As we approached Kalaupapa I could see that the runway began abruptly in jagged rocks with huge waves crashing over them. It was quite dramatic. Nik landed the plane without a bump and we collected all our gear and told him we’d see him in two days. He hopped into his plane and flew off the edge of the runway and back up into the clouds.
Pat Boland was waiting there for us. Pat is a tour guide for the Father Damien Tours as well as a Kalaupapa historian and historical letter collector. We had reservations for the tour that morning so Pat dropped us off at the Visitor’s Quarters and we quickly stowed our things, put away the food, and grabbed some lunch items to take with us. There are around eight rooms in the Visitor’s Quarters building, and two bathrooms with two toilet stalls and a shower.
It’s all very bright and cheerful, with two single beds in each room with folded towels and washcloths on them. I had the room in between Val and my parents. I threw my camera cover and blue beach bag on the bed just as Pat pulled up with the bus. We hopped on and went to collect the people who had hiked in or ridden donkeys down the Pali for the tour. Some of them were there at the base of the Pali waiting for the bus, along with some bored looking donkeys and a group of cats, mostly orange tabbies. There are a lot of “wild” cats roaming Kalaupapa, and as you might imagine, they all look as if they have some DNA in common. Pat got a bucket of cat food from under his bus seat and sprinkled it on the ground for them. They didn’t look very wild then.
We sat for a while waiting for a few hikers who were still on their way down the muddy, steep Pali trail. It had rained really hard the night before, and the stormy morning had only worsened conditions. As we met people later throughout our stay, they would say to Val: “I didn’t think you’d come over in that terrible weather.” She’d just tell them we came over with Nik and they’d say something like “Oh, Nik, of course.” My initial suicidal maniac theory was starting to hold water.
As we waited, Pat started to tell us a bit about Kalaupapa: about how the supply boat used to come 3 times a year, but now it only comes once a year, so when it arrives everyone gathers at the pier and comments on their neighbor’s new couch, car, etc. Most of the people have 2 or 3 cars, because if one breaks down, it may be 7 months or more before they can get it repaired or get parts. The small Kalaupapa store gets it’s groceries from a supply plane that comes once a week.
By now we could see a couple of hikers coming over the hill. One man was around 60 and was streaked in mud – he apparently had fallen a couple of times, but was being very nonchalant about it. The last of the donkeys were corralled and all our hikers were with us, so we started off on the Father Damien Tour. Pat mentioned at one point that he felt a little nervous: Val is quite an authority on Kalaupapa, and he would ask her from time to time if she had anything to add.
He also told our fellow tourists that “We have a special guest with us today” and introduced my mother to everyone. My parents were sitting right behind Pat and later in the tour he heard her reminiscing and handed his microphone over his shoulder to her so she could share her memories with everyone.
Pat took us to many places, including Kalawao, where the first people were literally “dropped off” the boats starting on January 6, 1866. We stopped for lunch there, overlooking the rocky shore and cliffs and it was hard to reconcile the magnificent beauty of the scenery with the pain those poor souls must have felt, torn away from their families and deserted at the end of the earth. It was incredibly isolated then and there was no shelter, supplies, or tools.
The primitive shelters they made of branches and dead roots didn’t protect them from the elements, and for most of the year they couldn’t see a sunrise or sunset because of the high cliffs . The constant dampness and relentlessly howling winds made it impossible to get warm. Many died of lung disease, with no one to comfort them in their last hours. Of the 14 new people who arrived each week, an average of 5 would die.
It wasn’t until 1873 that the government annexed a portion of Kalaupapa to ease the overcrowded conditions at Kalawao. Some elected to remain in Kalawao, despite incentives from the Board of Health. On May 10, 1873, a 33 year old Catholic priest name Father Damien arrived at Kalaupapa. He was supposed to stay three months, but ended up staying until his death from Leprosy on April 15, 1889. In his 16 years he comforted, built, planted, taught, defended, and drastically changed the lives of the people of Kalaupapa.
After lunch Pat took us to St. Philomena church, where Father Damien had been laid to rest until 1936. In 1935 King Leopold of Belgium wrote to President Roosevelt asking that Damien’s remains be sent home to Belgium. The people of Kalaupapa were naturally devastated, and did everything they could to convince the authorities that their beloved Father Damien belonged with them. But on January 26, 1936, Damien’s remains boarded the ship “Mercator” for Belgium. Doc was one of those in charge of seeing that everything went smoothly. You can see the letter from the Belgian Consulate to Doc in “Doc’s Story”, thanking him for overseeing Damien’s return.
An old Hawaiian tale says that evil will befall anyone who would remove the bones of a chief from the shores of his land. Indeed, when the ship departed Honolulu, Captain Edgar S. McLellan, skipper of the Mercator, was on board, and was even seen at the helm as it approached the coast of California. When the ship docked at San Francisco, however, he was nowhere to be found and to this day his fate is a mystery.
The tour ended with Pat taking us all back to the donkeys and dropping the hikers off at the base of the trail back up the Pali, then he dropped us back at the Visitor’s Quarters. It had been a beautiful, informative, and thought-provoking experience for all of us. Pat was very knowledgeable, answering all our questions, and he obviously has great empathy for the plight of those who had suffered so greatly there. After I returned home, Pat was very helpful to me, visiting the website and identifying people and places I wasn’t sure about or couldn’t find out about.
Val and I left my parents at the Visitors Quarters and went to the Social Hall to prepare for the party. Val had gone all out: there were hot dogs, pasta salad, tuna salad, sodas, and a lovely cake. Once we had the tables and chairs set up, we took a quick trip over to the footprints to make sure we would be able to find them for the “Footprint Ceremony”. It had been a while since Val had seen them and we were both hoping they were still there!