You would like the Commando Hike. It’s really hard. But you can’t chicken out”
My challenger was Nat, a doctor who had been introduced to me by friends. I was vacationing in Maui, and chomping at the bit for an outdoors adventure.
“Oh I can handle it. You’re on.”
We set the hiking date as the upcoming Saturday, the day of my departure.
In the 48 hours before the hike I managed to squeeze in a week’s worth of activity.
I drove the road to Hana (a three hour drive involving 600 turns skirting mountainside cliffs), slept at Koki Beach, woke to the sunrise at Koki, found the hidden red sand beach in Hana.
I checked out the caves and black sand beach at Wai’anapanpapa State Park, dangled 3,500 feet in the air from a motorized hang glider, hiked the Pipiwai Trail which led amongst waterfalls.
Through a bamboo forest and at the footsteps of a 200 foot waterfall, swam in the Seven Sacred Pools, drove another three hours skirting the southeast side of the island amongst mountainous hills and endless turns and cliffs.
I drove up to the Haleakala Crater at sunset (an extinct volcano whose size forces the entire island to seek transport near the ocean line), stared at the stars on the front of my car with a flask of whiskey.
Then I woke up at 4:15 for the Haleakala sunrise and caught breakfast in Kula, then did a morning mai tai in Paia, Maui’s famous hippie surfer town.
Hiking in Mauai
When Saturday midday rolled around, I was tempted to cancel. I was wiped out. But I didn’t want to miss out on this mysterious trail. I met up with Nat to satiate my curiosity.
“It takes an hour to get there and the hike is about two hours,” Nat explained.
The Journey Starts
We pulled up to a nondescript fence on the right side of Hana Highway. No signage, nothing. You could have passed it without a second thought.
After dosing up on water, we set out. We packed light, armed only with water shoes and one headlamp.
We enjoyed a sunshine-filled stroll amongst the grass and were greeted by a golden brown cow grazing next to us.
Along our walk, Nat plucked strawberry guavas from the trees.
Our path then led to a stream.
Rock hopping along a 10-foot-wide stream edged in lush, thick greenery I took in my surroundings. Did it get any better than this?
Tall trees with winding limbs and rope-like vines surrounded us, next to a parade of shrubbery and greenery. There are no bald patches in the Hawaiian rainforest. It is thick, dense, and topped with a canopy.
Algae-covered rocks threatened our balance, but we trudged on. After 30 minutes, the stream became enveloped in thick tree roots and branches, causing us to hop over thigh-high foliage as thick as our fists.
After 20 minutes, we hit deeper pools of water. We climbed in as the water rose higher with each step.
Nat had promised a vertical rock climb to get to the cave, and he hadn’t disappointed. To get further, we had to climb straight up and over – no easy feat as a waterfall trickled in our path.
There we began the first of many ascents on wet rock.
The rocks were sharp, but offered the grips necessary to keep going. Climbing up through six feet of sharp grey rock was a challenge, but with each ascent, I gained confidence.
As we rose to the top, a cave came into view.
I squealed with excitement. A wet cave made from an ancient Hawaiian lava tube? You can’t find that in Colorado.
We swam towards the cave and began the ascent inside. The first pool was waist high, as was the next.
After another shallower pool, the fourth pool brought us deeper into the cave and required more technical maneuvering. The light behind us grew dim, and darkness lay before us.
Excitement and a tinge of fear pushed me onward as I followed. Pulling myself over the next threshold, I plunged into deeper waters and swam into the darkness.
Swimming across, a sliver of light entered into view.
The way out was towards the light. The way towards the light was up. Climbing up slick rock accented by a dribbling waterfall, we once again used touch to guide our way out.
Getting to the top, we walked out with hunched backs towards the light. The glamorous ending to our caving adventure was an irrigation system, which required shimmying up through thick, rusted metal bars.
A large pool of water lay before us.
“Where is the way out?” I asked.
“In front of us.”
It was another waterfall and rock face combination.
As we got closer, I realized how tall it was, and how slick. Could I climb fifteen feet up through these obstacles?
The handholds in the cave had been replaced by larger expanses of smooth, wet rock. On the left the rock wall inverted, offering vines and tree limbs as the only handholds.
The Small Waterfall
The middle went through a small waterfall – not an option. The right offered limited climbing options requiring large steps with scarce handholds.
One wrong move and you would fall backwards, hitting the rocks below before falling into the water.
Since no options were proving to be fitting, I suggested a safer and less exciting route out.
“Why not bushwhack?”
As we swam back to the pool shore, we plotted our route. We had to go around the back of the waterfall and back towards where we had started, but to do so, we had to to start on the right and cut a large circle.
Nat walked on with his dry bag, which held his car keys and headlamp. Three inches of water had submerged the contents.
Starting Our Hike
As we started our hike, I enjoyed my additional up-close-and-personal view of the rainforest.
I’d never seen anything like it.
Dr. Suess-like plants grew in all directions, looping towards the sky. Moss in a rainbow of lime, sage, and Kelly green trickled with banana yellow sprouted at the base of trees like shag carpeting.
