Take the mules to Kalaupapa leper colony and historic park. The flat piece on the left is the colony and our destination
By Sherry Ott
I listened in shock to our guide Pat as he told the story of Olivia: “Olivia arrived in the 1930s. She was 18, engaged to be married, and had been living in Oahu. She went to the doctor to get her tonsils out and was diagnosed with leprosy, but she wasn’t told and was allowed to go home instead. The doctor reported it to the authorities (as required by law) and they showed up at her door to tell her the news and to pick her up to take her to Kalaupapa. She said that her life ended at that moment. She went to the bathroom to kill herself with Lysol, but didn’t succeed. She lived exiled in Kalaupapa until she was 90 years old.”
You can find it all over the world, tourism based on tragedy and human suffering. It’s the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Dachau in Germany, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the 9/11 Tribute Center that recently opened; something draws us to these sites when we travel.
Why do we engage in tragic tourism?
“Some have a personal connection to the tragedy as survivors, relatives of victims, or witnesses. Others have an intellectual or cultural interest — to understand what happened, or connect the tragedy to other historical events. Others have no connection to the site or the event, but happen to be there as tourists and visit those places as part of their sightseeing.” – Independent Traveler
As I arrived at Molokai Mule Ride office to take the Father Damien tour, I definitely was the latter. I had heard about Molokai leper colony, but knew nothing about its tragic history. I was intrigued to learn more, but first we had to get there. Kalaupapa National Historic Park is situated in an isolated part of Molokai, at the bottom of the steepest sea cliffs in the world. It’s not an island, it’s just a hard-to-get-to place that happens to be the most beautiful area of the island and probably the most beautiful area in all of Hawaii.
Kalaupapa sea cliffs – remote and beautiful among a tragic setting.
Getting to the Molokai Leper Colony
In 1865, the only way to the Kalaupapa leper colony was by ship – and it wasn’t a pleasant ride. After being diagnosed, patients would be torn from their lives and taken by boat in a cattle pen to a small rowboat that admitted you onto Kalaupapa. This plot of remote land is where most of the patients came to live out their lives and most likely perish. At that time there were no cures for leprosy (now the politically correct term is Hansen’s Disease), and by order of the King the law was to exile all people diagnosed with leprosy to Kalaupapa. It was so remote and off limits that supplies only came one time per year on a barge; the rest of the time the people fended for themselves.
The port where the barge would land one time a year.
In 2015, Kalaupapa is still difficult to get to! But as part of the Father Damien Tour, you’ve got options: you can arrive by (a very small) plane from Oahu, Maui, or topside Molokai, you can take a mule down/up the sea cliffs, or you can hike down/up. I chose to take the mules as I had heard about the exciting (and sometimes harrowing) experience of riding them down 26 narrow switchbacks 1,700 feet; the steepest sea cliffs in the world. I do love myself an adventure!
And by doing the adventurous mule ride, the whole tragic tour seemed to lighten up a bit. Somehow they had combined adventure travel with a historic tour, which sort of made it more digestible.
Hold on tight as it’s really steep!
My view of the switchbacks from the back of Koa.
The trail down the sea cliffs to the Molokai leper colony was created in 1988 and is maintained by the National Parks Service. I was put on a mule named Koa, meaning strong warrior. However, he was pretty chill and had no need to be the lead mule, so we were pretty happy being second in the procession. Koa was older and getting ready for retirement, and I think that’s why we got along so well. Our guides, Audrey and Lulu, answered questions and doled out trivia-worthy facts all the way down the cliffs. It took two hours to get down, and the hardest part was holding on and not panicking around the narrow turns. Audrey made a point to tell us that the mules had done this hundreds of times and knew their job and the trail well. She even said that they step in the same place every day. Koa enjoyed swinging really wide in the switchbacks much to my dismay, but I trusted him completely. On the way up the cliffs it was a quicker ride, only 90 minutes, but it was much harder on the mules. As we stopped and rested at the halfway point, I could feel Koa’s heartbeat as he rested in turn number 13. These were impressive animals.
Kalaupapa Father Damien Tour
“It isn’t all tragedy and disaster here,” our guide Pat said, “life did go on; they were a community.”
We met Pat at the bottom of the cliffs and all boarded an old, rusty yellow school bus. Others who had arrived by plane or by foot joined us; we were given a sack lunch, and immediately swept into the tragic and touching world of Hansen’s Disease, all with a gorgeous Hawaiian backdrop.
Pat telling us about the history of Kalaupapa
Out of the 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa throughout the years, 90 percent were Hawaiian. The Hawaiians were more prone to catching western diseases that had been recently introduced to their culture. After years of public purgatory, a mixture of antibiotics created in the 1940s was found as the cure, and after that there was no more real need to isolate. But it wasn’t until 1969 that the laws finally changed in Hawaii and people were really free to leave Kalaupapa. The problem was that many had nowhere to go as the knowledge and stigma about the disease was slow to reach the public, and sadly few had any place to go even when they could.
However, as Pat said, they had built a community in Kalaupapa. It had a hospital (however it burned down when they couldn’t start the fire truck), many churches, homes, recreation fields, and a gas station that had five tanks holding up to 30,000 gallons. And there was even one bar in the community.
After 1969 many patients stayed and lived out their lives there, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Today the only people allowed to stay in Kalaupapa are the old patients and the park rangers. Sixteen people are still on the list to stay. The youngest is 73 and the oldest is 90. In 1980 President Carter named it a Historic Park to preserve Kalaupapa and keep the highly sought-after land from being developed.
Pat spent two-plus hours educating us on Hansen’s disease, telling us stories about the people in the community and how it ran. He took us to the many churches and cemeteries in the park and gave us time to reflect upon what we were seeing. He told us the stories of Father Damien, the heroic Belgian priest who loved and served this colony of outcasts and eventually caught the disease and perished there at 49 years old.
Father Damien’s gravesite
Churches in Kalaupapa – there were many.
The bus returned me back to Koa and we began the ride up the cliffs. While bobbing and swaying up the switchbacks, I had plenty of time to think about what I saw and learned. Overall the day was a strange mix of sobering, uplifting, and educational. People engage in tragic tourism for different reasons, but it reminds me of how far we’ve come. And it makes me wonder what things our society is doing now that we will look back on in 50 years and think are ludicrous. Only time will tell. I also wonder about Koa, what will happen when he retires? Will he miss this trek that he does day after day after day? I think he will.