Museum Month: Kalaupapa National Historic Park And Leper Settlement, Molokai

kalaupapa national parkSome people – me, for instance – tend to skip museums when traveling in favor of fresh air or outdoor recreation. It’s always a treat when I can combine the two, especially because I’m fascinated by indigenous cultures. Though not considered museums in the strictest sense, National Historic Parks, Monuments and the like often do have buildings, exhibits, or relics with educational materials that provide a museum-like experience. When I can combine that with some physically challenging activity, it often makes for an incredibly rewarding day.

While relatively few visitors ever make it to the Hawaiian island of Molokai, located just off of Maui’s western shore, its fame is global due to its tragic history. From the mid-19th century until 1969, thousands of islanders afflicted with leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) were forced into isolation on the Kalaupapa peninsula on the northern shore. A smaller settlement also exists at Kalawao, on the eastern side. Today, Kalaupapa National Historic Park receives thousands of visitors annually, who come to pay tribute – and satisfy their morbid curiosity – to a tragic episode in Hawaii’s turbulent history.

Molokai’s North Shore is covered in dense rainforest and has the world’s highest sea cliffs, which tower over 2,000 feet. These geographical features made Kalaupapa the ideal location in which to displace lepers, often by cruel methods such as tossing them off of ships, which sometimes resulted in fatalities. The forcible removal of native Hawaiians from their ‘aina – family and land, which are at the core of their culture – devastated generations of islanders.

%Gallery-155196%father damienCritical to the development and notoriety of the settlement was the arrival of Joseph De Veuster, a Belgian missionary better known as Father Damien. Although not the first missionary or caregiver at Kalawao and Kalaupapa, it was he who turned the colonies into a place of hope, rather than exile and death.

Father Damien spoke Hawaiian and established schools and other educational and recreational projects. He developed a water system, expanded St. Philomena Catholic Church, and became a source of comfort to residents. He died of Hansen’s Disease in 1889, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

Although a cure for Hansen’s Disease was discovered in the 1940’s, most of the colony chose to remain at Kalaupapa, as it had become a tight-knit community. Today, only a, uh, handful of elderly residents remain, keeping alive Kalaupapa’s legacy by talking story with visitors and relatives alike.

The National Park Service established Kalaupapa as part of its system in 1980 (previously, it was a National Historic Landmark, the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement). While somewhat pricey and challenging to get to, it’s worth a visit if you’re at all interested in Hawaiian culture and history.

You can get to Molokai year round by either regional air carriers or ferry via Maui. To enter the Park, state law requires a permit from the State Department of Health, and no children under 16 are permitted. All entries are booked and must be prearranged through Damien Tours (808) 567-6171, which is endorsed by the National Park Service (there is also a Father Damien Tours out of Honolulu, but I can’t speak with authority to its quality).

Two excellent ways to gain entry to the park – via prior reservation – are by hiking the 3.5-mile trail or on muleback. Kalaupapa Mule Tour has been a park concession since the early 70s, and I highly recommend the ride if your butt and legs are in good shape and you don’t have a fear of heights. It provides a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, but be prepared for insanely steep, narrow trails and brutal switchbacks. Whether you hike or ride, please be sure to do an honest assessment of your physical abilities beforehand; another option is to do a flightseeing/ground tour. There are no medical facilities at the park.

[Photo credit: Flickr user University of Hawaii – West Oahu; Father Damian, Wikipedia Commons]