This is the most awe inspiring sunset I’ve ever witnessed. But you know the problem with sunsets? After the sun goes down, it gets dark. Which is what my wife kept reminding me repeatedly while I was trying to get this shot, because it was about to get dark and we still had 8 miles of trail to cover, before we got back to the trail head where our car was parked.
It was dark for a very long time that night… Let me tell you about it. This is the story of how my wife and I got lost in a jungle.
After over ten years of marriage, we decided to take a second honeymoon in 2002, and my wife and I spent two wonderful weeks in Hawaii. Jean and I are both enthusiastic hikers, and much of our second honeymoon was spent hiking in Hawaii. Hawaii is not just all about tropical sunbathing at Waikiki Beach. Hawaii also has a variety of stunningly beautiful places to go hiking, and my wife and I wanted to explore some of these places. But there was one hike, that due to some errors in judgment and bad luck, turned into a real misadventure.
We planned to do a hike that would take us up on a section of the sea cliffs that are part of the beautiful but severely steep Napali Coast.
We were to follow a four mile trail out to the cliffs and then back to our starting point for an eight mile round trip. The route was called the Awaawapuhi Trail.
We didn’t know it at the time, but things started heading in the wrong direction when we stopped at the Park Headquarters, and I read a trail description which seemed to indicate that get to our destination, the Nualolo Trail was a better choice. It was a more direct route and would get us to the sea cliffs faster, so we decided to go this way instead of our originally planned route.
Our first mistake was that we didn’t get to the trail head until noon, which still should have given us enough time to complete our route before nightfall, but didn’t leave us any margin for error, or lengthy rest stops. The weather was quite hot when we started out, around 88 degrees and very humid, which is unusual in Hawaii. It’s usually mid to low 80s and comfortably dry. We had two liters of water each, which seemed like enough.
The first thing I noticed about our alternate trail, was that after a brief climb through tropical forest, it dropped very steeply for the next two miles. The drop in elevation made sense, because the cliffs were almost 2,000 feet below our starting point, but the steep descent down was a concern because I knew it would be a killer to get back up again when we came back. We passed overheated, exhausted hikers going up who confirmed that returning via this trail would be very tough.
After about 2-1/2 hours of hiking downward, we got to the cliffs. The weather was clear with bright sunshine and great visibility, the views were astounding and we were both very happy. We hung out at the cliffs for about an hour, because it was so hard to leave such an amazing place.
It was time to head back. I thought about the killer ascent we’d have to make to go back the way we came, and looked at a trail map to see if there was another way that might be easier and more rewarding. Looking at the map, I saw that we could use a connecting trail that followed the cliffs, and would lead us to our originally planned trail (the Awaawapuhi) to take us back to our starting point. I could tell from the map that the “A” trail was longer but ascended more gradually than the trail we came down. If we took it, we would add an additional 5 miles to our trip, and our total distance would be 13 miles instead of eight.
But the extra distance allowed us to continue to follow the cliffs, and take in more stunning views, and also gave us a less strenuous ascent on the way back up to our return point. This choice was just too irresistible to pass up, when I thought of those exhausted people slogging their way up in the heat, the way we came down.
Now the problems… It was 3:30 PM when we started back on our new route. Trying to cover nine miles this late, would almost guarantee hiking back in the dark, later on. This did not really concern me, because we both had flashlights and we had hiked in the dark before. But following the cliffs slowed us down even more, because it was so hard to not stop frequently and look all around, at such an amazing place. (and take lots of pictures, of course!)
By the time we reached the start of the “A” trail, it was 5:30 and the sky was just beginning to turn crimson and pink with the coming sunset. I knew it was gonna be one of those beyond words, once in a lifetime sunsets, and I delayed us even more; waiting for it to peak. My wife started to get restless at this point, reminding me that “it gets dark after the sun goes down…” and that we still had a long way to go. I’ll be honest here – she might as well have been talking to one of the cliffs. I heard, but refused to comprehend, putting her off with comments like “Just watch the sunset… this could be one of the greatest ever, and I don’t want to miss it.”
At least the sunset paid off. It really was the greatest one I’d ever seen anywhere, and photographed. But my wife was absolutely right; it does get dark after the sun goes down. And we still had a long trip back. But this still didn’t concern me. We had our flashlights and the trail was easy to follow after dark. We’d get back late and be tired and hungry, but it had been a great experience and I thought it was worth whatever effort it cost.
