So here we all are! It’s Sunday and we finally arrive, one by one, at Kona International Airport. The air feels and smells different, and it’s laced with excitement! Who are these new people we will all soon call our friends? As we introduce ourselves one by one, we share nervous smiles and play a quick game of cards on the grass. It’s not long before we’re all loaded in the van and chatting away on our way to Spencer Beach for our first night in this warm, exotic new place. On the way we stop at a small secluded beach to take our first swim in the amazing, turquoise waters. The water is perfect; light blue with a refreshingly cool temperature. We sit down in a circle and talk about our expectations and hopes for the trip before we start a game of Never Have I Ever. As we laugh together at the absurdities, we all start to relax; our group is small but it’s already beginning to feel familiar and safe.
Leaving the beach, we head to our first campsite at Spencer Beach just north of Kona. Its white sand beaches, showering facilities and basketball court are all inviting as we pull up and look around for the best spot. We pick one underneath a tree just shy of the waters edge. Even though it’s dark by the time we arrive, we know it’s going to be a beautiful view to wake up to in the morning. The leaders cook a simple dinner of spaghetti and veggies and teach everyone how to set up their tents for the first time. As we eat, we looking out at the moonlight streaked across the deep Pacific. The sky is incredible here. Suddenly, a praying mantis lands on the lid of our pasta pot, eyeing us curiously as we all shout with amazement at its strange form. Looks like we’ve just found a name for our van: “The Mantis!” we shout.
It’s not long before the breeze lulls us all into our tents for a deep sleep. Our first day of adventure begins tomorrow!
Canoeing with Dolphins!
We rise early today and eat a hearty breakfast together before packing into our Mantis for our first drive into town. We put on some reggae music for the drive and jam together as we gaze out the windows at the strange volcanic landscape around us. We’re traversing a part of the island that’s covered in eerie black rock; the remnants of old lava flows. The Big Island is a place that is in continual flux. It’s always growing, and there are new lava flows opening and stretching out to the sea on a regular basis. Although we’re in one of the most remote places in the world (nearly 2500 miles from the mainland), we feel strangely at home.
Arriving in downtown Kona, we park our van and and saunter down the beach towards the Kona Boys shack, where we will meet Eric, our outrigger canoe guide for the day. He’s a friendly and immensely helpful guy who puts us all at ease, as he shows us the basics of Hawaii’s official state sport. The sun is already beating down onto the beach at 9am, and we all layer on sunscreen quickly before Eric ushers us into our canoe to start our morning row out into the bay. As we chant and count our strokes, it’s easier than we imagined. We’re all working as a team and we’re building up a fast pace. The slightest mention of naya (or dolphins) just up ahead motivates us all to keep moving forward!
Swimming with the dolphins is like nothing we’ve experienced before! We’re all stunned at the visual of these wild sea mammals as they swim in great pods just a few yards from our canoe. Nate is the most eager of the bunch, and is the first to put his snorkel mask on and swim out to where he can get a closer look. What he doesn’t expect, as he tells us later, is that he’ll get close enough to reach out and touch them, and that they seem to be comfortable in his company. The rest of our group is in the water as well, staring down into the depths of the blue waters at the pod swimming below. We’re in open water, and the visibility is incredible. None of us can believe our eyes as we enjoy this magical moment, imprinting it in our memories for years to come. We’re all in high spirits as we clamber back into our canoe and head to shore, where we spread out a big lunch and sit together in a big circle to recount the morning.
Kayaking Along Kealakekua
The following morning we pack up camp and hop into the mantis, making moves towards Kealakekua Bay just 12 miles south of Kona. It’s a longer drive today, but the time is shortened by our high spirits and great music. Reign entertains us all with riddles and word games. Song requests are shouted up front–everyone’s excited! The day promises a journey to one of the most historically significant locations in Hawaii, as well as one of the top 5 best snorkel reefs in the world (it even inspired the reef in the movie Finding Nemo!)
We park our car and meet our kayak guide Jared, a rambunctious and laid-back guy whose passion and enthusiasm for the history of the bay is already pouring forth. After a quick safety talk, we’ve picked our kayak partners and set off across the bay, stopping periodically to listen to Jared. Robert and Nate speed to the front of the pack, while Reign and Margy take their time in the back, chatting and gazing around them. We’re all amazed at the beauty of this place, and the clear water beneath our boats.
