At that melancholic time of the day when the sun sets yet it is not ready to give up to the night, from the beach of Kekaha in the island of Kauai it is possible to see a piece of land that appears from the horizon. Just a bit like a mirage, that is the only way you can notice Niihau, known as the “Forbidden Isle”.
Below: picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
For more than 150 years the island has been property of a family that surprisingly has managed to keep its promise and maintaining Niihau almost entirely isolated from the world. The Island has no roads but only dirt tracks used to cross the dry and bushy ground. No cars, shops, restaurants, electricity, running water, let alone internet. Its beaches are mainly attended by the local fauna than humans, even though the place is not uninhabited.
In 1864, the King Kamehameha V sold the isle of Niihau, for an amount of gold equaling 10,000 dollars to Elisabeth Sinclair, who promised to preserve the native language and the lifestyle of the people. From then on the island has always been passed to the Robinson’s descendents. In 2010, Bruce Robinson, one of the two brothers that today owns the property declared: “We tried to keep our word on the King’s request at the time of the purchase”.
The promise made to Kamehameha V has given to the local population the freedom to live in a place that many modern travellers would dream of. That is a far away uncontaminated island, sort of a living fossil which shows, to the few lucky ones allowed to visit it, how life in the Hawaii was more than a century ago. However the isolation did not take place out of the blue, instead it was decided in 1930 in order to protect the natives from diseases whom they had never been exposed to. In that year in fact 11 children had died because of the measles.
Below: a group of natives in a picture from 1880
The inhabitants who remained in the island live pretty much like their ancestors used to. That is hunting and fishing, activities which occupy most of the day of the 70 residents of the place. The number of residents fluctuates a lot according to the come and go of the people, who sometimes move to some nearby islands. The census of 2010 counted 170 inhabitants but since the Robinson family are not required to present an estimation, the current amount of local natives in unknown.
The island is one of the few places of the country where the native hawaiian language is still spoken. In 1893 the usage of such a language was forbidden by the provisional government once the citizens of foreign origin had started to take power.
The residents are required to respect the rules imposed by the Robinson Family: alcohol, weapons and tobacco are not allowed inside; men cannot wear long hair, and on Sunday the whole village must go to church. A Puritan paradise, featuring the religious culture of the Sinclair and Robinson, family of rigorous Scottish presbyterians, where the youngsters still look after the older ones because “that is the most important thing in the world”.
Below: Puuwai, the only settlement of the island like Google Earth shows
The islanders can obviously travel back and forth from Niihau, apparently an isolated place but not so for them who had the possibility to experience life in a reality inaccessible to most of us.
The Robinsons allow in a limited manner small groups of tourists to come to the island, do a daily tour with some guides where a hunt experience is included too. The visitors cannot have any contact with the locals because for Bruce Robinson preserving the culture and lifestyle of the Niihauans is a priority. Like it is said within the isle itself you breathe “a sensation of peace and renovation that cannot be perceived in the outer world. The only place where that is left is Niihau”.
One of the residents who moved for work to the near Kauai confirms “life is beautiful over there. All you need is there. You can go to the seaside and the only footsteps on the beach are yours. It is beautiful there”.