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Southern Accents: Exploring the Big Island's remote South Point

After hiking the short distance from Kalalea Heiau to a trio of dilapidated wood launches—the point’s only manmade landmarks other than a smallish, rusted marine craft light tower—I stopped to observe the fishermen I’d seen earlier prepare lines to send out.   
Century-old wood launches at Ka Lae.

To safely get to the powerful currents where the most prized fish swam, without being swept away themselves, Ka Lae’s earliest settlers would tie their fishing canoes to loops carved into the cliff’s lava rock and let the wind and current take them out to sea. Modern-day fisherman at Ka Lae, including the resourceful trio I watched, have their own to spin on that ancient method. Attaching fishing lines to floating boards fitted with plastic bags to catch the wind, the anglers I watched let nature haul their makeshift watercraft into the current while they sat watching anchored shoreline poles for bites.

A wind turbine farm on the road to Ka Lae.

From 1941 to 1953, Ka Lae was home to Morse Field, a 21-acre temporary U.S. Army airfield, used primarily for aircraft refueling after World War II. The Morse Field site was next briefly used by the U.S. Air Force as a communications and space tracking station in 1965 and, in 1979, as a Space and Missile Test Center before being permanently abandoned. Except for a handful of abandoned Morse Field structures and a line of massive, modern wind turbines visible a few miles north of the point, the Ka Lae peninsula is all grasslands pockmarked by sturdy kiawe trees, many bent into fascinating near-horizontal positions due to constant, powerful ocean winds.

Many of the wild kiawe trees near Ka Lae are bent into near-horizontal positions due to the peninsula's constant, powerful ocean winds.

After a few hours of exploring coastline tide pools, structures, dirt dunes and nearby Papakolea Beach—one of only two green sand beaches in the world—I returned to Ka Lae’s southernmost point, still devoid of visitors.

A handful of Papakolea Beach's famous green sand.

A friend on Oahu had told me that his impression of standing at the point and staring out to sea was akin to standing at the edge of the world. Indeed, with just the ocean and horizon in my sightline, and no land due south for more than 7,000 miles until landfall in Antarctica, I found his description very apt.


I sat for a while. And for a few more minutes, I was again the southernmost person in the U.S.

Photos by Derek Paiva


Ka Lae “South Point” National Historic Landmark District • End of South Point Road, Naalehu, Big Island 

(This feature was originally published in the September/October 2012 issue of HAWAII Magazine.)

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