Monday, August 9, 2010

Vaikona Cave - Extreme Exploration

Vaikona Cave - Niue - South Pacific

The other day we rented a car with Rod and Elizabeth on Proximity and explored the island. It was an awesome day including Togo Chasms, Limu Pools and most of the other attractions on Niue we hadn't gotten to yet. We also went on a REALLY cool hike towards Vaikona Cave. We ignored the "Dangerous - Guided Only" sign as we had heard the hike was very doable, but stopped at the cave entrance with the "Dangerous - Falling Rocks" sign. The cave was steep, somewhat slippery, and we hadn't heard one way or the other how doable it was, plus we had heard conflicting reports on what to expect inside. We continued on the path down to the ocean (VERY COOL) and really enjoyed the hike overall, only getting off trail once, and quickly found our way again. We started asking around and got the skinny from Willie who owns the Washaway Cafe and Crazy Uga Cafe as well as a fishing business (very go get-em guy). He drew us a map and said we "couldn't get lost" - never as reassuring as it sounds. The couple on Quartermoon had been partway in and suggested a rope and climbing harness if we had one.

Today Bill, Rod, Elizabeth, and myself (Gram) headed back - mom smartly decided this wasn't for her. The hike in was enjoyable again and a bit faster this time. The trail is marked with red arrows in trees, but it isn't too hard to loose the path, so keep a keen eye out for the markers (Elizabeth is excellent at this). Also, there are many spiderwebs so a "swizzle stick", i.e a stick held in front of you at head height is rather helpful to clear the way. I have been told there are no dangerous spiders on Niue, but they are rather large. We got to the cave in about 30-40 mins, but it probably took us an hour or more the first time as we stopped to admire the scenery more. The entrance to the cave is just to the left of the danger sign, slightly after you can look down into the open hole.

First a bit of a warning for those following in our footsteps. I would not suggest this cave to just anybody. You have to be fit, and a bit of rock climbing/bouldering experience will really help. Elizabeth decided it wasn't for her and Rod stayed to keep her company. Bill struggled greatly, but I was able to coach him through the climb. I am by no means a climber, but I have gone to a rock gym a few times and am comfortable trusting my life on a rope. We brought a 25m line (30m would have been better) and a climbing harness. I do not have a descender so used 3 wraps on a caribeaner and ascenders would have made getting back up much easier and safer. It is certainly possible to do the climb with the ropes in the cave, but a secondary longer rope made it much easier. I didn't use the harness or caribeaners, but did use the 25m line to lower myself down the face and pull myself back up.

Here is my map of the cave system:

I will also host this file in our documents section (link on the right) for download.

When you enter the cave you have to almost crab walk under the overhang (especially if you have a pack on as I did). After that you come to the first slope which does get a little slick if wet, but isn't too bad. You can climb to the left and it is much better. About 15 feet from the entrance I found a nice rock to tie my line onto. This helped to get down the next steeper slope. There is a yellow line to help with the steepest portion of this face, but I tied on about 5 feet higher on the slope and it was helpful, but not necessary. From there you can get yourself down to plateau and prepare for the real climb. Just about anyone can get to this point and you get a nice view of the large cavern with lots of plants and moss and fairly good light.

From the plateau you will see a knotted pink line that runs down a face and then spans a gap and is tied around a large rock. There is also a vertical line way over to the left but getting there is hard and then you have to lower or raise yourself without any rock wall put your feet on for help (think high school gym class). This rock face is quite slippery so you pretty much have to trust the rope (and/or your rope)and belay yourself down. Once down the face, you must turn and bridge the narrow gap to the rock the pink line is tied around. This rock is not slippery at all and has lots of good handholds so traversing across it is not too difficult especially with the pink line tied around it to use for purchase.

Once around the large rock with the rope you must scurry across several moss covered, wet, slippery rocks to get to the first pool. It seemed the best route was to stay left along the wall and stay as low as possible. At least here there was not very far to fall. Careful crab-walking gets this done fine and you will then find yourself at the edge of the first pool. There are some nice photographic vantage points from here and it is quite pretty. We left our bags, camera and t-shirts and donned our masks and flashlights (torches) as well as our dive camera for the journey to the center of the earth.

