We’re two weeks into our long-awaited round-the-world trip and already in the midst of a haze of activity. So far, we’ve had a day at Kiwanis (Vanuatu’s annual horse-racing event), swum beneath Mele Cascades waterfall, kayaked to Erakor Island, dived for the first time ever and seen the wreck of the SS Coolidge.
Every day has brought a new experience, the most demanding of which has been the Millennium Cave Tour, a trek through Vanuatu’s biggest cave located on the outskirts of Luganville.
We set off with a group of six other adventurers, trekking through lush rainforest to the small village of Vunaspef where we were told to leave anything that couldn’t get wet. A few of our companions handed over expensive cameras, checking and rechecking that the guide would keep them safe.
We strapped on mandatory life jackets and trekked to rougher terrain, scrambling over sheer and slippery rock. In particularly dangerous places, the guides had nailed pieces of wood to rock to make the passage easier. This certainly helped – without it, there would surely have been a serious accident or two.
At a clearing, we paused for a symbolic ritual: clay paste applied to our faces to mark our respect for nature and ensure safe passage. Then, we carefully descended to the entrance of the grand cave: 50m tall and over 3km long. Torches in hand, we entered, wading through ice-cold water up to our knees.
I asked Charlie, our guide, how often he does this. “Every day,” he replied with a smile. “Every day.” He explained that much of the proceeds from the tour go towards building a school in the local village.
“We have built classroom one and classroom two. This summer we are building classroom three,” he added proudly. “We have a teacher from Santo visit every week to teach our children.”
“That is why we do this,” he continued. “Our customers have a good time and they help our village too.”
Then, distracted, he beckoned us to a slippery wall. He shone a torch on it. I recoiled. There were 20 or so spider-like insects crawling around in a frenzy. Sensing my distress, Charlie reassured me: “They’re not spiders; they’re crickets. Only crickets.”
Halfway into the cave, the guide asked us to switch off our torches. My mind flashed to a scene from The Descent, the horror movie in which a group of cavers stumble across a species of otherworldly carnivores – not a comforting thought when washed in darkness. I couldn’t even see my own hand in front of my face. We heard the other cavers further down scaring themselves with growling sounds.
We spent an hour in the cave – slipping and sliding and collecting bruises in this dark, otherworldly space. Finally, we emerged victorious into a clearing by a river. We paused for lunch and then spent the afternoon climbing up through a canyon, diving into a river, and floating downstream back to Vunaspef Village.
Our tired limbs were soothed by the fresh coffee and fruit laid out by the locals. As we ate, they taught us some Bislama – an English-based creole – and were greatly amused by the fact that we knew the Bislama word for ‘bikini’.
Yes, if you want to make a Ni-van laugh, tell them you know how to say bikini: ‘Basket blong titi’ will have them in fits.
An Australian couple trekking with us gave the villagers some notebooks and pencils – practical gifts gratefully received. Exhausted but delighted, we gathered our things, said goodbye to the guides and boarded our bus back to the dusty town of Luganville, ready for our next adventure.
Port Vila has as international airport with regular flights to Australian east coast airports (book via skyscanner.net).