The Kalalau Trail in Kauai is infamous for its 11 miles of twisting, muddy track that crosses swollen streams and vertiginous cliffs. A Hawaiian rite of passage for the brave and the fit, there’s always a risk of falling to your doom if the fluting slivers of rock that make up the Na Pali cliffs give way.
But now I know; the Kalalau Trail is for wimps. Real women swim the route, in the pounding sea right below.
Swimming the Kalalau Trail
I was nervous even before I got to Ke’e beach, where the North Shore road finally peters out into a series of potholes. I swim a couple of times a week for a lackadaisical half hour; this was a swim of a different order altogether.
The 20 or so people on the beach looked buff, young and lean. They were in surf bikinis and shorts. I made quite an entrance as the only participant wearing a neon (glow-in-the-dark-and-apparently-also-the-day) inflatable life jacket. They eyed me with curiosity and turned back to the water.
There were a few things going for me. The sea was relatively calm for the end of summer; we weren’t doing the whole trail, just the first part to Hanakapiʻai Beach; and I had a mask and fins, which takes a lot of the effort out of swimming.
As a loose group brought together by the power of Facebook, we’d also be counted into the water and out again. So in theory, someone would notice if I drowned.
There was a brief muster, where the organizer talked about people having panic attacks and explained how difficult that was to deal with in the water. I felt panicky already.
He looked around the crowd and asked if anyone felt panicky. I shrank a little further into the back row as his eyes were drawn to my bright jacket. And then the crowd was off, whooping and splashing into the water.
What I know now, is that getting out of Ke’e Beach is the worst part of the whole swim (getting into Hanakapiʻai is the second worst part, but we’ll come to that later). The water is choppy over the reef, and you have to look up a lot to see where you’re going. Gallons of brine seem to pour down your snorkel every other breath.
As I struggled past the surf and through the white caps, the rolling sensation of the sea was amplified as the waves bounced off the tall, shadowy Na Pali cliffs. Face down in the water, the ink spot of nausea in my chest spread into a nasty stain.
With a powerful taste of salt in my mouth, I flailed along, anxiously wondering if I was at the back and interrogating my limbs to keep going. I was already gasping for breath. And then I caught the current.
It was fast. Slowly it dawned on me that even if I stopped swimming completely, I would drift, like a bioluminescent piece of human flotsam, in roughly the right direction, buoyed up by the salt water. With a relatively lazy front crawl, even one inconvenienced by the ludicrous jacket, I was Michael Phelps on an ocean conveyor belt. I put my head down, kicked off and began to enjoy the show.
Tiny particles of sand were suspended in the sea, catching the light as they slowly sank, like aquatic snow. Even in the shade of the undulating cliffs, the water was warm.
I was happily alone between two straggling groups of swimmers, catching the occasional glimpse of their sleek heads in front. Icy fear receded to a few small crystals in my belly. My perspective of the Na Pali cliffs from the ocean began to add to their beauty.
In less than half an hour, I saw the first swimmers begin to turn toward the shore, aiming for a cove accessible only from the water. As I got closer, hundreds of Brown Noddy birds, angry at the intrusion into their breeding grounds, swirled elegantly around my head, staying just above the sea spray in the cool morning air. I crashed through the surf and was tossed by a wave onto the volcanic sand in front of a huge cavern.
A curtain of cold fresh water rained down, percolating from the cliff overhead. With everyone pumped up on endorphins and excitement, it felt like we were discovering a new continent.
The girls threw themselves into handstands against the ancient lava cave walls and we leapt from crumbling sandbanks back into the surf. Just as we set off again, two Spotted Eagle Rays appeared in the curl of a wave, perfectly silhouetted for a few seconds, before the crest crashed down.
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