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Scenic Drive to Kohala Historical Sites State Monument

In 1962, Mo‘okini Heiau was declared a national historic landmark.
In 1962, Mo‘okini Heiau was declared a national historic landmark. Photo © Tom Benedict, licensed Creative Commons and ShareAlike.

At mile marker 20, turn off Highway 270 down a one-lane road to Upolu airstrip. You’ll know you’re on Upolu Airport Road when you see the wind farm on your right. You really need a Jeep to do the scenic drive. Follow the road until it reaches a dead end at the runway. Turn left onto a very rough dirt road, which may not be passable. This entire area is one of the most rugged and isolated on the Big Island, with wide windswept fields, steep sea cliffs, and pounding surf. Pull off at any likely spot along the road and keep your eyes peeled for signs of cavorting humpback whales, which frequent this coast November-May. After bumping down the road for about two miles (count on at least 45 minutes if you walk), turn and walk five minutes uphill to gain access to Mo‘okini Luakini Heiau.

In 1962, Mo‘okini Heiau was declared a national historic landmark. Legend says that the first temple at Mo‘okini was built as early as AD 480. This incredible date indicates that Mo‘okini must have been built immediately upon the arrival of the first Polynesian explorers, who many scholars maintain arrived in large numbers a full two centuries later. Regardless of its age, the integrity of the remaining structure is remarkable and shows great skill in construction.

When you visit the heiau (temple), pick up a brochure from a box at the entrance; if none are available, a signboard nearby gives general information. The entire heiau is surrounded by a stone wall erected for its protection in 1981. In one corner of the enclosure is a traditional Hawaiian structure used in some of the temple ceremonies. On occasion, this building is blown down by the strong winds that lash this coast. Notice the integration of the stone platform. This thatched structure is perfectly suited to provide comfort against the elements. Look through the door at a timeless panorama of the sea and surf. Notice that the leeward stones of the heiau wall are covered in lichens, giving them a greenish cast and testifying to their age. A large, flat stone outside the wall was used to prepare victims for the sacrificial altar. The only entrance to the heiau itself is in the wall roughly facing southwest. Inside is an enclosure used by the person responsible for finding and catching the human sacrifices that were offered at the temple.

This was once a closed temple for the ali‘i only, but the kapu was lifted in 1977 so that others may visit and learn. Be respectful, as this temple is still in use, and stay on the designated paths, which are cordoned off by woven rope. Along the short wall closest to the sea is a “scalloped” altar where recent offerings of flowers are often seen. Inside the heiau are remnants of enclosures used by the ali‘i and space set aside for temple priests. The floor of the temple is carpeted with well-placed stones and tiny green plants that give a natural mosaic effect.

A few minutes’ walk south of the heiau along this coastal dirt track is Kamehameha’s birthplace, called Kamehameha ‘Akahi ‘Aina Hanau. Rather unpretentious for being of such huge significance, the entrance to the area is at the back side, away from the sea. Inside the low stone wall, which always seems to radiate heat, are some large boulders believed to be the actual “birthing stones” where the high chieftess Kekuiapoiwa, wife of the warrior ali‘i Keoua Kupuapaikalananinui, gave birth to Kamehameha sometime around 1758. There is much debate about the actual year and place of Kamehameha’s birth, and some place it elsewhere in 1753, but it was to the Mo‘okini Heiau nearby that he was taken for his birth rituals, and it was there that he performed his religious rituals until he completed Pu‘u Kohola Heiau down the coast at Kawaihae around 1791.

This male child, born as his father prepared a battle fleet to invade Maui, would grow to be the greatest of the Hawaiian chiefs—a brave, powerful, but lonely man, isolated like the flat plateau upon which he drew his first breath. The temple’s ritual drums and haunting chants dedicated to Ku were the infant’s first lullabies. He would grow to accept Ku as his god, and together they would subjugate all of Hawaii. In this expansive North Kohala area, Kamehameha was confronted with unencumbered vistas and sweeping views of neighboring islands, unlike most Hawaiians, whose outlooks were held in check by the narrow, confining, but secure walls of steep-sided valleys. Only this man with this background could rise to become “The Lonely One,” high chief of a unified kingdom.

Together, Mo‘okini Heiau, King Kamehameha’s birthplace, and several other nearby historical sites make up the seven-acre Kohala Historical Sites State Monument. In 2005, Kamehameha Schools bought a large tract of land surrounding Kamehameha’s birthplace and Mo‘okini Luakini Heiau in order to protect the environs from residential and commercial development that might disturb the sacred nature of these cultural sites.

Note: You’ll have to return to Highway 270 the way you came because the road is closed off on the south end (but there is a small dirt turnaround there).

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