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Set 15 feet back from the moonlit waters of Kawela Bay, our bonfire crackled and set a golden stage for Kahokulea Haiku, an Oahu native and our storyteller for the evening. Hoku, as he’s more commonly known, swayed subtly under the stars as he relayed a series of Hawaiian legends — how the turtle got its shell, why the husked coconut reflects a sunken face — to a captivated crowd. At the end of the performance, I made my way toward him through the sand, my head full of questions.
Though Haiku is a natural performer on the sand, I learned that the beach isn’t his usual stage. As the owner of Hawaiian Hiking Company, a one-man operation with exclusive access to back acres of Oahu’s stunning Waimea Valley, Haiku usually tells tales while leading North Shore visitors along trails once tread by ancient Hawaiians and wild pigs.
Haiku’s mind has brimmed with stories since he was young. Following a Hawaiian tradition called “hanai,” his parents sent him to live with his grandparents on Maui at the age of 6. While he provided them with physical help — washing dishes and doing laundry — they immersed him in ancestral stories that were never documented, but only passed down through the generations via “moolelo,” or storytelling. The tales became part of him. He’d make cousins and friends laugh by mouthing words with precision as his elders “talked story” with each other.
“Historically, Hawaiian stories, chants and songs were ways to honor gods or past events, or they were legends that explained a certain animal or island feature,” Haiku said. “My grandparents filled me with the knowledge and stories that their grandparents had given them, stories that you won’t find in a Google search.”
Following his passion for narrative, Haiku briefly studied documentary filmmaking before he returned home to help Kamehameha Schools launch Hawaii’s first distance-learning classes. Then, after working as a cultural guide and educator for Waimea Valley for years, he split off to found Hawaiian Hiking Company, offering excursions that range from 2.5 to 8 miles and begin at $45 per person.
“As much as I enjoyed teaching the little ones, I loved the hiking the most,” Haiku said. “Now I get to focus on that. I like getting off the beaten path and away from the crowds.”
Though Waimea Valley spans 1,875 acres, the botanical gardens and the waterfall — which together make up about 100 acres, according to Haiku — are what most visitors see. Guided Hawaiian Hiking Company treks get travelers into the untouched portions closed to the general public.
“On any given day, the main portion of Waimea Valley can get 1,000 visitors or more,” Haiku said. “The only people in the adjacent valley that same day will be those who go on our hikes.”
Along the way, travelers are likely to spot endemic and introduced bird species, native and Polynesian-introduced plants and plantation plants, such as coffee, and ancient archaeological sites. Of course, Hoku shares legends as the group moves, explaining the shape of rock formations and the characteristics of flowers and animals.
“In the back acres of Waimea, you can smell the air, touch the plants, sample some of the fruit that grows,” said Haiku. “I encourage people to do all of these things, to engage their senses.”
Hawaiian Hiking Companywww.hawaiianhiking.com
Commission: 10 percent when booking five or more clients. Custom hikes and a coastal hike that leaves from Turtle Bay Resort are also available.