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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


The Caretakers 
Story By: Tiffany Hill
Photos By: PF Bentley

Maps, guidebooks, web sites, even many Moloka‘i residents call it Moa‘ula: Red Chicken. But Pilipo Solatorio wants to set the record straight. The lean 75-year-old clears his throat and says it right: “It’s Mo‘o‘ula, not Moa‘ula,” he says. It’s only a one-vowel mistake, but a big one: These towering waterfalls in east Moloka‘i were named not for a red (ula) chicken (moa) but for a red mo‘o, a fearsome, lizardlike deity that was said to haunt the shadowy lava tube caves near the falls.

Pilipo is scrupulous about this and hundreds of other details concerning Halawa valley. He strings stories together like the kukui nuts on the lei he’s wearing as we sit at a picnic table in the valley’s secluded beach park. With us is his son, Gregory Kawaimaka Solatorio. We’re otherwise alone at the small park tucked at the far end of the narrow, serpentine highway leading from Kaunakakai. Pilipo and Greg meet here nearly six mornings a week to take school groups, kama‘aina and visitors on hikes through the valley, something Pilipo started doing in 1992. They pepper these daylong excursions to Mo‘o‘ula with mo‘olelo (stories) of their family’s history and of the remote, verdant valley where they have lived for generations. 

Halawa is carved into the easternmost end of the 260-square-mile island of Moloka‘i. Preserved within its intact rainforest are traces of a community that has lived here continuously for nearly 1,400 years, one of Hawai‘i’s earliest settlements. Throughout the valley are heiau (temples), lo‘i (taro patches), rock walls and home foundations. “At one time five thousand people lived here and harvested more than a thousand taro patches,” says Greg. During Hawai‘i’s territorial era Halawa was a bustling, Western-style town complete with a school, post office, church and auto and footbridges, but two disasters put an end to its prosperity: Halawa was twice hit by tsunami. Pilipo was six years old in April 1946 when a wave that killed 159 people statewide roared nearly two miles into the valley. In March 1957 another tsunami rendered Halawa a ghost town. It was never rebuilt, and today there is no modern plumbing or cell service. Those few residents who did return—about twenty today—have put up no-trespassing signs to deter hunters and hikers; there is no public access into the valley, which is another reason why the Solatorios lead guided hikes. “If you want people to respect the land and learn about your culture,” says Greg, “you have to teach them.” 

The Solatorios aren’t the only ones who lead hikes into the valley, but they were among the first and have the deepest roots: Pilipo is the last living resident of Halawa who was born there. When Pilipo was five years old, his grandfather chose him to assume the family’s traditional role and become a caretaker of Halawa. Greg is now preparing to take on that kuleana (responsibility) from his father. For the Solatorios, the hikes are a part of that kuleana, and they offer an opportunity to share their love for a place that most visitors venture into heedless of its history.

To prepare me for my hike into the valley with Greg, Pilipo tells me to breathe. He inhales deeply and says, “Halawa in Hawaiian means ‘sufficient breath.’” I breathe, too, and off we go. Greg blows the pü, the conch shell, to announce our arrival. Then Pilipo chants to identify our group and explain our desire to hike the valley. There is a protocol to entering Halawa: “It’s like going to visit people,” says Greg. “You don’t just barge in, and you bring something.” I lay a ho‘okupu, a ceremonial gift, next to the upright carved stones representing Pilipo’s kupuna, or ancestors. We stop briefly at Halawa Hale, a pavilion with a 180-degree view of the valley, a few yards from the stones. Next door is the Solatorios’ home, where Greg, Pilipo and Diana—Pilipo’s wife of fifty-one years—live mostly off the grid. Here Pilipo will wait while we continue on to the falls; a knee injury prevents Pilipo from hiking as often as he once did. But it’s good practice for his son, he says: “Every day is training.”

As we hike deeper into the thick forest, the only sounds are birdcalls, the soft whine of mosquitoes and the occasional tour helicopter from Maui passing overhead. Frequent use has imprinted a well-defined 1.7-mile trail to the falls; Greg nimbly hikes it barefoot, which makes crossing the stream easier. The slow, curving watercourse begins at the spectacular 250-foot-plus-high Mo‘o‘ula falls and feeds the downstream lo‘i before emptying into the sea. Greg scans the forest with a hunter-gatherer’s eye and spots the hoofprints of wild boars he’ll later hunt, the ripe noni fruit he’ll later pick for medicine and the hala tree leaves he’ll later pull for weaving lauhala mats. “I love living off the land,” says the 35-year-old, pushing up his wire-frame glasses.