The second major adventure that we undertook on our recent trip to Santo, Vanuatu was a hiking excursion through the jungle that included an extensive hike, a cave tour, canyoning, and floating down a river.
After being picked at our resort and passing through the town of Luganville, arrived at a jungle village inhabited by native Vanuatuns. These people seemed relatively well off when compared to the last remote village Amy and I had visited in Masai Mara, Kenya. For one, their houses were made of wood and woven palm fronds rather than cow dung, mud, and ash. Additionally, the jungle provides a cornucopia of animals and fruits for them to consume. We noticed that everyone was walking around barefoot, a condition that our guide would rue later on in the day.
We proceeded through the jungle from this first village to a second one where we met up with our 2 hiking guides. With these two fellows, we set off on a new jungle path that was both steep and muddy at times, The path was aided at points by bamboo ladders and strategically lain vines in places intended to slow your descent down a mud-slick slope. Our shoes were ruined after about 10 minutes of negotiating this terrain - I mention this not as a complaint, more as a revelation of why everyone was walking around barefoot in the village.
After about an hour and a half of tough going, we neared the cave entrance. At this point, one of our guides split off with our backpack and promised to meet us on the other side. This is done because the cave has a river running through it and he basically saves all of your stuff from getting soaked. Good man.
The primary guide at this point had us sit on a log at the side of the path and painted on our faces with a clay based paint that was stored - not joking - in a coconut. He explained that this was to show the gods in the river and cave that we had paid our respects to the villages which we had passed through and were respecting their customs.
I credit the protection of the face paint entirely for us escaping the more hazardous later sections unscathed.
We now walked down a stream towards the gaping maw of the cave entrance. It was quite high and descended into darkness not far from the entrance so we couldn't see much more than the area immediately after the opening. We could see however that the stream got faster and deeper quite soon.
Higher quality Youtube version here
What followed now was Amy and I stumbling near-blind through a pitch black cave in water that ranged from ankle high to chest height. We scrambled over wet rocks that frequently had crickets (ewww) or bat guano (ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwww) on them, not able to see anything other than the water at our feet that our flashlights were shining directly onto. Additionally, the entire riverbed was covered with broken rocks. These were sometimes above the surface of the water but mostly underneath it. It amounted to us blindly stepping from one unsteady rock of unknown depth to the next, frequently falling over into the water which contained god-knows-what.
I also had the hubris to bring our camera with us in its waterproof case. Note to anyone who is planning on going caving in the near future: DO NOT BRING A CAMERA. It is pitch black inside a cave, you will not be able to take any pictures and will only proceed to trip and fall repeatedly because you are stupidly holding onto a camera with one hand rather than using it to brace yourself.
After a lengthy trial, we eventually say the first glimpse of daylight from the cave exit. We waded out into the sunshine, counted our limbs, thanked the river/cave gods, and met up with our second guide who was waiting with lunch, as promised.
After some sandwiches, we ventured onward to the third leg of the trip which started off walking down what started off as a stream but quickly turned into a river. This was a beautiful sight, walking down the bottom of a canyon with verdant, virgin jungle encroaching. At various intervals there were gigantic, moss covered boulders that had to be climbed over, scrambled under, or floated past.
The floating sections, amusingly were aided by means of a child's inflatable floaty ring. The rings we were given included Asian text and cartoon characters of unknown origin on them. I can only imagine at that moment, some child was throwing a tantrum somewhere on mainland China, demanding from his/her parents why the store was out of the tamogatchi-power rangers-pokeman floaties and that this was now the worst birthday ever. Thank you, unknown child.
Amy and I did not know what had happened at this point as our guide was floating downstream. I thought we should jump in and follow him, Amy was convinced that we should wait. Our guide finally grabbed onto a rock and pulled himself out. At this point, he was looking at his foot and doing that "ssssssss.....aaaahhhh...ssssssss....ahhhh....sssss...." thing that you do when you basically want to cry but cannot. He was also carrying out a futile attempt to push his big toenail back on to his toe, although we did not realize this at the time. Peter Griffin can demonstrate for us:
He signaled for us to wait, ending our debate and made his way back around to us. We thought he was fine but for the rest of the trip, every few steps we would see a blood spot on the rocks, mud, and bamboo ladders that we had yet to traverse. Goddamn, that must have hurt.
We continued onward, the guide insisting he was fine - not that there was really any choice, we were literally in the middle of nowhere.
Next came the most relaxing part of the trip, the big boulders became fewer and further between and we began to float (with the assistance of the child's floaty) down long stretches of the river, which was now totally enclosed by the canyon walls. This was absolutely sublime with the peacefulness accompanied by by waterfalls crashing down off the canyon cliffs and sparrows flitting overhead.
We made our way back to the villages through the jungle, where we were told by our original guide/driver that he had never seen anyone make it back that quickly. He may say this to everyone but it still made me feel like Chris and Amy - 1, every other tourist - 0. We said our goodbyes and thanks to the guides and returned home exhausted, sore, and eternally grateful to the river and cave gods for letting up pass through their realm unscathed.