One day, six waterfalls
A day hike in Micronesia
Welten Panuel beeps the horn of his taxi as he pulls up outside Joy Hotel, our friendly base in Kolonia, the small town capital of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia.
As often happens during our time in Pohnpei, when we want to sort out an adventure the staff at our hotel inevitably know someone who can take us – in this case Panuel, an experienced local hiking guide/taxi driver.
He established the infamous Six Waterfalls Hike in the province of Kitti over 30 years ago and has a wealth of knowledge on the region, so it’s fair to say we’re in safe hands.
He welcomes us with a beaming smile and a firm handshake, and being just three days until Christmas, a Micronesian Christmas tune crackles from his speakers as we set off in the car towards the start of the hike in the village of Salapwuk. “Everyone tells me it’s hard,” I say. “I’ve walked it hundreds of times, it’s not that hard,” he says with a grin.
In typical Pohnpeian taxi driver fashion, he
stops to pick up other passengers en-route to our destination – a couple clutching presents, food and drinks for a festive celebration. All happily settled into the car together, we turn off the main road and head inland on a narrower, bumpy track, pulling over at Salapwuk school, our taxi companions’ destination as well as the starting point for the Six Waterfalls Hike.
After just one hour of walking under the forest canopy, on a sometimes slick, tree-root covered track, we hear the sounds of the first falls – Pahnairlap – and come around a bend to find ourselves level with its top. Bats glide and dive above our heads, swiftly darting from tree to tree as we slowly make our way down, clinging to branches, and I briefly powerslide on my backside to reach the inviting circular pool at the base of the falls. A welcome, cooling spray helps cut through the humidity as I wash the sweat from my face.
We spend most of the next three hours wading in, or walking alongside, the Lehnmesia River, slipping and sliding over mossy boulders, and zig-zagging back and forth across the ankle to knee-high water as we make our way up through the Nanmeir Valley.
I stop often to look up and around at the fern and tree-covered valley walls rising high above, before returning my focus to the ground, looking for the next foothold, with hands outstretched seeking anything to grab for stability. The occasional slip is inevitable and we have no reservations about going slow. After the first waterfall, the next four appear regularly, one after the other every 10 to 15 minutes. While stopped at each of the falls, Panuel teaches us how to pronounce their names. Some are quite easy to say, Olotong and Iro, but others, like Nikotoapw, require several attempts to even come close. At roughly the half-way point we find a comfortable boulder at the river’s edge, unpack our lunch and tuck in, contently watching the Olotong falls glide down a sheer rock face before joining the river. The only sounds to be heard are of unseen birds chirping in the distance, and of course, water, falling and flowing. Before we know it, we’re approaching waterfall number six – Lipwentiak. It’s hidden out of sight, and Panuel explains we need to swim a 10-metre channel for the final section. We leave our bags on a mossy ledge, take a reinvigorating dip into the cool water and swim the few lengths to round the
I briefly powerslide on my backside to reach the inviting circular pool at the base of the falls. A welcome, cooling spray helps cut through the humidity as I wash the sweat from my face.
corner to the final waterfall. Instead of joining us for the swim, Panuel masterfully navigates a narrow, dangerously slippery looking ledge above the river as he confesses “the water is too cold for me”.
We clamber over more boulders to get closer to the falls, then retreat slightly to keep admiring them, while also sheltering from the rain under an overhanging rock and a giant leaf, aka a bush umbrella. It’s time to head back, and it turns out there’s an alternative track through the forest up above the river. We steadily make our way to higher ground and enjoy the two hour, less slippery and thus faster return route, to the taxi.
On our drive back, we stop at Panuel’s house and we are introduced to his wife and a friend, who surprise us with a meal of chicken, rice and cooked bananas, as they explain that, like so many places in the world, food is how they welcome guests in Pohnpei.
After eating and chatting, we’re back on the road and picking up the obligatory extra taxi passenger as we head back to Kolonia.
However, there is one last stop to make, as we pull over to a lady with a chilly bin sitting at the roadside. She’s selling sakau, a local drink made from the peppery kava vine, and Panuel is keen for my partner and I to try a drop. It’s a fitting celebration of completing Pohnpei’s Six Waterfalls Hike – a wet, wild and highly recommended six hours of exploring Pohnpei’s largely uninhabited and untouched interior.
Air Niugini flies from Port Moresby to Pohnpei weekly. See airniugini.com.pg.
Land of waterfalls ... guide Welten Panuel cools his heels (above); walking on water (right).
Slippery going … one of many river crossings on the walk to six waterfalls.