MAKAWAO, Maui — "Don't ask for anything while you are in this canyon," Sydney Smith, my guide and a longtime Hawaii resident, said as we balanced precariously on rocks, descending deep into Maliko Gulch.
"A film crew was once here, set up a tripod, lights, models and was just about to take photos, when the photographer said, 'Now we just need some wind.' A powerful gust came whooshing through the valley, knocking down the tripods and light reflectors. And then like that" — she snapped her fingers — "the wind vanished."
Catching my look, she added, "And that is just one example of the magic of this canyon."
Truth be told, I didn't know what to expect from this tour. A local friend had mentioned that the Maliko Retreat, a vacation rental in upcountry Maui, would be a good candidate for the guidebook I was researching, so I squeezed in a stop, dragging along my husband and kids.
Little did I know, after a quick peek at Sydney's lovely rental property overlooking the jacaranda-blanketed Makawao hills, my family and I would be packed in a dune buggy, our cream puffs from the Komoda Store jiggling in our bellies as the vehicle bounced down a rocky path, deep into her working organic coffee plantation.
Sydney's story is like that of many who become smitten with Hawaii. As a child she summered on the islands, and once she moved back as an adult, she and her husband, Maurice, bought a 24-acre swath of land on Maui in an area not usually coveted by tourists. Aside from a stunning 80-foot waterfall, the Maliko Gulch was a garbage dump that dated to 1870s and Henry Perrine Baldwin.
Legend has it that Baldwin, who lost an arm in a sugar mill accident, rappelled the steep cliffs of Maliko Gulch to run a pipeline through it to siphon water from East Maui to its Central Valley. In 1876, he also built a railroad (locals joke that it led to nowhere) through the property, leaving much of the steel from the project in the stream after the railroad was abandoned.
As time progressed, locals, not wanting to drive to the landfill, heaved their old appliances, cars and trash off the bridge into the stream, which overflowed with debris.
"[Maurice] would painstakingly open the putrid bags of garbage and look through the coffee grounds and egg shells, dirty diapers, luau party scraps and pizza boxes until he'd find a utility bill or piece of junk mail leading us to the owner," she said.
"After calling the police, who had little or no interest in stopping people from dumping trash in a perfectly convenient dump site, he started calling the litterers directly. Some of them came and got their trash but most did not. We … bought the dump."
For four years the couple cleaned out the gorge, using every penny they had to gather the trash and relocate it to the landfill. Slowly, birds, fish and even nene (the Hawaii state bird) began to appear in the gulch. And then one day, when Maurice was showing Sydney a gorgeous banyan tree on their property, she noticed pictographs on the stone cliff, depicting a woman giving birth over a series of clear pools. Beneath all the garbage, she had uncovered a sacred ancient birthing pool.
Once again, Maliko's magic was at work.
Sydney led us deep into the gulch, sliced by the stream and hugged by ferns and magnificent banyan trees. We teetered down rocks (she is hoping to raise funds to build a stairwell) as she explained that she had introduced Kahu Laki Pomaikai Kaahumanu, the great-great-grandson of Queen Kaahumanu, to this site. He was floored by the power of the place and asked whether he could "bring Hawaiians who have lost their way … to the pictographs and pool and baptize them so they can be reborn Hawaiian."
The intertwined intentions of Kahu Laki and Sydney to save this magical valley and share it with the Hawaiian people are emblematic of the state's use of tourism to help native Hawaiians reconnect with their heritage. She hopes her tours of the gulch, which are the only way to access this sacred site, will inspire mainlanders to spread the word about the beauty hidden on the slopes of Haleakala.
As I wandered through the gorge, imagining ancient Hawaiian women giving birth while squatting in pools beneath a centuries-old banyan, a mosquito buzzed my leg; another flirted with my knees. Under my breath, in part to test the canyon's sacred power but mostly to invite the pests to find some other fresh meat, I whispered, "Stop biting me." And no joke, just like that, the mosquitoes abandoned my legs. Just like magic.