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The Adventure of the Millennium in Vanuatu

The Millennium Cave Tour in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu is a 4 in 1 Adventure proving it's possible to have fun and do some good at the same time.

Four in One

Although I have good tread on my shoes, that counts for nothing when they are caked in mud. I go skid-sliding down the steep slope that’s jutted with rocks, tree roots and plants that sting if you grab them. Strangely, I’m wearing a life jacket for protection on this mountain trek.

Well, the trek is only the first of this 4-in-1 odyssey into the Vanuatu highlands that takes in trekking, caving, canyoning and a well-earned swim. Actually, the swim is more of a necessity than a refresher. My guide, Charlie, explains the trip used to only be a 3-in-1 but they decided to start swimming people out of the cave after the tourists found it too hard to climb back up this 45-degree mud slick. The locals can do it in their flip-flops.

And then we are in the cave. A cathedral-like space with light filtering in from an opening in the top and the side. It’s a Jules Verne moment: lush green tropical plants live on the rim of darkness by filtered sun and dripping water; birds flitter amongst the stalactites. The sound of water rushing over rocks deep in the cave is amplified by the cavern. As we go further in the light disappears to pitch and we have to rely on our flashlights and feeling our way through the stream with our feet. Charlie stops regularly to show me the stalagmites and animals that live in the cave. There are creatures here I’ve never seen before, like the small wall-crawling crustacean and miniature bats. We turn off our flashlights and the darkness closes in. Charlie wonders aloud how the birds find their way in the dark. It’s a mystery to both of us.

After lunch on the riverbank there’s more fun rock-hopping in the ‘canyoning’ section then we fasten our life jackets again for the 45 minute swim out which is actually more of a idle float through a soaring gorge. The swim is broken up by our having to portage ourselves around the rapids. In heavy rain, parts of the swim and canyoning aren’t possible and alternate routes need to be navigated. Charlie points out, meters above, how high the water flow can reach. But this is the dry season, so we wade in waist deep water and we swim over seemingly bottomless pools.

Its a decent slog. You need a reasonable level of fitness and sure-footedness to navigate the rough, slippery tracks through mud and over boulders. The pegs, ropes and ladders here might be a bit homespun, but that’s part of the ramble, and the guides genuinely care that everyone has a good experience.

Learning from a Local

On the trek back through the bush, Charlie continues my education, stopping regularly to point out the plants they use for medicine, construction and food. Almost everything used or eaten in the village comes from the plants here. What doesn’t grow natively they cultivate in the village garden: taro, cabbage, peanuts – all the staples you see at the local market are planted sequentially to ensure a year-round supply.

Charlie is a Francophile. In Vanuatu that means he was educated in a French-speaking school. There seems no rhyme or reason to why people choose one school over another. Sometimes it's proximity but often parents will have children in both French and English speaking schools. Charlie tells me he has 3 kids, 2 are in Francophile schools and one in an Anglophile.

The dual language school system is a hangover of the former dual French-English colonial rule. The NiVan people themselves speak Bislama as a common language and villagers speak local indigenous languages amongst themselves. There can be several local languages on any one island making your average villager conversant in half a dozen different languages.

A village business

On the drive home I find myself privileged to be in the presence of a chief. This is a village business. The chief's son, Charlie is my guide and his brother Pierre is our driver and the people of Vunaspef are the custom landowners of the cave. Charlie explains to me how one day their father, the chief, decided they could make the cave into a tourist attraction, potentially making money for the village. So he travelled across the ocean to the capital Port Vila to find out how this could be done.

After getting the permits and equipment, training guides and clearing the track the cave trek was launched in the year 2000, giving it the "Millennium" title. 15 years later the local kids have a new school and around 30 guides are employed from 8 neighbouring villages.

Billed as a 4 in 1 Adventure of Treking, Canyoning, Caving and Swimming this full day activity actually offers much more than that. It's a chance to experience the interior highland jungle of this little known pacific island. It's also an opportunity to meet the locals, learn about their village life and connection to the forest that surrounds them. And, of course, it's a way to pay it forward as supporting this enterprise supports the entire village.

The success of the project is not just recognised in the village but also in the tourism awards it's won. The most recent being the judge's special commendation at the Westpac Vanuatu tourism awards as well as a No.1 on the increasingly influential Tripadvisor. In a country where much of the tourism is owned by foreign interests, it's great to see the bar being reset by local folk providing a uniquely local experience which benefits the local community.


Do you want to do this too?

WHAT: Millennium Cave Tour 4 in 1 Adventure

WHERE IS IT: Luganville, Santo Espiritu Island, Vanuatu

GET THERE: Flights to Luganville depart daily from Port Vila, Vanuatu's Capital and less often from Brisbane, Australia

STAY: Santo has a range of accommodation for all budgets and lots of other above ground and underwater adventures from diving WW2 relics to swimming in eerily blue holes.





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