“Did you see the skeleton of the white man?” Alexander asks me. “No” I reply, “What White man?” Alexander replies “One of your soldiers from the war. This was one of their bases here.” Sitting on the deck of the boat with the sun passing over the mountain that swallows the end of the bay, Alexander, one of the elders of the nearby village of Mapuia begins his story. A few years ago, some local boys were playing in the bush and discovered a cave on the side of the hill. Discovering a cave here on Cape Nelson is about as significant as finding a rock on the ground. As we would soon find out, the volcanic fingers of land that jut out into the ocean off Cape Nelson are covered with caves as if the land was built out of a block of Swiss cheese. Upon entering the newly discovered cave, the boys discovered a skeleton, complete with military helmet and a few remaining pieces of his clothing. Since arriving in this part of the Pacific, we have heard many stories about local villagers finding bones of a soldier while digging in their gardens. One man even told us about how they found the man’s dog tags and contacted the U.S. government. They were even able to coordinate the return of his remains to his family for a proper burial back home. Hearing that there were remnants of an American Soldier in a nearby cave, we thought it would be a great idea to do some exploring and find out more. We were leaving in the morning, but heading just to the other side of the mountain. Alexander assured us that the people from the village on the opposite side of the bay would know about his bones and could lead us to the cave.
The next day we set sail for Afati bay, just a few miles sail out of one fijord and around the point to another. As usual, we were greeted by every villager who could get his hands on a canoe. After making the rounds of handing out pencils and lollies to all of the children, we started talking to three brothers and their uncle. “Do you know where the cave with the bones of the soldier is?” I said to one of them. “Soldier?” he responded, “What Soldier?” After explaining to him the story that Alexander had told us the evening before, he then realized what we were talking about. His name was John and he told us that he knew where the cave was. After asking how far it was, his only response was “Not far, it is just there.” Hearing this response many times before, the best timeline we could get out of him for the distance of the hike to the cave was that it was less than an hour s walk which sounded great to all of us thinking we could have a nice morning hike before setting sail for our next destination. Before sending everyone away so that we could relax for a few minutes to cook dinner, John agreed to meet us at 8:00 the next morning to take us on the hike.
Awaking at sunrise, Bill and I sat on deck sipping coffee; the canoes began to show up. We could see them on the horizon like an armada of war canoes going into battle. Fortunately that wasn’t the case; they just wanted to see the sailing boat. Amongst our 6:00 a.m. visitors was our tour guide for the day, John who on top of being our guide had assured us that the bay was safe to swim in and that their were not any crocodiles here and that if there were, they of course wouldn’t eat people. In the middle of a sip of coffee, I noticed something nearby moving in the water. I pulled the binoculars out to see a crocodile swimming across the water in a nearby area where some fish had previously been jumping. A few people from the village asked what I was looking at and I said “There is a crocodile over there.” They laughed and said that it was just fish jumping. Having seen plenty of crocodiles swimming in the water on this trip, I assured them that this was a small crocodile. While watching the small crocodile swim one direction, another broke the surface that was about three times the size! At this point, everyone realized that yes there was a crocodile nearby and it was pretty damn big! All of the children went into a panic and started screaming. The parents were yanking them out of the smaller canoes and up onto the big platforms of the larger ones. All kinds of panic and terror fled through them. With terrified looks still upon everyone’s faces, the crocodile disappeared beneath the surface. It was interesting to see that the people here were afraid of crocodiles. Many times while traveling I have noticed local children swimming on one side of the bay while I looked to the other side to see a crocodile basking in the sun. Until that moment, I had decided that they really weren’t afraid of them nor did they believe that they could ever be bitten. With the crocodile still somewhere beneath the surface, I was more concerned for all of their lives than they were. To them, if you can’t see the crocodile, it surely can’t be anywhere nearby, much less dangerous!
With John in the Dinghy and the clock still not having reached eight, we all headed towards the shallow mangroves where we were to tie up the boat while hiking up the hill to see the soldier. John led the way, but not being able to afford his own Machete, he used his hands to break branches and move bush out of the way to clear a path for us. Watching the slow process, I had decided that this could be a long day. Ten minutes passed and we were at the base of a cliff with caves covering it’s side. John pointed up and informed us we were there. The ten minute trip was a lot shorter walk than we were expecting.
