More background info:
For more general background information on leprosy – or Hansen's Disease to use the politically correct name – see under Leprosy Museum
Kalaupapa is a remote, isolated peninsula of flat land situated on the northern coast of Molokai island, Hawaii
, and separated from the rest of the island by steep cliffs over 500m (1600 feet) in height. It was thus chosen as a naturally isolated site suitable for establishing a leper colony.
This happened in the second half of the 19th century when the disease was spreading throughout the Hawaiian islands, so that the then king was pressured into having the sufferers isolated by force.
The initial group of outcast lepers arrived in early 1866. The first arrivals were basically just dumped there, left to fend for themselves, with no aid or assistance provided. The initial settlement that was formed was on the harsher windward (wet and windy) eastern shores at Kalawao, but this was later moved the less exposed leeward western area of Kalaupapa.
Before all this, the peninsula had long been inhabited by indigenous Hawaiian communities – when the leper colony was established, these Hawaiians were displaced … adding yet another dark element to the place.
But of course it was the hardship of those banished to this place, with all ties to their former lives severed, that forms the main core of Kalaupapa's tragic story. A forced exile with no hope of escape. In those days, being diagnosed with leprosy not only meant a virtual death sentence, your previous life was taken from you as well, so to speak, by severing all ties to former friends and relatives.
Some 8000 Hawaiian families were affected by this isolation policy. In some cases spouses refused to be separated from their loved ones and came along to the colony as so-called “ko'kua” ('helpers').
And then there was the church ... in particular one Belgian
priest who was to become the saint of Kalaupapa: Father Damien
. His real name was Joseph de Veuster and he had come to Honolulu as a young man in 1864, where he was ordained later the same year. He arrived in Kalaupapa in 1873, aged 33 after having learned of the appalling conditions under which these wretched exiles had to live. He found his mission. And his work to improve the lives of his Kalaupapa flock, with much personal commitment, both in medical care, religious services but also in many very practical ways (building houses, planting trees), soon became legendary.
In 1885, Father Damien was diagnosed with leprosy himself – and four years later he died of the disease, aged 49. This further heightened his legendary status. He now was a true martyr as well! (In a less sympathetic interpretation he was partly blamed himself for not having kept enough distance from the infected and for not having followed a sufficient hygiene regime, but so what ...)
His heroic martyrdom and stature were later officially recognized by the Catholic Church too, first in 1977 when the Vatican
declared Father Damien “venerable”, then in 1995 when Pope John Paul II “beatified” him, and then in 2009 this was finally followed by Pope Benedict fully “canonizing” him, i.e. officially declaring him a saint
. In popular legend he had long become known as the “leper priest” anyway.
This legend also made it into a movie: “Molokai: The Story of Father Damien” (a 1999 international film production starring David Wenham and Peter O'Toole).
Initially Father Damien was buried at one of his churches, St Philomena
in Kalawao, the original settlement on the Kalaupapa peninsula. In 1936 his body was returned to his homeland Belgium
, where his grave can be found in the crypt of the small St Antonius church in Leuven. In 1995, however, remains of his right hand
were returned to Molokai as a relic and reinterred
in the original grave site.
Father Damien was not the last saint of Kalaupapa. Mother Marianne Cope, who had come to Kalaupapa in 1888 as Father Damien was dying, to look after him and to take over parts of his role after his death, was also canonized by the Pope in 2012, as Kalaupapa's (so far) second official Saint.
The leper colony was strictly speaking not the only settlement on Kalaupapa peninsula. In 1906, a massive lighthouse was built (at the time the “brightest light in the Pacific”!) at the northern tip of the peninsula and alongside it houses for the lighthouse keepers and their families were provided.
Their isolation was in way even greater, as they were prohibited from having any contact with the leper community just a mile and a half away. Yet despite the rules and the fears it is said that some interaction did indeed take place, when members of the community came up to the lighthouse to speak to the keepers' families to comfort them in their loneliness! The lighthouse's beam of light sweeping across the ocean and along the sea cliffs was also cherished by the settlement's inhabitants as something soothing – and they'd often come out at night just to watch it. The lighthouse was automated in 1966, and the last keeper departed for good. The old light may be gone, but the slender white tower is still one of the most noticeable landmarks of the area.
