Wild on the island

Lance Richardson discovers Kauai, where hippies live in dense jungle and locals guard their "tropical garden".

When I first notice the young woman emerging from the jungle with dreadlocks and a wild kitten, I'm resting on the polished boulders of Hanakapi'ai beach.

This is, by my guides' logic, the most dangerous beach in the country. More people die from drowning in Hawaii than in any other state of the US, I'm told.

Of the eight major islands of Hawaii, Kauai - the northernmost and geologically oldest of them all - is where the majority of them happen. And of all the beaches on Kauai, more people drown here, in the turquoise swell of Hanakapi'ai.

Because it's winter, the sand has been collected up by the ocean and churns in the waves, leaving an exposed skeleton of rocks along the shore. In summer, however, the beach returns and the surf settles down in an attractive rhythm with an undertow; it's like a venus fly trap for swimmers.

Though I'm less than convinced this is the epicentre of the US's drownings, I wonder if the girl, now wandering towards us, has noticed the life buoy in the fork of a nearby tree.

There's also a wooden sign etched with a death tally. The last mark brings the total to 83, though it looks old, so maybe the island's investment in lifesaver training is paying off.

When she reaches us she smiles shyly before petting my guides' puppy, who has tagged along with a surfboard cord as a leash.

Wyatt Godinez and Harley Morris, from the adventure company Kayak Kauai, shoo away the cat as the woman explains why she's basically living in the jungle more than three kilometres from the nearest road. Her name is Courtney and she and her boyfriend hail from Florida but "we left because of the oil spill," she says. "It was caustic." This seems reasonable to an outsider but Godinez and Morris are less than convinced. Courtney skips off with half a pineapple and they describe her as a "trustafarian" - a hippie whose alternative lifestyle is supported by a parent-fed bank account. Morris dismisses the oil spill as an excuse. "Without it, she would have found another reason to come here," he says, making a gesture that encompasses the jungle, the ocean and everything in between. "Everybody does."

I've come to Hawaii expecting kitsch and a spot of surfing but what I find on Kauai, a short flight from Oahu (the island housing Honolulu), is an island far stranger and more intriguing than the brochures would have you believe.

Only 3 per cent of Kauai is developed for commercial and residential use and this is concentrated along the coasts. The heart of the island is an almost impenetrable wilderness of valleys, volcanoes and natural wonders such as Waimea Canyon, "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific".

Although residents live in comfortable towns, the wild overgrowth invades domesticated spaces with giant vines and orb spiders. And it perverts whatever it touches: avocados, coconuts and Australian pines run rampant through the jungle, along with chickens, goats and enormous pigs (320,000 at last estimate). Kauai is variously described to me as a sponge, soaking up everything it comes in contact with, and a wild farm. "In an apocalypse, this is the place to be," says one local, before explaining how hippies have been known to chase goats into lantana for an easy meal (its bony undergrowth a natural trap).

Despite its introduced flora and fauna, for many Kauai retains a spiritual purity. Hindus built an Iraivan Siva temple here as a place for pilgrimage, echoing the many heiau (worship sites) of the ancient Hawaiians who invested special significance in its natural elements.

To others, Kauai is simply "the garden island", magnetic as an antidote to everything built-up and industrial about the US mainland.

In my first few days I base myself on the north side of the island, between Hanalei and Haena where the road terminates. The owner of the corner store laughs when a customer asks her for milk - "they don't deliver this far" - as if we're all but cut off from civilisation here.

It seems that this prospect attracted some of the area's older inhabitants: divorced from the manicured golf courses of Princeville two towns along, I'm right by the original Taylor Camp, a 1960s hippie commune founded by Elizabeth Taylor's brother.

On my way to hike the first portion of the Kalalau Trail along the breathtaking Na Pali Coast, I pass the camp's final remnant - a taro plantation in the jungle. "They were totally anti-establishment," Morris says. "Now they're all for the establishment, with houses and cell phones and stuff."

Pure hippies still exist on Kauai, though you'll need to venture deep into the wilderness to find them. The Kalalau Trail is more than 17 kilometres long and a few people linger in self-imposed solitude at its endpoint of Kalalau Valley. We make it as far as Hanakapi'ai before turning back to the start of the trail at Ke'e Beach in Haena, the most popular beach on the island and a safer bet for swimming.

Hippies aren't the only ones who hold the natural plenitude of Kauai as somehow distinct from the rest of the world. In 2007 a citizens' uprising was labelled by the LA Times as "the battle for Kauai". The only access to the island is via plane, though a ferry service was meant to have begun from August of that year. What happened is the stuff of legend - a standoff between Coast Guard gunboats and a floating blockade of surfers and paddle-boarders. After three hours, the miniature flotilla of angry residents succeeded in deflecting an $85 million Superferry, which returned to Honolulu and has yet to venture back more than three years later.

The lack of a ferry service is a small setback to development and away from the relative seclusion of my hotel near Haena things vary from rustic to five-star luxury.

There's Hanalei Bay, a quiet combination of houses on stilts to protect against tsunamis, and vacation rentals boarded up for winter. The beach throbs year-round though; as I walk along an old shipping pier, a boy pulls himself on to the pylons, blood streaming down his face. "It's real shallow bro," he warns, pointing at a forehead that's been shredded from an ill-considered dive.

