You don’t have to read much travel writing before you come across an inevitable comparison to Jurassic Park. 25 years since its release, we still invoke the film as the ultimate yardstick of the exotic and the otherworldly. I even have to cop to using it myself on occasion (to describe the Gathering of the Juggalos, of all things). If you’ve flown American lately there’s even an unavoidable Booking.com ad that plays on the in-flight entertainment system before every show. The ad features “actual footage shot by Booking.com employees on their travels.” It includes, as its centerpiece, an awe-struck Australian man canoeing through foresty wilderness uttering the ad’s only line: “…it’s lahke Jurassic Pahk out heah.”
I saw the ad at least six times on my flight to Kaua’i, which happens to be where Jurassic Park was filmed†. Kaua’i’s tourism board should probably get a nickel every time someone says “it’s like Jurassic Park,” because on some level, what we mean when we write it or say it is, “it’s like Kaua’i.” The image of Kaua’i has thus become unconscious shorthand for the exotic, the otherworldly, the fertile and fecund, the colossal in scale and the generally surreal: one of our most pervasive and least acknowledged cultural touchstones.
Even in ’93, Spielberg was only the latest in a long line of filmmakers to be inspired by Kaua’i’s landscape. King Kong, Lord of the Flies, South Pacific, and Fantasy Island all shot there before Jurassic Park, to name just a few. Since then Kaua’i’s wild spaces have doubled for the Philippine jungle in Tropic Thunder, the African savanna in Outbreak, and Kaua’i in The Descendants, one of the few films in which the scenery plays itself. Kaua’i’s defining feature as a setting, it seems, is that it can ground any fantasy.
One of the first things I noticed upon touching down on the island was all the chickens. They run wild over Kaua’i, in uncharacteristically colorful coats of red and burnt orange and black, sort of the plumage equivalent of aloha shirts. It’s one of the few places where you regularly see tourists trying to get that perfect snap of the lowly chicken — in this case, a genetically unique hybrid of domesticated and pre-European-contact feral species. Naturally, their image also graces the graphics on shirts, hats, mugs, and magnets in every souvenir and curio shop.
The wild chickens are a phenomenon, so the local story goes, exacerbated by hurricanes Iwa (1982) and Iniki (1993), the latter of which interrupted Jurassic Park‘s shooting schedule and forced the production over to O’ahu. The storms destroyed coops and fences, letting the birds escape, and, once freed, they continued to thrive because, unlike Hawaii’s other islands, Kaua’i has no mongeese. In that way, Kauai’s chickens are the inescapable mascot of “life finds a way.” Not as exciting as dinosaurs or giant gorillas maybe, but nonetheless emblematic of a place where the normal rules don’t apply. That’s Kaua’i, an anomaly even relative to the anomaly of greater Hawai’i, the most geographically isolated archipelago (furthest from any continent) on Earth, home to a greater percentage of endemic species.
Even on the map, Kaua’i looks like a straggler, set apart from the other major islands in the Hawaiian chain like the loner of the group, the northernmost island of the northernmost archipelago at the top of the Polynesian triangle.
The idea that you can plant something on Kaua’i and it will metastasize in ways you never planned isn’t limited to chickens. One of the reasons Kaua’i makes such a great stand-in for Africa on film are all the albizia trees. As you drive through the flatter parts of the island you notice these giant trees with smooth, white bark that up close sort of resembles a snake swallowing prey. At the tops, their leaves grow in flat, distinct levels, like leafy apartment buildings. It’s impossible to see these trees and not to be reminded of the African plains, and there’s a good reason for that: that’s where they grew before they were introduced to the island. In dry places like the savanna they grow at a normal rate, and sturdily. In Kaua’i, frequently in the top 10 wettest places on Earth (the Kaua’i tourism industry constantly says number one or number two, but you wouldn’t believe the level of official disagreement on this point), they grow freakishly fast — up to 15 feet in the first year. And because there’s no real dry season here, they never develop the density to make them very hard or strong.