Climbing up the roots of trees growing off the side of the hill, we pulled ourselves up to a small ledge where there lay a skull, part of a shoulder blade and one of the bones from an arm. It was pretty apparent that the bones had fallen down from one of the caves above. After asking John about it, he said that “There are many more bones.” Bill and I are always up for an adventure so we began the climb up while Monica and Michal didn’t like the looks of the crumbling route up to the second cave and thought it a better idea to stay down below. Following John a short ways up the cliffside, we pulled ourselves up over roots and rocks until we reached the next ledge. Peering over the ledge, we could see that just inside the cave was a pile of skulls. As we ventured further in, we discovered a lot of loose dirt with plenty more bones scattered upon the ground. This obviously wasn’t the soldier’s grave that we were looking for. When we asked John whose bones these were, he responded that he had no idea. A local teenage boy had discovered them while playing in the nearby caves. There are apparently hundreds of these skull caves throughout the islands here and no one knows who is buried there or where they came from. It would be an archeologists dream to be able to explore one of these caves and see what lurks beneath the surface.
With the hike to the cave being so short, we asked John if there were any other trails nearby or anywhere else that he could show us to have a look. He told us about a big cave that was not too far away but it was a pretty difficult hike to get there. Being cooped up on a boat and not doing much walking, we were all eager to get a good workout on our legs and press on for a while. With John fighting his way through the bush to make a path, we all followed behind, constantly tripping on the vines covering the ground and the roots of the trees that had criss crossed over most of the exposed rocks. We made a steep climb followed by a small decent to the lip of a gorge covered in tropical forests. John pointed far down below to a large opening in the wall identifying the cave. I think our guide wasn’t really sure about how fit most of us were and had no intention of climbing down the steep and slippery side of the gorge. It was covered in loose rock and when we asked him to take us down he simply responded “Are you sure you can make it?”
After a couple of steps down, Bill and I stepped over an obviously loose rock. Michal didn’t seem to notice and stepping right on it, managed to send it careening down the side of the hill. “Look out!” I yelled to John but the rock was traveling to fast. After a small thud on John’s rear end, the rock made it’s way past and rolled to the bottom of the gorge. John looked up with a big smile and yelled “its ok, no problem!” Thank god it only hit him in the ass! That rock could have easily killed someone landing on their head from that height! Thinking of his wife, Michal decided that he and Monica would wait up top while Bill and I climbed further down.
The climb down turned out to not be too bad once you got past the first bit of loose rock. Alongside John, Bill and I emerged into the bottom of a gorge that was stunningly beautiful. If it were raining, I think it would have been a pretty dangerous place to be. The cliffside was slick from a waterfall that forms when it rains and you could see enormous chunks of rock that had broken off the side of the hill scattering the sides of the stream that led down the hill below. We walked over to the cave and fearlessly went inside. Looking up at the ceiling, I pointed to a round whole in the rock and told John and Bill about how that would have been formed by bats. “Bats?” John asked, “You want to see bats? Hold on, there are many bats in this cave.” Looking in further, Bill and I began to make out the shapes of the bats that were grasping the ceiling. Behind us we heard John shouting and we turned around to see him reentering the cave, carrying a stick and shouting foreign words in his local language.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by bats, confused at who had woken them up during the daylight hours. Bats flew by in every direction and the sound of their wings thundering throughout the cave reminded me of a loose sail flapping in the wind. Some of the bats flew out of the cave immediately while others circled our heads, coming close to slamming into us. Quickly pulling out my camera in hopes of snapping just one good shot, I began firing off photo after photo. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they were all moving way to fast for my little point and shoot digital camera and rather than digging out the slr, I decided to just sit back and enjoy the show. Some bats were small while others had wingspans the height of a man. Many clutched babies beneath them as they flew out of the cave searching for a safer refuge. With Bill and I amazed at the spectacle before us we asked John if he ate the bats. “No, but do you want me to kill one for you?” he asked. Without the chance to respond John leaped to the entrance of the cave and frantically began swinging the stick at the bats as they flew past him. Stunned and confused, Bill and I weren’t sure how to react to the sight before us. Here we are, not even ten in the morning and we are in the middle of a cave with bats rushing out and a man with a stick trying to kill one so that we can eat it. Simultaneously Bill and I ask John to stop and tell him that we don’t require him to kill a bat for us. John just laughs a little and says ok. I think he was a bit dissappointed that he didn’t get the pleasure of impressing the white men by whacking one of the bats down with his stick.