Upon finding out that Infinity would be spending a few more days in Port Vila, my internal exploration alarm sounded and I booked the next flight to Esperito Santo. Santo is the second-most populated island in Vanuatu, which is kinda like how one-room four-tap Golden City Brewery was the second biggest brewery in Golden CO (behind Coors). Although I was trying like heck to get up to the remote Banks islands to set my feet on an atoll before leaving, the flights were full so Santo, with mountains to hike, reefs to snorkel, local villagers to meet and seats available, became plan B. While I was packing up it seemed crazy that I’d be leaving the place I’d called home and the people who felt like family. The last month and a half felt more like a year and a half. But although I was significantly more comfortable with the sailing lifestyle than I’d thought I might be, I don’t love it enough to prioritize it over all of the other things I want to see and do this year.
My last few days with the crew & the ship (although I didn’t know at the time they’d be that at the time) were a perfect bow on our time together; I made dinner with Clemens, had a day with the boat practically to myself, and found ourselves a couple nights of dance parties in Vila with the crew from the mega yacht anchored next to ours and participants of the Pacific Islands mini games.
Then Friday morning at the crack of dawn I said my “see ya laters” and hopped a ride to the shore & the airport. The check in process took longer than the flight and I was at the Beachside Resort just outside of the main town of Luganville before they’d even stopped breakfast service. The “resort” was modest (as was the price) but was exactly what I was looking for and needed in that moment, which was a nap on a comfy (stable) bed with clean sheets and ocean breezes. After I awoke a few hours later I headed out with my snorkel gear in tow, but not before chatting at length with Lorna who worked in the main office. Somehow or another we got on the topic of family and she proceeded to explain that in many parts of Vanuatu women cannot own land, which would explain why me being single seemed so foreign to many of the local women I meet. Apparently the male children of the family inherit the family land which keeps the familial villages alive. There’s even recent laws starting that although there are a significant number of orphans in Vanuatu, adopted children are also not able to inherit the land of their adopted parents. Lorna planted the bug that if I ever did want to adopt, I should consider a beautiful Vanuatuan baby with their striking blonde locks (which often but not always turn darker as they got older). Welp Lorna, the seed is planted!
So I grabbed a cab, and made a quick stop at the local market for some baby bananas, fresh peanuts and green beans to snack on. I hopped back in a cab, bounced 20 minutes down a dirt road, and arrived at Million Dollar Beach. The US had a base in Luganville during World War II. Story goes that after the war was over the US was in negotiations with Vanuatu to sell all of their equipment to them, but when both reached a price point they were no longer willing to budge on, the US then instead decided to push it all into the sea. Some was recovered, but I lost count of the number of tanks I identified resting on the ocean floor. It’s a eerie feeling to be swimming along and find yourself face to face with something so distinctly man-made as military artillery. But these tools of death were ironically now teeming with life, encased in huge coral gardens hosting a myriad of fish of all shapes and sizes.
I spent a couple hours exploring then called my cabbie to take me to dinner, this place I’d picked out which ended up being halfway up the island, and ended up being randomly closed for the night. I look at it as an inadvertant scenic tour, which it definitely was. I also then was recommended the restaurant right next door to my hotel which not only was super convenient but super delicious… Fresh water prawns and a HUGE fresh Greek salad. With that I walked home to rest up for my tour to Millennium Cave the next day.
Here’s what I knew about the millennium cave: the awesome couple in a 20-ft sailboat who’d swung by to visit a couple times said it was absolutely amazing and that I HAD to do it. Alright. I knew it was an all day hike, but that only encouraged my interest. The tour company picked me up and gave a brief overview of the day ahead: drive to a village, hike to another village, start hiking through the rainforest, enter the cave, come out of the cave 500m later, have lunch by the river, float/swim down the river, hike back though the jungle to the village for snacks and the car. Sounds cool, but the somewhat touristy feel to it and the fact that there was a whopping 6 of us and 4 guides on the tour had me a little skeptical. Oh, and all the other guests had come straight off a cruise ship. So we started the hike, both of the villages were great but I’d had my immersion experiences in local villages already so not much to report there. I did VERY much appreciate that the tour was managed by these villages and all proceeds went back to their schools, hospitals and infrastructure. I was trying really hard not to get impatient with the two guys who were already struggling on the muddy jungle trail. We tramp through the jungle, up and down ladders, over expensive views of lush rainforest, resting a couple times along the way, and stopping for customary face painting as a tribute to the gods (or something).
