Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cave Adventures – Ana Kai Tangata, Ana Te Pahu and Ana Kakenga

The cave systems are a lesser known but equally intriguing attraction on Easter Island and venturing into them requires only a little agility, a big sense of adventure and a really good flashlight. The lava tube caves provided an ideal place to grow crops and fruit as the caves provided wind protection and the rain water retained and seeped through the lava rock provided an easy source of water collection for irrigation. During the time of warfare, many Rapanui took refuge in lava tubes as was evident from household items found later. They fortified the entrances and in some cases removed stones from ahus and hare paenga (houses) to help with the reinforcement. “Ana” is the indigenous word for cave. The first cave we visited was Ana Kai Tangata, located on the outskirts of Hanga Roa. A small sign just past the airport points toward the cliffs and the isolated cavern on the coast that has the island's only cave paintings. Dramatic cliffs shelter the cave from the crashing surf and hundreds of birds were swooping over our heads as we climbed down the rocky cliff to the cave. This is also known as the “cannibal cave”. However, the translation is ambiguous and it could mean “the cave where men eat” as well as “the cave where men are eaten”. It has even been suggested it means “the cave that eats men” presumably because they disappear into its black interior and die due to the turning tides and impossible high surf. However, there are many locations in Polynesia where cannibalism occurred to at least some extent; so it is possible that cannibalism took place on Easter Island and perhaps in this cave. There are also some references to cannibalism in Easter Island legend but there has never been any archaeological evidence that it actually occurred on the island. Given that the true interpretation of the name remains another mystery. Our main reason for visiting the cave are the paintings of manutara or sooty tern, the bird closely associated with the birdman cult that is the focal point in nearby Orongo. The drawings originally were painted in red, white and black pigments created by mixing volcanic dust and powdered coral with shark oil. Unfortunately, they are not well preserved and the continuous salt spray contributes to the erosion. We can see some imprints left and can still define the birds and figures painted on the rock but we can also see where layers of rock and in some cases larger chunks have fallen off. There used to be more paintings and over time there will be fewer and fewer. Leaving Ana Kai Tangata we were more than a little disappointed but could not come up with an ideal way of preserving the paintings without altering their natural state and we only hope the other caves are more interesting. Next, we visited Ana Te Pahu, “Ana” means cave, “Te” is the and “Pahu” is a Polynesian musical instrument, similar to a type of drum, so probably the indigenous name means “Cave for playing the drum”. Located almost in the center of the island, the entrance is shielded by an overgrown banana plantation as well as avocado trees and sweet potato plants. As we pushed our way through the thick banana grove, it became clear why this cave is nicknamed the “Banana Cave”. Access into the cave itself was down some fairly steep slippery lava steps and I was glad to have the guys to give me a helping hand. I was also glad to have a headlamp as it is quite dark. Once inside, the tubes open up to an enormous height although the continuous moisture from water dripping off the ceilings kept the floor slick and slippery. Watching for low hanging rocks and climbing over the lava boulders whilst being underground I realized that this adventure was not for the claustrophobic. Although there was plenty of fresh air, the cave was dank and dark, damp and desolate and I loved it! To think that people lived and thrived in these tubes was amazing. The cave was segmented into several parts and tunnels and it was obvious that this had been one of the larger dwellings. There is an actual lava tube system that leads underground from this cave several miles to the next one we will visit but it is closed off and besides, I think driving is better. Our final cave is Ana Kakenga which is also called in Spanish “Dos Ventanas” (Two Windows). I can only say that reading about the description of the cave’s entrance, “entrance to the cave is very small and interesting” and actually negotiating the entrance are two different things. Here is my more accurate description of the cave’s entrance. After approaching an extremely narrow opening, it is obvious that the only way to enter is backwards, in total darkness. Tom went in first and I followed with Mike and Mark coming after me. There are some footholds in the rock but no room to turn so searching for them is done one foot at a time whilst holding onto whatever rock surface you can. There is a low hanging rock which presses into my back and forces me to bend over more and another nasty sharp one that I have to move my head to the left to avoid. After about 7 feet (2 meters) of this, my feet hit the rock floor but I can’t stand because the roof is only about 3 feet (1 meter) high, but I can turn around and inch my way forward. It is another 15 feet (3 meters) or so before the cave suddenly expands to a huge underground system that goes on for as far as I can see. That, my friends, is the entrance to Ana Kakenga and I was feeling pretty darn pleased with myself, let me add. The central cave opens and splits into two passageways that we can see pinpoints of light at the end of them. These are the dos ventanas (two windows) that open to the sea, two tubes that the lava made millions of years ago to flow to the ocean. We walked first down the tube to our left and at the end we were rewarded with a totally amazing view. The “window” opening from the tube is about 300 feet, built into the cliffs. The drop is precipitous and the ocean crashes into the rocks below us. With the sun high in the sky, the view is incredible. I was cautious and stopped about a foot or so from the edge, as did Mark. Mike and Tom went to the very edge but we all got great views of the coastline all the way to town. We then ventured down the other tube to the right of the main cave. Interestingly, this one opened, still high in the cliff but with a view looking north, not south. From this window we could see the coastline stretching as far as the eye could see. We were mesmerized. “And to think I almost turned back and didn’t come” I told the guys. “Thanks so much for helping me and encouraging me to do this. If I had known what it would be like, I may never have tried it and I would have missed out on a really great experience”. That said, the way out was the same as the way in and equally as tortuous although at least heading out I was climbing into the light, which after being in the cave seemed brilliantly bright. Our way back to the hotel to drop off the car was filled with our excited chatter about the caves. This is a truly great experience and more importantly “If I can do it, anyone can.”

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