Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How to Walk on Lava and Upset Hawaiian Birds at Ahihi Kinau

Crunch crunch crunch. We’re walking on an old lava field, from one of the last lava flows in Maui’s history, possibly 500 years old. It sounds like walking on tortilla chips.

Walking through a kipuka (a "hole in the lava flow" where vegetation grows,
walking on the old lava flow, jagged rocks, and bottom right: goat pellets. 
Our guides are Joe and Dave, who work for the 'Āhihi-Kīna'u [1] Natural Reserve, on the southern tip of Maui, south of Makena and Wailea. We’re trekking to a secret spot north of La Perouse Bay to do a service project with
the Friends of Ahihi Kinau Reserve and the Native Hawaiian Plant Society (NHPS).

How do you walk on lava?
Carefully, paying attention. No, it’s not fresh, molten lava (there isn’t any on Maui, and besides, we’re not crazy).

The lava is crumbly and can break easily under a firm step. It slides and rolls like mini glass marbles. It’s not difficult hiking but easy to get complacent.  It’s also very uneven.

The main trick is to pay attention and not walk too fast, which can result in sliding and falling. This almost happened to me, and did happen to someone in our group.  This is also how you can spend an hour tweezing out small pieces of lava from your body.

Pics clockwise from upper left: the La Perouse Memorial where we met, the Makena Stables just before the La Perouse parking, gathering in the parking lot,
scrubbing shoes before we hike, our special gloves,
and night blooming cereus starting to bud outside someone's private home.

Another tip: wear good shoes. The standard footwear of Hawaii is slippahs (slippers, flip flops), but for walking on lava, covered shoes that have traction are much better.  

The landscape
The lava desert looks barren, with no nearby vegetation in sight, just rocks and boulders of lava. The lava becomes jagged too, as if large shards have been thrust upwards or pushed down by giant hands. Joe and Dave point out a large cave which contains an archaeological midden, a dump with remains of human usage. It connects to a large underground lava tube under our feet. 

Is it true, or just a Maui myth, that five foot centipedes live in old lava caves? Our guides chuckle at Amber’s question. There’s not enough vegetation or protein to feed five feet of anything. But there are some blind spiders that live in the tube.

An exaggerated photo of our guide Dave saying hi to a much-larger-than-5-foot centipede.
The centipede is a Creative Commons image taken by Eric Gunther
Along the way, Joe points out a former Hawaiian fish pond that is now privately owned by a house nearby, one of the few places on Maui where the water is privately owned. Most of Hawaii has public beach/shoreline access even along major resorts and private homes.

Some things to know about this restricted area we’re walking through:
  • The Ahihi-Kinau Reserve used to be accessible and is featured as part of the "La Perouse" area in one of Maui’s bad boy guidebooks, but it’s environmentally sensitive habitat that can be (and has been) damaged by overuse. We pass around a colorful brochure by Conserve Hawaii
    This environmentally sensitive habitat has plenty of warning signs, although Dave and Joe said people have been damaging and pulling out signs too, especially along the sea shore!
  • It’s an area known for luscious snorkeling, though signs strictly forbid trespassing, and both our guides have encountered hikers who protest they didn’t see the signs or didn’t know any better. Fines can range up to several hundred dollars.
There are plenty of warning signs here.
  • This is one of the few reserves in Hawaii that protects an entire lava flow from the source to the sea. According to the reserve management plan, it is the only reserve in Hawaii that encompasses marine ecosystems. 
  • Dave says that the area was used for military training and bombing practice during and after WWII, and he has found old bomb shells.  The area has never been cleaned up, and the state finally wants to restore it with federal funds. 
  • As a side note, La Perouse Bay is also rumored to have pods of early morning dolphins that swim back and forth.
  • There are numerous Hawaiian cultural and archaeological sites here.

The other surprise along the way.
Goat droppings. Yup. We don’t see any goats, but we frequently pass little piles of brown and gray ovals sprinkled on the rocks. They are not noticeable at first, until Dave and Joe point them out. They look like little seed pods. Light-colored, innocuous. I start seeing them everywhere.

There are herds of wild goats that roam the mountain sides and open areas of the island. Maui already has a nasty deer problem, but I don’t realize how bad Maui’s goat problem is until we keep passing little piles of goat turds. Like the deer, Maui’s goats are invasive, prolific and destructive. 

The most disturbing thing I learn (skip the next three paragraphs if you’re easily grossed out):

These words "Prepare for a Flossing" were painted at Ho'okipa for the tropical storm Flossie that everyone was concerned about at the end of July. This is not the actual sign, but my re-creation of the painted letters.  I thought Flossie didn't cause any damage, but I was not exactly right. 
After the non-tropical storm Flossie hit the islands, I thought there wasn’t much of an aftermath. After all, some lightning (we love a good lightning show - we hardly get lightning on Maui, followed by a quick intense rain shower)… ok, there’s some erosion at the beach and hill sides and some plants got broken. Still no major damage.

But bushels of goat feces plus erosion from Maui’s normal red dirt…wash into the ocean… La Perouse Bay turns brown after Flossie. Brown… and the goat droppings float on the ocean for a week. People are snorkeling in this crap!

