The invitation-only island of Niihau

As we scanned the heavens, clouds skittered across the blue. The helicopter did not.

Pilot Dana Rosendal, who grew up on Oahu and has been flying for the company for eight years, got us settled and seat-belted, and we were off, whisking the 17 or so miles across the sometimes-rough Kaulakahi Channel.

“Kauai steals all the rain,” Rosendal explained.

Whereas parts of Kauai bathe in rain (the summit of Mount Waialeale is said to get 400 inches a year), Niihau gets a dozen or so.

It was 1863 when Elizabeth Sinclair’s sons, James and Francis, first saw the approximately 17-by-5-mile island. It had rained heavily the previous two years, and the land was electric green. It would be, the men thought, a good place for a ranch.

So Sinclair passed on other parcels of land she had considered on Oahu and offered King Kamehameha IV $6,000 for the island. Not enough. She increased the offer to $10,000. Sold! (Kamehameha IV died before the transaction was completed, so the details fell to his successor.

The new owners would raise cattle and sheep. They didn’t know the land was nearly as unforgiving as the arid parts of Southern California. True, there are three freshwater lakes on Niihau, the biggest lakes on any of the islands, but as we spied them from the air that day– and on many days — they were nothing more than mudholes.

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