Certain pastimes were restricted to the chiefs, the most spectacular being hōlua sledding. A track of rock, layered with earth and made slippery with grass, was made for tobogganing on a narrow sled.
Hōlua sledding was the most dangerous sport practiced in Hawai‘i. The rider lies prone on a sled the width of a ski and slides down a chute made of lava rock.
The sled or papa consisted of two narrow and highly polished runners (three inches apart,) from 7- to 18-feet in length, and from two to three inches deep. The papa hōlua (canoe sled) is a reflection of the double-hulled canoe.
The two runners were fastened together by a number of short pieces of woods varying in length from two to five inches, laid horizontally across the runners.
“Coasting down slopes… Sliding on specially constructed sleds was practiced only in Hawaii and New Zealand,” wrote historian Kenneth Emory. “The Maori sled, however, was quite different from the Hawaiian… One of the Hawaiian sleds, to be seen in [the] Bishop Museum, is the only complete ancient sled in existence.”
“The narrowness and the convergence of the runners toward the front should be noticed. Coasting on these sleds was a pastime confined to the chiefs and chieftesses.”
The Reverend Hiram Bingham provides a descriptive account of this sport: “In the presence of the multitude, the player takes in both hands, his long, very narrow and light built sled, made for this purpose alone, the curved ends of the runners being upward and forward, as he holds it, to begin the race.”
“Standing erect, at first, a little back from the head of the prepared slippery path, he runs a few rods to it, to acquire the greatest momentum, carrying his sled, then pitches himself, head foremost, down the declivity, dexterously throwing his body, full length, upon his vehicle, as on a surf board.”
“The sled, keeping its rail or grassway, courses with velocity down the steep, and passes off into the plain, bearing its proud, but prone and headlong rider, who scarcely values his neck more than the prize at stake.”
The primary archaeological feature of Keauhou was its monumental Holua Slide, a stone ramp nearly one mile in length that culminated at He‘eia Bay.
In 1913, H.W. Kinney published a visitor’s guide to the island of Hawai‘i, including descriptions of the land at the time, historical accounts of events, and descriptions of sites and practices that might be observed by the visitor. At Keauhou, he notes, “Mauka of the village is seen the most famous papa hōlua in the Islands, a wide road-like stretch, which was laid with grass steeped in kukui-nut oil so as to allow the prince and his friends to coast down in their sleighs constructed for the purpose.”
The Keauhou hōlua is the largest and best-preserved hōlua course. The remains are about 1290 feet long of the original that was over 4000 feet long. When in use, it was covered in dirt and wet grass to make it slippery.
Contestants reached treacherous speeds on their narrow sleds by adding thatching and mats to make the holua slippery. When the waves were large, crowds would gather on a stone platform at He‘eia Bay to watch as hōlua contestants raced against surfers to a shoreline finish.
A portion of the hōlua is visible on Alii Drive, directly mauka (inland) of the golf clubhouse entrance.
Kekahuna, who mapped and studied the Keauhou Hōlua notes, “The starting point is a narrow platform paved level, succeeded by a slightly declined crosswise platform 36-feet long by 29-feet wide, and is followed by a series of steep descents that gave high speed to the holua sleds.”
“Great care seems to have been exercised in the building of this huge relic of the ancients. Practically the whole slide is constructed of fairly large ‘a‘a rocks, filled in with rocks of medium and small-sized ‘a‘a. The base walls on the north and south vary in height according to the contour of the land. The width of the runway varies considerably.”
“The length of the slide, measured through the middle from the present lower end, is 3,682-feet. It may have extended about 3,000-feet farther, as it is said that in ancient days the now missing lower part extended along the point north of Keauhou Bay nearly to the Protestant open chapel by beautiful He`eia Bay. On completion of their slides the chiefs would have their close attendants (kahus) transport them and their surfboards by canoe to a point about a mile offshore and a little to the north, from where they would ride in He‘eia on the great waves of the noted surf of Kaulu.”
Kauikeauoli, born at Keauhou and later to become ruler of the entire island chain (as Kamehameha III,) was reportedly a great athlete and especially enjoyed hōlua sliding.
As Baker, in the 1916 Hawaiian Annual, wrote, “At Keauhou, on a pretty little bay part way between the other bays, is a well-preserved papa holua, a broad, well-built, undulating toboggan-like slide, built before his reign for Kamehameha III to slide down on sleds, with his friends, over the grass-covered slide made slippery with kukui-nut oil.”
“The slide used to pass out behind the chapel on the north arm of the bay. There the prince and his friends would take surf-boards and return by water to the head of the bay. After the prince had started the sport, others might slide as well. Originally, the slide was over a mile long, about three-quarters of a mile still being in good condition. It is fifty feet wide for the entire distance, and across one it is raised ten feet.”
There are other hōlua in the islands. One, on Kaua‘i, has two slides crossing each other on a pu‘u, northwest of Kōloa; another is a well-preserved 400- to 500-foot long hōlua near Kapua, South Kona.
The image shows the hōlua at Keauhou, in addition, I have added some other holua images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook page.