I survived the mule ride and made it down into Kalaupapa Valley, looking out to the ocean could be one of the most beautiful places I have seen.
And yet so sad.
It’s the home to Kalaupapa Leper Settlement and the story is haunting. In 1865, people on the islands were alarmed by the outbreak of leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) and decided to separate and isolate patients to keep it under control.
That is a mild way of putting it, they were in essence banished and exiled, dropped off on ships with only as much as they could carry. There was no way out of this valley. No roads. No boats. Nothing but steep mountains that the sick could not climb. The government mistakenly thought that because they were Hawaiian they would be able to fend for themselves but because they were sick many could not and the last few years of their lives were miserable.
Over 8000 patients have been sent here over the years. People were sent on a ship at might to minimize commotion from family who would never see them again.
They were being sent somewhere to die alone.
But all of these numbers are meaningless until you hear the personal stories. Olivia was 18 in 1934 and about to get married she went to the doctor to get her tonsils out when the hospital discovered she had leprosy, everyone on the island knew what that meant, she said her life was over and unsuccessfully tried to kill herself.
It became a lawless land where the vulnerable were prey and people were terrified they would go there. A Belgian missionary-priest, Father Damien, volunteered to go there to help bring order and faith. He was so close he eventually died of the disease as well (gravestone above, one of the handful that have a marked grave). Say what you will about the Church but more came to help out on land that everyone was terrified to visit.
The Government also realized they needed to take care of the people and worked with the Church to build homes, schools, places for orphans and women.
In the 1940s Hansen’s Disease could be treated with an antibiotic and the people were no longer a threat to the greater population. But the law didn’t change until 1969 – people would no longer be sent here but anyone here could stay if they wished. And some did.
17 patients remain, the youngest is Boogey who is 70 but average age is 80.
Today it is also a state park. There are 30 people here from the Department of Health and 50 that work with the park. You can only stay here if you work here (no spouses) or a patient. You need to get permission to visit but there can be no more than 100 outsiders a day. No children under 16.
It will turn into a national park but they aren’t sure how it will be run or how open to the public. They say there will never be a time when the patients aren’t here as it is spiritually a significant place and the patients will always be here.
I can’t help but get chills knowing such a beautiful place was hell to so many.
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Moloka’i Visitors Bureau but they did not request any favourable reviews, all opinions of my own and I am happy to recommend this wonderful island.