The mule rides down a precipitous path to the isolated yet exquisite Kalaupapa Peninsula were suspended in January 1993 by the previous operator who cited "the high cost of insurance premiums and state mandated benefits" for workers.
But in late September, a National Park Service-signed "special use permit" gave the Molokai mules, with a new operator, permission to ride again.
The Kalaupapa Trail Guided Mule Tour is now taking mule teams down --and back up-- the 1,800 foot sea cliff on Molokai's North Shore to one of the world's most unique and formerly forbidden communities.
The excursion begins at 8 a.m. at the mule barn on Hawaii Highway 470 in Palaau State Park with a "mule guide briefing," which consists of learning your mule's name and the reading of a waiver of liability required by the National Park Service. Mule skinners (guides) also explain how to control and ride the mules. No experience is necessary. (Reservations, however, are.)
After the briefing, it's "Rawhide," Molokai-style. The mule train --with one skinner for every six riders-- starts downhill to the Kalaupapa Peninsula on a 2.9 mile trail with 26 switchbacks that reveal some of the most eyepopping scenery in the Pacific.
This spectacular, untouched coastline, cloaked in evergreen for as far as the eye can see, is punctuated by offshore phantasmagorically shaped islets, sea caves that are a kayaker's delight and cascades that spring off lofty bluffs to plummet directly into the cerulean sea.
The mule drive reaches sea level about 10 a.m. Riders then proceed another quarter mile until they tie their mounts up at the bottom of the trail. There, they are met by something of a legend: Richard Marks.
Marks is the sheriff-cum-tour-guide of Kalaupapa. Boarding his "tour bus" (actually an old yellow school bus), the muleteers are in Sheriff Marks' hands for the next few hours, as he provides one of Hawaii's most remarkable tours in the once-taboo community hidden from the world for years.
During the 19th Century, the Kingdom of Hawaii forced sufferers of Hansen's Disease into exile at the bottom of secluded Kalaupapa Peninsula. Sometimes, the "lepers" as they were called then, were thrown overboard and had to swim ashore. Healthy partners who volunteered to stay with loved ones were called KOKUA --a commonly used Hawaiian word that means to be kind and helpful.
Father Damien de Veuster, the Belgian priest who aided Kalaupapa's afflicted from 1873 until he succumbed to the disease in 1889, epitomizes the kokua spirit. The spirit of Father Damien --who was beatified last June by Pope John Paul II, bringing the priest close to sainthood-- still dominates this settlement at the end of the world.
The highlight of the tour is a visit to St. Philomena, the unpretentious Catholic church where Father Damien preached to his banished parishioners. Next to the church is Damien's gravesite (while his remains were returned to Belgium in 1936, the priest's right hand was returned to the Kalaupapa grave in 1955).
Today, with Hansen's Disease easier to control, the infected aren't forced to live on Kalaupapa, but a handful have voluntarily decided to remove themselves from the prying eyes of society and live in this simple village with its whitewashed wooden homes.
The tour includes a cold cut KAUKAU HOKI ("mule food") lunch around noon in Judd Park at the scenic Kalawao side. The tour of Kalaupapa concludes at 2 p.m. followed by the climb back up the trail, with the mule team arriving at about 3:40 p.m. to a greeting of welcome bottled water.
The tour is totally nonpolluting. The National Park Service even requires KTGMT to keep the trail clean --and that includes raking up the mule manure, which is given to Kalaupapa's residents for their gardens.
For most of Father Damien's days, the five square mile peninsula could only be reached by ship. Then the trail was built in 1887, and now there's even an airstrip. But still, fewer than 9,000 visitors a year make the pilgrimage to Kalaupapa.