Tree limbs wound in all directions, draping vines to the ground. Green foliage poured out of rich bark like waxy, cascading ribbons. Looking up, a canopy sheltered us from direct sunlight and gave the appearance of looking through a sunlit green snowflake.
Ferns, shrubs, saplings and moss multiplied exponentially into the distance before my eyes.
I was in heaven.
Towards the Jungle Environment
The downside to a dense jungle environment: navigating a straight line is impossible.
Going straight may need to be accomplished by first going right, curving left, then righting your path when surroundings allow.
Led by Nat, I followed. I am not known for my navigational strengths, and he seemed confident, so I trusted him.
The next hour passed with us bushwhacking through grass as tall as our shoulders, climbing over large trees, ducking under low-lying branches, and snacking on strawberry guava while we skirted the stream.
We had changed direction so many times, I had no idea where we had started.
After heading up the ridge and descending down, we found ourselves at a 40-foot drop off to a shallow, rocky pool. Dead end.
We headed back up to find the next gulch. Because the canopy was dense and vast, we couldn’t ascend above the forest to get a solid view of where we were going.
Quite simply, we couldn’t see the forest through the trees.
But Nat stayed calm and confident, so I stayed hopeful. My mind drifted to the sushi dinner I hoped to have in a couple short hours. But my mind also wondered – didn’t all bad horror flicks start out like this?
Is It Really Trails?
We spent another hour climbing through the forest and following “trails.”
He called them trails. I disagreed.
A trail is marked. A trail is frequented. A trail leads to a destination. Everything we followed went to a dead end.
Using the ridge as a guide, Nat estimated we were close to the elevation we needed because the ridgeline was descending to the level of the painted eucalyptus trees.
As we trekked on, we listened closely for the two sounds that could lead us out: cars and cattle. Where they were, flat land abounded.
A road had been where we had started, but with the winding roads in Maui, it was hard to gauge where the sound was coming from.
Cattle mooed and shrieked in the distance, but cattle are always in motion. We couldn’t trust them to guide us to one place.
On we went.
Climbing through Hau Trees
After scrambling, our explorations led us to a small trickling stream with a 15-foot steep tangle of Hau trees hanging above.
If we followed the stream, we would be headed towards safety. But to do that, we had to climb over, under, and through the web of trees to move forward.
With renewed optimism and hope, I eagerly grabbed on to the branches around me.
We climbed forward through a sharp and twisted spider web of Hau, our faces, arms, and legs getting caught along the way.
Vines and branches pulled at my clothes and threatened to trap my legs. My right shoe opened up in the front, and the sole was pulled out after becoming stuck in the mess.
I heard an audible rip as Nat’s shorts snagged on a branch.
There was safety to be found in climbing atop the web of Hau; there were a hundred limbs to catch you on your way down.
But that also meant there were a hundred small sharp broken branches waiting to pierce flesh.
Nat managed to spot rainbow eucalyptus trees ahead. Rainbow eucalyptus had been along our initial path – we were headed in the right direction.
After two hours climbing through Hau trees, the sun started to fade.
My initial calm showed cracks. This was the first time I realized the obvious – we may not get out before sunset.
I Was So Tired
Inside, I felt a mixture of fear and resentment brewing.
But Nat stayed calm and reassuring. He constantly asked if I was okay and was trying his best. Discord was a recipe for disaster. We had to stay unified.
“Whatever you do, we can’t get injured right now. Take it slow, test each branch. We need to be careful,” he advised.
I tried my best, but as the final traces of sunlight drained from the sky, the branches became harder and harder to see.
All we had leading us was a faulty headlamp that had been submerged in water.
Without that light, we were toast.
After two hours, I saw a patch of green to the right. We had heard cows and cars to the right. Why not give it a try?
As we got closer to the green patch, we became immersed in darkness. We couldn’t see stars; the foliage above was too thick.
We slid our bodies underneath the web of Hau along the ground – the stream was gone. And the foliage was finally changing.
A thick bamboo forest now began ahead of us. I could have cried for joy. We could stand up and walk.
A clear-cut path led through the bamboo, and within minutes we reached a clearing. We could see the stars in the sky above us.
His headlamp illuminated what looked like a bridge.
“Let’s go in that direction.” I said.
Our steps hastily charged forward, and within minutes we found ourselves at the road.
“We did it! We’re out! We’re free!” I said.
His voice took on a serious tone.
“I didn’t want to tell you, but that was serious. People die in situations like that all the time.
You get scared, you become hasty, and you can slip and fall or become seriously injured.”
A wave of acknowledgement and gratitude washed over my entire body. I knew we had been close, but I hadn’t contemplated how close.
Finally, The Journey Ends
After six hours, we were bruised, scraped, bloody, sore and bitten – but alive.
“I won’t ever forget you or what we went through. You’re tough,” he said.
“I will never forget today. Ever. Thanks for leading us out.”
And with a hug goodbye, our paths forever diverged forward.