Wednesday 17 June, 11.07pm (anchored at Luganville)
The crew ejected the cook for the day, sending her off with the French bloke from the boat next door to the Millenium Cave, while they all stayed back and itemised the remaining stores, refueled and rewatered Chimere (“Careful walking down the corridor to your cabin, the floor’s up because the ship’s bladder’s a bit full”) and dealt with two weeks’worth of washing that was strung back and forth along the foredeck. You’ve heard about the glamour in sailing?! They managed tinned spaghetti on toast for lunch, and beer and pizza for dinner. Jen fought back by producing a delicious lumberjack cake which we consumed for supper.
When Chimere pulled in to the fisherman’s wharf this morning, it caused a general down-tools. All the workers on the wharf plus everyone on the copra ship paid intense interest while Chimere docked and started to refuel. After about half an hour of no excitement everyone returned to work. That’s the way it is here. Everyone has time, although “on time” is a malleable concept.
Meanwhile, Yannick, the solo French sailor, had swung a cheap deal for a guided tour to the Millenium Cave, and had been over yesterday to see if any of us were interested. I hesitated a moment too long, and the crew decided that I was going. When I appeared in the saloon for breakfast this morning, they had just been planning to forklift me out of bed so I’d be up in time to leave. “Have you got your lunch?” “Do you need my sunscreen/Deet?” ” Now don’t stay out late!” Everyone waved me off as I left in Yannick’s tiny dinghy, and I felt quite woebegone leaving my mob behind.
We bumped in our minibus along what used to be a road in the second world war, until the road turned into a cart track. There we alighted and began our walk. I knew that water would be involved, so I asked the guide whether I should start the walk with my bathers on or change into them later. When I saw him strip down to his swimmers and discard his T-shirt and shoes, my question was answered. I’ve never hiked in bathers, sarong and runners before, but when he saw my attire, his face lit up and he said “Oh, good, number one, just like local woman,” I knew I would not regret it. He told me in the six years he’s been guiding this trek, only one other woman has dressed that way. Often they wear long pants, which are hot and become very restrictive when wet. Yannick was wearing a waterproof against the light rain, but with the heat and humidity I’ll bet he was equally wet inside and outside after 15 minutes.
We walked briskly along the cart track until it ended at a traditional village arranged around a large open area of rain-dampened dirt. The kids had drawn huge pictures of helicopters in it. On the other side of the village the track becomes a foot and bridle path, as a village further on transports all its produce out on pack horses. We were greeted by the chief at the second village and taken to the Nakemwhal or central gathering shelter, where we were shown a map of the route drawn on a blackboard. Little kids were entertaining themselves by sticking hibiscus flowers through nail holes in the board, which prettified the map no end.
After almost two hours of muddy track, we reached a series of descending ladders built from small logs. At the top, the village chief painted the first-timers’ faces with clay to show the cave that we were approved guests and to keep us safe while in there.
The last ladder ended underground in the cave in waist-deep water. I regretted my head torch, which was sitting in a very handy spot on the shelf above my bunk on board. Walking through a rocky river in the dark with the depth varying between ankle and chest deep with only a low-light torch to help is a challenging experience, to say the least of it. Occasionally bats, cave crickets, minute mossy birds’ nests, and pipes and folds of rock lit up as Yannick’s camera flashed. My camera was safely with the guide, thank goodness (he was holding it in his teeth), as I slipped right in a few times. Eventually we emerged into an idyllic shallow green canyon, where we blew up children’s plastic water rings for the next stage. I followed the chief into a pool full of large freshwater prawns and we lay on our plastic rings to begin the most beautiful canyon trip imaginable. Folded rock cliffs had their arch completed above by the enormous leaves of banana trees reaching from either side to touch one another. Banyan vines (of the Tarzan variety) dripped down the canyon sides, and ferns and mosses breathed moist abundant greenness. Lots of fish, large and small, swam with us. Occasional waterfalls spilled down and I floated beneath them to feel the water pummel me.
Some of the time we had to get out and clamber over, up, between and down enormous boulders to miss dangerous rapids. Once we had to wriggle through a narrow hole feet first landing in water, without being able to see where we were going. Crossing deep dark holes and sliding around boulders with rushing water below brought home the fact that this was something you would not dream of doing without excellent local knowledge.
When we emerged from the river the final time, we followed the chief straight up a narrow waterfall with perfect foot- and hand-holds to the top of the gorge and back through jungle meadows to the village, picking and eating fruit on the way. That man would be in his sixties at least, and his ascent up the waterfall was absolutely effortless, like a mountain goat.
The village women had prepared lap-lap made from manioc (traditional food made from a root vegetable wrapped in island spinach and cooked in coconut milk) and pamplemousse (gigantic grapefruit) for us before we walked out in the last shreds of daylight. Yannick was keen for me to go and drink kava with him and the guides, but bless my mob, there they were at the cafe at the bus drop-off point sitting waiting for me and the pizza they had ordered for all of us, so I was able to bow out easily and gracefully. Just perfect.