Mauna Kea: 5 Things to Know Besides Telescopes

29 07 2009

Although the mountain has been in the news lately because of the Thirty-Meter Telescope Decision, there is much more to explore, enjoy and learn about Mauna Kea.

1. Mauna Kea is sacred territory.

The summit is the home of Poli’ahu, the Hawaiian snow goddess. Her name literally means clothed bosom, referring to the blanket of snow that sometimes covers the summit. Her sister, Lilinoe, Hawaiian goddess of the mist and fog, and her nurse, Lihau, guardian of the cold chill, also dwell on the high slopes of Mauna Kea.

Hawaiian artist-historian Herb Kawainui Kane painted what I believe is the most beautiful image of Poliahu. Notice her recumbent figure in the snow covering the mountain summit. Check this link for Herb’s other works, including his memorable images of Poliahu’s rival goddess, Pele.

Poliahu, Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea, by Hawaiian artist-historian Herb Kawainui Kane

Poliahu, Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea, (c) 2009 Herb Kawainui Kane

If you really want to understand Ancient Hawaii, Herb Kane’s books are the place to start. I particularly recommend Ancient Hawaii and Voyagers. Herb has a unique ability to tell the story in words and pictures together. Recently, the Big Island resident was selected as the designer of the US Postage Stamp that commemorates Hawaii’s statehood.

Today, Mauna Kea is a cultural icon for the Hawaiian people. Mauna Kea represents the zenith of the Native Hawaiian people’s ancestral ties to Creation itself. You can learn more about this in the video, Mauna Kea: Temple Under Seige.

2. Mauna Kea is fabled in song and story.

There are many traditional chants and songs about Mauna Kea. The mountain has also inspired some of Hawaii’s most beautiful contemporary dance and music.

Watch this video of Miss Aloha Hula 2006, Bernice Alohanamakanamaikalanimai Davis-Lim, in her winning performance at Hilo’s renowned Merrie Monarch Festival, the hula competition. She is dancing Ka ‘Eha A Ke Aloha, the story of Poli’ahu’s lost love, Aiwohikupua.

This is one of the most moving performances I have seen on any stage. Every detail is perfect. Even her lei are composed of plants that grow on Mauna Kea.

If the song, Ka ‘Eha A Ke Aloha, captures your imagination, a wonderful version by Sean Na’auao is available on iTunes or on the album of the same name at Mountain Apple Records.

Keola Beamer

Keola Beamer

Anyone who visits the Big Island of Hawai’i will miss it terribly. Here is a song any visitor must own: The Beauty of Mauna Kea.

My favorite version of the song is by the great Keola Beamer. It opens with a traditional Hawaiian chant, truly capturing the feeling you get on Mauna Kea of being in a sacred space. The lyrics describe the indelible memory of the mountain’s beauty, a memory that distance cannot erase. I recommend the version on the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection, Volume 2, which is available on You can hear Keoka Beamer singing two different covers of the song via this link to the Rhapsody service.

Here is an original composition, Sunrise on Mauna Kea, written by guitarist Brian Nakasone. He is accompanied by Kathy Fraser of Waikoloa on cello.

Seeing this dance and hearing this music, surely the Roaming Gnome will be moved to visit the mountain that inspired such artistry.

3. Mauna Kea is replete with Hawai’i’s cultural history.

Our mountain is home to country’s highest National Historic Landmark, the Mauna Kea Keanakāko‘i Adze Quarry. The archeological complex contains religious shrines, trails, rockshelters and petroglyphs. Concentrated between 11,000 and 12,500 feet within the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve is an area of very fine-grained, dense basalt rock, formed when lava erupted and flowed beneath the glacial ice caps. With its huge complex of quarries, work sites, shelters and shrines, extending over an area of approximately seven and a half square miles from the 8,600 to the 13,000 foot elevation, the Mauna Kea quarry is one of the largest, highest and most complex stone tool quarries in the world.

These unique rock outcrops were discovered by Hawaiians and, beginning about AD 1100, quarried for use in the manufacture of adzes (ko‘i), traditional stone implements used for chopping and carving wood. Adz production started with a multi-day excursion up the mountain, braving freezing temperatures at night, to secure the blanks from which adzes could be perfected in the warmth and comfort of home. Few made this journey. The making of adzes was considered a sacred activity.

Keanakāko‘i is the single largest basalt quarry area in all of Polynesia. Few places in the Pacific have the kind of hard rock needed for tools. Besides Mauna Kea, other major adze quarries are found in the Society and Austral islands and in the Marquesas. They all were important production centers for exchange of tools between islands.

It is an amazing sensation to stand on this sacred ground and imagine the Hawaiians’ role in the far-flung world of Pacific maritime trade. Literally, there was no mountain too high and no ocean too deep or broad for the Kānaka Maoli.

Today, Hawaiian navigators continue to pioneer new directions. The voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a and her sister vessels will begin an eight year voyage to circumnavigate the globe to find answers, through exploration, on our journey toward a shared destination – a healthy and sustainable Earth. With Hōkūle‘a as a catalyst for global attention and local action, the worldwide voyage is a journey to chart a new course for sustainability.

4. Mauna Kea is home to endangered Hawaiian flora and fauna.

P1020208In times gone by, the slopes of Mauna Kea glowed with the reflection of the moonlight on the Hawaiian silversword plant. People are trying to save endangered species on Mauna Kea. The photo opposite is actually the Haleakala Silversword, not the Mauna Kea Silversword. But I’m rushing to give the Roaming Gnome an idea of our mountain, and there is no time to wait to drive up to the summit and get a photo of the correct genus. Mahalo to you botanical purists for forgiving me some artistic license.

Palila_on_Mamane_TreeThe Palila (Loxioides bailleui) is an endangered finch-billed species of Hawaiian honeycreeper that lives only on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea . It has a golden-yellow head and breast, with a light belly, gray back, and greenish wings and tail. The bird has a close ecological relationship with the māmane tree (Sophora chrysophylla), and became endangered due to destruction of the trees and accompanying dry forests. It now flies in only 10% of its historical range. This article from the Audubon Magazine outlines some of the difficulties encountered in conserving the habitat of the Hawaiian Palila bird.

5. You can see a totally different Hawaiian sunset from the summit of Mauna Kea

I am not talking about the beautiful sunsets we see almost every day in Hawai’i, the kind where an amber orb sinks magnificently into the western Pacific. In other words, not the type of iconic Hawaiian sunset pictured on the label of Hawai’i Nui Brewing Sunset Amber Ale.

The sunset on Mauna Kea is an entirely different experience because you are looking down on the sunset from above the clouds. Totally chicken skin!

    Sunset on the summit of Hawaii Island's Mauna Kea is an other-worldy experience

Sunset on the summit of Hawaii Island’s Mauna Kea is an other-worldy experience

Have a look at this photo album on the Hawai’i Nui Brewing web site, and I’m sure you’ll agree: watching the sun set on Mauna Kea is an experience that belongs on everyone’s Bucket List.





2 responses

11 08 2009
Science proves the legends are true: Hawai’i navigators pioneered trade routes across the Pacific « ALOHA IBU

[…] The top five reasons to visit Mauna Kea ( besides the Thirty Meter Telescope) — for example, the Mauna Kea Keanakāko‘i Adze Quarry was a source of unique raw material for trans-Pacific trade. […]

19 05 2010
Stefan Tengblad

Cant wait to meet your maunga and drink your beer thanks for the insight !

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