Hawaii Koaloa Ranch offers a unique experience beyond Jurassic Park

One of the taro fields at Kualoa Ranch, where visitors can tend the land on the Malama Experience tour.

koala farm

On Oahu’s east side, the 4,000-acre Kualoa Ranch is best known for hosting over 200 Hollywood movies and TV shows made on its property, including “50 First Dates,” “Lost,” “Jumanji,” and the Jurassic Franchise. Park.” Adventure tours take visitors on a kind of backlot studio tour through a gorgeous undeveloped canyon, one of Hawaii’s most famous canyons, thanks to “Jurassic Park.”

Although Kualoa Ranch has become a busy tourist destination where entertainment is expected, a new tour pulls the curtains down and gives visitors an authentic Hawaiian experience and a chance to learn hands-on culture.

The Malama Experience tour began in late 2020, and teaches visitors how to take care of the malama (care) aina (land), whether it’s to help care for an ancient Hawaiian fish pond or Loi kalo (a paddy taro). But Iwi Kurosu, a taro farmer and our tour guide, tells us that it will vary depending on the size of the group, the needs of the farm and what the guests are interested in.

“The concept of Malama Aina is that it can be anything. We can plant trees in the mountains. Iwi says.” I have a bull in Kawa Valley. His name is Dakota. Sometimes we go for it! Brush him, spray fly him, feed him treats, we check to make sure there is nothing dangerous in his pen. He’s like the biggest puppy.”

Ready for anything, be it mud, water or bull, I rode the shuttle.

What people may not know about Kualoa Ranch is that it is a working and working ranch. Hollywood may be best known for its filming locations, but its eighth-generation descendants actually use the land for agricultural and aquaculture projects.

That means we’re going to actual farms, not a movie set.

“This is a Koaloa farm,” says Iwi. “Farmers are hired from farm to cattle ranch.” The turnip, daikon, radish, carrot, basil, and taro produced by the farm are sold to farmers’ market and restaurants.

“We are only 3% sustainable in our state, which means 97% of our food is fully shipped,” she continues. “Hawaii was 100% sustainable in the past.”

Visitors help out at the Malama Experience at Loi kalo (Taro Padi) at Kualoa Ranch on the island of Oahu.
Visitors help out at the Malama Experience at Loi kalo (Taro Padi) at Kualoa Ranch on the island of Oahu.

koala farm

Today, Iwi decided to take us to work with taro, and I’m excited that I’ve never harvested taro before. We arrived at a scenic patch of land filled with about half a dozen taro spots. Taro is generally grown in dry or wet land, which is moist.

I watch Ewi entering the water in her long pants and tall boots, and I love that she doesn’t care much about getting her wet. Less gracefully, I recently slid down the bank and put my bare feet in the murky water that was on my knees. My feet press into the mud that wraps around them as I walk slowly toward the taro growing in the dirt.

I smile like a little kid, doing my best to maintain balance, feeling the ground with my feet as they look for a place to stand. Mud actually feels as pleasant as a massage, if not for all the thoughts running through my mind about what lies beneath. Few frogs and turtles for sure, but all I see so far are tadpoles.

Ignoring that, I stand in front of the taro row and listen to Iwi explain how to remove the grass that grows around the plants. It is an easy task to pull the grass out of the mud and then throw it on the bank so that we move along the row very quickly.

In the Hawaiian creation story, Wakiya and Baba (the Father of Heaven and the Mother of Earth) created the two islands, then gave birth to a daughter, Hohokulani. The sweet daughter was born, the dead boy was born. The halo was buried, and from the site the first taro grew. Later, Hoohokulani had another child who lived and became the first Hawaiian, brother of the taro plant.

The belief is that all Native Hawaiians are descended from second-born Hohukulani, and that the taro is related in genealogy as an elder or brother. The plant is also where the Hawaiian term ‘ohana’ (or family) is derived from, its buds called ooh that give birth to the next generation.

Taro farmer and tour guide Eui Kuroso in a taro field on the Koaloa Farm on Oahu Island.
Taro farmer and tour guide Eui Kuroso in a taro field on the Koaloa Farm on Oahu Island.

Kristen Heat

Ewi takes us to another field where she wants to show us how to harvest the taro, which she says should be moved to dry land. I volunteer to help and jump back into the water.

“Hold the torso and use your foot to press down,” she told me. I lift my right foot out of the water and grind the mud next to the taro plant until I can see the corm, the underground bulb-like stem. Then using my hands, I pull the stem so that the roots are loosened. It didn’t take long, and soon I was standing with an uprooted taro in my hand as a prize.

We take our harvested taro to the chopping station, where iwi cut the corm by the stem. The whole plant can be eaten once cooked, from the leaves to the corm, as it is a staple of the Native Hawaiian diet. But it is best known for its kurm, which can be cooked and pounded into poi or paiai, an undiluted version of poi.

We don’t make poi today, so she chopped it up and tossed it back in the water. “I’d rather you eat these turtles than the plants that grow in the heap,” she says.

What remains is a freshly cut stem, with the top of the stump still intact so that it can be placed in the ground for planting. It is a continuous cycle of life that is taken care of by the iwi and farm hands, with the help of visitors on this tour, just as it has since the beginning of time.

The day ends and I’m impressed with the whole tour. I’ve been to taro patches before and even got my feet wet in the past, but it didn’t show me the process from planting to weeding and harvesting. I also did not uproot the taro plant.

While other tours at Kualoa Ranch may be more exciting, Malama Experience is a cultural tour that leaves a lasting impression. It allows visitors to give back to the land they are visiting, and teaches the value of teamwork.

“This is the concept of Malama and Lolima, where everyone works together,” says Iwi. “It was a kakou thing, that’s what we say, which means we’ll all come and work together.”

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