Entering The Cave

» Posted by on Jun 25, 2012 | 12 comments

I’ve always loved the quote by Joseph Campbell that says “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek”. He was probably speaking symbolically, but last month I actually did enter a cave …and I was fearful!

I was on the island of Santo in Vanuatu and I kept hearing about a place called Millennium Cave. We were told it was an 8 hour trek and required a moderate level of fitness. I’m not particularly fit at the moment but I’m healthy and in good shape so I looked at it as another chance to widen my comfort zone. I was pretty sure I could do it even though I knew it would be a challenge.

Of course as the day got closer, the doubts started to creep in as they typically do. What if I got halfway through and couldn’t make it out? What if I was the first person they had to winch out by helicopter, how embarrassing would that be? The ‘what ifs’ got more outlandish as the day got closer. One technique I find useful to deal with these thoughts comes from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach which says that it’s not our thoughts and feelings that are the problem, it’s our struggle with them.

Instead of trying to rid ourselves of uncomfortable feelings, ACT practitioners believe it’s more effective to accept the feelings and commit to action regardless (a principle also practised in Japan’s Morita Therapy). So I felt the fear and did it anyway as Susan Jeffers would say. Off we went up the mountain early one morning where we were told we needed to walk through the jungle to a village where we would meet our guides who would take us to the cave. It had been raining the day before so the 20 minute walk was mostly through mud and over bridges strung together from lengths of rolling bamboo. We saw horses and goats on the way which kept me distracted from the ‘what ifs’.

Bamboo bridge

When we arrived in the village we were shown a map of the trek which was divided into four parts. A walk to the cave which would take just over an hour – doesn’t sound too bad – then a walk through the bat cave with torches – I can do that. Then lunch by the river, canyoning over some rocks – a bit of a challenge but I had my new reef shoes on so I was ready – and a float down the river – that sounded good. People who had completed the trek had told us the last section heading back to the village from the river was particularly steep but our guides didn’t mention this at all, hmmm.

Map of our adventure

None of it sounded too bad so off we headed, a group of seven with numerous guides who were all barefoot and obviously did this several times a week. Well the ‘walk’ to the cave was more like wading through quicksand – there was mud everywhere and all our attention went towards deciding where to put our feet so we didn’t go sliding down the mountainside. The guides in front had disappeared around the corner and there were people right on my heels so I didn’t get a chance to really look around and take in the beautiful surrounds we were trekking through – so much for my ‘go slow’ philosophy, it obviously wasn’t being shared by the people around me!

We had a break halfway there to have our faces painted in respect for Mother Nature who would protect us from the spirits of the cave. Passing through Millennium Cave is considered a rite of passage so we were painted with various symbols representing the bats, waterfalls, rocks and the river. Once this was done we started descending a series of ladders made from bamboo branches placed several feet apart. Each step was a long drop from the one above and sometimes rungs were broken or missing, so we had to drop down to the one below it instead. On reaching the rocky canyon near the cave entrance we needed to climb down backwards holding on to ropes which dropped down through falling water into the darkness below us.

The descent

Finally we reached the entrance to the cave that we were to ‘walk’ through. There was a current of water running through the cave, alternating from knee deep to waist deep at different points.  And inside the entrance it was pitch black. We were all handed a torch and I had no time to think about whether I really wanted to do this or not – it was time to enter the cave.

Entrance to Millennium Cave

Our guides were barefoot and walked through the current, the rocks and the dark as though they were strolling to the corner store. The rest of us stumbled over and around wet rocks by torchlight, holding on where we could, trying not to turn our ankles or fall on our faces. Our guides helped us figure out where to put our feet and this took so much concentration there was not a lot of time to really appreciate the looming 50 metre walls and hanging bats around and above us.

We made our way through the cave in this fashion for around 30 minutes until we literally saw light at the end of the tunnel. Proud of our achievement and relieved to have all made it in one piece, we sat by the river and relaxed over lunch. I think most of us thought the hardest part of the trek was over…

Down the river

Next we were issued life jackets and headed off down the river which was ankle-deep at this point. Soon we reached more rocks and huge boulders which at times required us to squeeze through tight spaces, climbing over, under and through rocks and running water, interspersed with relaxing floats down the deeper parts of the river before reaching the next pile of boulders. These floats allowed us to really look around and appreciate the amazing splendour of the towering rock walls and waterfalls on each side of us. Unfortunately our cameras were not waterproof so the guides had taken them ahead for us.


At one point, trying to step from one boulder across to another through flowing water, I slipped and fell. Our guide grabbed me and somehow hauled me back out of the current and but not before I lost a shoe. Off went my guide to retrieve it, which he did with the ease of someone walking across the street and back. After checking myself for injuries (a grazed knuckle – and I had been sure I’d been about to break a leg as I fell), catching my breath and replacing my shoe we headed off again. Finally he announced we would not be climbing over any more rocks. Wonderful I thought – my legs were quite wobbly by this point.

photo courtesy of http://rupnannie3.blogspot.com.au/

Then he pointed upwards – ‘we go there’. I looked up at what seemed to be a vertical cliff face. Off he went like a mountain goat, and we followed as best we could, using small footholds carved into the rock which were surprisingly sturdy despite the water flowing over them in spots. At times the path levelled out for a few steps through the mud and then we climbed not one, not two, but FOUR bamboo ladders, again with occasional rungs missing. Fortunately my arms weren’t as wobbly as my legs felt so I could use them to pull myself up. At one point I stopped to turn around and take in the immense valley we were climbing out of.  It was really worth the arduous journey to be able to witness such a beautiful sight that most people never get to see.

Bamboo ladder

We finally reached the top and it was an easy 15 minute walk back to the village where we all collapsed and were given tea and fruit as we took in the magnitude of the adventure we’d just completed. After we fed and patted several of the village dogs and a tiny kitten, the chief and a number of villagers accompanied us as we made our final walk back through the mud to our bus.

Millennium Cave certainly was a rite of passage, and amazingly we all emerged unscathed, obviously protected by Mother Nature as promised. This adventure was the hardest and scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I was gratified to read several internet reviews later saying much the same thing. As many people say afterwards, if I’d known just what was in store I might never have done it. But because I did it, I now know I’m capable of a lot more than I thought I was.

Now whenever I find myself thinking something is ‘too hard’, a little voice reminds me that I did the Millennium Cave trek, with all the splendour and danger and challenge of it. Joseph Campbell was right – that dark water-filled rocky cave did hold treasure. What could be more valuable than finding strength and courage you never knew you had?


  1. WOW Bravo Leanne!

    • Thanks Shona, nice to have a cheerleader :)

  2. Fantastic story Leanne I enjoyed it and felt like I was there, love the comical side you add to it too! :-)

    • Thanks Karrina – if you felt like you were there too your legs must be very sore now hehe.

  3. Phew! Well done you.

    • Thanks guys, maybe you’ll get to Vanuatu on your round the world adventure :)

  4. what a wonderful adventure, so proud of you!

    • :)

  5. Whoah. This sounds like an AMAZING experience, Leanne, and I loved reading your description of it. I’ve always had a love for the still, dark quiet inside a cave, although I’ve never been in one quite as adventurous as this.

    I’d love to visit it at some point!



    • Thanks Tanja, I hope you get to do it one day :)

  6. Wow–what an incredibly journey! I love how you’ve included Joseph Campbell here; I love his work.

    • Thanks Nancy, I love his work too :)