Clients tube through a series of tunnels. // © 2011 Kauai Backcountry Adventures
Ever since Kauai Backcountry Adventures (KBA) launched its mountain tubing adventure, a lot of people have encouraged me to try it. On my most recent trip to Kauai, I finally had the opportunity to check it out firsthand and found myself going with the flow — literally.
Our group, which ranged from 10-year-olds and teens to Baby Boomers, gathered at KBA’s headquarters in the small, mellow town of Hanamaulu. Clients should know that the building is set back from the road, so it’s easy to miss on the first pass.
Once inside, we were outfitted with all the necessary gear, including water shoes, gloves and hard hats with head lamps. Wetsuit tops are available for participants who get cold easily.
From there, we piled into a couple off-road vehicles for the bumpy ride into the highlands through beautiful pasture lands, past unassuming cattle and across refreshingly undeveloped fields, with a stop at a scenic overlook. Along the way, our guides shared some background information about the area and talked about our adventure at hand.
It turns out that the ditch we would soon be fluming down has quite a story. In the 19th century, the sugarcane fields of Lihue Plantation covered the landscape of Kauai. It was a thirsty crop, and the best way to satisfy it was to tap into the island’s natural waters from the mountains. The plantation brought in Chinese laborers who, in 1870, manually dug a four-mile downhill irrigation ditch using only sledge hammers, spikes and picks. It was a grueling and dangerous project, but it succeeded in keeping the cane growing.
The plantation closed its operations in November 2000, but the ditches remained, running across land owned by America Online co-founder Steve Case, a native of Hawaii. Recognizing a great opportunity for a soft-adventure tour, KBA rented the land from Case, and thus was born the tubing adventure.
Once we arrived at our launch site, each of us was given a big, colorful inner tube and, with help from the guides, waded into the water just as it started to rain. Of course, that didn’t matter. Once we settled back into our tubes, we were wet anyway. Soon after we started our float, the sun came out again, brightening a forest rich with fabulous trees, ferns, orchids and blossoming ginger.
Quickly, I found out that it’s impossible to steer an inner tube, so instead I just let nature take its course, spinning me around and bouncing me off the side walls like a pinball. It was rare that my tube simply headed straight, but that turned out to be much of the fun.
We were headed for five eight-foot-wide tunnels, each with its own set of challenges. The first two were relatively straight, which allowed everyone a chance to practice turning on and off their headlamps and knowing how to shift their weight in shallower water when the guides gave the “butts up!” command.
Just when I thought I had the hang of this tubing stuff, we approached the third tunnel. Heading into it, we hit an adrenalin-inducing three-foot drop that propelled the tubes forward with a little whoosh before careening into the dark tunnel.
The third chute brought another challenge: it wasn’t straight. When the workers dug in from either side, they missed each other in the middle, so they had to create some twists in the tunnel to make the connection. Happily, our guides were always on top of things, making sure people were safe at every turn.
Tunnel four was longer than those before it and, as we floated through it, our group started singing songs and playing with the echoes off the stone walls. For the fifth and final tunnel, the guides asked us to turn off our headlamps so we could enjoy floating peacefully in the darkness.
The last stretch of ditch was mellow enough that the guides encouraged a bit of horseplay. The younger tubers got silly and started splashing each other, while some of the couples floated happily side by side, hand in hand.
After helping us out of the water, the guides loaded up the vans and drove us to a picturesque picnic spot next to a waterfall-fed swimming hole. They laid out a spread of deli sandwiches, Kauai potato chips, cookies and bottled water for us to enjoy in the dreamy, tropical setting, then transported us back to KBA headquarters.
It’s fascinating that the same ditch that once served the old sugar plantations now provides water for cattle ranchers, farmers and contemporary agricultural projects. But better yet, for visitors it serves as a happy-go-lucky tour through history.