Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

On Hawaii's Molokai island, an 1860s leper colony draws determined travelers

For an offbeat travel adventure, visit a Hawaiian leper colony.

My old mule Tita clopped straight up to the edge of the first switchback. One more step and we'd tumble down a sheer cliff, falling almost 1,600 feet to the sea. But mules are smart, and, at the last instant, she swiveled 120 degrees onto the next leg of the pali trail, a rugged path that zigzags down 26 switchbacks to the historic leper colony of Kalaupapa.

The isolated site is the No. 1 tourist destination on the untouristy Hawaiian island of Molokai.

I felt a little queasy on that first switchback, leaning back in the saddle, bracing in my stirrups against the pitch, thinking, "Whoa, that's a long way down." Luckily, bushes blocked some of the most vertigo-inducing views, and I had a mule skinner behind me strumming his ukulele and singing in that sweet Hawaiian male soprano that calms the rawest of nerves.

I gave in to the music, the moment, and the instincts of my sure-footed mount.

She was an ornery mule. "Tita" is Hawaiian for "sister," and this old sister had attitude, stopping willy-nilly, tailgating shamelessly, and working the scary outside edge of the trail, even on hairpins. But I knew she knew her stuff. So, after that first turn, I put my reins around the saddle horn — guides call this "autopilot" — and let Tita make the calls as we plodded downhill in jerks and jolts.

The thumblike promontory taking shape below us — formed of flowing lava, hammered by rough seas and swept by trade winds — became the site of Hawaii's famed leper colony that was started in the 1860s, almost eight decades before an antibiotic treatment was found to arrest the disease. It was a perfect place for banishment, segregated from the rest of the island by some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world.

Over the years, more than 8,000 exiles died there, many disfigured, crippled, and blinded by the sickness now commonly called Hansen's disease. At its peak, the settlement had more than 1,200 residents: men, women, and children. Today, only a handful remain, all in their late 70s to 90s, along with the dozens of federal and state workers who manage what is now designated Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

Only 100 outside visitors are allowed into the park each day. They must have permits and cannot talk to the former patients, take their photos, or enter their properties. No one under 16 is allowed.

Visitors to Kalaupapa arrive by one of three ways: They take a small plane, ride the mules, or hike the pali (cliff) trail, an arduous trek for the very fit. The three-plus-mile trail is slippery in rainy conditions, subject to rockfalls and landslides, and narrows to a few feet in some spots. National Park Service workers occasionally pluck exhausted or injured hikers off the trail, calling for mule rescue or rolling the afflicted down the hill on a special wheeled gurney to be flown to outside islands for medical care.

Mule trips pose their own risks. Riders can fall, or — if they shriek, freak, or try to micromanage these heavily muscled, independent animals — can be pitched off. Which is why operators at the long-standing Kalaupapa Mule Ride take tourists' insurance information, require them to sign waivers, and stick to hard rules. It's OK if you don't have equestrian experience — guides will explain what to do — but you can't weigh more than 250 pounds or be pregnant, and you must be in good health.

I would add one more caveat: If you can't trust an animal, don't go.

All three ways of getting to Kalaupapa are expensive, requiring permits and prearranged tours on-site. The total for my mule trip, with taxes and fees, was $230. It was pricey, but I had to go. Locals had told me Kalaupapa was a "must-do," a sacred place with a special feel. Every time I pressed for details, there were no more words. "Go. You'll see for yourself. You'll know."

To prepare, I read interviews with longtime residents in the book The Separating Sickness. They told tales of being tracked down at home by bounty hunters who got $10 for each suspected leprosy victim reported to the Board of Health. As young children, many were yanked from school, screened, and quickly sent to Kalaupapa, still crying for their mothers.

Many subjects told how they were shunned by old friends and relatives after being diagnosed and sent off to Kalaupapa: "My family rejected  me. They were sad and disappointed in me for getting this sickness." But there were also spouses and family members who demanded to go with their loved ones, regardless of risk. These were the kokua, the helpers.

I also read up on Father Damien, canonized as a saint in 2009 for his work at the colony. The hearty, handy 33-year-old Catholic priest came to the promontory's first settlement in 1873, determined to improve the lives of the sick and save their souls for Christ, constructing for them sturdy buildings and, sometimes daily, helping build their coffins and dig their graves.

Only a small percentage of humans are susceptible to the disease, but Damien was one of them. He died in 1889, nearly blind and covered in the festering lesions that had so repelled him when he arrived. Don't touch the patients, he'd been told.

Within months, he was eating from the same bowls with them, sharing pipes, dressing their ulcerating sores, and holding communion wafers to their tongues.

I thought about all these stories as our 11-mule train neared trail bottom. My thighs were burning and my knees were stiff and numb as I dismounted, took in the dreamy sandy-white beach beside me, and looked up, stunned by the intimidating green cliff we'd just come down — and would be going back up. "Your joints get a workout on the way down the trail. Can you guess what's going to get a workout on the way up?" asked our tour guide, Norman Soares. He wore a T-shirt with the image of an open Bible and the words "When all else fails . . . read the instructions."