Outside of Kalaupapa and Hawaii, meanwhile, medical science made progress in understanding the true nature of leprosy. Already in 1873 the bacillus causing the disease was discovered by one Dr. Hansen
. It has hence also become known as Hansen's Disease since (see Leprosy Museum
). Yet it took until the 1940s for a proper cure to be developed.
The new sulfone drug, an antibiotic to treat leprosy
, first applied in Kalaupapa in 1946 soon proved to be highly successful. It also turned out that sufferers treated with the drug ceased to be contagious. This spelt dramatic changes
to the world's leper colonies. In the case of Kalaupapa and Hawaii
, the official isolation policy was not abolished until 1969! Yet in practical terms it had already more or less ended by 1950.
Formerly exiled patients were now allowed to travel – and people from the outside world came to visit Kalaupapa, including famous celebrities (e.g. Shirley Temple and John Wayne). Public attitudes towards the disease and the people afflicted with it, who had been so deeply stigmatized for millennia, were clearly beginning to change.
Despite all that, many Kalaupapa residents who were now free to leave their place of exile did not want to go. They had become attached to their little isolated piece of land and its spirit of community. The former prison had become home.
Still today a number of former patients (over a dozen, at the time of writing) remain as residents in Kalaupapa, wishing to live out their lives here. It was partly for their protection, to make sure their wishes are respected and their memories honoured, that Kalaupapa was made a National Park in 1980 (after it had already been designated a National Landmark four years earlier).
Outside access to the settlement is therefore tightly controlled and visitors are required to respect the residents' privacy. Not all residents of Kalaupapa are former patients, though. In fact the majority are now National Park employees.
The physical isolation of Kalaupapa has hardly changed. Land access is limited to a steep mule path. Otherwise there's only an airstrip for small aeroplanes. Once a year a barge delivers goods by sea that are too bulky to make it to the island any other way (cars, for example).
Currently the National Park service is addressing the question of what is to become of Kalaupapa in the future when no more former patients live here and the co-management with the Department of Health will, for that reason, end. A number of alternative plans are under consideration. This may include the opening of a proper museum at the site (a sizeable collection of objects has already been accumulated).
Whether access to the public will be eased remains to be seen. Issues at stake also include environmental ones. For instance, the National Park also contains rare species not found anywhere else, and these will require continued protection.
What there is to see:
When I toured Kalaupapa in August 2015, I took the fly-in option from Honolulu – so I can't say anything about the mule rides or hiking the mule track. See below
for the different practicalities!
The flight was by a single-engine 12-seater aircraft – which in itself is quite cool! As such planes fly fairly low you also get splendid views over parts of O'ahu and Molokai (the latter especially on the flight out of Kalaupapa). I like flying in such small planes, but for some it may be a challenge, especially if you are prone to motion sickness – these flights can be bumpy, in particular on arrival at Kalaupapa.
Once at Kalaupapa airport, which is basically just a shed with next to no facilities (other than a toilet and a drinking water fountain, but no staff), we were just told to wait until the tour guide came to pick us up. The pilot then took off with the plane and we were left alone. Walking off on your own is not allowed, so we just had to wait. And wait … and wait. As it turned out the mule rides (see below) had taken longer, so the tour bus with the mule riders and the guide was late. But this is Molokai. Nothing is rushed here.
Inside the terminal building a couple of plaques provide some information about Kalaupapa, the nature of leprosy/Hansen's Disease and Father Damien (see background
The tour bus, when it finally did arrive, turned out to be a veteran US school bus, I guess a vintage from the 1950s, which would probably not be deemed roadworthy on regular roads. But for the virtually traffic-free tracks on Kalaupapa it was still OK.
The guide was also the driver and so, after a short introduction, we rumbled along towards the main Kalaupapa settlement. We passed the long line of graves between the road and the west coast. Some 8000 people died here, after all, so it is quite a field of tombs.
Our first proper stops where we could get out, however, were at the village snack bar, where people could purchase supplies to see them through the next couple of hours, and then at the bookstore, where souvenirs, DVDs and reading material were on sale. But that's where the commercial side to the tour ended.
We were shown the monuments to Father Damien and Mother Marianne, ruins of the old hospital, the landing stage, churches and other buildings – and the guide relayed the background story in a well-prepared narration (if delivered a bit insecurely at times – she was new to the job).
