Continuing our series exploring Tahiti's wild interior, we offer you a chance to discover the Te Pari hike. The southern tip of the island of Tahiti, a preserved and untamed landscape, is an opportunity to discover the island's natural heritage accompanied by spectacular views.
On Tahiti, you can experience four different types of hikes, all very different. Most hikes take you through valleys, and some of the circuits are now quite popular. The ridgeline hikes are another type of outing, usually more physically challenging, with the objective of climbing a summit. You can also visit the innards of Tahiti Nui’s volcano, on a caving adventure through the lavatubes. Finally, there is the Te Pari hike, the most remote, the southernmost trail on Tahiti, winding along the uninhabited zone after the road ends on Tahiti iti. It is a heady mix of ocean, cliffs, reef flats and rivers. Te Pari, which literally means "the cliff", is an appropriate name for the place. Here, impressive stone walls grew up as Tahiti iti was formed by the cooling of repeated lava flows
The native vegetation, after having floated across the ocean, drifted on the wind or even hitchhiked on bird plumage, established on the mountains and along the coastlines. It found an ideal refuge here, the South coast being relatively free of recently introduced and invasive species, which generally prefer the humidity and warmth of the valleys over the harsh saltlashed coast.
Te Pari hike in Tahiti : at the end of the road...
Just getting to the trailhead is an adventure in and of itself: you must get up at first light, if you’re coming from the northern part of Tahiti, around Papeete, there is an hour and a half’s drive to the PK18 kilometer marker in the district of Teahupo’o, more usually called PK 0 by the inhabitants. Then you board a taxi boat that takes hikers to the end of the road and start of the hike, one of the southernmost parts of Tahiti iti, in the district of Tautira. To get there the water taxi must first head out of the Hava'e pass, internationally renowned for the surf competitions and world-class waves. Then, it passes along the Fenua Aihere (literally translated "the land of grass eaters ") where the coast is still protected by a lagoon, then you pass into a real wilderness, there is no coral reef, and the basalt cliffs drop straight into the ocean. You can trace the trail you will be following on your way back from the boat, it is a hike that can be done over a single long day or with an overnight stop.
The view from the water is magnificent. Looking out over the mountains, you can imagine you are one of the first Polynesians around 300 A.D., discovering for the first time what would become their fenua, or else Wallis, Bougainville or Cook, the first Westerners to set foot on the island of Tahiti in 1767, 1768 and 1769, respectively. The scenery has not changed a great deal: no houses, no gardens, seemingly untouched countryside… And yet, Tahiti iti, according to missionary accounts and archaeological evidence, was densely populated during the pre-European era, despite the inaccessible terrain. It was the fiefdom of one of the island’s greatest ari’i (chiefs), Teva. It also served as a hideout for the Mamaia, during the early missionary period, in the 1800s, a Polynesian community that refused to conform to the rules imposed by the Protestant and later Catholic churches.
Hiking in Tahiti : between ocean and cliffs
Disembarking at the back of a small inlet that has formed in the fringing reef can sometimes be challenging, depending on the waves, and requires that the boat captains must take great care. It is here that you find Anaihe cave, "the caterpillar cave", after a half-hour in the boat, hikers can finally set foot on dry land and start their journey. The track that weaves between coastal flats barely poking up above the water surface and cliffs between 5 and 60m tall. The island of Tahiti was created by the eruptions of three different volcanoes, between 1,200,000 and 900,000 years before the present. The Taiarapu or Tahiti iti volcano is around a million years old. Its lava flows cooled rapidly in contact with the air and water, then changing sea levels, two periods of uplift around 45,000 years ago and finally erosion, more marked on the East and South coasts, all played a role in shaping these large cliffs. They reach right down into the abyss, at the base of the volcano between 2,000 and 4,000 meters below the ocean surface. In the past, on a geological timescale, the cliffs were partially submerged. As for Anaihe cave, according to archaeologists, it was not formed by natural phenomena but was dug out by ancient Polynesians, who chose their lands depending on the hardness of the rock there, which was used for toolmaking.
« Wall of heads »
The coastal hike begins here and will be regularly scattered with points of interest, at around twenty-minute intervals, the objective being to get to the midpoint around midday, to picnic at the back of a large bay formed by the mouth of the Faaroa "large valley" river. This natural barrier separates the districts of Tautira and Teahupo’o. A legend has been woven around the etymology of Teahupo’o which means “wall of heads”, it tells that their warriors, having defeated the long-time enemy, the people of Tautira, built an ahu (wall) using the upo'o (heads) of the defeated. However, other traditions contradict this epic tale, as Polynesians were known to stop fighting when the casualties became too heavy, to avoid exterminating themselves. Another argument suggests that a minimum of friendly relations was maintained between neighboring tribes, to foster inter-marriage and avoid problems caused by inbreeding.
