Angela and I made camp at Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area last night, just north of Kona’s main drag. It’s a great spot for day trips when visiting the city and a destination frequented by few tourists. The airport was built during WWII and converted into a state park in 1976. Its main feature is a 3,800 ft runway, now used as a parking lot. Running east of the runway is a flower garden and walking path, and to the west is a long sandy beach.
After walking the runway for some time, we saw a clearing in the trees and tall grasses leading to the shoreline. We cut to the beach and were greeted by a dazzling blue ocean at sunset, foamy waves crashing into rocky outcroppings, spraying clouds of mist into the air. There were lots of families with children ambling about, picking up rocks and playing in the sand. We kicked off our sandals and relaxed, watching the sun turn from fiery orange to neon pink.
Earlier in the day we were tipped off by the guy laying next to us at the beach in front of the Sheraton; if we walked past where the runway ended, there lay a horseshoe-shaped beach that was often empty, a good place to camp if you’re discreet about it. Before the sun had fully set, Angie and I walked along the sands towards the end of the runway, passing through a wedding reception and then a dense cluster of trees, happening finally on the horseshoe beach. White sands speckled with lava rock, idyllic palms and tall green grasses emerging from the sand, lava rock outcroppings stretching far into the water, waves crashing into the sands.
We found a spot near the end of the beach buried in some trees, bordering a large grassy field. We set up camp and lay inside with the door flaps tied so the cool sea breeze blew inside. The remaining sunlight faded from the sky and the night was lit by a cream-white moon, the sky dusted with stars.
Once it got late enough, and we were sure nobody was going to kick us off, we wandered to the shoreline and stood in the moonlight. The palms cast long, ghostly shadows on the sand, and the waves sparkled. The night sounds were lush and complex, weaving an intricate sound tapestry; crickets chirping, waves crashing, a dog barking, the occasional rumble of a distant motorcycle.
I slept like a baby, the waves rocking me to sleep. I woke once and poked my head out the tent. The air was sweet and cool, and an orange moon was setting on the horizon, like an orange slice floating in blackness…
I woke just before dawn, Angela still sleeping next to me. Invigorated with youthful energy I threw on my sandals, grabbed my journal and headed to the shore. The sky was soft purple and the waters gray and blue. In the distance, the volcano cut a perfect violet silhouette against the pink sky. I onto the lava rocks and sat near where the waves crashed and receded, revealing cesspools teeming with lichen, urchins, anenome. I started writing in my journal:
Sunrise at The Beach
There is no greater peace than walking the sands at dawn, the sound of wave against rock, the dull gray sky turning muted violet as the sun casts its first leg over the foggy mountain. The lava rocks are cool and coarse and the palms sway in the light, transient breeze. Life before life. Time before time. Moments of silent contemplation. The waves tumble and crash and left are eddies and pools then are drawn inwards again by an invisible hand. A fishing boat floats at the horizon, sailing across the razor’s edge of the world.
I ran back to the tent to wake Angela, hoping we could both catch the sunrise. I found her staring dreamily at the back of the tent, her hair messed and out of place.
“Come watch the sunrise!” I said, panting
“Be there in a minute…just waking up.”
“The sun’s about to come over the mountain.” I pointed excitedly toward the shore. “You don’t want to miss this, I promise.”
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’…”
Back at the beach I sat on a large lava rock underneath a shady tree growing out of the sand. Angie joined me a minute later wearing flip flops, shorts, and my red-and-green flannel. She smiled and yawned and sat down next to me, stretching her arms high over her head. The sun made it’s first appearance, poking its head from behind the mountain, casting first clear light on Kona and across the ocean.
Tromping along the sands came an older man carrying a backpack. He looked to be in his forties, had sunburned skin and a gray goatee. He wore a newsboy cap, a sleeveless surfing tee and a puka shell necklace. An Arizona Green Tea can stuck out the top of the backpack.
“Have you seen two people camping around here, a guy and his Hawaiian girlfriend? They’re late for their breakfast,” said the man.
“Can’t say I have, though we did see someone camping over in those trees last night,” I said.
“That must be them…I gotta wake ’em so they can get the free breakfast they serve on the beach each morning for the homeless. Sometimes I like to stick around and eat the eggs and coffee and socialize.” He laughed and mimed socializing.
“Oh, I gotcha.”
“Yeah, been living on this beach for the last three months, my son’s been sick and needed surgery. 10 years old, the poor kid’s got tumors on his brain!”
“Jeez, sorry to hear that. Is he doing any better now?”
“Oh yeah the kid’s doing great now, but the surgery cost me thirty grand! The kid’s doing much better now but it’s hurtin’ Papa,” he laughed and put up his hands as if to say “I’m innocent! Can you blame me?”
He got to telling us about his off-grid home in the mountains of the Philippines where he lives with his wife and kids. That, in fact, his life in the jungle was the subject of a new BBC documentary, the most-watched documentary on Christmas morning this year. He had also published two books about off-grid living, his most well-known being My Life in the Jungle.
At first I thought he was crazy, but his story, though extravagant, seemed coherent enough. And he was really amiable in the end, very friendly and talkative with an off-beat sense of humor, a New York cabbie vibe to him almost.
He finally decided it was time to head off to find his friends who were late for breakfast. Before he set off I asked his name. “Jungle Neil,” he said, and we all shook hands. Later that evening, after returning home, I Googled his name eager to confirm my suspicions, and sure enough, Jungle Neil is the real thing.
So if you’re ever in Kona and in a tight spot for a place to stay, be sure to check out the Old Kona Airport. Be sure to walk the beach and flower garden, as they’re both beautiful and not overly crowded. If you plan to camp, be discreet about it as it’s technically not allowed. But don’t let this stop you, there are many decent camping spots hidden in the trees and people camp there all the time. Also, try and catch sunrise at the beach. The ocean is really astounding first thing in the morning, and you may end up meeting some interesting characters.