Welcome to the Maunie of Ardwall blog

This is the blog of Maunie of Ardwall. After a six-year adventure sailing from Dartmouth to Australia, we are now back in Britain.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Millennium Cave Tour

It's really refreshing to come across initiatives that have been driven by locals, rather than foreigners, to benefit their villages. In Vanuatu, as in Tonga and Fiji, often most of the business enterprises in the more developed areas are run by incomers - for example in Luganville there is only one shop that's owned and operated by Ni-Vanuatu people, the remainder are Chinese and Vietnamese.

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

Vunaspef village

Hiking towards the cave

The villagers have constructed lots of ladders in the steep bits
Once we arrived at the cave we had our faces painted to show proper respect to an area that was, until 2000, considered sacred and 'tabu'

Kerry gets the mud-paint treatment

Graham's new look
The cave itself is pretty spectacular - a lofty limestone cavern, probably 800m long, with a river running through it. We were provided with waterproof torches (vital as it's pitch black in there) and made our way slowly along the boulder-strewn river, with bats and swallows nesting in the walls above us.

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!
So, weary but elated after a long day we returned and were given fresh fruit and coffee at the village before the final 20-minute walk back to Wambel to be collected by Sam and his rattly van. We had an impromptu stop on the drive back on the remains of a WW2 airstrip to recharge the van's boiling radiator with water - pretty normal stuff for vehicles around here it seems!

A pitstop where once USAF bombers and transport planes thundered
All in all, just a brilliant day, made all the more special by the friendly and professional guides and by the knowledge that the whole thing is a locally-run operation.

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