It's further along, in Princeville, that fantasy steps up its intensity in the form of the St Regis, a palatial hotel built down the side of a cliff to circumnavigate the island's rule that no structure is higher than a mature coconut palm.

A Hyatt on the island's other side provides a water wonderland where kayaking is permitted in the main lagoon. If this seems slightly surreal, Kauai appears to solicit high dreaming: more than a marquee's worth of Hollywood's most extreme adventures have used the island as a backdrop, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Avatar and the geographically muddled Pirates of the Caribbean film due out later this month.

One morning I take a helicopter ride around the island's circumference, a spectacular introduction to the beauty of Kauai. While flying down a valley towards Manawaiopuna Falls, the pilot plays the theme song to Jurassic Park, something of an anthem since Steven Spielberg shot here in 1993.

As fascinating as the confluence of nature and imagination is, there's something to be said for getting back to basics. Determined to gain access to the island's more difficult terrain, I meet Morris for a second time. Deep in the island's interior is a nondescript turn-off: follow it past a NASA observatory and you come to the vertigo-inducing top of the Kalalau Valley. Stop before it, however, and you might find the start of the Nu'alolo-Awa'awapuhi Loop. Another hike of slightly more than 17 kilometres, this one traverses two mountain ridges on the Na Pali coast; its views are unsurpassed.

Although this trek takes less than a day, we load up with water and Morris brings a machete "in case we want to cut anything".

"Like what?" I ask.

"Coconuts," he says.

We pass few people on the path, which is, for most of its length, a steep forest trail. Occasionally it gives way to open cliffs, sides brittle from the erosion that has carved modern-day Kauai from a prehistoric version considerably larger. Thickets of lantana are succeeded by guava trees, their heavy wood used by native Hawaiians for lua spears. Morris points out breaching whales in the distance whenever the ocean comes into view. As we slowly round the ridge line to a lookout, the Na Pali Coast reveals its bays and valleys, many completely inaccessible to all but the most hardened adventurer.

Over lunch Morris talks about the ancient Hawaiians who once lived in these valleys in self-sufficient communities and then "the Hawaiian way of things", meaning native traditions that often sit at odds with a louder and more assertive "American way of things".

Somewhere in the far distance is Hanakapi'ai beach from a few days earlier. Spurred by this discussion of Hawaiian customs, I'm reminded of the strange offerings I saw on the shore there. Rocks polished smooth by the constant surf had been piled up in cairns - the product, I assume, of a native tradition.

But Godinez suggests otherwise. They're offerings from visitors leaving their mark and hoping to return, he says. He speaks of a Hawaiian friend who would knock them down in front of tourists, enraged by what he saw as disrespect to the native's belief of animism where each rock is alive and sacred.

Of course, no matter how often he knocks them down, the visitors will put up more; Kauai is home to a constant tug of war of competing philosophies. For every ancient Polynesian tradition there will always be a Taylor Camp, bustling movie set, or a dreadlocked trustafarian like Courtney cooking pancakes in the jungle. What's remarkable is Kauai's ability to house all these ideas in a tropical island of only 63,000 residents. The place is a sponge indeed.

Heading to the airport the following day before sunrise, the driver flicks on the radio and tunes in to an announcer who sounds like he's already done a few rounds on the waves before work. "Don't touch that dial man," he says, as the whine of a slack-key guitar kicks off a song. "It's all happening here."

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Hawaiian Tourism and Hawaiian Airlines.


Getting there

Hawaiian Airlines flies from Sydney to Honolulu (about 10hr) where you change aircraft for Lihue (40min). Fare is about $1125 low-season return including tax. Melbourne passengers pay about $240 more and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. Australian passport holders must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Getting around

Taxis, hire cars and bikes are available.

Staying there

The Hanalei Colony Resort is a collection of ocean-front self-contained condominiums just past Hanalei Town on the island's north side. Very spacious and private, it's a good base for the Kalalau Trail from nearby Haena. Rooms from $US204 ($190) a night, two-night minimum. Phone +1 800 628 3004, see hcr.com.

The St Regis Princeville Resort is the most deluxe hotel on the island, featuring golf courses, infinity pool, a private beach and butler service. Rooms from $US399 a night. Phone +1 808 826 9644, see stregisprinceville.com.

On the south side of the island, the Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa is a self-enclosed universe in Poipu, with on-site restaurants and a newly renovated spa offering Hawaiian techniques such as lomi lomi. Rooms from $US360 a night. Phone +1 808 742 1234, see kauai.hyatt.com.

Things to do

Kayak Kauai caters to a variety of activities: river and open-sea kayaking, surf lessons, stand-up paddling, seven-day discovery tours and equipment hire. A variety of hiking tours are also available. A guided trip to Hanakapi'ai Beach is $US126 a person. Phone +1 808 826 9844, see kayakkauai.com.

Outfitters Kauai has a different selection of activities, including a zipline safari that includes a kayak down the Hule'ia River and a zipline course near Kipu Ranch. Phone +1 808 742 9667, see outfitterskauai.com.

Island Helicopters is the only company able to land near Manawaiopuna Falls. A Kauai Grand Island Tour also takes you into the Mount Waialeale Crater in the centre of the island Phone +1 808 245 8588, see islandhelicopters.com.

More information

See kauaidiscovery.com.