As Jared continues to explain, the name of the bay comes from ke ala ke kua in the Hawaiian language, which means “the god’s pathway” because this area was the focus of extensive Makahiki celebrations in honor of the god Lono. It’s also the place where Captain Cook, a navigator and explorer of the high seas, landed in 1778. As we listen to the fascinating account of his arrival and his ultimate death, we’ve traveled across the mile span of the bay to the Cook Monument. The water goes from a deep blue to a light green, and we can already see small hints of coral along the bottom. One by one, we land and step onto the rocks. When the boats are pulled ashore, we all walk through the small patch of woods towards a cement pathway, which leads us to the monument and the waters edge.
One by one, we put on our flippers and hop into the crystal clear waters! What we see before us is breathtaking; colorful flourishing coral, bright yellow tang fish and dozens of other types of fish and eel swim around us. We pair off and explore the reef for an hour before getting called back in again, where fresh banana bread and fruit awaits our hungry stomachs. The snack fuels our paddle back to shore, which is equally mesmerizing, and once we reach the opposite side and pull up our boats, we sit down in the grass by the shore and enjoy a relaxing lunch together.
It’s been an incredible experience today, and we stop by one more snorkel spot before we’re ready to head to our new campsite at Ho’okena Beach, where we set up our tents quickly and start cooking a dinner of kebabs. Everyone gathers together to help the cook crew prepare the meal. There’s a special bond forming in our group already—everyone seems to want to help each other get the job done! As we spear the chicken and veggies onto their wooden sticks and put them on the griddle to cook, we chat and laugh together. Ian is especially entertaining, with his quirky stories and interesting facts, and Margie’s enthusiasm and positive energy keeps all our spirits high.
After a few days of kayaking, dolphins and snorkeling, it’s time for the service portion of our trip to begin. Bandanas on, water bottles filled and spirits high, we head to the location of our first project at the Kuamoo Battlefield and Lekeleke Burial Ground near downtown Kona. Here we are met by a group of men who commence to describe the history of this pivotal land, Hawaii’s beloved King and Queen Kamehameha, and the ancient and harsh Kapu system which governed the people of Hawaii for centuries before the arrival of new settlers. On this land where our group stands this morning, were mounds of lava rock where the dead were buried after a great battle between the traditionalist Kekuaokulani, who wanted to preserve the old ways, and the royal forces who were fighting to end them. Here, we are going to do our community service for the day, under the careful watch of this group of men, known as the Royal Order of Kamehameha I. Their role is to protect, preserve, and perpetuate the history of the location.
All morning, we work with the men to cut and clear brush from the burial site. We chat and get to know each other more as we work, and the time rushes by. At the end of the morning, the men lead us to to the waters edge where we play on lava rock and watch the tide swell in and out. We gaze, mesmerized, into tidal pools and watch coconuts bob in the water. It’s a peaceful end to a sweaty morning, and before we leave, we stand alongside the men and sing a Hawaiian chant of respect to the land. Our voices echo out across the rocks as we turn towards the Mantis, climb in, and head back to camp. At our evening circle, we all agree that learning the history of Hawaii makes our work and our time here so much more meaningful, and we all agree that this has been a great day! The evening brings us back to Spencer Beach, where Reign and Paul prepare an incredible chicken stir fry for the group and we huddle together on the park bench, staring at the beautiful sunset and sharing laughs in the soft night air.
Our mornings have been filled with adventures and enriched with the history of this beautiful place, our afternoons have led us to coffee plantations, secret beaches and roadside mango stands, and we’re all amazed as the days are quickly passing us by. We’re a week into our adventure together, and already there are too many amazing moments to recount. But most importantly, we are coming together; everyone feels accepted, appreciated and at home with one another, and the conversation flows freely. This island is relaxing us all, and the magic of the lush environment has captured our imaginations. We’ve all left life back home behind, and we’re here in the present moment enjoying each other! Even as this update is being written, the rest of the group is off doing their laundry, no doubt laughing and enjoying the strange taste of kava at a nearby shop, where the ladies sit and strum their ukuleles in the afternoon air. We’re just a week in, and our bond as a small group is growing as we share laughter, help each other cook, get each other going in the mornings, play card games and sigh watching these incredible island sunsets.