The week after our volunteer project, I notice massive quantities of goat and deer poop at the beach at Makena. Even a month later, I am still seeing goat or deer scat in the sand, and I will never look at the beach the same way again.  Ewww.  Thankfully, I am seeing fewer droppings now.

It’s safe to continue reading now.
Those darn wild goats and deer are ruining our beaches! Let’s get the Maui Visitor’s Bureau involved in bringing wild venison and goat meat to our restaurant tables and grocery stores!

Joe and Dave show us a scarred tree trunk, where a goat rubbed against the bark, which then kills the tree.  The trees and plants most harmed are the native ones, like ilima, which don’t have natural defenses. The kiawe thorn trees, which are also invasive, are immune to the goats. Paradoxically, the state offers public areas for hunting which include watering areas for goats and deer to encourage the population, yet many local land owners don’t want state-endorsed hunting on private land because of liability issues.  Fencing has proven to be effective, but is costly.

Clockwise from upper left: wispy vertical reeds of makaloa used to weave mats for the Hawaiian royalty, a tree trunk damaged by a goat rubbing against it, na'io or false sandalwood tree that is dying because of goat damage, and the lava cave that really doesn't have any gigantic centipedes. 

As we follow the lava flow to the ocean, in the distance glitters a shiny greenish oasis. It’s achingly bright in comparison to the black and gray we are walking on. Like a hallucination or mirage.

The secret spot we’re going to:
Our destination is the anchialine ponds, crusty looking brackish water ponds near the ocean, in which salt water mixes with fresh water that comes through the lava rocks or lava tubes.  These are delicate ecosystems with tiny native Hawaiian shrimp and a very special cyanobacteria that forms a thick bluish green mat upon which the other plants grow.

Anchialine ponds at Ahihi-Kinau.

This type of bacteria is rarely found in anchialine ponds, maybe only in two other places in the world, like the Tuvalu Islands or the Sinai Peninsula. There are native Hawaiian stilts here, and Joe says that migrating birds are blown off course to these ponds in the winter, even a wayward Arctic Snow Goose!  It really wanted to vacation on Maui.

Tiny red Hawaiian shrimp and native 'akulikuli growing in the water. 

The 15 second video below shows Joe talking about the shrimp species diversity.

Note: This product uses the Instagram API but is not endorsed or certified by Instagram. (I have to include this verbage to comply with Instagram).

Our mission, if we choose to accept it:
Our job is to pull the invasive pickleweed or batis, that found its way here somehow from its native habitat. Perhaps seeds hitchhiked on some hiker’s shoes. It’s so easy to bring in foreign plants and species through dirt on our shoes, so before we even started hiking, we dry-brushed the outsides of our shoes and boots. Shoe cleaning is a typical practice at other Hawaii nature preserves.

This anchialine pond is actually a series of interconnected ponds, not just one pond. I ask if the sand blew down into the pond, forming dirt. No, it’s not sand at all, but layers of the dead cyano bacteria that form a spongy mat for the plants to grow. The native plant is ‘akulikuli, which is being outgrown by the invasive batis. I suddenly recognize it as a native sea purslane [2] that also grows wild along the North Shore of Maui, and it is delicious in salads, but I don’t want to taste any here. Joe says it could also be high in lead, since the area is still toxic from military bombing. There's a great culinary post about it by Saturdays with Maggy (but read my footnote too). 

Pickleweed or Batis. Clockwise from top left: Battis growing in a lava rock, pulling out batis, close up of batis leaves and seeds, the runner like spreading qualities of batis. 

The plan?
Pull out as much batis as possible and pile it on the rocks where the sun will dry it out and kill the plants. Pick up any pieces of batis that break or fall because they can root and become new plants.  But try to avoid stepping on the low-lying lava rock walls, which have archeological significance. The native Hawaiians historically used this area to collect tiny red opa'e shrimp as bait to catch fish. There’s also an area here called Queen’s Bath, where the queen was purported to have bathed. Is it me, or does almost every island have a Queen’s Bath?

We are doing lots of work, like the Seven Dwarves.
Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to the ponds we go!
How to Upset Rare Hawaiian Birds
The birds on the far side of the ponds are watching us. I think they are starting to get annoyed. “What are these humans doing to my food?”

Occasionally they flap their wings and take flight circling the pond. We’re not actually trying to upset them. We’re there towards the end of the nesting season, so we try to be careful and stay far from the birds.  But maybe we’re trying to steal their shrimp.

They’re upset.  They cry out, “Go away, I want to eat now.” Or “Don’t go near my nest, you two-legged muck sucker -uckers.”  They are thinking of another word that rhymes with muck and suck.

We are practically wrestling with muck.  Muck is on my face, smeared on my arms, on my camera, though I tried to be careful.  It is very difficult to pull off mucky gloves to take photos.  My clothes smell of muck. It’s not a bad smell but pungent in a swamp creature kind of way. I think of this as nature’s special spa treatment.  Is this why the Queen wanted to bathe here?