Things were moving along just fine, until I tripped over a rock, dropped my flashlight, and watched it disappear down a steep ridge. I was fine, unhurt… but now Jean was getting increasingly anxious. I reminded her that we still had a flashlight, we could still see the trail, and that everything would be OK. She started complaining about being tired of “night hiking” and how this seemed to happen to us too often. I tried to not get irritated with her, and said that pretty soon we’d be back, and the next day we’d be talking about what a great trip it was. And this would have been the way it worked out. If what happened next, hadn’t happened…
But it did happen. 20 minutes after I lost my flashlight, our remaining flashlight suddenly flashed and went completely dark! And so did our world… The bulb had blown in the flashlight! In 30 years of hiking, I’ve never seen this happen before. This was a hell of a first time! And no, we didn’t have an extra bulb. We should have, but we didn’t… We stood still, trying to adjust our eyes to the blackness that surrounded us. Slowly dim shapes began to appear, (rocks and tree trunks) as well as a very faint lighter area with dark walls on either side. (the trail) I could still see the night sky above the upper ridge line, so at least I had an idea which way was up, which was important, because heading down would lead back to the cliffs – somewhere we didn’t want to be in the dark.
My first concern was trying to calm down my frightened wife, who was bordering on panic. (can’t say I blame her) I had her sit down next to me, and said “OK… Lets talk about what we need to do to get out of this. First, this is not a bad situation. It’s no fun, but we’re in no real danger. It’s warm, we don’t have to worry about getting too cold, and I can still make out the trail, so lets just sit here and rest, try to calm down, and then we’ll work together to get out of here.”
I really wasn’t just “whistling in the dark” when I said this. I wasn’t very happy about our situation, but I really believed we weren’t in real danger. I knew that if we had to, we could spend the night on the trail, wait for sunrise, and just walk right out of this mess when it was light again. There are no snakes in Hawaii, no poisonous insects or spiders, no dangerous large animals; nothing threatening. The only thing that really could do us in, would be rushing around in a blind panic.
As we sat together, I kept looking up at the stars, not because they could help me with direction, but because it was a clear night, and they were still very beautiful. Countless little pinpoints of light gently winking down on us, from the heavenly night sky above. Jean watched the stars with me, and her fear crept down to a manageable level.
After resting, and regaining our composure, we got up and started to follow the trail, which was barely visible in the night. This went well for about an hour, until we came to a place where the trail entered a dense forest, and it soon became impossible to see anything. Just an inky blackness, devoid of all form. No night sky above, no ridge line, nothing… not even the hand you knew you were holding in front of your face. Total darkness. Total blindness…
Now I tried to use my feet to feel where the trail was. If the ground felt hard and packed down, that was probably the trail. If it turned soft and full of plants and brush that pushed me, tripped me, and hit me in the face, that was not the trail. I led the way, feeling the way with the soles of my hiking boots, as we wandered in the total blackness.
There was one concern in my mind about one danger that I didn’t mention to Jean. And that was knowing that at some point, probably many points – we would be near ridges, where a few short steps off the trail could lead to a dangerous and disastrous fall. I made sure Jean was always behind me so it wouldn’t be her… Since it had become impossible to see anything, not even each other, we stayed together by keeping up a constant chatter, so we could at least hear that we were still together.
After almost an hour of total blindness, increasing fatigue, and the beginning of a raging thirst, (we ran out of water long ago) I lost the trail completely. Everywhere I turned, I walked into downed logs, snarls of vines and brush, big ferns that felt like an unwelcome advance in the dark, as they damply rubbed across my face and neck… and inch long Lantana thorns that tore painfully into the skin on my legs.
Each time I moved forward and lost the trail, I would feel my way back to the hard packed ground that had to be the trail, and try to go forward again, only to stumble back into the bush. Then on my next try, I tripped on something, and my legs started to slide down an embankment. I didn’t go very far before I stopped, only 5 or 6 feet, but that was enough to convince me that it was time to stop this blind man’s march before something terrible happened. Something terrible and entirely preventable, if only we had the patience and composure to wait…
I told Jean that I wanted to reverse our direction, so we could be sure of finding the trail again. What I really wanted, was to find a little clearing we had passed, where there was a small hole in in the roof of the jungle and the stars still shone, and all wasn’t total blackness… It was here that I told Jean that I felt it was too dangerous to continue, and that we should make ourselves as comfortable as possible, and wait for dawn. It was now 11:00 PM and eleven hours after we started our hike. We were both exhausted.
Jean took it rather badly when she realized we were spending the night in this jungle forest, and was on the verge of a panic attack. I told her how much I loved her, and how sorry I was that I got her into this mess, and how if she would just sit close to me I would hold her, and let nothing happen to her. And that we would walk out of here together in the morning sunlight. We just needed to wait here and rest for a while. She calmed down enough to sit with me and count the stars in our little night light above the jungle.
I knew that “a while” was really about six hours away. I tried not to think about it, because when I tried to rest there on the hard and uneven uncomfortable ground, all I could think about was water. Water! Non stop relentless thirst! I’d never been so thirsty in my life! It had been a very hot hike, and I had been sweating profusely almost the entire way. Even after dark I felt overheated as we had pushed on, and now I was very dehydrated. My mouth was so dry, it felt like all the moisture was gone and replaced with the taste of dry dust. My tongue felt like this dry rough thing that rubbed around in my mouth when it moved. Endless thoughts of water. Water… water… WATER!! It was maddening, and all I could do was lay there and wait. Six hours… it seemed like six days.
Exhaustion caused us both to fade in and out of troubled sleep. The only way we knew it was sleep, was the vague wisps of barely perceptible dreams that floated in and out of semi-consciousness. There was never sleep that was deep enough to free us from feeling how fatigued, sore, and desperately thirsty we were, as the night crawled on.
More maddening fantasies about water drove me to sit up, and try to find anything that would get my attention on something, anything besides water! There were no natural sources of fresh water near us, and even if there had been, we couldn’t drink it. The water in the remote areas of Hawaii, such as in streams, is infected with a nasty parasite that can cause a person to develop severe flu like symptoms and in worse cases, attack internal organs and be potentially fatal. There is no known treatment for this disease, so any water near near a trail must be treated with chemicals like iodine, or thoroughly boiled before drinking it.
I grabbed my digital camera case, opened it up, took out the camera, and turned on the viewing screen to look at the pictures I’d taken. At least here was something to help me stop thinking about water or what time it was, and how long it would be until sunrise.
It was comforting to look at that little bright and glowing LED screen on my camera. It was only about an inch and a half square, but I could still see all my photos well enough to take my mind off of my raging thirst, sore muscles, fatigue and general discomfort, and the seemingly endless wait for the light of dawn to rescue us from our prison of darkness.
And then, as one of my photos shined especially bright on the LED screen of my camera, an idea suddenly flashed inside my mind. I turned the camera with the lit up LED screen away from me, and pointed it into the darkness. For the first time in what seemed like many hours, the view in front of me was no longer black, but faintly illuminated with a weak but still perceptible bluish glow. I could see shapes and shadows again… just barely, but still enough to see.
But most important of all, what I saw… was a trail marker! And that’s when I knew that my digital camera was going to be our ticket out of our misery. I gently shook my wife’s shoulder to get her attention, and I said “Jean, look at this, and tell me what you see.” as I pointed the glowing LED screen of my camera away from us. At first she didn’t notice, but then her eyes locked onto the faintly lit view of the trail marker, and when she saw it, she excitedly exclaimed “Chris! You’re brilliant!” quickly followed by “Let’s get out of here!”
Our weary fatigue now chased away by our new excitement and hope, we both leapt up to our feet, and headed straight for that trail marker so faintly illuminated, but still unmistakably recognized. With my digital camera showing us the way, we were back on the trail again, and buoyed up with hope, as we were making progress again, to make our escape from being lost in the darkness.
Soon there was another trail marker, and then followed by several more. Even more encouraging, was that each trail marker had a mileage distance on it, and as we continued to hike forward, those distances got increasingly shorter. When we came to the marker that said .75 miles , the first one we saw that was under one mile, we stopped and hugged each other in a shared celebration of our joy!
The sun rose with the birth of a new dawn, just as we left the jungle behind us, and entered a clearing of tall grass. I turned my camera off, because now the light of dawn illuminated everything into clear view, and all our darkness was gone. In the clearing beyond the jungle, we saw a new house still under construction. I soon found a coiled up garden hose connected to a faucet on the foundation, and my raging thirst immediately returned. I cranked open the faucet, in the fervent hope that the water would flow… It did, and I drank the cool, clean and fresh water flowing freely from the end of the hose, and it felt like heaven on earth!
After the intense pleasure of drinking the water; far more pleasurable than drinking water had ever been, in all my life, I called Jean over, so she could quench her raging thirst too. After she drank her fill, she stood up and hugged me in a tight embrace, as she was overwhelmed with gratitude for longer being tortured by relentless thirst, and great relief from her fear of being lost in the darkness.
Shortly before leaving the clearing, I saw some orange flowers hugging the ground that grabbed my attention, so I turned my camera back on, and I took this picture.
We still had a one mile hike from the clearing up a road to get back to our car parked at the trail head from where we originally started. But that mile passed quickly, and soon we were back in our rental car, and back on the road that would take us “home” to our room and our soft and incredibly comfortable bed.
As soon as we got back to our room, we took a wonderfully rejuvenating shower together, and then both naked, we laid down together in our big and soothingly comfortable bed. But whatever our shared romantic intentions were, as soon as we laid down on the bed, we both fell instantly asleep, and neither one of us woke up until over four hours later…
But after awakening together naked in our shared bed, we brewed Hawaiian Kona coffee in our room, and then after drinking it, we made intensely hot and passionate love. The sex was incredible, with the pleasure of our passion greatly heightened, after our long and fearful night of discomfort and deprivation.
We were supposed to go sea kayaking that day, on the Napali Coast. But we called the touring company to tell them that we couldn’t make it. We were both still exhausted from our long night out on the trail, and both in no shape to do much of anything physically demanding. But the touring company was kind, and they found both of us a space on the following day, and we had a great time.
We spent this day on the beach, resting, recovering and regaining our strength. It was just what we needed…