Cascade de Fachoda (or the Fautaua Waterfall since it’s in Fautaua Valley) has to be one of the more spectacular waterfalls I’ve been fortunate enough to sample in Tahiti.
The reason why I say this is because it’s got one of those classically tall freefalls that might be more typically found in the hidden gulches and hanging valleys on helicopter tours in Hawaii. It is also backed by sharp mountains attesting to the advanced erosion that the islands of French Polynesia exhibit as they tend to be far older than the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, I think the sharp peak in the background behind the falls is the shapely Diadème, which might also be seen on Tahiti 4×4 tours through Papenoo Valley or even from Papeete on days when clouds don’t get in the way.
I got the feeling that this waterfall didn’t really have a consensus name though when I referred to it as the “Cascade de Fautaua” (Fautaua Waterfall) the locals seemed to know what I was talking about. I’ve also seen this waterfall referred to as Cascade de Fachoda (also spelled Fachauda) because there’s an old fort called the Fachoda Fort near its top.
This waterfall is said to be 443ft tall though I have seen exaggerated claims that it’s over 300m or 1000ft tall, or that it’s one of the highest waterfalls in the world. I’ve also seen the words “Fautaua Waterfall” being applied erroneously on TripAdvisor to the Faarumai Waterfalls. Yet despite the misinformation in the literature, I found this to be one of the more mysterious waterfalls that you can access. I wonder if I felt this sense of mystery because I had to earn it with a pretty hard hike.
It turned out that there were actually two ways to experience this waterfall – a lower approach and an upper approach. At first, I tried the lower approach until I had to abort that attempt when I realized that I had to cross the Fautaua River at uncomfortably high levels (with rain threatening, no less). So the upper approach was the way that I took. Both approaches required me to walk a 4×4 road that belonged to Polynesie des Eaux (which I think is a water works or freshwater supply operation) before the two approaches branched off in separate directions.
The hike began at a large unpaved parking area right behind some infrastructure that looked like it belonged to Polynesie des Eaux. From there, I had to walk past a gate and onto a 4×4 road, which was a continuation of the road up Fautaua Valley past Bain Loti (Loti’s Bath – more on this later).
I noticed there were plenty of unsigned footpaths meandering through the jungle between the Fautaua River and the 4×4 road, but it turned out that those foot trails led to some hydro structures alongside the Fautaua River and were not necessary to continue towards the Cascade de Fachoda.
The stretch of 4×4 road had to be at least two miles each way (or at least it seemed that way to me) since it took me around 45 minutes to an hour each way. Supporing this notion, I met some locals or workers who told me in French that the falls was essentially 5km each way from near the end of the road (where I saw them). It seemed much longer than what I had read in my pre-trip literature so it could also be true that in my limited French, I might have misinterpreted what they said, or my pre-trip research was inaccurate.
Throughout the walk, I could see the picturesque V-shaped valley capped by sharp and nearly vertical peaks along its ridges despite the cloud cover. There were several hard-to-photograph or hidden side waterfalls en route during my visit. However, it was hard to tell if they were merely ephemeral waterfalls, seasonal Wet Season-only waterfalls, or if they were permanent. There were also a few buildings (with lots of graffiti on them) that seemed to be for water diversion or processing.
As mentioned earlier, at the end of the 4×4 road, the foot trails branch in different directions thereby marking the start of the two approaches to Cascade de Fachoda.
On the lower approach, the trail narrowed considerably and eventually hugged the banks of the Fautaua River. The thick vegetation closed in quickly and the hiking got a little rougher as I found myself scrambling and bouldering at times to avoid going into the river.
After about 15 minutes of hiking though, a sign indicated where I was supposed to cross the river (so avoiding the river was no longer an option). It was here that I turned back because the river levels were too high and too fast moving for my liking. I have read in my pre-trip research that there were multiple river crossings like this to get all the way to the base of the falls. However, until I manage to successfully complete this part of the hike, I can’t say anything more.
As for the upper approach, the trail branched to the left of the end of the 4×4 road and went over a bridge spanning the Fautaua River. Once past the bridge, the trail immediately started ascending steeply on a combination of switchbacks and muddy track with exposed tree roots.
Combined with the humidity typical of jungle hiking, this ascent seemed like it went on forever. Not helping matters were also the presence of fallen trees that I either had to sit and scoot over or crawl under.
Eventually after nearly another 20 minutes there was a minor stream crossing where I saw yet another hidden waterfall. And it was another 10 more minutes before I finally found some large pile of rocks, which I’d imagine acted as a trail marker though I can’t say for sure.
Finally after about 40 grueling minutes of uphill hiking from the bridge, I finally got to a view of the impressive Cascade de Fachoda (the view you see at the top of this page). While the majority of the falls could easily be seen from this point, the foliage below conspired to cover up most of its bottom. Still, this was a good place to get a second wind to keep going, or to turn back.
The uphill hiking continued beyond this “bellevue” (as the locals I met called it), and it got to a point where the trail narrowed even more with some dropoff exposure. There were wires bolted into the cliffs so the unsure could hold onto the wires while proceeding.
Perhaps in my impatience and fatigue, I didn’t go much further than the wires as I had seen that the views of the falls seemed to have gotten more overgrown and worse off than the “bellevue.” However in hindsight, I probably should’ve kept going to at least the Fachoda Fort at the top of the falls. So until that happens, I’m afraid I can’t say anything more about this hike.
On the descent back to the footbridge, I definitely had to be careful because the footing was slippery and muddy in many spots, especially in light of the steepness of the trail. Still, I was under the impression that this would be a reliable all-season hike while the lower approach could be more confidently undertaken when river levels would be much lower (like in the Dry Season).
All in all, it took me about 4.5 hours. I can easily envision this hike taking the better part of 6 hours or more had I been able to visit both the base of the falls and the Fachoda Fort at the very top of the falls.
Navigating the “mean” streets of Papeete when you’re self-driving was not a trivial task. If you’re without a rental car, I’d imagine you might be able to catch Le Truck (i.e. pickup truck doubling as a taxi ride) or some other form of public transport to reach Bain Loti (Loti’s Bath). From Bain Loti, you’d then have to continue walking up the road into the Polynesie des Eaux facility then onto the 4×4 road in its rear.
By the way, Loti’s Bath is said to be the location where in Pierre Loti’s novel titled The Marriage of Loti that the Polynesian vahine (lady) Rarahu met the hero of the book. I saw a statue of Pierre Loti adjacent to a part of the Fautaua River where many locals hung out or were swimming in its waters.
Since we did rent a car, here’s how I navigated to the trailhead from Punaauia (where we were staying) about 10 minutes south of the Faaa Airport.
I took the car north on the main highway into the Papeete Waterfront (where the RDO [kind of a short freeway] became the traffic-heavy Boulevard Pomare). After inching towards a large roundabout intersecting Boulevard Pomare with Avenue du Prince Hinoi, I exited onto Avenue du Prince Hinoi and continued for another traffic light (or two).
On either the 2nd or 3rd traffic light (I forgot how many I had to cross), I turned right onto Cours de L’Union Sacree. The red street signs were small and hard to read while moving so I was fortunate that I got a chance to read the sign for this road while stopped at the light.
Once on the street Cours de L’Union Sacree, I continued inland on this road which went between many beat-up homes and buildings (almost felt like driving in a developing country) over numerous speed bumps (speed limit was typically 30km/h) before I went past Bain Loti and a gate with an intercom into the Polynesie des Eaux facility. The road was unpaved past Bain Loti and got rough real quick once inside the facility.
I eventually parked the car past the buildings on the back end of the large unpaved car park area, where I was politely told by one of the workers in the facility to park (he didn’t want me taking one of the spots closer to the buildings where the workers would park). The trail (or 4×4 road) continued behind the gate blocking any further non-service vehicles from proceeding.
Technically, you’re supposed to seek permission to do the hike from the landowners of this area, which would be Polynesie des Eaux or whoever runs the operation (our 2002 LP book said you had to ask the Service de l’Hydraulique or Hydro Service). However, after speaking with a couple of locals about this hike, they seemed to express to me that it wasn’t necessary. I don’t want to mislead you into thinking you can trespass (especially since these types of situations can change very easily) so it doesn’t hurt to ask the Visitor Center on the Papeete Waterfront about it.
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