We will explore the valley jungles, more typical of the terrain encountered on Polynesian hikes. What could be more natural than to choose one of the most striking and grandiose of Tahiti’s valleys, the Fara’ura with its four impressive waterfalls.
In the pre-European era, Polynesians shared the island territory according to the specialty of their respective castes and the valleys were more populated than the coastline. Everything changed with the evangelization of the Polynesian society which was initiated by the English Protestant missionaries, arrived in 1797, then continued and amplified by the French Catholic missionaries from 1815. The gathering of the populations around the churches built on the coasts led an exodus from the mountains to the coast. From the middle of the 19th century, the company reorganized itself by favoring the exploitation of sea resources and market gardening near the coast. Only a handful of pig hunters, goat fishermen (small freshwater crustaceans) or fruit pickers continued to survey the mountains for food needs.
Hiking associations only started to revisit these valleys in the 1970s. The trails, early versions of the cross-country race courses, like the « raid Painapo » in Moorea and « raid Transpresqu’île » in Tahiti Iti that started in the late 90s, as well as the dozens of mountain races that are today held across districts in Tahiti as well as further afield on different islands, have contributed to the development of mountain sports. In 1997, a band of friends, members of the association « Te Feti’a o te mau mato » wandered off the trail that lead to the famous lavatubes to climb the back of the valley. The view they found was startling, a panorama over two waterfalls, one of around fifty meters, called « les Jumelles, the twins » because it split in two, the other of one hundred and eighty-four meters overlooking it. The temptation was too much, these mountain enthusiasts opened a hiking trail over the four years that followed, using their intuition and mostly just their trusty coupe-coupe the local name for a machete used to clear paths through tropical forest.
At one time, every tributary, every waterfall, every place had a name. Many of these names were lost, with the breakdown of Polynesian oral transmission and westernization, when the written word replaced oral traditions as the primary means of recording information. Today, you will only find the names of summits, valleys and coastal rivers (downstream from the last river fork in the valley, as far as its mouth) on maps. Fara’ura (« red pandanus» in Tahitian) is the valley’s name. The river that flows there is called Mahateaho « catch your breath, rest», a name that comes from a legend about a princess of the valley.
Right from the start, there’s a historic reminder, at the mouth of the Mahateaho a monument has been erect for Bougainville, who dropped anchor in this bay on Tahiti’s East coast for nine days in 1768. We know, thanks to the toponym, that canoes were built in this area in the past, or at least the prows of Polynesian boats called pano ’ahuru. It is here at PK (kilometer point) 37.7, in the district of Hitia’a o te Rā, that you must leave the ring road to get to the starting point of the hike, a kilometer further on, at the first river ford. The route is welcoming, callings us on ahead, through a small neighborhood, modest in appearance but, as always, overflowing with colorful and well-kept gardens as well as the sunny Polynesian disposition. The visitor is welcome, even though the properties at the back of the valley are private, undivided and undeveloped for the moment. The individual and shared gear is shared out, as well as the ritual briefing, beside the river. We are met by a slew of friendly dogs who live in the last small agricultural hut, belonging to the Toa family. They grow an impressive quantity of flowers, sold at the market in Papeete.
Vaitopatea, « the white/pure falling water»…
The first leg consists of climbing up to the first waterfall, called Tapatea by the elders (or rather Vaitopatea, « the white/pure falling water »), at an hour and a half’s walk from the start, after eight river crossings. The plantations give way to a weedy brush of sensitive plant (pohe ha’avare), Wedelia and Lantana, which have covered the old trail. Trousers and walking boots are required, to avoid getting scratched by these recently introduced and invasive plants. If you look up, you’ll see Red Ginger or ’opuhi, Torch Ginger, Ylang ylang (moto’i), African tuliptree, here and there in the spaces left by pūrau (a native tree that is common in the valleys forming dense thickets, often over old Polynesian dwellings). Finally, and sadly, there is abundant Miconia , a plant introduced in 1937 by Harrison Smith, founder of Tahiti’s botanic gardens, the most devastatingly invasive plant in French Polynesia, it now covers 70% of the land surface between zero and a thousand meters. The Fara’ura valley is no exception. These plants are interspersed with native ferns, plants and trees, right up to the foot of the fourth waterfall, which is a hundred and eighty-four meters tall.
Then at the end of the old trail, a different landscape unfolds : valley vegetation, greener, more luxuriant, with more large native ferns (nahe, ’ō’aha, māma’u) and bamboos (’ofe) introduced by Polynesians, for various qualities, including their sharpness, cutting like glass, being used for example during circumcisions. You can feel the atmosphere of the valley: you can feel freshness in the air, radiating from the plants, the water gushing and surging nearby, the birds that take refuge here, and us, humans entering this calm and serene environment offered to us by Mother Nature. Before reaching the first waterfall, we come up against a huge roundish boulder, as big as a large truck. According to valley legend, it was the entrance to the highlands and mountain villages. This was Ha’ura (later renamed Te’ura)’s lookout, the valley’s princess, always clothed in red tapa, the color of royalty. It is here that she decided the fate of warriors (’aito) running up the valley, seeking bananas and plantains (fë’i), in times of coastal famine. These men had to prove their peaceful intent, by carrying a coconut filled with seawater.
They were then allowed to continue further up the valley and onto the ridgeline. If one of them was foolish enough to offer a coconut filled with freshwater, they were destined to be cooked in the Tahitian oven (ahi ma’a) and eaten by the mighty princess… Te’ura is no longer there today. Some tell a story that she was captured by a red caterpillar, who had moved from cave to cave, twelve times as it grew and grew. The lavatubes of Hitia’a o te Rā were perhaps her last resting place ?
We now enter the valley and cross the largest river fork of our journey : to the right, a tributary leading to the foot of a waterfall of two hundred and ten meters high ; to the left, a tributary that leads to the foot of our first waterfall, twenty-five meters tall, the beautiful and powerful Tapatea ! The legend behind this waterfall tells that a young man wished to run away from his mother, called « vahine taehae » (raging woman) because of her bad conduct towards her family and the community.
He asked her to go to collect water, the purest being found at this waterfall. He made holes in the calabashes she used, to trick his mother. By the time she realized what had happened, he and his wife had already fled Tahiti. Incensed with rage, she swam after them. Her son, determine to escape, forced her to swallow a burning rock from the Tahitian oven, and she sank to the depths of the ocean. The young man became an important prince of Raiatea. Some even believe that he was one of the first members of the Tamatoa dynasty … It’s now time for a well-earned rest and first swim, at the back of this watery canyon. The most fearless amongst you can try the six-meter high leap into the deep pool. This is also the end of the hike, for families with children, as there was almost no climbing up to this point. A more physical challenge starts from here on in, the aim being to skirt this first waterfall, to get to the second or directly to the third waterfall. The trail, open since 1998 and become popular these last five years, has been suffered « human erosion », being worn by passing hikers and running water, in times if heavy rain. It is steep, there are large steps, sometimes as tall as a man.
Several conveniently placed knotted ropes and hand holds have been installed along the trail, by professional guides and hiking associations, to make the climb easier. A scant half-hour of acrobatic ascent will get you to the top of the first climb. Right there, nature’s magic is unveiled : a panorama over the third and fourth waterfalls, one of the enduring memories that these keen hikers will take with them. These majestic falls, appearing to tumble out of the sky, piercing the surrounding forest green with myriad hues. Opposite, above the famous « Jumelles » twin falls, we can see our picnic spot. We have yet to get down to the base of this double fall, before attempting the final climb around it. Once more there are vertical sections, the mud can reach up to your knees at times. For lack of tree trunks, you must often grab hold of roots and use your four limbs to advance.
The second summit is reached, there is another ten minutes before reaching the back of the valley, then dropping down onto the picnic spot : an admirable view over the valley downstream, from a stretch of rock dominating the 47 meter fall. As if the setting alone were not enough, add to it two jacuzzies at 22 °C, the smallest, shaped like a bathtub, flowing over into nothingness (to be visited accompanied by a guide). Thrills guaranteed !
A 180 meter waterfall …
The « show stopper » is yet to come, however. It is the return journey to the base of the fourth and final waterfall, cascading down from 180 meters above. Slowly but surely, climbing the slippery riverbed, its monstrous beauty is unveiled. Like a curtain rising on a spellbinding performance, as you enter the big top of this natural circus you are left speechless. Most often this moment is enjoyed in silence, internally, by hikers lucky enough to experience it. This waterfall must certainly have represented a deity, seducing anyone who comes to visit it with its splendor. Perpetual, fresh and powerful, it touches our five senses and awakens in some a dormant spirituality. Like all goddesses, she can also roar in fury, helped by the tropical rains. When she is peaceful, however, it is possible – and even recommended – to bathe in the large basin, cooled by the blasting fall. It is usually quite cold, and it is hard to stay longer than half an hour here.
The sun and the best pools for a picnic await a few hundred meters downriver. Once you’ve wolfed down the snack, you can always offer yourself the luxury of a small siesta, lying back on the warm basalt, rocked by the sound of the ever-running water. The guide sounds the call. It’s 2pm, time to hit the trail, for a descent that is more technical than physical. As is common, a few surprises have been kept for the return journey, we switch paths to visit the foot of the second waterfall, a thirty-five-meter-tall one, in two parts, with a small basin in mid fall and a huge pool at the bottom. If you look up you’ll see the series of three waterfalls, those that we just visited earlier in the day. A landscape worthy of the blockbuster Avatar, a priceless treasure. A view that shows us the route taken, a perfect end to the hike. From here an hour and a half is needed to return along the same path taken in. Arriving back at the vehicles, where a cooler awaits, it’s not unusual to be greeted by the Toa family, working in their plantations of ’opuhi (Red Ginger), with their friendly dogs, who seem to take pleasure in sharing the euphoria that comes at the end of a great outing, as is so often the case in French Polynesia.