Paradise by Horseback

This Waipio Valley tour operator knows the secrets of one of Hawaii's greatest regions.

By: Marty Wentzel

WAIPIO VALLEY, Big Island Not long into our horseback ride in Waipio Valley, our guide Jay sent his dog off the trail and into the woods. After a few minutes of rustling, the dog came back holding something gently in his mouth: an avocado the size of a football. He presented it to Jay, who whipped out his pocketknife and sliced the perfectly ripe fruit into slices for each of us to eat, right then and there.

Such is the magic of a ride through Waipio (Hawaiian for “curved water”), a valley ripe not only with wild edibles for the taking, but local history and culture as well. Located on the Northeast shore of the Big Island, it is the largest and most southern of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains.

Naalapa Stables

We met Jay and our fellow riders at the top of the valley in the rural town of Kukuihaele. From there, a four-wheel-drive vehicle carried us down the steep hill to the valley floor. We passed a few hardy explorers on foot, the only other mode of transportation up and down the switchback road.

Two-thousand-foot walls surround the valley, which is six miles deep and a mile wide at the coastline. It’s a lot of area to cover, and a horse was an excellent way to explore it as Jay spun stories about the historic valley.

From the late 1800s into the 1940s, residents of the community built churches, restaurants, schools, a hotel, a post office and a jail. But in 1946, when a deadly tsunami swept far back into the valley, most people left Waipio, where only a handful of people now live.

Jay works for Naalapa Stables, run by Sherri Hannum, who moved to Waipio Valley with her husband and three children in 1972. Guided by a ’60s-style mentality, the family was looking for a simple back-to-the-earth lifestyle.

“At that time, there were only 12 people living in the valley,” Hannum said. “We were part of the wave of settlers looking to live close to the land.”

After the tidal wave of ’46, many Waipio residents had left behind their pack animals when they moved away, Hannum explained. “The horses reproduced and went wild,” she said. “When we moved there, I caught a mare and tamed her, and that was the beginning of my herd.”

Hannum spent years of getting to know the valley and its trails on horseback, sometimes accompanied by friends who were amazed at the beauty of the area.

That was the beginning of Hannum’s tour company, which she officially launched in 1981.

Today, Naalapa Stables named for one of the valley’s many waterfalls runs two daily tours through Waipio Valley, six days a week. Although she has 18 horses, Hannum likes to limit each of the valley rides to no more than 10 people.

“Riding in small groups, it’s a good way to experience the land,” she said. “Waipio is a very delicate place. It’s an undisturbed paradise. On a horse, you can enjoy it in a very eco-friendly way.”

A Garden of Eden

During our horseback excursion through the valley, it was clear we were in a veritable Garden of Eden.

Jay pointed out exotic plants like eucalyptus, old sugar cane, lauhala, jade and breadfruit. He shared tastes of the oranges and guava that grow wild in the area. He pointed out the fields of taro, long cultivated in the valley and used to make poi, the staple of the old Hawaiian diet. And he pointed out dramatic waterfalls of the valley, including Hiilawe, dominating the back wall.

In 1993, Hannum moved out of the valley and started a second horseback riding tour as part of Naalapa Stables. There, clients can explore the 12,000-acre Kahua Ranch in North Kohala.

But Hannum is still dedicated to the preservation of Waipio Valley. She attends community meetings about the sensitive control of tourism there, and her youngest daughter Maile, who was born and raised in the valley, oversees Naalapa’s Waipio operations.

“I lived in Waipio Valley for over 20 years,” Hannum said. “In other places around the world, low-key tourism has worked. I hope it continues to work for Waipio.”