Joe says it’s nothing compared to the stench of dead rotting humpback whale, which he insists is the worst smell on earth and uses a special laundry soap to clean his clothes. Dave says the trick to getting mucky smells out of our gardening gloves is to add a can of coke to the wash. He raises his eyebrows, “If it’s good for washing your clothes, do you think you want to drink it?” (BTW, our guides provided the gloves to wear.)

Our service project brings together the corps of Ahihi-Kinau volunteers and also the Native Hawaiian Plant Society, whose members are formidable gardeners, plant identifiers, and protectors of native flora. 

In the 15 second video below, this is an overview of the scene:

The Battle with Batis
We pull armfuls of batis, in some cases, crawling into the water, or leaning over on a boogie board (to stabilize our weight in the muck), and prod, tug, stab, and wrestle with the roots.  The endurance and flexibility of the Native Hawaiian Plant Society members is remarkable. In some places, the plants release easily. In others, the plants are wedged into the lava walls, growing out of rocks, or rooted deep into the cyano bacterial sponge.

Since there are gardeners among us, we wail about not having our favorite tools on hand.  While some of the pickleweed plants are easy to rip out of the muck, others are tenacious. The middle section is particularly obstinate. Each time Amber pulls out a particularly tough batis plant, she crows for victory.  We seem to make headway slowly, but eventually it’s clear.  Our piles of batis are like haystacks on the rocks.

Here's another 15 second video of the scene:
Dave asks some of us to plant akulikuli in the cleared areas to give them a chance to compete with the pickleweed. We poke fingers into the silt and insert stems that have at least one joint or node.

Joe says a group of them had this area cleared fairly well, just by weeding four times a year, but then they stopped for a while, and the batis started spreading.

There is no shortage of work to do. Luckily it’s overcast and cool with a gentle breeze. After a couple of hours of mucking about, our guides decide that we are all mucked out.

Another secret spot:
We walk towards the ocean, stop by a midden, and encounter another anchialine pond. This one is free of batis and really different looking from the other ponds. 

This anchialine pond sits by itself, closer to the shore line. 

There’s also a cove with rolling rocks and Pohaku Pa'ea (The Rock of Pa'ea) in the water, with a Hawaiian legend that accompanies it. If you want to hear it, sign up to volunteer!  They’re planning to have a service project there at least once a month.  Otherwise, this area is strictly off limits.

Legend has it that the goddess Pele was involved with this rock.
Here's a link to another 15 second instagram video of the cove

Breathing the fresh salt air, and fortified by our break, we head back to the La Perouse parking lot. The sun is up now, glaring directly overhead. The infamous Maui wind, quiet until now, has awakened from its slumber and is now flinging hats and hair. I see why it’s best to end this project before midday. Or risk becoming sun-burnt and wind-beaten.

It’s worth the risk. It’s fun disturbing the birds (not deliberately of course, but being called nasty names in bird language by them) and satisfying to see our muddy progress and piles of plants on the rocks. Dave and Joe feed our group afterwards too. I eat my first hot dog in ten years, and after all that muck battling, it tastes pretty darn good.  I’ll like it even better when it’s made from wild Maui goat or venison.

Our volunteers and glorious leaders in full technicolor. I'm the third head from the right. 

To see even MORE photos of this service trip, visit the NHPS photo page

Visit all 132 pages, with maps, of the Ahihi-Kinau Reserve Management Plan

Learn about nature and wildlife preservation in Hawaii at Conserve Hawaii

You might also enjoy reading:

Y is for Yellow Hibiscus - about Hawaii's state flower: the native yellow hibiscus which is not the same as the impostor yellow hibiscus. Plus, if you want to volunteer in a wildlife area in Hawaii, there's a list of organizations and places.

P.S. I'm blogging less frequently for the next few months and revamping my site. If you'd like to be the first to know what's happening, read this post first
[1] The Hawaiian language is sometimes problematic for search engines. I think this is the correct spelling with diacritical marks, but for ease of writing and searchability (a made up word), I am choosing mostly to omit them. 

[2] Sea purslane is also discussed in the blog, Saturdays with Maggy.  I found it interesting that her service trip to the anchialine ponds on the Big Island involved pulling out sea purslane which was crowding out native grasses. 


  1. Great post Courtney, loved the photos and videos. But I had to laugh about the reference to using Coke when washing the clothes. A while a go a friend forwarded an email about uses for Coke which included dissolving blood, cleaning toilet bowl stains and unclogging drains! I have never bought it since!

  2. What a wonderful read. Really enjoyed it! It's reassuring to know that there aren't any 5-foot centipedes in the caves, but blind spiders??? Yikes! And yesss... must wear good footwear on lava. And a good hat. Thanks for the great article.

  3. Phew! No 5 foot cave centipedes. Mahalo for commenting!

  4. I've heard about some uses of coke. Maybe I'll have to try using it as a cleaner! Another friend says she used to think poorly of soda until she started doing competition paddling and said it was an amazing way to get an extra burst of energy when she was wiped out. Food for thought.

  5. Great post! Next time I come to Maui I want to see if I can volunteer there, too. Mahalo for the link, too:)


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