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The Place of Refuge

For me, the Big Island is not all about laying by a pool, sipping Mai Tai’s, or 100% Kona coffee, and listening to Martin Denny.

I wanted to get to know about Hawaiian culture, pre Captain Cook. What was life like on the Big Island before it was the “Big Island”?

Probably the best place on the Big Island, or perhaps any island, to learn about this past is Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park, The Place of Refuge.

The Place of Refuge is south of Kealakekua Bay. I arrived when the park opened at 8:30 and almost had the place to myself.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau has a feeling of peace and power and deep spirituality. This has been regarded as an important center by native Hawaiians for centuries.

A brush pen field sketch of a Ki’i of a Hawaiian god.

In ancient Hawaii, the kapu system (taboo laws) governed the lives and behaviors of the common people. There where many ways to break a kapu law, for instance, men eating with woman, your shadow (or footsteps) crossing that of a chief, or hunting or fishing out of season and many, many more. The nobility believed that if a taboo law was broken that it would incur the wraith of the gods and as a result cause volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, or lava flows. So the punishment for for breaking kapu was severe: death.

But there was a catch. If you could get to a Honaunau or Place of Refuge, before getting caught, you would be given amnesty, be blessed by a priest, and then be sent home on your way. But first you had to get there, either by running or swimming or both!

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is such a Place of Refuge and parts of it are well preserved. This was a refuge for many centuries until kapu laws were repealed in 1819 by King Kamehameha II.

The heiau or temple was built about 1650. And it housed the bones of 33 chiefs.

Probably two of the most photographed Ki’i or Tiki statues on the Hawaiian Islands. These two guardians represent Hawaiian gods. These carvings are so much better and more detailed than the Tiki statue at Kona Kai Swim and Racquet Club of my youth.

I wandered round the park and then found a place in the shade, across Keone’ele Cove to sketch the panorama that included the Royal Grounds, Great Wall, Hale o Keawe, palm trees, and carved Ki’is (featured sketch). This was a wonderful meditation as sketching in the field almost always is. I paused at times as people snorkeled in the cove from the snorkel hotspot known as “Two Step”. I also watched a Pacific golden-plover forage on the reef, along with the introduced yellow-billed cardinal. The sketch I made in the shade is the featured sketch.

Bonus fact: This historic park is one of the few places in Hawaii where the Hawaiian flag can fly alone without the US flag.

The Great Wall was constructed over 400 years ago and is 950 feet long and 12 feet high.