Monday, November 23, 2009

Blog: Hawaii Lava Sledding

My wife Devany and I recently visited the Hulihe`e Palace on Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona. It had been the vacation residence of Hawaiian royalty and was just reopened following extensive renovation work to fix damage caused by an earthquake in October 2006.

On display was an unusual looking apparatus looking something like a luge but only much narrower. The sign near it said it was used in ancient times for mountain surfing (?). This immediately grabbed our attention because it seemed so improbable -- and dangerous -- the sled was only about six inches wide.

I learned later that it was indeed a sled (papahölua) made of wood lashed together with cords from braiding the fibers of coconut husks.

Checking led me to understand that in fact Hawaiian lava sledding (Hawaiian: he‘e holua, "mountain surfing") is a traditional sport of Native Hawaiians. It involves the use of a narrow twelve foot long, six inch wide wooden sled made from native wood like Kau‘ila or Ohia. The sled can be used standing up, lying down, or kneeling, to ride down man-made courses of lava rock, often reaching speeds of 50 mph or greater! And in the past, Hawaiian lava sledding was considered both a sport and a religious ritual for honoring the gods.

Lava sledding was often done on a course made of rocks and built into a depression on a hillside. It was covered in packed-in dirt and an outer layer of grass, ti leaves and/or flower tassels. Courses were wide enough just for a single sled.

Any research on the subject inevitably leads back to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin story in July 2005 by Alexandre Da Silva of the Associated Press about Tom “Pohaku” Stone.

From Da Silva’s interview with Tom Stone, you can find out that it takes Tom about two weeks, or 24 hours of nonstop work, to finish a sled. (People interested in commissioning a piece should get in touch with the Hawaiian Boarding Company.) Further, in Di Silva’s piece done some four years ago:

Stone said his solid wood sleds "last forever," unlike today's snowboards and surfboards built on more high-tech, yet less durable materials like fiberglass and foam. For example, the Bishop Museum, the state's largest museum, has an 800-year-old sled on display, he said.

A retired lifeguard and champion surfer, Stone has discovered some 57 rock slides of various lengths across the state, and spent three days with a crew of seven to make a 200-foot repair on a 700-foot course. The only remaining course on Oahu is at Kaena Point, he said, and only two courses are in rideable conditions, both on the Big Island.

Tom Stone

by Dana Edmunds

"You can't even imagine what it's like to be head first, four inches off the ground, doing 30, 40, 50 miles an hour on rock," Stone said. "It looks like you are riding just fluid lava. It's death-defying ... but it's a lot of fun."

OK, so be sure and add this to your Big Island “must do” list on your next visit J. And I need to find out where do I sign up.........(right -- well maybe in my dreams).


  1. great post, love the sport. We need to revive this sport. I believe the guys over here building sleds have a couple spots to ride.

  2. Hopefully this will become an outing offered by extreme or Eco travel adventures.

  3. Lloyd,

    I will pass along your comment to a local company, Kapoho Kine, ....they are about to open a new zipline on the Big Island and lava sledding could be a natural extension for them.


Mahalo for leaving a comment!~WesIsland