The most outstanding feature of the windward coast of the Island of Hawai`i is the valley of Waipi`o. For most visitors and many residents, the magnificent view from the lookout at the end of Hwy. 240 is their image of the Valley. Some pursue their interest further, getting down to the floor of the Valley. The beautiful and powerful shoreline leaves a lasting impression, and the vistas toward the back of the Valley make one wonder what happened to create such a dramatic landscape. Waipi`o is geologically complex. Many forces have come together to produce it, water being foremost. Five different major stream systems contribute to the water in it, each carving a deep canyon that carries water to the main river, known either as Waipi`o or Wailoa River.
Particularly noticeable from much of the front of the Valley is the famous waterfall, Hi`ilawe. Lalakea Stream winds from the pu`u on the flat Hamakua-side of Waimea to spill over the edge of the Valley as Hi`ilawe Falls. For much of Lalakea’s course, it follows the boundary of Kohala and Mauna Kea volcanoes. Other smaller streams have helped Hi`ilawe cut back the rim of the Valley to form the Hi`ilawe side-valley, including Hi`ilawe’s “twin”, Hakalaoa, as well as Ipu`u, further to the east.
Place Names of Hawai`i translates “Hi`ilawe” as, “lift [and] carry.” The authors comment that this “…highest free-fall waterfall in Hawai`i and one of the highest in the world…is now usually dry, as the stream is diverted for irrigation.” Lalakea-becoming-Hi`ilawe drops about 200 feet into a plunge pool. Cracks in the pool drain the falls down the inside of the pali if the volume of the flow is not fairly large. When the amount of water pouring over is great enough, the stream fills the pool and spills out another 1,000 vertical feet.
As is true of all the significant streams that feed into Waipi`o, Hakalaoa and Lalakea/Hi`ilawe have water taken from them. Lalakea Stream is partially diverted through a mile-long tunnel system into Lalakea Reservoir while Hakalaoa is, curiously, channeled into Lalakea. This latter re-routing occurred late in the sugar plantation time, after flooding and associated landslides in 1989 damaged the Lower Hamakua Ditch tunnel behind Hakalaoa Falls in the head of Hi`ilawe side-valley. Even today water pours out of the opening part-way up the pali. Repair of the system involved elimination of the falls dropping into the newly exposed tunnel. Plantation bulldozers cut through the narrowest strip of land up top that separated the two streams, channeling Hakalaoa into Lalakea. Last year the State Water Commission ordered the restoration of Hakalaoa to its natural course, but that work has not yet begun.
Mythological and historical figures, including Lono and Umi-a-Liloa, are associated with Hi`ilawe. In modern times, such artists as Gabby Pahinui and Herb Kawainui Kane have celebrated the beauty and fame of Hi`ilawe. Its hold is strong on the hearts of many.
Copyright 2003 by Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD