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Good Going

By Elisa Freeling

"When the Snark sailed along the windward coast of Molokai, on her way to Honolulu, I looked at the chart, then pointed to a low-lying peninsula backed by a tremendous cliff varying from two to four thousand feet in height, and said, 'The pit of hell, the most cursed place on earth.'"
—Jack London, from "The Lepers of Molokai"

The island of Molokai doesn’t look like hell, but for more than a hundred years, lepers from the rest of Hawaii were banished to a remote peninsula on its windward north shore. The practice was abolished in 1969, and only a handful of survivors of Hansen’s disease (the proper name) have chosen to remain on the Kalaupapa peninsula, now a national historical park. The land is isolated from the rest of Molokai by dazzling green sea cliffs, which visitors weave down 1,600 feet by foot or mule. (To protect residents’ privacy, a visitor must be invited or with a tour.) Formed some 230,000 years ago by flows of pahoehoe lava, Kalaupapa means "flat leaf": The peninsula sticks out like a tongue from the near-perpendicular slopes. Non-native plants and animals have invaded much of Hawaii, but thanks to inaccessibility, Kalaupapa and its adjacent hillsides harbor rare remnants of the islands’ original flora and fauna, such as Carter’s panic grass and haha trees, whose sticky sap was once used by Hawaiians to catch birds. The park is a haven for close to 20 threatened and endangered species, including green and hawksbill sea turtles, dark-rumped petrels, and solitude-loving Hawaiian monk seals, which sometimes wiggle up the unpopulated beaches to have their pups.

While most visitors must leave Kalaupapa by sundown, participants in a Sierra Club Outings habitat-restoration service trip get to spend five nights on the peninsula.

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