Rainbow Falls and the Wailuku River

Many stories are told about our wahi pana, special places, and their natural features. It is important to understand that our moʻolelo are not simple fantasies or bedtime stories for children, though these days they often are treated that way. Our traditional stories are nothing like Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” imaginative tales meant to entertain, with no thought for lessons they might hold. And they are nothing like “Aesop’s Fables,” with their moralistic themes.

Our moʻolelo hold within their words and images critical information about our environment, and how we can survive within it. They tell us when it is time to plant and harvest, what dangers lurk on the mountain paths, and when it is safe to swim in our rivers and ponds.

One such moʻolelo is the tale of Kuna Moʻo and Hina. Here, I share with you this abbreviated version, and at the end will point out the information it contains which was considered by our kūpuna to be critical enough to warrant preservation within the oral tradition.

Please be warned, traditional tales can be as graphic as “Game of Thrones” or any other modern adventure drama. While this telling has been shortened and edited, adults should read the story through first, before reading it to a child.

Copyright 2017, Leilehua Yuen

The Courtship of Kuna

Kuna-moʻo was in search of a wife. He had swum far across the ocean, from island to island, seeking a bride. At last his travels bought him to Hilo Bay, where he learned that upstream in a cave veiled by Waiānuenue, the falls of the rainbowed waters of the Wailuku River, Hina lived. She was beautiful, and a skilled kapa maker. Kuna decided that she would be the perfect bride.

He swam the ponds and climbed the rocks up the river to her home in the cave behind Rainbow Falls. He watched her working and liked what he saw. He stood on the shore and called out to her, “Hina! I have come to make you my wife! I am strong and powerful! Marry me!”

Hina was not interested. Kuna was a huge moʻo, a dragon-like creature, with a lizard-like head, scaly body, and sharp claws. “You are ugly and smell like dead fish!”

They shouted insults back and forth, and Kuna, realizing that she would not marry him, left. But, he did not go away entirely. He continued up the Wailuku, and made a home in the falls called Peʻepeʻe, which translates to English as “hidden.” From from his hiding place in the underwater caves, he would do what he could to annoy Hina. Sometimes he would block the river with logs, boulders, and mud, letting Waiānuenue dry up, making it difficult for to beat the beautiful kapa for which she was known. Sometimes, when the mauka rains swelled the river, he released the dams he made, letting the logs and boulders crash over the falls, and filling the pond below, Hina’s pool, with mud.

Hina generally ignored these insults. When Kuna was playing his tricks, she stayed well back in her cave, on the lava shelf above the reach of the water.

Finally, Kuna could no longer take being ignored. He slithered down to Hina’s home and demanded she marry him. Again, she refused.

Kuna decided to take her, anyway. He swam to her cave and tried to enter. Hina just laughed. Her sister, Hina-kulu-ua, the goddess of the Piʻihonua rains, knew about Kuna’s pursuit of Hina, and had heard Hina disparaging him again. Hinakuluua gathered her clouds and send a rainfall into the upper portion of the Wailuku. She flew like a wind down the Wailuku, awakening it. The great river roused itself, and with a grumbling roar, it swelled and hurled itself over the pali of Hina’s home, washing Kuna out into Hilo Bay.

Hina and her sister laughed at the bedraggled moʻo.

Kuna, enraged, swam up the river, thrusts of his powerful tail overcoming the strong current. He lodged himself in the outlet of Hina’s pool, and blocked it with his massive body.

Hinakuluua’s rains already had been released, and there was no calling them back, so as the river roared over the falls, the pond began to fill. The water rose higher and higher, and Hina was trapped against the back wall of the cave.

Hina had a servant, Aoʻōpua, a cloud made of the mists of the waterfall. Understanding the danger she was in, Aoʻōpua gathered together the abundant mist of the falls into her body, and rose high in the air, above the low-lying mist-clouds hovering over the river. Aoʻōpua rose as high as she could, flashing all the colors of the rainbow.

