Captain Cook Never Sailed Here

Puu Kukui, Maui

   

The helicopter chatters up from a razorback ridge, leaving us behind high in the remote West Maui Mountains. Rain spatters the bushes and low-standing trees. The air is hot, close, smelling of mud. We're in one of the last stretches of virgin rainforest in Hawaii, atop 5,877-foot Puu Kukui. We're here because we've won the lottery.
For most of this century, Puu Kukui has been off-limits to outsiders. Considered by early Hawaiians to be the connecting point between heaven and earth, this high, clouded mountain has been owned by the Maui Land and Pineapple company since the late 1800s. When it proved poor for pineapple cultivation, the company turned it into Hawaii's largest private nature preserve. Dedicated to scientific study, it wasn't open to the public. Until now. Beginning in 1996, this 8,661-acre plot, home to more rare native plants and birds than anywhere else in Hawaii, has been thrown open to visitors once a year—but only to the few and the lucky. Under the auspices of the Kapalua Nature Society, a lottery is used to choose 12 hikers per year (out of about 35 applicants). This exclusive little group gathers in Kapalua, chats up the naturalist guide, and then helicopters back about ten million years, to a Hawaii suffocatingly lush with orchids, daisies, gorgeous spiky silverswords, and a wild, dense profusion of ferns.

For our once-in-a-lifetime trek, it's gently raining. It usually is. Puu Kukui is one of the wettest places on earth. This perpetual sogginess discourages deep root structures, so most of the plants, including trees, are miniaturized, bonsai-like. We clamber from the helicopter landing onto a wooden boardwalk, the only evidence of human presence in this tropical wetscape. As we begin our walk, the guide explains that each foot of bog depth represents about 10,000 years of Hawaii's geological and biological history. Listening intently, I misstep, stumble from the catwalk, and sink to about A.D. 650. Ancient mud clings to my boot for the rest of our three-mile hike, as wild i'iwi birds, extinct in most of the rest of the islands, sing in the green all around.
To enter the lottery for next year's Puu Kukui hike, call 800-527-2582 for an application. Cost to the winners is approximately $500, including helicopter transport to and from the forest.

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