One day, six wa­ter­falls

A day hike in Mi­crone­sia

Paradise - - In Paradise | Contents -

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.

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