Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hiking Tahiti's River Valleys

Tahiti is riddled with waterfalls; drive along the coastal road and you'll see literally hundreds of skinny chutes tumbling down the deep, steep valleys. A few cascades are found right on the roadside but getting to the more magical, isolated ones requires adventuring far off the beaten track and hiking up a river.

You could theoretically hike up any river valley in Tahiti but a few are well-known and easier to tackle. Papenoo Valley is the most famous and you can drive up several kilometers with a 4WD then hike up the steep but manageable road all the way to Lake Vaihiria in the center of the island then down the other side. Mahaena Valley on Tahiti's Eastside is another relatively easy hike along the riverside; a small river from Papearii (Westside) leads to some natural slides and a river in Vairao (Tahiti Iti) leads to a stunning natural pool surrounded by basalt cliffs.

But this last Saturday my family and I decided to blaze our own trail by hiking up Teahupoo's river. This hike is a little more complicated than the popular routes simply because there's no trail; you have to walk in the river most of the way. We'd been up this river several times before about an hour or so to a serene little beach and swimming hole, but this day we wanted to find out what was beyond. We were not disappointed.

About 20 minutes beyond our swimming hole we came to a first waterfall that tumbled down a steep volcanic face with what looked like upsidedown rock steps running up it. Just across the river was another bigger waterfall behind a big flat area full of thick brush. I decided to try and get through the brush to see if there was a pool at the foot of the falls and clambored through the purua (Beach hibiscus) trees, ginger flowers and miconia (an evil but beautiful invasive plant with big green and purple leaves). The rotting ginger made the forest smell like human bad breath and after all my work I was rewarded with a murky, shallow pool filled with old rotting branches. I went back to report my findings and we decided to continue on.

As we walked the ecology started to change and we began seeing trees, mosses and flowers we didn't know. Eventually the valley opened and seemed to nearly flatten out like we had reached the top of a mountain and could soon peer over the side. We weren't actually anywhere near the top of the island, but the valley that spread out before us was something out of a fairytale. Waterfall after waterfall shot down cliffs that were backed by more cliffs and more waterfalls shaded in a million shades of green like some cheesy New Age painting.

One waterfall had so little water it only misted - so we called it a mistfall instead of a waterfall. Another had a bubbling spring coming out the bottom and another was strong enough to hurt your neck if you put your head under it. This was waterfall paradise.

After eating some passionfruit and chocolate (the perfect food for such a place) we turned around to head home. The hike up river had taken us about two and a half hours. The hike down took an hour.

Being the gear-less people we are, we all did the hike in our flipflops. I only slipped once (and have a big black thigh bruise to prove it) but for comfort's sake I would do this hike in better shoes next time. Another problem was the gnats who were so thick in places we must have looked more like we were break dancing up the river than walking at times as we waved our arms and shimmied around trying to keep them out of our eyes, noses and throats. A hat with some bug netting over it would have been marvelous.

Here's a panoramic video of the magical waterfall spot we reached:

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