Nestled between Mauna Kea and Kohala mountains, Waipiʻo is the largest of seven valleys along the isolated northeastern coast of Hawaiʻi island. Waipi’o translates to waters curved, arched, or bent. Carved out over millennia by water, wind and surf, perennial streams and waterfalls abound in this breathtaking valley. Beginning at the striking 3,000 foot cliffs, five main tributaries meander along the valley floor eventually reaching the ocean as one. The ever flowing fresh waters, alluvial soils, abundant fishing grounds, natural fortification and resource rich cliff tops made Waipi’o an ideal place for the first Polynesian voyagers to call home.
These first settlers thrived as their crops brought by canoe took root in the valley’s rich soil. Waipiʻo became an abounding cultural landscape with terraced field systems of lo’i kalo (taro patches) and many fishponds. Hawaiians lovingly cultivated the ʻāina (land) into one expansive garden that provided their everyday needs. This consistent food security as well as limited accessibility by canoe or steep descent from the cliffs above created a naturally fortified kingdom, a readily defendable and ideal political center for the ruling Aliʻi (Chiefs). Famous Aliʻi of Waipiʻo included Liloa and his son Umi; both were able to unify the entire island under one kingdom. In ancient times religious temples called heiau were built throughout Waipiʻo, the most sacred being Pakaʻalana which served as both a luakini (sacrificial) and puʻuhonua (place of refuge).
Captain Cook’s arrival to Hawaiʻi in 1778 changed the Hawaiian archipelago forever. Scores of ships flocked to the islands; one such ship arrived in 1793 carrying the first cattle. With advice from the captain, King Kamehameha placed a kapu (taboo) on these animals. The herds quickly multiplied and there was need to control the vast numbers of wild longhorn cattle. Vaqueros (Mexican Cowboys) and their Spanish Barbed Mustangs were recruited to round up the destructive herds, thus marking the beginning of the Paniolo, the Hawaiian cowboy.
These horses, along with donkeys, were brought to Waipi’o by kalo and rice farmers to export foods such as poi (kalo processed with water), lu’au (kalo leaf), rice, mochi (sweet rice treat), okolehao (Hawaiian moonshine) as well as other goods. During this time, Waipi’o was a hub of industry with stores, poi factories, rice mills, a school, bar, churches and jailhouse. However, the lure of the sugar plantation, the fall of the local price of rice, subsequent flooding and finally, the tsunami of 1946 all contributed to many residents relocating, leaving their horses behind.
Today people are amazed to see these untamed horses roaming free throughout the valley, the only wild herd in all Hawaiʻi! A majority of our herd are direct descendants of these “Hawaiian ponies.” Easy tempered, slightly smaller and much more sure footed than their mainland relatives, these horses have adapted to the wet, rocky and sometimes muddy conditions of Waipiʻo and offer a unique way to experience this truly remarkable place.