's the fun of new beach discoveries, like Dixie Maru Beach on the west side, or Mile 20 beach towards the eastern end, a snorkelling haven. There's the camaraderie of Hawaiian music at the Paddlers Inn, the Coffees of Hawaii café and the Molokai Hotel. There's the rush of being splashed by a curious Humpback Whale, and then, there are the thrills of a day on a 40' Catamaran with Kimo and his team, snorkelling in the largest fringing reef in the United States while Kimo spears fish for a cookout back on the wharf.

There's the Saturday market in the Hawaiian cowboy (paniolo) village of Kaunakakai, where we discover what an eggfruit tastes like, pick up sourdough bread, and drink milk from coconuts.

Sunset at Ke Nani Kai, a nightly ritual

But perhaps the best thrill is when we realize that we tourists are the minority here. No worries though, the natives are friendly!


More information:
" Mule trip.
" Accommodation.
" Whale watching and ocean tours.
" Hawaii site:
" Whale watching, Snuba, cultural tours:

PHOTOS: By David Dossor

1. One of Molokai's best beaches. Papohaku Beach on the west side.
2. Hiking the skinny boardwalk in Kamakou Preserve
3. One of Molokai's highlights, the mule trek
4. Kepuhi Bay near Ke Nani Kai resort
5. Sunset at Ke Nani Kai, a nightly ritual.

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