The Millennium Cave Tour is an absolute-must for anyone visiting Espiritu Santo. It’s an all-day tour with a pick-up from your accommodation at around 8am and you will arrive back at around 4pm. While the cave tour does require a level of fitness, being sure-footed is invaluable.
Our guide was the grandson of the chief who discovered the caves. The story he told me is that one day his grandfather was out ‘hunting wild beasts’ when he discovered the caves on land owned by his village. In 1997 he took his grandson to the caves and believing this could be a tourism attraction, they spent the next three years building a track to the caves, through the caves and back to their village.
The tour opened in 2000 and was accordingly named, The Millennium Cave Tour.
On our first night at Barrier Beach House, I was studying a map of Santo where some of the Island’s attractions were listed. Shane was pouring me a pre-dinner drink and I told him we definitely wanted to do the cave tour. He said, ‘Can I make a suggestion? I’d recommend you do the cave tour sooner rather than later as it hasn’t rained for a few weeks and if it does rain, you can’t do the tour’.
We had thought of having a ‘lay-day’ for the first day of our holiday but we took Shane’s advice and he booked us onto the tour for the very next day. And we are so glad he did because on that day the rain began and it didn’t stop for the rest of our holiday. Many others who arrived at the Beach House with high hopes were unfortunately not able to visit the caves and they were shattered.
The tour costs around $80.00/adult and less for children. You need to provide our own lunch so the girls at the Beach House made us up some baguettes and bottled water. Wear a swimsuit with something like shorts and a tee-shirt over the top as you will be getting wet and a bit dirty, especially if you slip and fall in the mud! A light backpack with sunscreen, insect repellant and a go-pro camera is about all you’ll need to take with you.
Bright and early we were picked up in a Hilux which is one of about two types of cars you will see on Santo. The kids were very happy to ride in the back seated on a wooden plank while Drew and I took the more comfy option.
We were driven into Luganville where we went to the tour office. This is a community business where all profits go back into the Vunaspef Village on the site of the cave. The day’s activities were explained to us and we signed a very casual (by Australian standards) consent form and then it was back into the Hilux.
The drive to the first village took around 45-minutes and was on a dirt road full of pot holes so the car traveled slowly. We were heading up into the hills and the scenery was stunning. Santo is densely covered in vegetation and is very, very green.
We arrived at a village that appeared deserted but that’s because it was Sunday morning and everyone was in church. Arabella needed to visit the bathroom and was shown to an out-house behind the hen house where there was just a hole in the ground. Nearly collapsing from the visual impact, the odour and the flies, she said, ‘I can’t go in there mum, I can’t, I can’t’. One can always find a tree to squat behind if that is the preferred option.
We needed to get to the Vunaspef Village and as there isn’t a road, this journey is done on-foot and takes around 40-minutes. At one point you walk across a bridge that is made from bamboo logs that haven’t been secured so they twist and turn. It’s quite slippery so we found holding on to the handrail and crossing one at a time to be the best way forward.
Even though it hadn’t rained for a couple of weeks we found the ground to be very wet and slippery; maybe it had rained in the night or maybe the tree canopy is so dense, the sunshine doesn’t dry out the ground. The walk to the village has some stunning scenery and walking through the rainforest is incredible.
At the village we were shown into the meeting house where the cave tour was explained to us and we were fitted with life jackets. The village has some budget accommodation available and we met some people who stayed there and they said while the facilities were very basic, it was amazing to be able to experience a way of life that has remained the same for centuries.
We were very grateful to have the chief’s grandson as one of our guides as his knowledge of the area was vast and his English pretty good. We had two guides for the five of us. The guides (all native to the village) take people on these tours around four times a week. They are extremely sure-footed and as fit and lean as Olympians. They either were in bare feet or wore a pair of thongs. They are very used to Westerners in all our glorious clumsiness and they seem to be there just when you need them as they reach out a hand to steady a wobbling whitey.
I did ask our guide if he noticed a difference between villagers and Westerners and he said, ‘mostly white people do okay but sometimes when they get to the caves they become like children and need to be helped’. With everything that was within me, I was determined not to regress into a child-like state.
The journey to the caves takes around 90-minutes. There are two rest stops along the way where you can stop to admire the view, take photos and have some water and there are some basic amenities, (BYO toilet paper).
