Rosendal landed the helicopter on a flat patch of ground along the northern coastline, overlooking nearby Lehua Island, a state seabird sanctuary. We scrambled out, feeling like modern-day Robinson Crusoes. We walked 100 yards to an open-air pavilion that provided protection from the hot tropical sun. But Niihau’s hospitality ended there. This oasis of calm and tranquillity had no toilets, changing facilities, running water, or food.
“Most of our visitors are sophisticated travelers who want to see new terrain and do something really different,” Rosendal explained, as he set down a cooler filled with sandwiches, canned guava juice, and macadamia-nut cookies. “The forbidden concept only makes the island that much more attractive. It’s a good place to hang out and relax.”
Nancy Kelley of Rocklin, Calif., said curiosity had prompted her to book the helicopter tour for her and her husband, Dick. “Since the island is forbidden, we’re taking a rare opportunity to come over,” she said.
While one member of our group swam in the cool, crystalline water, Doug and I joined Nancy on the beach to collect pupu, tiny shells that wash ashore during the winter months. Niihau women use momi, laiki, and kahelelani shells to create intricate earrings, bracelets, and leis, which are sold in gift shops around Kauai. Some elaborate leis are valued at thousands of dollars. During our beachcombing, a group of islanders drove up to the helicopter in a 1950s-era Dodge weapons carrier. Their surprise appearance caught Rosendal off guard, and he quickly strolled out to the landing area to talk. They soon drove off.
After a break for lunch, Doug and I set off in search of native wildlife and African big game animals brought to the island by the Robinsons. Niihau’s lava-ledge-fringed shoreline and secluded beaches are favorite haunts of endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and we soon spotted some snoozing on the sand.
Heading back into the kiawe trees, whose long spines pierced the soles of our shoes, we surprised a mother boar and seven or eight babies frolicking at the waterhole inside an abandoned cattle corral. With high-pitched squeals, they scampered away into the trees. One heavy-set boar stood his ground, glowering at us from the brush. We moved quickly back toward the helicopter, where two albatrosses were shrieking and bobbing their heads in a bizarre mating ritual.
We left Niihau late that afternoon and Rosendal made one final sweep of the terrain to look for eland, an elusive, fleet-footed African antelope. As the island receded into the blue haze, we recalled Robinson’s earlier comment about his inherited island stewardship. “The world is becoming increasingly turbulent and chaotic,” he had said. “No part of the globe is exempt, and Niihau is caught in the middle.”
Claudia Capos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.