The Disappearing Dunes of Central Maui

Wailuku sand dune

One small hill in a section of Wailuku sand dunes that hid an army of Maui warriors.

I take particular pleasure in the Maui Lani Parkway, the “new road” that cuts from Wai`ale Road to Kamehameha Avenue. Folks who drive through Central Maui a lot will probably know the one I mean—it’s a shortcut that lets you get from Waikapu and Wailuku to the far end of Kahului without having to go through all those annoying unsynchronized traffic lights on Ka`ahumanu Avenue.

The new road curves through a fair amount of vacant land that is already on the way to being filled with more development. Unfortunately, that development eventually will wipe out a piece of landscape that is a relic of an almost forgotten past.

On the Wailuku side of the road are sand dunes, the kind that once covered much of the central plain between the West Maui Mountains and Haleakala, the isthmus formed when lava from the emerging Haleakala pooled against the old mountains of West Maui. Over thousands of years, as glaciers grew in other parts of the world and sea levels dropped, broad stretches of coral reef were exposed and broken down to sand. Trade winds blew the sand onto the isthmus and formed it into ridges, which became lithified, or turned into stone, by carbonic acid released from the roots of plants growing in the sand.

That’s the scientific explanation I found somewhere for a landscape that has almost disappeared. A lot of the Central Maui dunes were leveled in the last couple of centuries by sand mining, while much of the plain has been flattened for sugarcane farming. A long section of dune, running from the Maui Lani Parkway area down to the beach at Kahului, has been largely covered by housing, in the “Pu`uone” and “Sandhills” area.

But back in the day, when Hawaiian chiefs contested for control of Maui, the dunes of this plain were the site of a famous battle at a place called Kakanilua. The name is not on modern maps, but it was somewhere near the new road and the little piece of remaining dune land.

About 1776, after nearly a century of warfare between chiefs from Hawai`i Island and Maui, the Big Island chief Kalaniopu`u invaded, landing on the south shore and sending his highest-ranking warriors across the plain toward Wailuku, where Maui chief Kahekili waited. Why Kalaniopu`u thought he could put one over on Kahekili is a mystery—he was, after all, invading Kahekili’s home territory. Did he think Kahekili hadn’t noticed the war canoes lining the south shore of Maui? And when Kalaniopu`u gave his warriors a pep talk before they set out, the warriors’ shouted response alerted the Maui chief’s spies, who were hiding—guess where—in the sand dunes.

As the Hawai`i Island warriors made their way from Kihei to Wailuku, they discovered that the sand dunes hid an entire army, waiting to pounce and slaughter these tall, strong, feather-clad young chiefs, the cream of their generation.

It was hard for me to imagine exactly how this could happen, until they opened that road. The rest of the plain is now so scraped clean of all shape and character that it seemed impossible an army could have hidden itself there. But now, driving past land that is still in its original form, I can see it.

The vegetation would have been different; the kiawe that covers the dunes now is a new import, brought in by ranchers to feed cattle a century or more ago. But something grew there in those days, and even if the dryland native plants were small, stunted by the wind that sweeps across the isthmus, there were hills and gullies and hummocks. Plenty of places for wily warriors who knew their territory to hide, waiting to snare the invaders, as the strangers boldly marched into the trap like fish swimming into a net, blinded by their own pride and ambition.

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2 thoughts on “The Disappearing Dunes of Central Maui

  1. Jane

    What terrific history. I always knew some of this, but in a vague way. I’m not a space cadet, but I grew up ‘feeling’ the energy of that history in the sand dunes of Wailuku. Thank you Jill. I look forward to these posts.

    • Lancashire

      Thanks, Jane. I often feel some sort of spirit of the past around the Wailuku dunes, and I used to also feel it in Makena, but that’s getting harder as they build more mini-mansions!

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