An often missed but fascinating site on Oahu is the Ulupō Heiau on the Windward side of the island near the beach town of Kailua. It sits on the eastern edge of Kawai Nui Marsh which is off to your left as you come into Kailua down the Pali Highway. Stories say that it was created by the Menehune, an ancient race of leprechan-like pre-Hawaiians who inhabited the islands before Tahitian voyagers got here. There are many such large Menehune credited structures throughout the islands. The name Ulupo means ‘night inspiration’. I can only imagine what it is like at night.
As you drive by, you can see the huge stone platform through the mango trees just past the Windward YMCA – if you go to the YMCA, you can park and walk around the back to acces the heiau. A heiau is a Hawaiian temple site. The Ulupo Heiau measures 140 x 180 feet and is as high as 30 feet at some points. The stones were brought from all over the island and at one point – it was a very important cultural site for the Hawaiian people of Oahu.
The area it sits in was important for Hawaiian agriculture with the production of banana(maya), taro (kalo), sugarcane (ko), breadfruit (ulu) and many other fruits and vegetables. In addition there were ancient fishponds in the area. All of this has led archaeologists to suppose that it was an agricultural temple site that grew into a more important heiau luakini – which would have had much more power associated with it.
Kailua, though a laid back beach town today, was once an important seat of power. The kings of Oahu maintained their residences here – as did the later conquering kings of Maui and King Kamehameha the great who united all the islands under his rule. After the conversion of the Hawaiian people to Christianity and the missionary and territory periods – the site lost much of it’s importance and was part of a cattle ranch.
In the 1960s, the site was partially restored and a plaque was put up but the accumulated rubbish of nearly a century filled the site. In the early 2000’s, I worked with groups of other volunteers to clean out the rubbish, restore the lo’i (taro ponds), and clean the site. Until recently, there were members of the reinstated Hawaiian government living on the site – or maybe they were simply homeless Hawaiian guys living on the site and taking care of the aina. In any event, they were forced out and I don’t know the details. I know that it was nice to have them there in the mid 2000s but when I visited in 2017 there was a somewhat creepy and dangerous feel to the place.
Yesterday’s visit seemed to be an improvement over that.