Before boarding the tour bus, I asked Soares about a restriction that puzzled me. Why no one under 16? His sunny face turned somber as he explained how infants born in the colony were taken away from parents immediately after birth for fear of contagion. Residents also grieved for children they'd left behind when they were first forced into quarantine. They needed no reminders. "Some patients are still dealing with that brokenness," Soares said.

He took us to the village's little bookstore, stocked with volumes on Kalaupapa and religious souvenirs of Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, also sainted for her work helping the afflicted in the early decades.

We traveled east across the peninsula to Kalawao, site of the initial leper settlement. Soares pointed to a cone-shaped island offshore and described how early sea captains with boatloads of new patients would anchor there, sometimes telling already frightened passengers to jump overboard and swim for shore in rough seas.

Our last stop was St. Philomena Church, which Father Damien expanded twice to accommodate his growing flock. In front of pews, I saw the floor holes that the priest had cut. Our guide told us how patients with excessive drool would roll up big leaves into a funnel, put the narrow end into the holes, and, often through deformed lips, spit through to the ground as they listened to scripture.

In the church graveyard, the priest's admirers had festooned his fenced plot with leis and necklaces of shell and bead. I looked across the other graves in the cemetery and up, past them, to the towering cliffs knifing down into the sea, some of the peaks 3,000 feet high, furrowed with lush ravines and waterfalls. I thought about how, so visibly walled off from the world, homesick, ill, often shunned and forgotten, these exiles and thousands more buried on Kalaupapa made a life for themselves, creating a community that bonded together, celebrated together, married, buried, and mourned together. "In Kalaupapa," said one resident interviewed in The Separating Sickness, "we are all in the same boat; we help one another."

The mule ride up seemed easier on us, harder on the mules. Tita's sides were heaving halfway up. I could feel her heavy heartbeat through my thighs. And our Kalaupapa tour guide was right. My bottom was seriously saddle sore by the time we reached topside Molokai.

I took my tired body to a masseur the next day, and he used some swift Hawaiian Lomi-Lomi moves to "pull up the bad energy from the sore spots and whoosh it away." As he whooshed, I thought about another kind of ache, the one I'd experienced the day before in Kalaupapa.

It was a strange sensation: a burning of heart, a tug of throat. I realized that it was that special feeling locals had described — a spell cast by a place of so much sorrow, so much compassion, so much courage and such staggering beauty. "Go," said the locals. "You'll see for yourself. You'll know."

I had. I knew.

Where to stay

Hotel Molokai
1300 Kamehameha V Hwy., Kaunakakai
Modeled after a traditional Polynesian village, the island's main hotel is close to Molokai's small downtown in Kaunakakai. Rates are generally $169-$259.

Where to eat

Kualapuu Cookhouse
102 Farrington Ave., Kualapuu
A locals' favorite, with yummy casual Hawaiian plates such as teriyaki, stir-fry, lemon chicken, grilled mahi mahi, ribs, and stuffed shrimp. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days. Breakfast plates $2-$18, lunch $5-17 and dinner $5-$37. As for the service, "If you're in a hurry, you're on the wrong island," the menu says. Cash only.

Kanemitsu's Bakery & Coffee Shop
79 Ala Malama St., Kaunakakai
A popular island hangout with fresh-baked breads and pastries. Around 7:30 p.m. most weeknights and 7 p.m. weekends, locals head down a small adjoining lane to the bakery's back door to buy hot loaves of bread ($8-$10.25) filled with strawberry, cinnamon, blueberry, cream cheese, and butter flavorings. They are traditionally eaten in one sitting.

What to do

Kalaupapa National Historical Park and guided mule tour
Highway 470, Mile Marker 5, Kualapuu

Make mule-trip reservations well in advance and call close to your expedition: Trips are subject to weather and other conditions affecting trail safety. Cost is $230 per person, including taxes and fees. Fee includes a sandwich lunch, a guided bus tour with Kekaula Tours, and permits. If you plan to hike, you can also book that through the mule operators. Cost of hike, with permit, sack lunch, and guided bus tour is $87, with taxes and fees, and you must be 16 or older. Make sure you're in shape for a steep, rugged, six-plus-mile round-trip trek. Take plenty of water and snacks.

Damien Tours
Box 6, Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Hikers and fly-ins can book directly with Damien Tours for an immersive tour of Kalaupapa operated by patient-residents inside the village. Cost of the permit and guided van tour is $60, and you must be 16 or older. Bring your own lunch. Cash or check only.

Palaau State Park
Highway 47, Ho'olehua
If you don't want to hike, fly, or ride the mules into Kalaupapa, you can take this quick stroll on a handicap-accessible path to an overlook. You'll gaze down some 1,600 feet onto the promontory selected to be a leper colony in the 1860s. Best to go on a clear day. Nearby, across the parking lot, is the short trail to Molokai's famous Phallic Rock.

Molokai Museum and Cultural Center
1795 Kalae Hwy, Ho'olehua
The small museum has a fine collection of photos of the Kalaupapa settlement and its residents over the years. There is also a nicely restored pioneer sugar mill. The gift shop has interesting local items. Entry is $5. Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday.