Millenium Cave

We are still in Santo but have moved across the harbor and are now anchored in front of the Beach Front Resort, and we’ve been hanging out here for the last couple of days. Our weather pattern remains consistent: sunny humid mornings that give just enough of a sense of hope that you think you can get a load of laundry outside to dry, followed by an afternoon of torrential tropical downpours, thunder, and lightning. It’s actually quite delightful, and we are enjoying ourselves very much.

It was sunny enough two mornings ago that we were able to move the boat across the harbor, change the oil in the Yanmars, and get our last load of laundry finally dry (third time was the charm) before the day’s deluge began. We spent the afternoon in Sophie school and doing inside projects, marveling at how much rain can actually fall from the sky at one time. Since our itinerary involves traveling up next to the equator during monsoon season over the next year, we know that this weather pattern will be with us for a while.

Afterwards, we took a cab into town, walked around a bit, then ate dinner at a steak restaurant called “Deco Stop” (a dive term) located on a mountain overlooking the harbor. We very much enjoyed the view from up high.

When we returned to the Beach Front, we saw the Philippines National Rugby Team in uniform walking into the restaurant for dinner. They were in town to play the Vanuatu National Rugby team the next day, and for Santo this was a big deal because it was the first time there was a friendly for the national team that was played outside of Port Vila, the country’s capital. The Filipinos, as rugby players, looked much smaller than rugby players from New Zealand and Polynesia. Their team’s main sponsor was Philippine Airlines, and the airline’s logo was on the from of their jerseys. When I was in college, I lived in the Philippines for 6 months, and the airline’s logo back then was PAL, adorning the tailfin of their planes. The locals used to joke that PAL stood for “Plane Always Late.”

We spent yesterday on a daylong expedition to a local attraction called “Millenium Caves”, and it turned out to be one of our best adventures since we left Seattle 2 years ago. And that is pretty special praise, because we have had an adventure or 2 during our trip. We shared the tour with our friends from Morrigan, and we weren’t even sure that the trip was on until 7:15 AM. It gets cancelled when the area gets heavy rains, and as you know it’s been raining a lot around here lately.

But the journey was on, and there were 8 of us that piled into a diesel Hyundai 4×4 van at 8:00 AM for the 45 minute bouncy drive through the jungle to the start of the tour. The trip involved several stages: the van ride to the village; a 90 minutes trek through the jungle to the cave site; a 30 minute scramble through the cave in a stream in the dark with flashlights; a break for lunch, a 30 minute canyon scramble over boulders after the cave; a 30 minute swim/float through waterfalls along the river; then a 15 minute climb up ladders and cliffs back to the village and the Hyundai for the trip home.

The cave tour is owned and operated by the local small village, and they have been working very hard to turn it into a destination for foreign tourists. Our group had 5 guides including the local chief and his son. They wore uniforms, had lifejackets and waterproof flashlights for each person in the party, and even assigned dedicated guides for Leo and Hazel. They needed them, because the initial jungle trek was pretty rough going, with the party going up and down jungle ravines using ladders and wooden stairways cut from small logs. The trail was brand new. In fact, we were stunned to learn that the village had constructed it earlier in the week because the original trail had washed away in the rain. This trail was probably 2 kilometers long and had 40 ladders and stairways cut into the hillsides, and 15 men had constructed it in the rain over a 48 hour period earlier in the week. We were all amazed, because with every turn in the trail there seemed to be another brand new 50 foot long ladder or stairway.

We stopped in a clearing right before the final descent to the caves to get our faces painted. The locals believe that people entering the caves for the first time needed to have designs – bat, bird, stone, fountain – painted on their faces to show respect to the cave spirits, so we all had clay fingered onto our foreheads, noses, and cheeks before the final 100 foot ladder climb down to the river that flowed into the cave.

We all had to dive into a pool and swim to the mouth of the cave, then scramble 400 meters over boulders and through little waterfalls in the dark. The cave ceilings towered 50 to 150 feet above us, and swallows and bats flew through the air. Leo and Hazel’s guides each had an iron grip on their hands, but Hazel kept trying to break free so she could scoot down the little waterfalls by herself. The water was warm and had a decent rate of flow, and the whole experience wasn’t very scary (except for when I wondered what would happen to the cave river if there was a sudden deluge in the ravine above us, but I tried to keep that thought out of my mind.)

When we finally emerged from the cave, it had indeed started raining. Some women from the village had carried our day packs down to the little rocky beach where we stopped for a quick lunch. As the rain strengthened, the guides urged us to eat quickly and get moving. Once we were back underway, we understood why. It was now dumping rain, and our gentle river had turned into white water rapids. We scrambled along its banks, using metal handles hammered into the boulders at key locations. You could tell the guides were nervous about us, especially when they deployed their climbing ropes and carabiners to assist us in crossing water chutes and at one point the entire river.

We finally got past the whitewater and reached a stretch of river that flowed quietly past 100 foot cliffs on either side, punctuated by towering waterfalls every couple of minutes. The guides tied ropes to Leo and Hazel, and then asked everyone to jump in and float down the river. It was still dumping rain, and we floated in the river for 20 minutes. We were as wet as could be, and the whole experience was epic.

The float finally came to the end, and we then climbed up out of the canyon on large ladders and cliffs with steps carved into them and ropes to pull on. The guides continued with their iron grips with Leo and Hazel, and the rest of us proceeded quite cautiously. We finally made it back to the village where they served us coffee and fruit. Hazel used her tooth fairy money to buy a blue and yellow (with green streaks) tie died pareo.

We finally made it back to the diesel Hyundai, and the drive back to town seemed much quicker than the drive out. It was too late for us to make it to the rugby game, so after a long and luxurious shower stop back at Sophie we returned to the Beach Front for pizza, beer, and the hope of seeing the Philippines Rugby team partying after their match. Unfortunately they never showed up, but a Vanuatu player on crutches met his family there for dinner. The poor guy had broken his leg during the game.

It was the only sad note for what was otherwise one of the best days we’ve had on our trip. We are incredible lucky to be doing this.

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