So, yesterday, Graham joined the crews of Sel Citron, Pacific Hwy and Iolea to do the Millennium Caves Tour. This began in 2000 when Sam, the eldest son of the Chief of the remote Vunaspef village, realised that the limestone cave and river gorge buried deep in the forest could become a tourist attraction. Once he'd cut a circular trail and trained some other village men as guides, he used an agent in town to market and sell the tours - they charged 8,000V per head but paid the village only 500V of that for all the hard work! In 2011 the village decided they'd had enough of that poor deal so built an office in Luganville, reduced the cost to 7,000V per person and invested all the the money into several villages up there in the forest. The funds have paid for a new school and kindergarten and provide employment for 19 guides who do a tremendous job.
The tour involves a bumpy 45 miinute ride in a minibus to Wambel village, a 20 minute tramp to Vunaspef (which has no vehicular access) and an hour and a half hike to the cave.
|A bridge constructed from a bundle of long bamboo poles|
|Hiking towards the cave|
|The villagers have constructed lots of ladders in the steep bits|
|Kerry gets the mud-paint treatment|
|Graham's new look|
|Entering the cave|
|Swallow nests in the limestone|
|A waterfall at the side of the cavern, illuminated by torch light|
|Light at the end of the tunnel|
|Kerry emerges into the light|
We had a guide for every three people and they were brilliant - they were mostly barefoot but know every foothold and pool and guided us safely to the next stage of the adventure. We worked our way down the Sarakata river, first 'canyoneering' through a stretch of huge boulders and then swimming down river. They have cut foot holds in the rocks and cemented in steel bar hand-holds but even so it was reasonably challenging in places. Breath-takingly beautiful, though.
|One of the guides takes a well-earned rest at the lunch stop|
|Heading down the canyon|
|Wooden ladders have been built to traverse some of the trickier bits|
|Swimming down stream, hoping the waterproof bags actually are|
After the final swimming section there was a very steep climb up the canyon walls and back to Vunaspef. We passed through some of the village gardens, which were surrounded by a dense creeper which is smothering everything. It's known as 'Mile-a-Minute' for the way it spreads and was introduced by the American army in the war as natural camouflage for their military bases.
|There's no way of containing this stuff!|
|A pitstop where once USAF bombers and transport planes thundered|