At the bottom of 1,700-foot tall cliffs, lays the remnants of a leper colony and the priest who sacrificed his life to care for them. But to reach it, you have to ride a mule down the harrowing trail.
Photography by the authors
An attractive white-painted church stands on the Kalaupapa Peninsula in Molokai hunched against the constant wind. It is one of the 15 to 20 churches on this small island. (The numbers are vague because some are in disrepair across Molokai; however, this church is one of the four built by an extraordinary parish priest
who has just been made a saint.)
Hawaiians with the biblical disease leprosy, now called Hansen’s disease, were exiled on the Kalaupapa Peninsula often by a simple method. They were basically tossed into the turbulent offshore seas and told to get themselves to land. In the wake of this insensitive and cruel approach came a simple Belgian parish priest called Father Damien. He exiled himself to care for those 816 patients who had been so unkindly treated. He later died himself of leprosy. If ever an uncomplicated man deserved to be made a saint it was St. Damien of Molokai.
The colony lived on the flat expanse of this little piece of land jutting out from the North Shore of Molokai. It lay 1,700 feet below what have been called the tallest sea cliffs in the world. A tortuous path was carved and clawed from the top of the sheer face of the cliff to sea level. The trail ran twisting with 26 impossible switchbacks for three miles down the precipice so provisions could be brought in.
The land looks beautiful from the sea, the cliff intimidating from the lookout point and the view terrifying from the back of a mule. Mule? Yes, visitors wishing to see where the priest and his colony spent their lives have to take this trail. It is, in itself, a form of Purgatory. It takes a full day. It is a day to remember. It is the Molokai Mule Ride.
You can buy a sweatshirt for the mule ride and you get a certificate showing you’ve taken a mule up and down this hazardous Kalaupapa Trail; but some muleskinner, either innocently or tongue-in-cheek, has stuck a bumper sticker with a typo error on the wall of the stables. It refers to the path down the cliff as the Kalaupapa , and some tourists who have taken the ride and nursed their wrists, knees and buttocks for days afterwards might agree: if the Molokai Mule Ride is not a trial it is surely a challenge.
a former vice president at GM and, now,
“the most famous Hollywood cowboy in Hawaii.”
The muleteer who saved this venture when the idea faltered in 1973 is Buzzy Sproat, as the first person who dared take a mule down that rock face,
“That’s Buzzy over there with his mule,” someone says, pointing. “He’s the one wearing the hat.”
For the ride you will start close to the edge of the cliff and then you’ll stumble down the poorly defined trail on an animal that’s known to be both stubborn and stupid. But, you hope, it is a sure-footed animal, a sort of cross between a mountain goat and a yak. Well, true the track record for the company is excellent but someone decided the zigzagging trail worn smooth by years of mules’ feet needed to be “improved” for hikers so concrete inserts were developed to create steps at intervals.
As a rider you know when the mules have come to such an intrusion because they swear and skid when their hooves bounce off the hard surface, and you’ll swear, too, and feel you’re going to go over the handle bars, so to speak, as the mules fall down to their knees. And it’s a long drop down the sheer face to the rocks below. You ride on.
All the way down for an hour and a half
and you are thinking: We have to come back up. But at the bottom, at the National Historic Park, making it all worthwhile lays the traces of this courageous and compassionate priest who chose to live among his parishioners even though he knew he would develop their disease. In one of his final letters he wrote, "My face and my hands are already decomposing, but the good Lord is calling me to keep Easter with Himself." He died on April 15, 1889.
Thoughts of sacrifice like this may make your Molokai memory special. Not a movie you saw on vacation, not a wave you caught or a fish you landed. Just a moment of serenity surrounded by the sea and reflecting on the majesty of Nature and the occasional kindness of Man.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called