The Hawaiian word pali refers to any steep slope or cliff, though Hawaiian geographers employ it as a term for either the verdant rain- and stream-eroded scarps or the wave-eroded sea cliffs found on the windward side of the main islands. The thousand-foot precipice called Nu‘uanu Pali, in the Ko‘olau Mountains, is famous as the site where Kamehameha defeated the defending warriors of O‘ahu by driving them off the cliff. The water-carved ridges and sea cliffs of the Na¯pali (literally, “the cliffs”) coast of Kaua‘i are renowned for their beauty, but the towering pali of eastern Moloka‘i—highest sea cliffs in the world, reaching up to 3,300 feet— are better known to geologists, who’ve long puzzled how water alone could carve such features on a barely middle-aged volcanic island. Sonar scanning of sea floors off the east coast of both O‘ahu and Moloka‘i revealed landslide debris strewn for over a hundred miles, and it is now thought that catastrophic land slumps contributed to the formation of pali along the eastern flank of the Ko‘olau range and the east coast of Moloka‘i. Paul Theroux once wrote, in Fresh Air Fiend, that Moloka‘i’s pali were “a gothic wall, as soaring and complex as a green cathedral. . . . The high islands of the Marquesas,” he went on, “the smoldering volcanoes of Vanuatu, and the glorious mossy and ferny cones of Tahiti and Moorea” are all justly praised. “But nothing can compare with these thirty miles of [Moloka‘i’s] green cliffs, the highest, the most beautiful I have seen in Oceania.”

Pamela Frierson