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Niihau, Hawaii’s ‘Forbidden Island,’ is closed to outsiders

Seen from Kauai’s western shore, Niihau appears almost ethereal on the horizon. The island is privately owned, a haven for Niihau natives, who can have no contact with tourists, and a site for US military testing.

CLAUDIA CAPOS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Seen from Kauai’s western shore, Niihau appears almost ethereal on the horizon. The island is privately owned, a haven for Niihau natives, who can have no contact with tourists, and a site for US military testing.

NIIHAU, Hawaii — Our pilot, Dana Rosendal, revved the twin engines of the Agusta 109A helicopter and taxied 30 yards down the runway of the Port Allen Airport on the southern shore of Kauai. Seconds later, the powerful rotors lifted the aircraft and its five passengers off the ground with stomach-wrenching force, and Rosendal’s voice crackled over our headsets: “Next stop, Niihau.” We were headed for Hawaii’s Forbidden Island.

Few people, even Hawaiians from other islands, have ever set foot on Niihau. Noi Igou, the housekeeper at our rental beach bungalow in Kauai, cringed at the mere mention of the name and whispered: “You cannot go there. It is forbidden.”

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Niihau’s reputation is well deserved. For nearly a century and a half, the privately owned, 70-square-mile island, located 17 miles southwest of Kauai, has been off limits to outsiders, earning it the “Forbidden” moniker. Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair purchased the island, along with parts of Kauai, for $10,000 in gold from King Kamehameha V  in 1864 and vowed to preserve its traditional Hawaiian culture and language. Her descendants, the Robinson family, have continued to honor that commitment.

Sinclair’s grandson, Aubrey Robinson, closed Niihau to visitors in 1915, and his grandsons, Keith and Bruce Robinson, the current co-owners, have shielded the remaining 170 native inhabitants from the encroachment of modern technology and conveniences. Islanders still hunt and fish with knives and spears and speak their original Niihau dialect. Village elders handle most day-to-day affairs. The only way to reach Niihau legally is by taking one of the half-day helicopter tours or daylong hunting safaris operated by the Robinsons to offset the cost of providing emergency medical transport for sick islanders. Any contact between tourists and native Niihauans is prohibited.

The Robinsons still own a vast tract of land in southwest Kauai, as well as Niihau, and some aspects of their real-life saga bear a striking resemblance to the plot of the movie “The Descendants,” which was filmed at locations around Kauai.

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We ran into Keith Robinson, a true descendant, by chance at the Niihau Helicopters office in Kaumakani, Kauai, before our scheduled flight. “Niihau has quite a bit of history,” said Robinson, 71. “It may not look like much. We maintain a low profile and try to keep life as simple and uncomplicated as possible.”

The preservation of native culture and wildlife is not the only reason Niihau is kept under wraps. Despite its image as a pristine island where “time has stood still,” Niihau has had a longstanding, little-publicized relationship with the US military, which has conducted special-operations training and research and development on top-secret military defense systems here.

“We’re doing national defense work that’s critical to our country,” said Robinson, who carried his signature green hardhat tucked under his arm. “Technology for the DEW [Distant Early Warning] Line was developed secretly [during the Cold War era] on Niihau, and now we’re considering putting in a small airstrip for the [Air Force’s] C-17 short takeoff, heavy-lift program.” 

The Navy currently maintains a radar-surveillance installation on Paniau Ridge, the island’s highest point (1,280 feet), and stages practice maneuvers in the Kaulakahi Channel separating Niihau from the Pacific Missile Range Facility-Barking Sands base on western Kauai. It’s not uncommon, Robinson added, to look up into the night sky and observe the brilliant collision of an antiballistic missile with its test target. Income from military contracting activities provides steady revenue to support the island’s residents and upkeep.

Robinson, a noted conservationist, has created a safe haven for many of Hawaii’s endangered species. His Highland Scottish ancestry, strict King James Bible-based religious upbringing, and prowess as a military sharpshooter in the National Guard provided the inspiration for his book, “Approach to Armageddon” (Destiny Publishers, 2011).  

Robinson’s revelations whetted our appetite for adventure, as we flew west across the 5,200-foot-deep Kaulakahi Channel, doing airborne pirouettes to watch humpback whales in the choppy water below. A fickle south wind made the flight unusually bumpy and blanketed the horizon with mist. “There’s an island out there, I swear,” Rosendal said over his microphone. And then, magically, Niihau appeared in front of us.

For the next 20 minutes, we were treated to a whirlwind aerial tour of Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island. Lying in the “rain shadow” of palm-canopied Kauai, Niihau is mostly low and arid, with sparse grass and shrubs and two parched lakebeds. The helicopter skimmed over scraggy kiawe trees that clung stubbornly to red-tinged volcanic soil. The whir of its engines flushed jet-black Polynesian boars and mottled Merino sheep from the underbrush. Along the western shore, Rosendal pointed out Kamalino Bay where Captain James Cook landed in 1778, but carefully skirted Bruce Robinson’s family farmstead and a scattering of single-story island cottages in Puuwai village. 

Rosendal landed the helicopter on a flat patch of ground along the northern coastline, overlooking nearby Lehua Island, a state seabird sanctuary. We scrambled out, feeling like modern-day Robinson Crusoes. We walked 100 yards to an open-air pavilion that provided protection from the hot tropical sun. But Niihau’s hospitality ended there. This oasis of calm and tranquillity had no toilets, changing facilities, running water, or food.

“Most of our visitors are sophisticated travelers who want to see new terrain and do something really different,” Rosendal explained, as he set down a cooler filled with sandwiches, canned guava juice, and macadamia-nut cookies. “The forbidden concept only makes the island that much more attractive. It’s a good place to hang out and relax.”

Nancy Kelley of Rocklin, Calif., said curiosity had prompted her to book the helicopter tour for her and her husband, Dick. “Since the island is forbidden, we’re taking a rare opportunity to come over,” she said.

While one member of our group swam in the cool, crystalline water, Doug and I joined Nancy on the beach to collect pupu, tiny shells that wash ashore during the winter months. Niihau women use momi, laiki, and kahelelani shells to create intricate earrings, bracelets, and leis, which are sold in gift shops around Kauai. Some elaborate leis are valued at thousands of dollars. During our beachcombing, a group of islanders drove up to the helicopter in a 1950s-era Dodge weapons carrier. Their surprise appearance caught Rosendal off guard, and he quickly strolled out to the landing area to talk. They soon drove off.

After a break for lunch, Doug and I set off in search of native wildlife and African big game animals brought to the island by the Robinsons. Niihau’s lava-ledge-fringed shoreline and secluded beaches are favorite haunts of endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and we soon spotted some snoozing on the sand.

Heading back into the kiawe trees, whose long spines pierced the soles of our shoes, we surprised a mother boar and seven or eight babies frolicking at the waterhole inside an abandoned cattle corral. With high-pitched squeals, they scampered away into the trees. One heavy-set boar stood his ground, glowering at us from the brush. We moved quickly back toward the helicopter, where two albatrosses were shrieking and bobbing their heads in a bizarre mating ritual.

We left Niihau late that afternoon and Rosendal made one final sweep of the terrain to look for eland, an elusive, fleet-footed African antelope. As the island receded into the blue haze, we recalled Robinson’s earlier comment about his inherited island stewardship. “The world is becoming increasingly turbulent and chaotic,” he had said. “No part of the globe is exempt, and Niihau is caught in the middle.”

Claudia Capos can be reached at capo
comm@sbcglobal.net
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