By Eric Noland – Los Angeles Daily News
POSTED: 03/21/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

Visitors to Molokai take the mule ride down to Kalaupapa National… (Photo credit: Ray Mains)
KALAUPAPA, Hawaii — A visit to Kalaupapa is the antithesis of sun-washed revelry in the Hawaiian Islands, but it’s a story of human tragedy and bureaucratic atrocity that shouldn’t be forgotten.

The status of this settlement as Kalaupapa National Historical Park, established in 1980 and overseen by the National Park Service, seeks to ensure that it isn’t.

In 1865, Hansen’s disease — as leprosy came to be known — was sweeping through the Hawaiian population. Panicked, the kingdom’s government ordered that all persons who had contracted it be removed to a broad, flat peninsula on Molokai, one that backed up to a wall of towering sea cliffs. Children were taken from parents, wives were separated from husbands, royalty was sent off with paupers, and all were consigned to living out their days here.

Not until sulfone drugs became an effective treatment in the 1940s did the fear of contagion subside, and the isolation policy was finally lifted in 1969. At last, the pariahs at Kalaupapa were free to leave.

Some 25 people who were confined to the settlement are still alive today, and about half of them chose never to leave. Those range in age from late 60s to early 90s, and this beautiful tropical setting was the only home they’d ever known.

“There is limited access,” said park superintendent Steve Prokop. “The reason is the privacy of the patients, in not having large numbers of visitors coming through their home.”


A century ago, the site was chosen so that it would be difficult for patients to get out. The same traits now conspire against tourists who want to get in. There are limited plane flights to the settlement. And hikers who have made prearrangements can trudge down the Pali trail — although they have to hike or fly back out the same day, as there are no tourist services or lodgings in the town.


But the most popular way to visit Kalaupapa is on the back of a mule. The Molokai Mule Ride can accommodate up to 18 intrepid travelers on an excursion that takes up most of a day. The route picks its way down a 1,664-foot Pali, bending around 26 switchbacks in a little more than three miles.

We’d heard that this was a real white-knuckle ride, but it actually felt pretty safe. Wooden guardrails have been constructed along all of the precipitous drop-offs, the flanks of the mountain are thick with vegetation, and the mules are docile and know this route well.

On our ride, the wranglers didn’t hesitate to put a 105-pound woman at the very front of the pack, because her mount, Kumu, “likes to go first.” I noticed that one of the mule skinners, as they like to be called, didn’t even hold onto his reins on the way down the trail.

All along the way, the views are positively stunning — deep-blue water, foaming white as it strikes the black-rock shores; steep, verdant hillsides; and Kalaupapa far below, protruding into the ocean like a flat, green shelf.

The lead riders surprised goats and deer, prompting one wrangler to remark that he and his friends love to hunt the latter. “Is that legal?” inquired a tourist. “It isn’t legal; it’s Hawaiian,” came the reply.

Concrete blocks have been positioned across the trail to control erosion from rainfall, but in spots it creates a virtual staircase for the mules to negotiate. This can be a bit unnerving, all the more so when a mule stumbles a bit and you feel you’re going to be pitched headlong over its ears. But the animals do this six days a week and seem to have it down pat.

“If you stay on the mule, you’ll come back this afternoon,” said owner Buzzy Sproat, “because the mule is coming back.”

Added his sidekick, Bruddah Roy: “If the mules were any more tame, they’d be dead. They’re very sure-footed. They’re not like horses. They can see all four hooves when they walk forward. They stop, calculate and go down.”

At the bottom of the trail, after a ride along the edge of a pristine gray-sand beach, riders are met by a guide from Damien Tours, a company owned by a former patient. It holds the national park concession for tours of Kalaupapa, and all visitors — mule riders, hikers, air passengers — assemble at the edge of town for the bus ride.


Tourists are forbidden to roam freely in this historical park, and even the tours are tightly controlled. “The buildings on the other side of this road belong to the patients,” guide Bobby Starkey said at our second stop. “Do not cross this road. They don’t want people staring at them. And it’s a $500 fine and jail time if you’re caught taking a picture of a patient.”

The residents of Kalaupapa have set the rules, including one that stipulates no visitor under the age of 16 is allowed here. During the decades of isolation, newborn infants were taken from parents and removed from the settlement, placed with relatives or in orphanages to prevent the babies from catching the disease. Said Starkey: “They feel, ‘Why should other people be able to bring their children down here when ours were taken away at birth?’ ”

The remaining patients know today’s tourist drill well. We were told they usually retire behind the curtains of their homes in the late morning when the tour bus pulls in, and remain there until it drives off in the early afternoon.

A requisite stop was St. Philomena Church, which was central to the Rev. Damien De Veuster’s ministry at Kalaupapa before he contracted leprosy and died here in 1889.


“Father Damien,” as he was known, is the most famous clergyman who worked among the patients, but there were many others, including fellow Catholic Church figures Mother Marianne Cope and the Rev. Joseph Dutton, as well as Congregationalist missionaries and elders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other caregivers were not of the cloth but were simply relatives who voluntarily chose to move here and live in isolation to minister to their spouses, children or parents.

The memorial statues at Kalaupapa are almost entirely devoted to the clergy members who came to work here, rather than the leprosy sufferers themselves, whose bodies and social lives were so devastated by a misunderstood disease.

It’s a good idea to visit the national historical park Web site,, before coming to Kalaupapa. Damien Tours provides some anecdotal information about the settlement, but it falls far short of the interpretive resources routinely found at national parks. There is a small museum and bookstore here, but no visitors center, no informational film, no comprehensive display of historical artifacts, no ranger-led walks.

Eventually these kinds of things figure to be in place, and the strict visitor restrictions eased, but that won’t happen until the last of the remaining patients dies — and no one is in a hurry to see that.

Near the conclusion of the tour, a picnic lunch is served at an overlook of Kalawao, a beautiful but rugged bay where the first exiles were dumped in 1866. Early on, leprosy patients would be forced into the sea from boats and ordered to swim to shore, where lawless depravity reigned and fights over provisions were commonplace.

The arrival of Father Damien and other na kokua — missionaries and family members who weren’t afflicted with the disease — helped establish a semblance of order and dignity for the patients.

In the early afternoon, we mounted the mules again for the ride out, which was considerably easier riding because they were climbing the trail rather than picking their way down it.

The scenic views were just as fabulous along the steep mountainside, but there was much time for reflection — and contemplation of a searing irony.

For 100 years, this rock wall and the roiling ocean ensured that no one could leave Kalaupapa. Now outsiders can’t come in unless they are escorted, and they can’t move about freely.

Some 8,000 outcasts had no say in their fate, but now the remaining patients will be afforded the dignity of concluding their stay on their own terms.

When they die.