Then we see this HUUUGE cave emerge before us, and we rappel down slick rocks into a river and find ourselves in a stunning cavern. I honestly was prepared for that to be the extent of millennium cave, which would have been impressive enough. But then we clamor forward through the river into the cave, and the guides do a quick check that the life jackets we had in tow were secure on our backs. We proceed to canyoneer through this cave, often reaching HUNDREDS of feet above us, teeming with birds and bats, all the while attempting not to lose footing on the invisible rocks beneath the sometimes waist high water, gushing by at rates that my rafting friends would have been proud of. By the light of some sub-par flashlights. Oh, and then there was occasional waterfalls cascading from the cavern walls and ceilings too. This continued for AN HOUR. From what I know about the renound Subway route in Zion national Park, you canyon for most of a day to arrive at a cylindrical tunnel that’s maybe a hundred feet long (you’ll have to fact check me there) and the Subway has been something I’ve wanted to do for a couple years… And yet here I was in this “cave” that would put that to shame, even if the trip ended there. BUT IT DIDN’T!
The cave eventually opened up to an adjoining river, which once we all trepidatiously crossed, we collapsed with a common look of “Where the hell did that come from?” and shit-eating grins. We had a quick lunch while “digesting’ the trip so far. Then the guides instructed us to put back on the life jackets for who knows what was next. The first guide instructed one of the guests to jump in the river, and when he looked confused just did it himself, floating with the current off to who knows where, Well, we hadn’t been let down yet! So we’re effortlessly floating down the river in this canyon with walls towering above us, topping out in a canopy of jungle. Cue six twenty to sixty year-olds giggling like school kids. The floating was interspersed with sections of bouldering up and over huge rock outcroppings and scaling the canyon walls, all with perfectly placed rappel lines, handholds and steps. Then we were floating down the river again, this time under waterfalls. Of course, waterfalls. That’s what we were missing. This also continued for another hour and a half or so. All the while we kept giving each other looks saying “Is this for real?!?”. Then we reached our exit point, climbed back up out of the canyon, through the forest and back to the village we started from a good eight hours beforehand. We were soaked to the bone, muddy from head to toe, and couldn’t care less. Mind blown. And I don’t have pictures to show for it (yet) because I don’t have a waterproof camera, so you’ll just have to believe that I didn’t instead spend my $7000 Vatu (about $60 USD) on a euphoric psychadelic drug trip. I should also have some photos in a couple weeks when one of the other guys on the tour sends me some, so thats a least a little proof of this “Disney-esque” not-even-a-national-park-yet experience.
We drove back to Luganville, dropped the cruisegoers off at the boat in full gloat mode, and I was dropped off at a wharf 30 minutes down the road where I’d be whisked off to Pantanas guesthouse on Malo island. Is it possible to make so many good decisions in so few days? Because as soon as I arrived I was once again pinching myself. I was dropped off at a beach with children playing and an older grandparent-esque couple, Vomalehi and Vuro, waiting for me at the entrance to their home. They showed me around the property and I was presented with the most perfect hut, complete with patio overlooking the ocean and LED lights and outlets powered by solar panels. I mentioned that I’d been feeling a little under the weather (a detail I was trying to not let distract me during the day’s adventures) and Vomalehi led me to the dining gazebo where fresh squeezed lemonade & hot water for tea were waiting. I felt completely at home and taken care of. So I unpacked some things, chatted with my hosts for a little while, met their happy dogs (one which looked a lot like my childhood dog Ted!), was presented with a home cooked dinner of beef stew & rice, and I happily passed the f*** out, amazed by all the experiences I’d had that day and was still so lucky to find myself in the midst of!
Above: “Excuse me Miss, are these crabs fresh?” – At the Port Vila Farmers Market
Below: Locals sharing their songs (and their Kava) with us on the boat
Update… This just in… Millenium Cave Photos! It does exist! Thanks John and Sandra!