Hamakua: A beautiful area with a rich history

Idrive Hamakua regularly. For those unfamiliar with the wet side, Hamakua is the area that includes the coastal cliffs on the rainy half of the island.

They start near Hilo Bay and gradually rise up to 2,000 feet at the Waipi‘o Valley lookout. When we travel anywhere between these two points, we go Hamakua.


In old days, this road was part of the Mamalahoa trail that encircled the island. Roughly 260 miles long, it got its name from Kamehameha’s Ke Kanawai Mamalahoe, also known as the Law of the Splintered Paddle.

Legend tells of the young warrior Kamehameha terrorizing his way along the shoreline in a campaign to dominate this island. When he encountered some fishermen in Puna, they fled to warn their village, and as he gave chase, his foot got stuck in a lava crevice, causing him to stumble and fall.

One of the beleaguered fishermen returned and cracked him over the head with a paddle, splintering it. He could have killed the hard-head future king, but did not. The lesson Kamehameha learned and later enacted into law was that the powerful should not mistreat the weak and that everyone should be safe when traveling around the islands.

Ke Kanawai Mamalahoe provides for the safety of all travelers and was the name given to the ancient footpath that encircled Hawaii Island.

Today, you can still see the Mamalahoa sign on some paved parts of the old trail but improved sections of the road around the island have been given numbers: 11, 19, 190, etc. But this is how history gets lost. Why call a highway by a number when it has a historic and meaningful name?

Hamakua is a beautiful drive through lush forests along breathtaking cliffs. Heading out of Hilo, you can still use stretches of the old Mamalahoa but you have to know where they are. If you take a turn not far from Kalaniana‘ole school in Papa‘ikou, you’ll drive down part of the narrow road, a scenic route that takes you around Onomea Bay. In fact, when asking for directions from Hilo, you might hear something like: “Go to the bay, head Hamakua. Cross the bridge, keep going til you come to one big yellow school with a green roof mauka side. Turn makai at the intersection and drive down the road past where Onomea Arch used to be.” Got it?

Onomea Arch is another Kamehameha story which recounts how he created this spectacular landmark by throwing a spear and piercing the long rock formation that juts out into the ocean. I’m sure to get emails from sticklers admonishing me to get my facts straight, citing geologists who have determined that the arch was a thousand years old, way before the time of Kamehameha. But would you rather hear about boring rocks or a legendary Hawaiian?

I remember waking up one morning after an earthquake and learning that Onomea Arch had fallen down. Like many other niele Hiloans, we jumped in the car, and Dad drove us out to see for ourselves. Aue. The speared, picturesque puka was gone and all that remained of the famed arch were two piles of rubble on each side.

Nowadays, I see fancy, new houses coming up along Mamalahoa, on the edge of Hamakua. Yes, the view of the Pacific Ocean is spectacular, but a note of caution from this kama‘aina: One earthquake and BOOM!

That whole cliff could drop off into the sea, just like Onomea Arch did, on May 24,1956.


It’s good to pay attention to stories from olden days.

Rochelle delaCruz was born in Hilo, graduated from Hilo High School, then left to go to college. After teaching for 30 years in Seattle, Wash., she retired and returned home to Hawaii. She welcomes your comments at rainysideview@gmail.com. Her column appears every other Monday.

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