After a wonderful morning at Kealakekua Bay, I followed Pu'uhonua Rd at the south end of the bay, where the lava-rock terraced streets lined with plumerias created a picturesque scene. The narrow road opened out into a long stretch amidst lava flats and monkey pod trees. Barely wide enough for two cars to pass, the paved but rough road led to another scenic spot - Pu'uhonua o Honaunau. After nearly a week on the Big Island I felt as free as a bird and just starting to really relax into the flow of my adventure on Big Island.
Pu'uhonua o Honaunua is a very special place that preserves aspects of traditional Hawaiian life. Honaunau Bay, being calm and sheltered, was a place where the ali'i (royal chiefs) resided. Separated by a massive wall was the pu'uhonua, a place of refuge for defeated warriors and those who violated kapu (sacred laws). Inhabited for centuries, the place was abandoned and left to crumble, due to the rule of Kamehameha II abolishing religious practices in 1819. A hundred years later it was set aside as a county park, and today it is preserved as a national historic park.
The most unique aspect of the place is the feeling of stepping back in time. As I walked through the grounds in the bright morning sunlight I could almost hear the voices of the early Hawaiians as they went about their daily activities in this sanctuary. The area seemed extremely conducive to settlement with its excellent supply of fresh spring water and abundance of fish and sea life. I stood on the edge of a pond that once held fish for the ali'i and felt mesmerized by the calm waters of the nearby bay lapping against the shore and the shadows of coconut palms painted their shadow on the glistening white flat earth like charcoal on canvas. Sunburnt fronds caressed the earth with their finger-like leaves and drew patterns in the sand. I had learned in the information centre that one of the sacred laws was that commoners could not let their shadow fall on the palace grounds. This would have been difficult to avoid due to the blaring sun and lack of shady trees.
The contrast of stark white earth and bright blue sky provided an idyllic backdrop to a scene of grass thatched huts. The Hale o Keawe (the temple that chief Keawe lived in) was made from ohi'a wood tied with coconut fiber and its roof thatched with Ki leaves. Traditionally carved Ki'i (wooden statues) stood proud and tall silently telling of an era that had long since passed. Apparently they were designed to stand watch over the temple and mausoleum that once held the bones of 23 ahi'i.
Ki leaves strung between the palm trees looked like they may have been used to make grass skirts. Closest to the rocky shore, a large stone platform called the Ale'ele'a, was the principal Heiau (temple) and stood bare and exposed but once served as a foundation for thatched huts and ki'i.
I walked amongst the stone platforms towards the water and was delighted to see Honu (turtles) floating and swimming in the clear shallow water. I put on snorkel gear and immersed myself in the gently surging sea. The visibility was crystal clear and the marine life spectacular. For an hour I delighted in experiencing a taste of life as a turtle, life in the sea.
This was a place of peace and that serenity could still be felt. In traditional times, blood was not allowed to be shed in this place and it offered protection for those who had broken a kapu and who were perhaps being pursued by warriors. After learning some things about Hawaiian culture by various media, it felt like a real treat to experience a taste of the old Hawaii. Exploring Pu'uhonua 'o Honaunau was like being in an outdoor cathedral - a place of sacred practices and history, indeed a city of refuge.