There were no tours that day, and all I had to go on was an Internet post that said “Go to the cave. It’s behind the church.” Sure, why not? We walked down the island’s only road and found the church easy enough. The door was open, and inside was a smattering of Catholicism, with broken panes of stained glass, and an intricately carved altar depicting a large man struggling under the weight of the ceremony. As instructed, we headed behind the church.
We were first greeted by a man in shorts and flip flops. He was not smiling. Every 10 seconds he would yell ‘paella’ which was odd since the residents of the Loyalty Islands speak French. 10AM was a bit early for lunch, so I tried to ignore him and head down the path mysterious marked “cave”—in English, but his shouts of “paella’ grew stronger. And then I noticed he was holding a gun.
This “gun” of his was made of plastic, and it was obvious that he had bitten off the orange “not really a gun” safety mechanism. Still, his eyes were completely devoid of welcome. Fortunately, someone who spoke English came up and said ‘You pay here.” Ahh. Paella means “Paya Here.” After negotiating some bizarre currency conversions, I managed to get by them for about $4.15 US. There was nothing indicating that this was an official transaction, and it may have simply been the toughest gang in the area extracting their tax, but we were in no position to demand non-existent rights.
So down the path we went. As there was nothing commercial about this, our expectations were pretty low. We’d probably end up at a hole in a rock, where if we were lucky we could climb around a bit. We were wrong.
After crossing a narrow path, we came to an overlook. Somehow, we’d managed to gain quite a bit of altitude since we got off the ship, though none us remember climbing anymore than the small hill by the dock. And yet, we could look over the edge and see down at least 100 feet.
Further down the path we learned why. We weren’t heading for a cave… we were heading for a cenote. This is a sinkhole formed in dissolving limestone, and it’s a feature associated with Mexico more than the South Pacific.
After a final push through the foliage we saw it, a large deep bowl hundreds of feet across, with a very rough path descending into its depths. A limp, wet rope showed us the way.
It’s at this point that some of us began to have doubts, for who goes down, must come up, and this was a very steep affair. Still, we carefully stepped and slipped down the rock, surrounded by limestone cliffs covered with vines, bromeliads, unidentified flowers and the occasional lizard. I noticed that more people were going down than were coming up, which seemed ominous.
At the bottom we reached a feature found in most caves: the “fat man’s misery.” Holding on to whatever gear we had, we sidled through the rocks like careful crabs and found yet more stairs, but these led into the dark. We had apparently found “the cave.”
The legend of this cave mentions a “leap of faith.” Other than a firm shelf, the cave is completely filled with water. Still water. Still, black water. Without light, you can’t see below the surface at all. And our instructions were to jump, if we dared.
Fortunately for us, someone at some point installed a light directly over the water. It’s source of power was as much as mystery as the water itself, but it did allow me to see at least 14 feet into the completely clear water. It would be safe to jump if one was careful.
The group looked at me. “Are you going to do it?” I walked to the edge and looked down. There were some jagged rocks directly below me, but they could be easily avoided. The water was very deep, and unlikely to harbor any life. So, I decided to ignore all my fears and jump.
The initial shock of cold water wasn’t that bad, in fact it felt nice after climbing down the cenote, but I noted something that didn’t give me any comfort at all: the water was fresh, not salt. That means i was swimming in an untreated pool of water that many other tourists had visited. I was treading water in a disease vector.
I decided that was enough of a dip, and headed to the side, only to realize that there were no stairs out—just a worn rope. I did have enough upper body strength to haul myself out, but it wasn’t hard to imagine a scenario where someone would be stuck in this clear, deep, pool.
With me safe on land, a few others jumped in and some spent quite a bit of time there. It was rather pleasant, until the other tourists found the spot and it became too crowded. Damp and exhilarated, we left the cave and started the climb up to the land.
On board the ship that afternoon, I googled “Lifou” and “cenote” and discovered an article called “Death Cenote of Lifou.” But the death wasn’t for us, it was for a mysterious group of Nautilus shells found at the bottom in the 19th century. These are saltwater creatures; what were they doing in a freshwater pond? Did someone just toss them in there? The answer is a bit stranger… they were trapped there when the cave lost its access to the sea. Radiocarbon dating shows the shells are all about 700 years old, and they had lain on the bottom for six hundred years perfectly preserved.
This was the highlight of the trip for me, and though it seems unlikely that I’ll ever get back to Lifou, my memories, like the nautilus shells, are perfectly preserved. If you see a sign with the word “cave” pointing down a dark path, you should probably follow it. That way lies wonder (and possibly death.)
(Some music from bensound.com)