The expansive Papenoo valley, on Tahiti’s East coast, is scattered with hiking trails that pass through a rich archeological and cultural history as well as natural treasures. We invite you to journey along one of these trails, one that crosses a territorial park, that has been listed since the late 80s, in order to conserve its uniqueness and beauty.
Te Faaiti is, as the name suggests, a « small valley » enclosing the Vaipaea river. One of the tributaries of the Papenoo river, a coastal river, that empties straight into the ocean. The source of the Vaipaea river can be found on the face of Pito Hiti (or Pito Iti, according to the spelling and legend of your preference), the second highest peak on Tahiti, with an altitude of 2,110 meters. Te Faaiti is also known as the only territorial park in French Polynesia, officially listed as such on June 5th 1989, an initiative of Jacqui Drollet’s, then Minister for the Environment in Alexander Léontieff’s government.
The objective was to preserve an untouched « corner of paradise », at a time when the nearby Maroto valley was undergoing enormous changes, linked to the installation of hydroelectric facilities. While the largest valley in Tahiti was being profoundly altered, the natural and cultural riches of Te Faaiti were being fiercely defended by a handful of people, volunteers and members of the Te Ana Opae (« the tilted cave») association, who succeeded in preserving the site. They also gave their name to the picnic spot there. A spacious and pleasant area with a small waterfall and large pool, with several «jumping ledges» between 4 and 7 meters in height. Incidentally, one of these has been nicknamed the « leap of death » by the large numbers of hikers visiting the valley. This toponym surely comes from the presence of an oblique rockface nearby, that was probably used as a shelter in the past.
Preserving this species is thus of utmost importance, as much for Polynesian heritage as for its medicinal properties. Not far from there, you find an unusual sort of zoo, a 200-meter square enclosure. For the moment no animals can be found there, but the reintroduction of a species of endemic snail that was widespread in French Polynesia up until the 1970s: Partula. These snails were at one time so common that they were once used to make the shell necklaces that are offered to visitors on their departure from our islands. In 1967, another species of snail was intentionally introduced, the Achatina or « Giant African snail » (a large plant-eating snail that is found in the garden), with the idea of breeding it for food… But, it took to its new habitat all too well. To the point of becoming a plague, much to the distress of agriculturists, islanders and food crops! Following this, the Rural Development Service decided to take action, introducing a third snail, Euglandina, a carnivorous snail, that would curb the spread of the giant African snail and protect the local fa’a’apu. A job that the species did, more or less effectively…. except that it also attacked the small and fragile endemic Partula, as a sort of appetizer. And this is how Partula has come to the brink of extinction in Tahiti. Nevertheless, it still can be found in low numbers in certain valleys at high altitudes (>1,300 meters), an environment that does not suit the carnivorous snail. They should not be disturbed or collected under any circumstances; partulas being listed as a category A protected species.
A sign-posted entrance
The trailhead is located eight kilometers along the cross-island road, off the ring road (two kilometers after the metal bridge). There is a visitor carpark here, at the end of which you find an information panel and lush plantations that indicate the entrance into the small valley. Straight away you get a chance to cool your feet, as you cross the Papenoo. On the other side of the river a magnificent flower garden as well as fruit trees then a wooden refuge have been all been created to welcome visitors, many of whom go no further. But it is from here that we truly begin to enter Te Faaiti, crossing through a forest of ‘ofe (bamboo). If we listen carefully, you can hear our friends the reedwarblers, always to be found in this type of habitat. Very quickly, by the side of the trail, you can make out a subtle sort of fa’a’apu – the Tahitian word for garden – that has been planted by the Department of the Environment, with the assistance of botanists and trail guides. It is filled with endemic plant species that are in critical danger of extinction, most notably the tamore mou’a and ‘autera’a tahiti, rare species that can still be found in the mountains but have been replanted here to save them. For the first species mentioned, for example, just twelve surviving plants are known, a couple of which are producing seeds.
Wonderful secret spots
After the zoological detour, we return to the hike. The path that has been cut is wide (four meters), which is very unusual for Polynesian trails. It is thus hard to get lost, except at certain river-crossings. Nevertheless, a guide is to be recommended, for your security (in case of flash-flooding or other incidents), but also to learn more about this valley (its flora, fauna and archaeology) and above all to find the interesting aquatic attractions that are scattered along the way, not necessary on the main trail (jumping spots, entertaining activities). The following natural curiosities can be found here, among other things (starting from the Papenoo) :
– 4th ford: « the tree spot ». The place got its name because of large tree trunk that was washed into place, ten years ago, by a huge flood, and is now firmly wedged under two huge rocks. If you cross this obstacle (under water) it is possible to get engulfed in a current that takes you back upriver.
– 7th ford: « the little jump and the three bends ». This is a large pool that is filled up by a 2-meter waterfall, into which you leap from a 3-meter high ledge, as well as trying to navigate not two but three bends. The challenge involves free-diving under different rocks of varying sizes (and should be done under careful surveillance);
– 8th ford: The site of Te ana opae often called « the leap of death » offers bathers a gigantic pool, and for the braver souls there are jumping off points between 4 and 7 meters above the water. This is often a favorite place for a picnic. It is easily recognized from the presence of ‘ava, fe’i, and star-apple tree, all planted by the association;
– Fifty meters above, along the same river bed, you can find the « nut-crackers» loop, where you first of all let yourself get taken away by the flowing water, before climbing back up the riverbed and crawling under a huge boulder, through a “mouse hole”;
– Another hidden spot that’s worth the detour, a 5-minute walk downstream of the 7th ford: is the « dantesque block». To find it you must leave the main trail and follow the river (the fork is marked by a small orange tree). You will probably stop here on the way back, in order to make the journey a little different from the way in. It is possible to take a (6-meter) leap off this enormous boulder. But you can also get by this block by following the passage of the “Last of the Mohicans”, passing behind a 4-meter high waterfall. From here there is a watery « survivors challenge» that allows you to get back downriver following different fun passages. If you look up, you can see the outline of Pito Hiti above you, jutting above the clouds ;
– Finally, fifty meters before returning to your vehicle, the Papenoo allows you to rinse off in a small pool that is warmed all day long by the sun;
There are two versions of this hike : it can be done simply as far as the 8th ford, the site of the « tilted cave », with children of 7 years and older (around 2 ½ hours one way), taking your time to enjoy the different sites of interest described above, otherwise it can be continued as far as the second refuge set in a grassland( a further ¾ of an hour’s hike, ½ an hour of which is uphill), nestled below the face of Pihaiateta and Pito Hiti’s summits, just like the trail itself it is maintained by the association. It is a real garden of Eden, with marae remains, groves of fruit trees and flowers, chickens and even isolated toilets. It is possible to reserve this magical place for the weekend by contacting Mike(87 33 78 87), Te Ana Opae association’s president. It is strongly recommended that you let them know beforehand, not only to be sure that there is room for you, but also so that the association can continue to receive financial assistance from the territory. To get right to the top, if you want to keep going further, it is possible to access the waterfalls that tumble down the valley’s steep walls, though the trail is completely lost under vegetation, as few people have used it in recent years .