CHASING WATERFALLS IN A TROPICAL PARADISE
Exhaling I sink below the surface of the water relishing the feeling of the cold freshwater stream strip away the humidity of the tropics and the salt of the ocean out of my hair. Sunlight filters through the canopy of trees like raindrops as I watch dozens of birds circle above me for their afternoon snack like the moths circling a street light. Soon I will have to hike out of the islands interior mountains to get a ride back into town but for a lingering moment I remain to watch the abundance of waterfalls cascade around me in complete isolation from civilization.
The Six Waterfalls Hike begins in the hills of the Salapwuk region of the island Pohnpei, Micronesia. Part of the Caroline Island chain stretching across the remote Pacific Ocean, Pohnpei rises out of the sapphire blue waters as an tropical emerald gem landscape overgrown with fresh food and brimming with friendly people. Best known for the ancient ruins of the city Nan Madol and one of the top ten surfing waves in the world at Palikir Pass, this mountainous oasis receives an incredible amount of rain. In the mountains it rains on average over 25 inches every month, which naturally leads to some spectacular waterfalls found across the island for one of the wettest places in the world.
Cramming into two taxis one early morning we cruise away from town into the countryside along the one 86 kilometer road circling the island. In our tiny imported Japanese car we turn up a steep trail up into the mountain and flash by clusters of wild banana trees and old-growth mango trees. Various homesteads carved out of the jungle pop out at us and intoxicate the air with the delicious smells from their cooking fires. Out of the corner of my eye on the side of the road I spot under a thatched roof hut a group of men playing eight-ball on a pool table as chickens and dogs chase each other around. Reaching our destination at the end of the dirt road the taxi drivers leaves us to begin the six hour hike into the interior jungles of Pohnpei.
Some of my companions were good friends with the families living at the trail head, and after a quick meal of boiled breadfruit we are lead into the jungle armed with walking sticks made from fern stalks cut for us by our guide for the day. It is important to have a local guide accompany you on your hikes to help with navigating web of foot trails snaking in multiple directions. The machete leads the way as it chops its way through the overgrowth and fallen vegetation on the trail towards the first waterfall. After quite sometime you can begin to hear the roar of crashing water long before being able to see it. Asking our guide if we can take a rest at the waterfall he replies, "only a quick swim because we have to keep moving". Our group did not understand that this amazing waterfall was only a trickle compared to awaited us further upstream.
Turning the corner we slip across the tumbled basalt boulders in the river while steadying ourselves with the fern walking sticks. Steep canyon walls lined with vines on either side and trees dripping with green moss line the banks of the river. In a panoramic landscape in front of me waterfalls number two and three leap downwards in their never-ending quest to reach the ocean. Leaving our packs behind we swim up the tributary towards the second waterfall. Flipping and jumping into the pools along the way my friend discovers a fresh water eel, sacred to Pohnpeians, swimming up through the rapids alongside us seeming to enjoy our curious company. The equatorial sun shines directly down on us as we dry off on the sun soaked rocks and the quick snack of ripe bananas from a bunch we found during the hike helps to fill our bellies and give the energy to keep on going to the other three waterfalls.
It is safe to walk through the jungle on Pohnpei but the real danger directly relates to the reason why people hike the Six Waterfalls in the first place. Because of the island's isolation there are no poisonous creatures or plants that may harm you and other tropical ailments such as malaria are non-existent. The real danger on this hike lies with the rain that makes the waterfalls so beautiful in the first place. Flash flooding is a real danger and no one should be hiking after a heavy rainfall. The Six Waterfall hike takes you up a riverbed surrounded by steep walled canyons; if a flash flood occurs there is nowhere to escape and on the hike everyone sees the evidence of the devastating power of flash flooding. The massive balsa trees the size of transport trucks are strewn across the rocks and against the canyon walls, which on sunny days with little risk of flash flooding provide fantastic photo opportunities!
The hike is becomes more challenging with the more items you carry with you. I struggled to keep my balance while carrying my camera gear (in a waterproof bag!) on the rocks with the swift current of the river threatening to sweep me away, some of the others not carrying anything easily swam upstream and were taking naps beside the last set of waterfalls when I finally arrived later on. At this point in the hike I realized that it does not in fact take six hours to hike. Yes the initial sections to hike in and out are quite strenuous and take some time but the rest of the time is mostly spent frolicking in the water, eating snacks and lying on rocks enjoying the beautiful surroundings and each other’s company. After putting my camera down I finally catch up to everyone else at the final three waterfalls we stop for a moment to take a group photo before rushing past the smaller fourth and fifth waterfalls towards the final one.
If you ever plan on reaching the final waterfall make sure you know how to swim. It is only accessible by swimming up the river in between the steep narrow walls of the canyon where the river is swift and twists around a sharp corner hiding Pohnpei's Shangri-La. Leaving all our packs behind we plunge into the river pulling ourselves along the rocks to the narrow channel. You swim around the corner and climb out onto the rocks. You look up and your jaw drops from what is before you. Welcomed into this natural coliseum of steep basalt stone walls with a cathedral old-growth trees blocking out the sky above you stare ahead towards your destination. The sixth and final waterfall is like a freight-train of a slinky crashing down a set of stairs into the canyon you are now standing in. Rainbows dance through the mist from the waterfalls while bats engage in an acrobatic dogfight with insects above you. Exhaling I sink below the surface of the water this time not to escape from the heat but to make a mental snapshot of this vista that I hope will last a lifetime. Unfortunately I only have a mental snapshot of the final waterfall, so if you looking to understand exactly what I am talking about you must go and see it for yourself. It is worth the effort.