My six passengers had already seen some of the best and most beautiful sights Kauai had to offer on our helicopter tour that afternoon. I’d flown them past Mauna WaiPuna falls, sight of an opening scene in Jurassic Park; we’d soared through the rust-colored, cliffs of Waimea Canyon; I’d cruised across haunting Polihale beach on Kauai’s westernmost frontier, the spot where the famous barking sands meet the pounding Pacific surf. In the cabin of my tour helicopter, my six passengers soaked it in, cameras snapping, jaws dropping, as the incomparable beauty of Hawaii’s Garden Island passed beneath us in all her rugged splendor. But nothing prepared us for what awaited on the NorthWestern edge of Kauai, the famous NaPali Coast. Na Pali means The Cliffs in Hawaiian. They named that coastline right; it’s so jagged and vertical that no road exists, or is even possible to contemplate.
It was tour number seven, the last helicopter tour on a Thursday, and I was looking forward to a break the following day. In reality, I would have worked every day flying tours on Kauai; it was only called work, after all. If I could have, I’d have flown around the island for free, just to show it off.
Takeoff was routine, level off was smooth and easy. The tour promised to be a simple one, one lap around the island, see the sights, and land with six satisfied passengers.
I departed Lihue airport at 4:45 pm, headed west. Jurassic Falls, then WaiMea, then Polihale passed below. Then I crossed the final ridge at a place called Nualolo Kai, and there she was: Stretched before us was the magical beauty of NaPali. Like a dozen jagged cathedral spires, the 1,000 foot cliffs and rocky redoubts of NaPali resembled a fortress protecting the Northwest coast of Kauai. At her feet, along Kalalau beach, the roaring surf blasted the vertical face of lava-formed rock, spray gushing dozens of feet upward in spectacular fountains of foam. Overhead, long-tailed sea birds wheeled, their patterns more like dance than flight. Pillowy cumulus clouds hugged the serrated ridges, crowning NaPali’s spires with wreaths of white.
Then we saw it: the climax of the tour, though it was only halfway done. The conditions were just right; I’d learned, in over 2,000 tours, to sense when rainbows would appear, and where they’d likely be. And this time I was exactly right, with a reward even more incredible than I’d hoped.
A lone dark cloud wafted into view ahead about one mile. Inside its turgid mass, I sensed a grey-green hue that could only mean one thing. The cloud was heavy with rain. I watched it drift west, cross the last ridge onto the NaPali, and keep coming. Like a bulging sack scraped across a knife, the rain cloud snagged the jagged ridge, and ripped open, spilling its soggy contents, a freshet of rain onto the verdant valley below.
I watched the rainfall begin, then I glanced over my left shoulder. The sun was sinking toward the vast Pacific, its rays bathing NaPali in a golden pastel. I noted the sun’s angle, gauged the rainfall a mile ahead, and saw the possibility. Adding power, I raced the helicopter forward, cutting across the beach below to make a rendezvous with what I knew was waiting there.
A mist of rain spattered the windscreen, and then substantial droplets coursed down. I pressed on, angling toward the drifting rain cloud, and the vision I knew must appear soon. I warned my passengers to be prepared, telling them, “There’s got to be a rainbow here somewhere.” Rain was exactly right: its mist little more than foggy haze. Sunlight streamed into the mix like a lamp behind smoke. Behind me, cameras rose in anticipation. I cruised on.
Suddenly, there it was. Arcing across the ridge line, its eastern end hugging the mountain near HanaKoa falls, its western edge dipping into the roiled Pacific, was the most spectacular rainbow I’d ever seen on Kauai. Passengers snapped away. Some gasped in awe at the beauty of it. A woman near me in the front seat wept. A man in back did the same, swiping his eyes with a hankie.
Then, inexplicably, it got even better. Another rainbow, its colors equally garish and bold appeared under the first. The double bows clung together, their brilliant arcs like two swaths of a master’s palette draped across the glistening jungle below.
I circled around the twin rainbows, as my passengers drunk in their fill. It was difficult to leave that spot. More difficult to finish the tour, knowing that we’d likely seen the most beautiful vision we’d ever have. If I’d have flown my passengers back home from there they’d have been more than satisfied.
I did finish the tour, and landed at home base at 5:50 pm. Ordinarily, as the helicopter landed at the home pad and the engine stopped, my passengers would be chattering, laughing, sharing memories of the beauty they’d just seen. But not that tour. That day, there was silence in the cabin. As I waited for the blades to stop, I surveyed my passengers. No one said a word. There were tears. There were easy smiles. One fellow just shook his head, as if to sum it up for all the others, that what we’d just seen may have been as close to paradise as we’re likely to see in this life.
Watching my passengers file onto the waiting van, I pinched myself. Few are privileged to see what I was being paid to see, and to share it with others. I was, at that moment, the richest man on earth. Suddenly my break the next day didn’t seem so enticing.
Byron Edgington is a writer, public speaker, and retired commercial helicopter pilot. He is also the author of several books including an aviation memoir, The Sky Behind Me, to be published soon. ER In The Sky, a memoir of twenty years in the cockpit of an air medical helicopter will be available in 2010.
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