Spelunking in Papua New Guinea's Most Mysterious Caves
A journey across demon-toothed mountains, volcanic beaches and pitch-black tunnels leads to the dark recesses of Papua New Guinea's deepest caves, chasms that have inspired legends and horror stories. Story and photographs by IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER.
Published on Mar 10, 2016
"WE GET ASKED IF WE KNOW WHERE the caves are all the time," says Anne Bedford, a local official from the district where the abyss in question, the Esa'ala Caves, are located. James Cameron's 3-D thriller, Sanctum, released in 2011, is to blame. It's the story of extreme divers exploring the caves in the southeast corner of Papua New Guinea. When a flash flood seals their exit, they risk their lives to find an escape through subterranean rivers out to sea.
Desk at Esa'ala Station.
Oddly enough, Sanctum was filmed, not in PNG, but in Mexico and Australia. Still, it created a buzz around the Esa'ala Caves that hasn't let up.
Yet to the best of anyone's knowledge, no outsider has ventured into the Esa'ala Caves. Enter Waiyaki Nemani of Villink Tours (+675 7005 5624; email@example.com) who, as the first operator in the district, is the go-to man for the caves. As his very first customer, my visit is a fact-finding mission of the real-life Esa'ala Caves.
IT TAKES ME TWO DAYS TO REACH Esa'ala from Sydney. The journey culminates in a knuckle-clenching hour in an underpowered fiberglass-bottom boat fighting its way through choppy seas to Sewa Bay on Normanby Island.
Hidden by a ring of mist-shrouded mountains that locals say bear "the high and sharp teeth of demons," Sewa Bay is an equatorial ark with one of the world's greatest concentrations of avifauna. Surveyors have identified 410 species such as parrots, lorikeets, honeyeaters, doves and birds of paradise with regal headdresses that emit melodious cries for which no words exist.
My drop-off point is Sibonai Guest House (firstname.lastname@example.org), a homestay nestled in a rain-forest clearing. It's home for guide Nemani, whose knowledge of the caves, like so many things in PNG, is wrapped in misty supposition.
Sibonai Guest House in Sewa Bay.
"The scene in the movie where they abseil into a giant hole in the ground—that could be a crater people say is on top of Oya Tabu mountain on Fergusson Island, west of here," Nemani tells me. "But no one has ever been because it's sacred. We believe if you go beyond the tree line, you will die." Conditions are harsh; high winds make walking up impossible. The only way is to fly—which also seems like a bad idea. "Years ago, a pilot tried and his plane disappeared," Nemani tells me. "People say the plane got sucked into a hole in the ground."
WE CHARTER A BOAT TO Normanby's north coast, which is honeycombed with caves. Three hours later we moor at a black volcanic beach where a wrinkled old man followed by half a dozen naked children emerges from the jungle to greet us. His name is Stalek Manus, chief of Awalai, a hardscrabble hamlet behind the beach. Further back, Nemani says, is a flooded cave system with a dramatic swim-through to the ocean like in Sanctum.
We follow Manus down a bush track that leads to a jagged coral wall. There he shows us a gap in the wall that opens to a dark cavern. The only way in is by walking tightrope-style over a flimsy log threaded through the gap in a 45-degree angle. Crab-walking down it requires nerves of steel, though a village kid tailing us scurries down the log with the dexterity of a goat.
Starlik Manus in the cave at Awalai Village.
Once inside, we crawl on all fours through a narrow, pitch-black tunnel. If seawater were to rush in per Sanctum, life would imitate art and we'd all be sealed in a watery grave. Nature has the upper hand, and like the character Frank McGuire says in the film: "We're bits of dust passing through." It's spooky to say the least. Yet my fear is replaced by anger when I catch my foot on a rock and trip, breaking my camera. When I stand up, I hit my temple against a stalactite. The pain is exquisite.
I thank my lucky stars when the tunnel ends at a platform jutting over a cavern pierced with shards of light. Below us lies a swirl of translucent blue and a submerged swim-through. The sound of crashing waves tells me the ocean isn't far.
I jump into the water and paddle up to the swim-through, trying to divine if I can hold my breath long enough to reach the other side. The more I think about it, the less inclined I am to try. So, throwing caution to the wind, I push myself underwater and swim for my life. It takes about 20 seconds to pass under the obstacle and breach the surface of the ocean. There, like the sole survivor at the end of Sanctum, I am greeted by absolute blueness—blue water, blue sky, blue as a sign of salvation.
The Esa'ala Caves haven't been explored enough yet to be anointed the world's largest or most inaccessible. But there in the darkness, the cave felt both oppressively small and infinitely big, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, more caves in the system left to discover. It is inspiring, daunting, humbling. We’re just bits of dust passing through.