Waterfalls and the "Queen's bathing pool"
There are many points of interest along the way: an impressive waterfall forms a curtain that tumbles into the ocean (what a refreshing pleasure to walk alongside it in the morning when the sun’s rays are already beating down hard and the salt stings the skin as you walk); a 7-meter drop into the water that the most foolhardy can climb back up using the sheer, wave-battered and slippery rockface, when the swell is relatively light; the "queen (of Tautira)’s bathing pool", a monarch that according to legend liked taking purifying baths in a freshwater jacuzzi that appeared by magic at the base of a cliff; grey moray eels that use the sea foam to trap and eat small crabs at the water’s edge; an ancient birthing stone, polished by the Polynesian ancestors, near the river, to assist young women giving birth ; a map of Tahiti, a strange rock set on the beach that is filled with water, the two puddles forming the shape of Tahiti ; and finally "the plateau / the hunchbacks’ point", a place where legend tells of two hideous brothers, giants who played a pahu (drum), danced and gesticulated to distract sailors passing too close to the coastline, in order to wreck their ships. It is said that the unfortunate victims were eaten, but it also seems that this legend has evolved over the centuries, in one part due to its traditional Polynesian oral transmission, but also through the colonial influence that brought the written word as a new means of transmission. What is certain is that this small coastal plateau was used in the past to cut up whales that were caught from time to time by the tribes of Tautira. In fact, in the ancient past, the largest cetaceans in the world were hunted, in French Polynesia, the last known whale hunt taking place in 1951, on the island of Rurutu, the story of this is told in a book.
Tahiti : a preserved natural area
Having strolled the coast at a gentle pace, wending between coral flats and cliffs, the requisite picnic stop is found at the back of the bay forming the mouth of the Faaroa river, « the large valley » and largest river on the southern part of the island, that has dug itself an impressive canyon. It is a superb spot, one chosen forty years ago by the still-active hikers’ association (Te feti’a o te mau mato), to build and twice renovate a mountain refuge. There is a dormitory – somewhat modest, on bare floorboards– a kitchen, without forgetting the fireplace, so that you can enjoy toasted marshmallows or a chocolate fondue in the evening, near the river, the ocean spray and under an often clear, starry sky. The regulars even bring their own hammock and hang it between to trees, to better appreciate this unique place. Whether the outing is organized over a day or with an overnight stop, this is the middle of the journey: with the belly full and legs rested, it is time to think about moving as the water taxi that took the group to the starting point, will be waiting at the end of the day for the pick-up at the other side of the hike, the first house in Teahupo’o. No time for an afternoon nap: getting back on the trail involves walking along a cliff, holding onto a handrail hanging a few meters above a tumultuous ocean. You must then cross an inlet in the bay where the current is stronger and can often reach the height of the hiker’s head or chest, undoubtedly the most dangerous part of the day, one which makes a rope and experienced guide essential for this hike.
The other side of the bay is reached. A Marine Reserve was established here three years ago in this, marked by a stake in the ground on the coast and a yellow buoy sitting 300m out in the open ocean, making an imaginary line that defines the edge of the reserve’s zone, fishing is not allowed here. This is what Tahitians call a rahui, an area people are not allowed to touch, in order to let the fauna and flora flourish undisturbed. This rahui has also been extended up the mountainside as well. So, aside from being wild, this stunning hike is also protected.
Around the point, a white sandy beach worthy of blockbuster films like Robinson Crusoe, The Beach or Cast Away comes into view. Depending on the surf, the group can choose to continue along the reef or through the forest fringing the base of the cliffs. It’s a bit like a choice between scenery from the Tuamotu or from the Marquesas. The first option is usually the favorite: being a half-hour walk kneedeep in water, teeming with tiny fish fleeing in all directions from the advancing human feet, a rainbow of corals, slate pencil urchins, natural bathing pools shaped over time by dead corals, channels cutting into the reef flat packed with a underwater fauna. The grand finale is to come, the base of a huge waterfall that dives into the sea creating a pool where fresh and saltwater mix, for the hiker’s bathing pleasure. You can only get in by passing through a small archway and waiting for the current, without forgetting to watch your head. The same scenario is repeated to get out, like a syphon that sucks you in and spits you out to the rhythm of the swell. Before arriving at the finish line there is just one last push … you must once again climb, ropes help you advance through the mud between the pürau and mäpe trees, to get to the top of this waterfall. Daredevils can take a six-meter leap into the canyon below before following the coast from a height of sixty meters, crossing fine forests of coastal trees and several small rivers. It is also possible to explore upriver if time allows it. Eventually, the coral reef comes into sight, the first pass opens onto a much calmer lagoon. The cliffs fade away leaving a coastal flat and old farmland. The first house – still fifteen or so kilometers from PK0 and the road - appears in front of us. The taxi-boat, a lifeline for the group and the guide, is there, right on time. This extremely diverse expedition always leaves a lasting impression on those fortunate enough to discover it. It’s been a long day but definitely one worth the effort, it is a hike unlike any other on the island of Tahiti !