In the main church of the present settlement, the current priest gave a short talk about Kalaupapa, its history and church affiliation – all in a very light-hearted humorous way (he was Irish!).
The settlement seemed very quiet and almost like a ghost town
– we never saw anybody going about whatever business. Yet many of the houses looked well kept and clearly lived-in. Others had obviously long been abandoned. In front of one of them I also spotted a hilariously dilapidated wreck of a 1930s car.
We then headed over to the other side of the peninsula, to Kalawao, where the first settlement and Father Damien's main place of activity used to be before being moved to the leeward side of Kalaupapa.
En route the guide also pointed out ruins of a former leprosy study station as well as some ancient indigenous Hawaiian archaeological relics from earlier times before the establishment of the leper colony in the 19th century.
At Kalawao we took a lunch break – at an overlook opening to a view that could hardly be any grander: the northern Molokai sea cliffs
, at 2000-4000 feet (600-1200m – sources vary in the actual figures given) they are the largest in the world! They're covered in lush rainforest green and accompanied by little islets and steep sea stacks that jut out from the sea like giant sharks' teeth. If you want the ultimate million dollar view in Hawaii
, this has to be it!
Hard as it was, eventually we had to drag ourselves away from this killer view and get back on our bus. The next stop was just a few hundred yards up the track: St Philomena church with the original grave of Father Damien in the cemetery next to it. Inside the church is a wooden bust of the man. You can tell that the church had been refurbished not too long ago (in 1988), after it had been abandoned since 1932.
This church is actually the only remaining building of the old Kalawao settlement still standing. But a plaque outside the church has a map and information about this first Molokai leper colony and its history.
On the way back we passed another small church, an ex-cemetery and viewpoints that afforded great views into one of the steep-sided valleys that cut deep into the high cliff face.
The bus took us back to Kalaupapa settlement and past the seaside stretch of graves by the road to the airport, where those taking a plane were dropped off. The rest of the group, i.e. those on mule rides, and one brave hiker, were then driven back to the foot of the cliffs to the bottom of the track (see access
There was another long wait for the plane – and we could take our time enjoying the views, including that of the tall white lighthouse that stands as a beacon at the northern tip of the Kalaupapa peninsula.
The plane finally arrived and soon we were taking off – and were in for one more special treat: the plane swept north and east before turning back south-west towards O'ahu, so that we could get one last and even more glorious view of the north Molokai sea cliffs in all their breathtaking glory.
on a peninsula on the northern coast of Molokai island, Hawaii
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: quite restricted, by organized guided tour only; together with transport these can be very expensive.
Details: There is no general public access to Kalaupapa at present (unless through a personal invitation by a resident). The only feasible way for tourists to get there is through an organized tour.
The tours of Kalaupapa itself are offered by a single operator, Father Damien Tours. Taking this tour is mandatory when visiting the site – you are not allowed to wander around freely. (This is at the residents' request.) Nor can you make your own way to Kalaupapa and just turn up – without the pre-arranged permit, access will be denied.
For getting there, i.e. to the starting points(s) of these tours, there are basically three alternatives:
The most convenient, comfortable and least time-consuming way is flying in: Damien Tours arrange combined tour packages with a small charter flight carrier operating out of Honolulu airport, on O'ahu. These packages cost 298 USD per person (at the time of writing). There are also flights from Maui, and even though the distance is shorter, these are even more expensive (ca. 400 USD). Flights can also be arranged from Molokai itself, but these do not seem to be available all the time, and flights and the tour may have to be booked separately. Enquire with the operators.
The main other mode of getting to Kalaupapa is by mule! The famed Kalaupapa Mule Rides depart from a stable on topside Molokai and proceed down a ca. 3.5 mile (ca. 5 km) steep path with 26 switchbacks. At the bottom you'll join the mandatory Father Damien Tour of the settlement itself. The package of both together (tour and return mule ride) costs ca. 200-250 USD. You can book this either through Father Damien Tours or direct with Kalaupapa Mule Tour.
For both mule ride and flying in, a weight restriction of 250 lbs (ca. 113 kg) applies, and that more strictly for the mules .. by plane there may be the option of still going, but a surcharge may apply to overweight passengers, whereas the mules will not carry anybody heavier than the stated limit.
