Flight to the Summit of West Maui

All of the images on this page are photographs that I took during my third flight to the summit of West Maui - there is no artwork featured here.

As a volunteer with the Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i for several years, I've been given the opportunity on three occasions to fly by helicopter to restricted areas near the 5,000-foot summit of West Maui, for the purpose of contributing to the management of the Kapunakea Preserve. Rainforests and highland bogs are the treasures of this protected land, one of the richest and most unique biological areas in the world, requiring defense against the ruinous influence of foreign weeds and mammals which threaten to destroy a remarkable ecosystem that has flourished here for millions of years.

My visits to the West Maui summit have been among the most inspiring adventures that I've yet experienced in Hawai'i. The flight over the mountains and valleys is a dream-like experience, offering simultaneous extremes of terror and enchantment - the helicopter is treated roughly by the wind, and all the while passing within such alarming proximity to the landscape that it seems as if disaster should result at any moment. But the spectacular views provide a distraction from these psychological discomforts. The terrain of the West Maui Mountains is so breathtakingly beautiful that it seems almost impossible to believe - wind and water have worked over the eons to grace the valleys with an erosional texture as complex as wrinkled tin-foil, and the great canyons are often separated by little more than wickedly sharp ridges. Flying over the smaller canyons and ravines affords brief glimpses of streams and waterfalls, but the ground drops away in a breath-taking instant whenever the helicopter clears the larger valleys, where stunning, vertical cliffs plunge downward for thousands of feet.

The traditional Hawaiian name for the West Maui summit is Pu'u Kukui - literally translated, it means "Hill of Light", although it's an unexpected title for a place that's obscured by dense fog more often than not. Here, the land is covered with a remarkable bog, a sort of natural sponge where native plants grow upon a soft, muddy surface, perpetually saturated with enormous amounts of water. In these windswept bogs, the plants are so miniaturized that they seem designed for a doll-house world, on a scale one tenth of what we call "normal" - even the familiar Ohi'a tree, which grows as a grand canopy tree in forests at lower elevations, has here adapted itself to bog conditions by becoming nothing more than the tiniest sort of "bonsai," with all the common features of its larger relatives, including the pale bark and the bright red bottle-brush flowers, but all on a scale so reduced that an ancient specimen may be no more than a foot tall. The bog is a living cushion of such plants, all growing so tightly packed together that the soggy ground is completely hidden from view.

Unusually clear weather prevailed over the mountains during each of my visits, offering photo opportunities of rare quality in a place that's frequently wrapped in thick clouds. The photos below offer views of the West Maui Mountains as seen from the helicopter, as well as shots of the bog, the forest, and some of the unusual plants that exist there.

 

Sheer cliffs along the north wall of massive Waihe'e Valley.
The flat-topped summit in the background is Mount 'Eke,
an isolated plateau supporting one of the most pristine bogs in all of Hawai'i.

Above and below:
The intricate floor of Waihe'e Valley, carved by numerous streams.

 

Above and below:
Clearing the ridge at the far end of Waihe'e Valley, which opens to the right.
Receding into the distance is another large valley, Honokohau.

 

A cascade in an anonymous gulch somewhere south of Kahakuloa Village.

 

Kapunakea Bog, not far from Pu'u Kukui, the summit of West Maui.
The bogs cover patches of relatively level ground between ravines.
The ravines are occupied by taller vegetation more similar to typical rainforest.

 

A rare Geranium, found only in the bogs of West Maui.

 

Rainforest covers the slopes a short distance downhill from the bog country.

 

Lobelia gloria-montis. The Latin name means "glory of the mountains,"
in honor of the beautiful flower stalks which emerge from the top of these plants.
Sadly, they weren't flowering during my visit, but they were beautiful nonetheless.

 

Above:
Cyanea macrostegia, one of the many spectacular lobelias of Hawai'i.

Below:
A close-up shot of Cyanea's bizarre flowers.

 

 

Above and below:

Two species of Cyrtandra, related to African Violets.
These plants are represented in Hawai'i by many
unique species found only in the Hawaiian Islands.

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