Nualolo Aina Valley is remarkable for its remains of taro growing terraces, reminders that for hundreds of years people lived their lives in this remote valley, even into the early 20th century. Adjoining it, and once connected by a primitive ladder over the separating cliff, is the abbreviated Nualolo Kai beach and valley, which also has multiple and elaborate lava rock terraces visible afar from the ocean.
Taro, or kalo, grows in water and is considered a perfect food plant. Its heart-shaped green leaves and starchy root, similar to a potato, are rich in nutrients. Poi, that gray paste most visiting tourists have reluctantly tasted as proper fare at a Hawaian luau, is made from the taro root. Though most say it must be an acquired taste, it was only several decades ago that poi was a staple for Kauai’s children, promoted by our local public health departments.
No doubt a substantial amount of taro could be grown in Nu‘alolo ‘Aina, but was there enough for everyone? And all the time? With frequent devastations from landslides and flash floods, how many could this and the bordering valleys feed? We don’t know, but consider this: Kauai’s population in Captain Cook times may have been close to 100,000, though only a hundred or so lived in Nualolo Aina Valley is remarkable for its remains of taro growing terraces, reminders that for hundreds of years people lived their lives in this remote valley, even into the early 20th century. itself.
Today, Kauai’s resident population is only about 55,000, even with a relentless stream of imported food and commerce by barges every day. Taro in olden Hawaii had to be a most productive crop. It was everything, overshadowing even what could be harvested from the sea. I’m sure the youngsters then were saying something like, “Oh Mom, poi for dinner again!” But when you’re hungry everything tastes good. Actually, the beauty of poi was not just in the eating—it could also be kept for long periods without spoilage. Yes it soured, but that made it tastier.
Napali’s food supply, or its shortage, must have often incited conflicts between the peoples of bordering valleys. Remember that not even a sophisticated barge service today can closely approach Napali’s coastline when the winter surf is up. Even fishing or reef gleaning is then too dangerous. Like an impenetrable wall, the massive onslaught of monster winter waves would effectively hold prisoner all of Napali’s residents. That meant everyone in those winter times had to cooperatively cultivate taro to survive. The best producing taro fields and fishing locales were probably valued more than we value diamonds and gold today, and likely a source of much envy during hungry times. Taro was a matter of life or death in ancient Hawaii.