Finally, there is also the option of hiking the mule track on foot. Needless to say this is a demanding hike so you'll have to be in very good physical shape to attempt this (take plenty of water! … and food, as well as sunscreen). This is, however, the cheapest way. Costs for the tour and park entrance fees/permit when hiking are between 55 and 70 USD.
There is also the option of combing these different modes of getting there, e.g. take the mule ride down and fly out. Prices for these combinations have to be enquired about with the operators.
Tours only operate Monday to Saturday – the park is CLOSED to all visitors on Sundays! The complete package for flying in and for the mules rides is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; but be at the airport (or the mule stable) about half an hour earlier; and be prepared for delays.
Whether tours run or not is also weather-dependent. If the weather is too bad, they may have to be cancelled – this applies especially to flights. These can be very bumpy at the best of times, but strong winds can make landing at Kalaupapa impossible.
When I did the fly-in package the plane did not depart from the general international/domestic airport of Honolulu but from the charter flight company's own private terminal on the other side of the airport complex. Father Damien Tours offer free pick-up and transfer from your hotel – provided it's on their list of hotels in Waikiki or Honolulu. Since I wasn't staying at any of those (but in Aiela), I had to make my own way there (I was given directions over the phone the day before).
When starting the tour from Molokai you have to make your own way to the mule ride stables, or you can get a taxi from Molokai airport (ca. 30 USD).
In any case, book well in advance, as places on the tours, seats in the small aircraft and numbers of mules are strictly limited! (18 mules, ca. 12 seats on the planes, and the maximum total number allowed on the tour is 100).
There is also an age restriction: you have to be over 16 years to be allowed on any of these tours.
Within the Kalaupapa settlement there is a code of conduct in place which prohibits, for instance, taking photos of residents. A respectful behaviour is generally expected of everybody going there.
Time required: basically the best part of a whole day. The guided tour on the ground may be only a few hours, but getting there and back will take at least as long. Obviously, if you're hiking this will take the longest, though mule rides aren't speedy either. When flying in, you have to factor in long waiting times until the groups meet and the tour as such commences.
This is not a tour for impatient people!
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Hawaii
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Arguably, it is the stunning scenery that is one of the main reasons for coming here, so Kalaupapa itself provides the non-dark combination.
The rest of Molokai also has a few things to offer, especially to those who prefer a slow-paced, relaxed island atmosphere and an off-the-tourist-tracks remoteness. The eastern half of the island has the wilder, more tropical scenery, with Halawa Valley possibly the highlight (thanks to a picturesque waterfall). In contrast, the western half of the island is more arid and much less dramatic in appearance, but it has the island's only resort hotel, complete with beach and golf course. Though if that's what you want you could just as well stay on O'ahu …
See also under Hawaii
- Kalaupapa 01 - the only land access to Kalaupapa
- Kalaupapa 02 - along a steep zig-zagging mule path
- Kalaupapa 03 - or you can fly in by small plane
- Kalaupapa 04 - remote Kalaupapa airport
- Kalaupapa 05 - no services
- Kalaupapa 06 - the tour is by an old school bus
- Kalaupapa 07 - the colony naturally walled in by high cliffs
- Kalaupapa 08 - Father Damien monument
- Kalaupapa 09 - Mother Marianne legacy too
- Kalaupapa 10 - book shop
- Kalaupapa 11 - church
- Kalaupapa 12 - inside the church
- Kalaupapa 13 - the current pastor giving a talk
- Kalaupapa 14 - old car wreck
- Kalaupapa 15 - Hawaii pidgin
- Kalaupapa 16 - mango tree
- Kalaupapa 17 - vestiges of the older settlement
- Kalaupapa 18 - high sea cliffs to the east
- Kalaupapa 19 - St Philomena church
- Kalaupapa 20 - original grave of Father Damien
- Kalaupapa 21 - cemetery with a killer view
- Kalaupapa 22 - steep valley
- Kalaupapa 23 - another cemetery in the current village
- Kalaupapa 24 - yet more graves
- Kalaupapa 25 - lighthouse
- Kalaupapa 26 - super scenic, but super isolated
- Kalaupapa 27 - the settlement seen from the air
- Kalaupapa 28 - Molokai topside