The first pool is a nice swim. Slightly brackish water temp was about 72ish degrees, not too cold, but chillier than the ocean. The first swim through is easy, just 1 foot down, and 2 feet to get problem at all. This puts you into a large, dark (one minor source of light in an upper corner) cave. There is a large rock in the middle of the cave. Directions from Willy were to look to the left to find the swim through. We explored this area left of the rock greatly and found nothing, so went to the right of the rock and found a way through. It does appear that you could climb up and over to the 3rd pool by going to the left of the rock and climbing up through a narrow gap. This looked fairly difficult and would likely result in some scrapes. The swim through to the right is fairly difficult.

As you approach the end of the channel on the right it terminates in a underwater crack just large enough to swim up or down through, but not with a lot of clearance. The swim through is under that and then down further under a fairly deep and large rock. I took 3 tries of going down, and back up, going further each time before I was sure this was a valid swim-through with air on the other side. I would not suggest even thinking about this swim through unless you can hold your breath for over 1 minute. It is probably 1.5 meters deep and 2 meters long. Getting down isn't so hard as the water is almost fresh and you can pull yourself along with your hands pretty well, but it is a long swim and the passageway is narrow at the beginning (just to get down, then it is wide open. This swim through will land you in the 3rd cave, much smaller than the first two with a decent amount of natural light, but not tons (photos still need a flash, but you can see without a flashlight. 4 people would fill this and the 4th cave up pretty well.

From there it is a very shallow and easy swim through to cave number 4 which is quite dark and also fairly small. Here we probably saw the best stalactites and stalagmites and other cool formations. I took some photos here (see smiling fools to the left) but we were starting to get a bit cold so we started back. In the 3rd cave we had a bit of hard time finding the swim through back to cave number 2. I dove down to find it, swam along and then surfaced. It didn't look quite right, but I cam up and yelled to Bill, "I'm Through!" as we had been doing to keep the other appraised, only to have him say "No Your Not!" right behind me...Oops. Second try solved the problem and I cam up through the narrow crack about 3 feet below the surface no problem. My light then guided Bill in the right direction for his dive.

The last swim through back is quite spectacular due to the lighting in cave number 1 and the crystal clear, bluish water. We yelled to Rod and Elizabeth that we were back so they could stop worrying. We climbed out, dried off, scampered back across the mossy rocks and I gave Bill the climbing harness back to put on. I climbed back around the rock with the pink rope tied around it then had to make the faith move using the pink line to hold my weight and turn putting my left foot across the gap onto the slippery wall. I could then grab the line we placed and using both lines for stability was able to swing my right foot across so I was now on the face of the cave entrance. Using our line I was able to climb up the slippery face. This is difficult as it is hard to get a good foot hold, but not horrible. When in doubt stay left as the rock is sticker there and there seem to be more edges to get a foot hold on. I was then able to use the pink line to finish the face and got myself onto the plateau to the left along the wall of the cave.

Now it was Bill's turn. He climbed around the first rock fine but struggled with approaching the face backwards and making the step across the gap. He tried frontwards a bit, but that didn't work well. He finally made the mental leap to trust his weight on the pink rope and made the step across. At this point he grabbed our line and clipped into the caribeaner with two wraps to act as a belay device. Now he was at least safe and was able to make the step across with his second foot using both lines as well to steady his rotation. He then pretty much pulled himself up with his arms as he didn't have the technique down to get as good a grip on the face. He joined me on the plateau and we were home free. The climb up from there is easy enough with the permanent ropes and with our extra line was quite easy. I coiled our line up as I went, untied it from the rock and we were ready for a quick snack before heading back out the trail to the car, skipping the ocean part this time.

All told it took us over 5 hours, probably 1.5 hours of that was coaching Bill down the rock face into the first cave, but it is still a lengthy trip so leave plenty of time to enjoy it. Time in the water was about 20 mins and hiking was probably 1.25 hours total. We took our time to be careful and safe as you are far from any help with no good way to get there if you get hurt. It was probably the most extreme adventure I have ever had and was a real rush as well as gorgeous and relaxing at the same time. It was also cool to think about how few people on the island, let along the world had ever been in that 4th cave.

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