Under the Radar: Makauwahi Cave Reserve on Kauai

Under the Radar: Makauwahi Cave Reserve on Kauai

On a tour of the captivating Makauwahi Cave Reserve, clients learn about the island's ancient past and face off with giant tortoises

<p>Giant tortoises double as weed whackers at Makauwahi Cave Reserve. // © 2017 Alec Burney</p><p>Feature image (above): Once inside the cave,...

Giant tortoises double as weed whackers at Makauwahi Cave Reserve. // © 2017 Alec Burney

Feature image (above): Once inside the cave, visitors learn about its historical and cultural significance. // © 2017 Lida Pigott Burney

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The Details

Makauwahi Cave Reserve

Ancient Kauai Excursions

Think of Makauwahi Cave Reserve as a tropical time machine. Tucked off the beaten track on Kauai’s southern shore, the spectacular sinkhole offers a firsthand view of what Hawaii looked like thousands of years ago.

Makauwahi is Hawaii’s largest limestone cave and the richest fossil site in the islands. For decades, it has been the pet project of paleoecologist David Burney, who discovered it in the early 1990s. 

“Geologically and archaeologically, the cave is extra-special,” Burney said. “It’s a fantastic site where we can visualize the pre-human Kauai environment.”

During excavation of the cave, Burney and his team found skeletons, including those of extinct, native birds. They also unearthed remarkable artifacts from early Polynesian times, such as tools and fishhooks.

“This whole cave is a fossil,” Burney said. “It represents all stages of history.”

But clients don’t need to be archaeology nuts to appreciate Makauwahi. Adventurous travelers and fans of history, culture and conservation will find it equally enthralling. Set next to the dramatic, undeveloped Mahaulepu Coast, its location alone — with its panoramic views of the area’s ocean, beaches and mountains — is worth seeing. 

To reach the cave, clients follow a small path to a rock wall, then crawl through a 4-foot-high crevice that doubles as the cave’s front door. When they stand up on the other side, guests find themselves in a vast, light-filled garden where enthusiastic volunteers share its story. Kids are drawn to the cave’s mysterious back chamber, defined by stalagmites and stalactites.

While the cave is the centerpiece of the attraction, Makauwahi features an adjacent area that has been transformed from overgrown fields into a thriving expanse with 100 types of native plants. There, workers have created ponds for growing taro, a significant Hawaiian crop that steps from ancient days. 

“As soon as we finished the ponds, they immediately attracted endangered birds, such as the Hawaiian stilt, koloa duck, “nene” (goose) and “gallinule” (moorhen),” Burney said. 

Burney and his team also imported 200-pound tortoises to eat weeds and invasive species to protect the culturally important area. While touring this part of the reserve, clients can watch 20 of the shelled creatures methodically doing their job, with 25 babies waiting in the wings for their turn.

Clients have several options for visiting Makauwahi. They can park at CJM Country Stables and follow a path called the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail, which runs along the coastline. Along the way, interpretive signs describe the area’s rare, native plants and endangered animals. And near the end of the trail, visitors will find a large, informative exhibit poster that overlooks the sinkhole from above.

For a longer walk — about 2 miles each way — visitors can park in the public spaces at Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa. From there, a coastal footpath heading northeast connects with the heritage trail.

Clients who prefer a more in-depth exploration of Makauwahi can book a tour with Ancient Kauai Excursions. The company runs daily, guided, four-hour expeditions with pickups and drop-offs at Poipu-area hotels and shopping areas. Trips are led by professional archaeologists, who share their knowledge about native plants, animals and geology. The tour price includes locally made snacks and beverages.

Offering opportunities for voluntourism, Makauwahi presents the ideal venue for clients to give back to the destination during their vacation.

“Visitors can put in a few days of work and feel like they’re making a difference,” Burney said. “We hope that by studying and revering the past, we can apply what we’ve learned to make a better future.”

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