Pu‘u Ke‘oke‘o

The White Hill

A visitor to the Conservancy's Kona Hema Preserve discovers the meaning of an ancient Hawaiian place name. 

By Nathan Greene

The cabin was built in 1916, and the walls inside were ribbed with white paint. I read an email tacked to a wall that described Puʻu Keʻokeʻo—The White Hill. The place sounded rare, and I asked Mel if we might go there today. He shook his head. No, he said, The White Hill was too far for today.

In the morning, we toured the Kona Hema Preserve in the old truck with Pup in the back. We saw birds that flitted and perched in tall koa trees. There were red ‘apapane, green ‘amakihi, and brown ‘elepaio. The birds, so uncommon outside the Hawai'i Island preserve, performed in the branches until we beamed. Between the trees were broad fields of basalt. The cooled lava flows varied in shade from charcoal to slate. Moss and ferns grew between the cracks. After the tour, Mel pointed to The White Hill, and I agreed that the dark cone was very far.

In the afternoon, grey drapes hung from the sky. I entered the mist and soon I was alone. The mist turned to rain, and I grinned because I knew that the wet helped the hill turn white. An ancient forest of burled trunks rose around me. The sweeping boughs and rasping leaves whispered yarns long forgotten by roads and trails. A native owl called pueo flew across my path and I quieted to hear its glide.

In the evening I returned to the cabin, but Mel was gone. I peeled and hung my clothes on chairs. I read about The White Hill, again, while I made dinner. After I ate, I read the book that I found beneath the Conservancy’s fliers. Pup prowled the creaky deck outside, and soon I fell asleep.

The Journey Begins

Mel returned at dawn and made us coffee in a blue pail. The drink was “black like cowboy coffee,” he said, and he laughed when I flinched at the bitterness. I asked if today we might go to The White Hill. Mel thought and sipped, and soon he nodded and said that, yes, it was very far, but today we could go to The White Hill.

We climbed into the truck and Pup hopped up into the bed. We drove until the jagged lava stopped the road. Mel called the black flow ʻaʻā. He called the brown pāhoehoe. The pāhoehoe was older and smoother and so we walked on it the most.

Below a copse of smaller trees, Mel pointed to the Hundred Acre Water Hole. He told me its real name, Manu O Kehau, The Place of the Birds. Amid the porous rock that sucked up the rain, this was the only standing water for centuries of travelers. We drank and then we walked on toward the waiting hill.

We crossed the largest field of ʻaʻā. The crumbly fists of rock rolled and bucked beneath us, and we relied on Pup to guide us well. After we crossed, Mel showed me Umi’s trail. He said that Hawaiians used the trail to cut across the ʻāina, (land) and to hunt shore birds with slings, in the old times.  

We walked onto the final flow of brown. The slabs of rock were jumbled and frail, like broken ice upon a lake. We often stumbled when our feet tore holes in the crust. Pup waited for us at the base of The White Hill.  

Peak Experience

Above us, the cone of cinders shone red, gold and black in the sun. The cinders were polished and smooth like obsidian, but brittle like ash. We felt the grind of them beneath our boots. The air smelled like fire and earth. The slope was steep, but soon we reached the peak. The vista spread from Mauna Loa’s shield of rock beside us, down through the hardy native trees grasping from stone, and on to the supple South Kona Coast.

Mel turned to Pup and said: We made it up again, old man. The sun beat the stones around us, but the hill did not turn white. I felt the hot turf and it was dry. I knew then that the rain had not been deep enough. I paced to the edge of the hill and recalled the note on the wall in the cabin. I closed my eyes and Mel’s words, simple and bright, afforded me the view I sought.

Dear Reader,

I have thought long and often about the name Pu‘u Keʻokeʻo (The White Hill) over the years, and could not comprehend why the old ones named it that. Last Friday, it was revealed to me, as I hiked up to work. The rain, a few days prior, had saturated the cinder and the South-facing slope had warmed with the sun until it steamed with the heat. The cloud rising from the heated cinders was moved by the wind until it enveloped the entire hill. My words do the view little justice. In a moment, I rediscovered the true meaning of an old place name, as I stood awestruck by the sight.   – Mel



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