Along the way our guide pointed out animal life and plant life and explained which plants not to touch because they can give you a rash or because they have spikes etc.
When we had neared the cave, we stopped to have our faces painted. All visitors to the cave have their faces painted in an ochre substance out of respect for the caves. Once we were painted-up we then handed our backpacks and accessories to the porters who would carry them via a different route to the lunch spot. As this point if you do want to continue taking photos you will need a waterproof camera and the best type would be a go-pro as it can be strapped to you leaving your arms to steady yourself through the cave.
We were all given a small torch and we headed down to the cave. The walk through the cave takes around 40-minutes. Obviously it is pitch black so to light the way, you do need your torch. You walk through water that is about knee-deep at least and have to step on rocks that are sometimes slippery and sometimes ‘on the move’. And if the water has been stirred up, you can’t see the bottom so you don’t know the depth of your next step nor what you’ll be putting your foot on. This is where the guides are excellent at looking out for you, anticipating difficulties and being there for assistance.
Inside the cave we saw a lot of bats and swallows. There are plenty of swallow’s nests and they all seemed to be filled with baby swallows that had just hatched. The roof of the cave would be about 50mtrs above you as you walk through.
Once through to the other side, we sat on either sides of the stream and had lunch. You don’t have to worry about being wet because even if it’s raining, it’s very warm so you’re not cold. We rested for about 20-minutes while watching the local village children throw themselves off boulders and into the water and then it was time for the canyoning.
The canyoning to the river takes about 30-minutes and is quite tricky. At one point I had to squeeze myself between two boulders and so I don’t know how Drew made it through without getting stuck. There are some ropes to pull you along and the guides are there to show you where to put your feet so you don’t become tangled.
The canyoning leads to the river and for most people this next stage is the highlight of the day’s activities. You throw yourself into the river which is freshwater with a refreshing temperature of around 25C. Fitted with a life jacket you bob up and down and the gentle current takes you down the river.
The river is fairly narrow and on both sides the land shoots up vertically to an incredible height so that way above you you can just see a thin narrow strip of sky.
At one stage you pass under a waterfall where you can stop to stand underneath it and have one of those pounding water massages.
A favourite part of being in the river was where you pull yourself out of the water and climb up some large boulders. The guides will take your life jacket from you and then you throw yourself into the water – and not so elegantly too! The guides then show you how it’s done with a display of impressive dives and back flips.
After the river experience, it’s then a vertical climb back to the top. If by now you’re a little tired, this is where you’ll have to call on your reserves because it’s a steep climb and it involves climbing handmade ladders that Drew wondered if they could sustain his weight, and then pulling yourself up vertical dirt slopes with a rope. Over and over and over again.
Once at the top there is the walk back to the village. We did this part of the journey during a torrential downpour which we all found very refreshing. Our guide pointed out the village vegetable garden where everything is grown naturally and organically.
At the village we were invited into the meeting house where the local women had prepared afternoon tea for us. After washing our hands we were offered platters of fresh fruit including grapefruits that had no bitterness or acidity and were wonderfully sweet.
In the meeting house there’s an opportunity to purchase items made by the women of the village and the money is used to put the children through school. Drew bought a sarong for about $12.00 and a hat for about the same price.
With the money that has been raised through the cave tour and the selling of souvenirs, the village has been able to start the Millennium School that provides education for all the village children. It costs around $1,000/year to send a child to school but with income being a tenth of the average Australian income, many parents cannot afford to send their children to school. Here is a village that has created one of Santo’s top tourism attractions with all monies raised going back into their community to pay for the education of its children.
After the rest-stop I thought we just had to hop into the Hilux and be driven back to the Beach House but alas, I had forgotten about the walk back to the other village. It took about 40-minutes to walk through the rainforest and back to the village where I was very grateful to be able to climb into a car and have someone drive me back to our accommodation.
A day on the Millennium Cave Tour has to be on your must-do list when visiting Santo. Yes, it’s strenuous but also exhilarating. And you will sleep well that night.
Here’s a very short video of the little guy jumping into the river…
Verdict: An absolute must.
Millennium Cave Tours: Vunaspef Village, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu