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By Meredith Hodges
It is no secret that mules, due to their innate sensibility and incredible surefootedness, are the equine of choice for packing and riding into untamed wilderness areas. Dependable mules carry thousands of tourists down the steep trails of the Grand Canyon each year. This enables many to take in the splendor and beauty of an otherwise nearly inaccessible corner of the world.
Not limited to Mainland activities, mules are also used on the island of Molokai in Hawaii to carry tourists on a memorable ride down the Kalaupapa Trail to the Makanalua Peninsula and the settlement of Kalaupapa. Years ago, before it was discovered that leprosy was not highly contagious, afflicted persons were taken to the Makanalua Peninsula by boat and left there. The sheer cliffs on the landside of the peninsula prevented them from leaving. Father Damien de Veuster of Belgium built the first church and brought hope to the old settlement of Kalawao.
Today, people are allowed to come and go, and the settlement is permitted to delight in some of the modern-day conveniences. Though the settlement is only 12 square miles, there are cars and mini-buses to aid in transportation. After the mule ride down the cliff trail, mini-buses give personal tours around the settlement where you can learn about everyday life then and now. You’ll see their homes, general store, dock, medical facilities, lonely graveyards, the old settlement of Kalawao, and Father Damien’s church, St. Philomena.
After a picnic lunch in one of Hawaii’s most spectacular spots, overlooking cliffs and waterfalls, dramatic ocean rock formations, and crashing surf, the mules make their way safely back up the steep trail. The trail begins at an elevation of 1600 feet. The ride is three miles long with 26 switchbacks. It is not, however, just a sheer, open drop all the way down. The trail meanders through a lush rain forest with splendorous vistas of the peninsula and the startling blues of the Pacific Ocean. It has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world!
Buzzy and Clyde Sproat were the owners and operators of this tropical excursion until 2014 when Buzzy passed away. The trail to the settlement was built over 100 years ago. Buzzy and Clyde’s grandfather was instrumental in the renovation of the trail for use with mules several years later. Clyde spent much of his time on the other islands while Buzzy tended to the mules. Most of the mules they were using had been purchased on the Mainland from George Chamberlain’s ranch in Los Olivos, California, or from the former Windy Valley Ranch owned by my mother in Healdsburg, California. The mules were trained for the cliff trail primarily by Buzzy. He would lead them down and ride another animal, or let them follow back up the trail the first few times. The mules are not broke to reins and are expected only to walk and follow. Passing is discouraged. Should a mule decide that he prefers to speed over the trail, Clyde enters the scene and quickly puts any thought of speed out of the mule’s head. If the mule wishes to “run” the trail, Clyde will oblige him…over and over, until the mule decides that slow is better! Any that do not comply, they will not use. With all the inexperienced riders with which they must deal, these mules must be fail-safe!
The mules themselves were well cared for. When not in use, they grazed peacefully on pastures of lush green Molokai grass. The Sproats keep a string of about 40 mules. All of the mules were shod by Buzzy to prevent any foot problems and they were not overworked. Generally, they would make two trips a day down and back up the trail to the settlement. Each mule was only required to make the trip every other day. Saddles and tack were carefully fitted to each mule to insure their comfort as well as that of the rider. No spirited mules were used for packing tourists down the trail. Only the calmest and most sensible mules could “make the grade.” They came in all different colors and range in size from 14 to 16 hands to accommodate the different-sized riders they must carry.
Upon arrival at the trailhead, tourists were asked to fill out forms stating their size and riding ability in addition to legal prerequisites. Then each tourist was matched with a mule suitable for his needs. Wranglers were situated at the front, middle and back of the mule string to insure a safe trip. The trail is all these mules know and they know it well! One mule, General Sherman, exhibited this steady, calm dependability when he was matched with a rather heavy greenhorn from Washington D.C. The man, who had probably never ridden anything in his life, whooped and wailed his way down the trail. He was sure that he would fall off and plummet to his death! But General Sherman ignored all the commotion and carried him safely through the excursion, striking another positive chord for mules!
If you thought that Hawaii was only for those who love lolling on the beach in a tropical paradise, think again. The mules of Molokai can contribute a lot more diversity to your tropical vacation. They can take you on quite an historic adventure through the most beautiful and spectacular scenery in the world. Without the mules, this would not be as safely possible. These trail trips, of course, must be limited to those who are physically fit, weighing no more than 225 pounds and not too advanced in age. A minimum age of 16 years is required by Hawaii State Law to enter the Kalaupapa Settlement. The owners of the Molokai Mule Ride, Buzzy and Clyde Sproat, took every reasonable precaution to help make this an enjoyable and unforgettable experience.
Should you be interested in taking this excursion, you can contact them for further information through your travel agent. “Wouldn’t you rather be riding a mule on Molokai?”
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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