Welcome to the Jungle

  • The author hugs a favorite tree of hers, rainbow eucalyptus. (Photos by Norman Bezona / Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Clumping bamboo jet up to 60 feet in the air.
  • The Kona Cloud Sanctuary is home to an array of plants and life.

  • One of the Sanctuary's many mccaws squawks away on Norman Bezona's arm.
  • Norman Bezona, left, guides a guest through the Kona Cloud Sanctuary. (Emily Gleason / Special to West Hawaii Today, photos)

KALOKO MAUKA — A few weeks ago while my Dad was visiting the island, we had the opportunity to take a private tour of the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary at the invitation of the owner, Norman Bezona, and his partner Voltaire. It was a serendipitous thing, actually. My dad loves animals so I took him by the Kona Humane Society for a quick fix. Inside, we ran into Voltaire, feral cat trap in hand, who insisted we come up for a visit. I’m so happy we did.

Two days later, we are climbing up Kaloko drive in the bright red mustang convertible my Dad rented for his trip. The heat of Kona a distant memory, mist socks in around us, and graceful pheasants sashay across the road, playing chicken. We hang a right at Hau Street and turn into the driveway for the Sanctuary. Suddenly, the jungle seems to swallow us whole.

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The Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary is a 70-acre oasis at 3,000 feet on the slopes of Hualalai Volcano.

On this land, Norman has been letting his green thumb run wild since 1984. When he started, the land was an overgrown grass field. Now it’s home to thousands of endemic, indigenous, and tropical species of trees and plants that make you feel like you’re in the middle of Jurassic Park. Rare and endangered plants, like the hapuu, or Hawaiian tree fern, can be found here. The foundation of the forest is lava rock from Hualalai’s 1801, 1600, and 1400 eruptions.

Norman leads us on a tour of the property. First stop is the Jungle House, where he teaches classes for nonprofit groups from around the country on the back lanai. A horticultural scientist and consultant for over 50 years, Norman specializes in tropical forest agriculture. He is a Professor Emeritus with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. In addition to Hawaii, he has worked in West Africa, the Caribbean, South and Central America and other islands of the tropical Pacific, and volunteers his services through Peace Corps and other non-governmental organizations.

Next to the Jungle House he points out a giant blue marble tree (Eleocarpus grandis), with impressive buttress roots rising up off the ground. This tree is still young, planted here about 30 years ago. Norman says that the roots of mature blue marbles can reach up to 12 feet in height. In that case, the Jungle House could quite literally live up to its namesake, enveloped by the enormous tree roots. The trees themselves can reach heights over 150 feet. The ground around the tree is littered with its special seeds, known as Indian prayer beads or rudraksha.

“Every plant has value. If we don’t know what it is, we haven’t looked hard enough,” says Norman.

To illustrate his point, he stops in front of a monstera vine, ubiquitous in Hawaii landscaping, to point out a detail I’ve never noticed before — its fruit. Did you know it’s edible? It tastes like a cross between a pineapple and a banana. Its scientific name (Monstera deliciosa) gives a clue to what I’ve been missing out on. The fruit takes one year to mature, and is common in markets in South America.

Midway through our wanderings, I begin hearing strange disembodied voices. It turns out, I’m not going crazy. It’s just Norman’s collection of very opinionated macaws who greet our arrival with great fanfare. Macaws kept as pets often outlive their owners, which is how the Cloud Forest Sanctuary has become home to so many. Norman mentions that they are extremely fancy eaters, and that a large part of the proceeds from doing tours and education at the Sanctuary often goes to keeping macadamia nuts on the menu.

Bidding farewell to our feathered friends, we wander through more blue marble trees and then stumble upon one of my favorites — the rainbow eucalyptus (eucalyptus deglupta). Norman instructs us to put our palms against its multi-hued trunk, which is moist and delightfully cool to the touch. In addition to absorbing carbon monoxide with their leaves and producing lovely, breathable oxygen, trees work like big air conditioners, Norman explains. They evaporate water to produce clouds, which reflect sunlight. In a forest, this effect is exponential, creating a massive natural cooling effect that feels wonderful to living creatures, including us humans.

“As you walk through the forest, you’ll find yourself drawn to certain areas and plants like a tuning fork,” says Norman.

Further down the trail, we stop to admire an impressive stand of clumping bamboo, easily 60 feet in height. There are more than 100 varieties of bamboo growing in the Sanctuary. Next to the bamboo is a kukui nut or candlenut tree (A. moluccana), Hawaii’s state tree. Its nuts and the oil they contain were used to light torches, in lei making, and, apparently, if eaten can work as a powerful laxative. One of Norman’s favorite trees in the forest is the endemic pritchardia palm, a beautiful fan palm whose dozens of species once covered the Hawaiian islands. It is now endangered. Over the years, he’s tested and grown over 200 species of palms here.

The deeper we go into the forest, the more inspired and energized Norman seems to become. It’s like a symbiotic relationship. As he walks and talks, his eyes light up and he exudes an infectious enthusiasm, telling us the stories behind different trees and plants. The combination of Norman’s excitement and the delicious, oxygen rich air has my Dad and I both floating on a natural high by the end of the tour.

Our last stop is a large banyan containing a tree house. This belongs to Norman’s grandchildren, who, along with his adult children, are involved in stewardship of the Sanctuary in one way or another. He says what he loves most about creating the Sanctuary is sharing this legacy with his family. The Sanctuary is preserved as an educational trust.

“No one is allowed to chop down any trees,” says Norman, smiling.

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To learn more about the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, visit their website: https://www.konacloudforest.com. Tours of the Sanctuary are by appointment only. They are partnering with KapohoKine Adventures to offer guided group tours. To book a tour through them, call (808) 964 1000. If you are an educator or part of a non-profit group interested in visiting the Sanctuary for a field trip, workshop, or lecture, contact Norman directly at (808) 325 6440, or email bezona@hawaii.edu.

Emily Gleason is business writer who can be found at www.mthewriter.com. She contributes a monthly business feature, Imua in Business, to West Hawaii Today.

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