Hina’s son, Maui, saw the flashes and knew that something was wrong. He immediately headed home. Rushing up the Wailuku, he saw Kuna blocking the waters. He threw his spear at the moʻo, but it bounced off the stone-hard scales and lodged in the riverbank. He took his great war club and smashed at the moʻo. The club slipped off Kuna’s scales and bounced off the rocks in which he had wedged himself, shattering them. Kuna was swept out to the bay, and Maui with him.

They fought their way back up the river, Kuna heading for his home, Peʻepeʻe. He wanted to hide in his many underwater caves. Maui, unable to pierce Kuna’s scales with a spear, or beat through them with a club, wrestled the moʻo and finally grabbed him by the throat. Kuna dove into the waters of Peʻepeʻe. An amphibian, he could stay under water as long as he wished. But Maui, with his human lungs, needed air. Finally, Maui had to let go and swim to the surface to breathe.

All of this commotion had drawn the attention of another sister of Hina, Hina-i-ke-ahi. Hina, a goddess of fire. She had an imu filled with red-hot stones. She threw these into the waters at Peʻepeʻe.

Though the stoney plates of Kuna’s scales had protected him from being pierced by a spear or smashed by a club, now they acted like a cooking pot! As the waters of Peʻepeʻe boiled from the heat of the imu stones, Kuna’s scales heated until they, too, glowed. Kuna rose from the water, seeking the cooler uplands, but he could not rid himself of his hot scales.

He dove back into the Wailuku to cool himself off, but Hinaikeahi threw more imu stones. Hinakuluua sent another cloudburst which swelled the river with more rain.

Trees and boulders which Kuna had dislodged to throw in the river were carried along and smashed against the moʻo. The river pulled Kuna down, tumbling him with the debris of the uplands. Finally, the lifeless body of the moʻo was carried over the falls and dropped in Hina’s pond.

Maui arranged Kuna’s bones around the edge of the pond so that Hina could see and be reassured that the Wailuku and those beings associated with it would always protect her.

From this story, we can see that the Wailuku has long been recognized as dangerous. Its name, Wai (water) + luku (destructive), tells us its nature.

The story also shows us that the river may appear calm, but can change quickly, and when filled with water from the mauka (upland) rains, can suddenly become a torrent capable of destroying a mighty dragon!

If the voice of the river changes, that is a warning. If a wind suddenly blows makai, down the surface of the river, that is a warning, too.

We learn that seeking refuge in the caves and ledge pockets along the river can leave one trapped.

We also learn form the story that there are dangerous caves beneath the surface of the river. For those who are familiar with rivers, small waterfalls and caves, under certain conditions, can create what is known as a “washing machine effect.” This is a circular current that tumbles whatever is caught in it round and round, like in a front-loader washing machine.

It is utterly irresponsible for people to encourage visitors to swim the Wailuku. Even local people who are experienced in its ways have been killed. The Wailuku demands our respect and is unforgiving of ignorance or forgetfulness.

If you do feel you must swim in the Wailuku, please do as my friends and I were taught from childhood:

  • ONLY swim on quiet days with NO mauka clouds. Rain upland will come down the river, and sooner and faster than you think.
  • ONLY swim when the water is clean looking. Dirty water means something runoff from somewhere. That means more water entering the river from upslope. You have no way of knowing how much or how fast, so stay out.
  • Stay away from the edges. Our volcanic rocks are brittle. Even people experienced in our geology have misjudged and had ledges crumble out from under them.
  • And, IMO, the most important rule:
    If there are no local people in the water, stay out. We locals LOVE to swim. We will be in the water at every available opportunity. If there are no local people in the water, there is a really good reason.

Please remember, Hawaiʻi is neither a movie set nor an amusement park. Our beautiful wild areas are WILD. Enjoy them, but do so safely and with an understanding that nature is NOT evil, bad, or out to get us, but IS unforgiving of inattention and mistakes.

Be wise, learn from the moʻolelo, and stay safe.

Although these images are not of the Wailuku, they do illustrate typical flash floods in Hawaiʻi.