St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Date: July 4, 1999
Author: GIG GWIN
Photo by Gig Gwin

* The adventure includes a visit to the leper colony made famous by Father Damien.

There are so many adventure activities in the Hawaiian Islands, but none has excited me more in my 30 years in the travel industry than taking the renowned mule ride down Kalaupapa Pass on the island of Molokai.

This 7 1/2-hour adventure invites tourists to experience Hawaii as it used to be, from the back of a thousand-pound animal.

It's a short hop from Honolulu to Molokai Airport. A van driver took me to the top of Kalaupapa Outlook, where the Molokai mule rides begin. But from a historical sense, this was more than just an adventure ride.

At the bottom of the pass lies a flat, isolated area that is famous for its leper colony. In 1866, the Hawaiian government began exiling lepers to this outpost that was accessible only by a 1,700-foot walk down the cliffs of Kalaupapa. In 1873, the Belgian priest Father Damien arrived to try to make their lives better. He succeeded, but in the process Father Damien contracted leprosy and died 16 years later.

On our visit, we arrived early in the morning and found about 15 people ready for the day's adventure. They were not all American tourists. Two Belgians had come over because of the historical significance of Father Damien, and two Japanese also were excited about taking the ride down.

I talked to our guide and mule skinner, Kaleo Lenwai. My first question was, "What is a mule skinner?" In the frontier days, a mule skinner was someone who hunted animals and brought the hides in, usually stacked on the back of a mule, thus the name mule skinner.

Today, he was simply our guide and would help us down this rather steep pass. I had heard that many of the mules came from Missouri, and he confirmed this to be the case. He said the mules also come from the Napa Valley and even some from the Island of Kauai.

Mules, he explained, are bred between a jackass (or donkey) and special breeds of horse, including Arabians, quarterhorses, thoroughbreds, Belgians or mustangs. Mules can get quite large. The one I rode weighed about 1,000 pounds. There was a 1,300-pound mule in the stable area for larger customers.

Mules over horses

Why mules, I asked, rather than horses? Mules, our guide said, have two advantages - they're stronger and sure-footed. They can handle loads sometimes up to as much as one-half of their weight. Whereas a horse would attempt to keep its head high, a mule will keep his low and is known as one of the most sure-footed animals in the world.

In the 23 years that these daily (except Sundays) rides have been offered, no serious injuries have been reported on Kalaupapa Pass. Our mule skinner gave us instructions on how to guide the mule, right or left, stop or go. I felt as if I were in an out-take of the movie "City Slickers," but we all practiced with these well-trained animals before we ventured down the cliff.

I was intrigued to learn that mules sometimes live to be 30 years old and can work as pack animals for almost 25 of those years. A well-trained mule is a valuable animal; he is stocky and has incredible endurance for rugged adventures.

Imagine riding a mule down the highest sea cliff in the world to a tiny leper colony known as Kalaupapa. This remote settlement, its people and the Father Damien legend are a major part of the tapestry of Hawaiian history. Visitors have the opportunity to experience the grace, beauty and heart of Hawaii, like so many who have taken the journey before.

As we started, we immediately encountered hikers who also were on their way to the flats of Kalaupapa. The mules and hikers go about the same speed, but the mules never rest.

Glimpses of beauty

Our guide explained that there would be 26 switch-backs, and the trail was reinforced with stone footings for the animals. The majority of the time, we were under deep, thick growth, with openings for a spectacular look 1,700 feet down into the valley. Since there are no dangerous animals, snakes or critters on the way, one does not fear anything but the downward motion of the mule. We did see some wild deer and a few wild goats.

For an hour and a half, I felt as if I were on top of a see-saw sliding down a hill. Toward the middle of the ride, it became apparent that my legs were unaccustomed to sitting in a wide saddle, and as we closed in on the bottom of the cliff, the thought of walking became a paramount issue.

At the bottom, we slowly rode along a deserted beach of black sand and then into the picnic area along the coast. We were now invited guests of the Kalaupapa National Historic Park, and there are limits on what you can do and where you can go in this area.

Only 50 lepers, or patients, are left in the area. Since the early 1940s, leprosy has been controllable by medicine, and the people who remain simply prefer to live there, but they are not restricted to the colony.

We visited the little town, Father Damien's church, a park area and his burial site. In the next few years, Father Damien will be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

We had a picnic lunch over a magnificent lagoon and then got back onto our mules for the ride back up the trail.

Without question, going up is easier than going down, maybe not for the mule, but for the rider. As we turned each of switch-backs, our group engaged in some boisterous singing, including Roy Rogers' "Happy Trails," Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again" and my favorite, "My Darling Clementine."

After about an hour and 20 minutes, we arrived back on top of the pass and dismounted from our mules. This is an adventure that can be taken by most healthy people, young and old. It is strenuous but certainly something that the great majority of tourists could enjoy.

There are few places in the world where one can ride a mule down an incredible pass amid such breathtaking landscape, and also experience some Hawaiian history. This is one trip you should put into your extended Hawaiian schedule.