Secrets of the underworld

Mangaia island has a labyrinth of ancient caves — grand chambers in which ancestors' bones lie — and tunnels that lead deep below the sea, writes Craig Tansley.

"SO YOU wanna see my cave?" Clarke Mautairi may one day be the chief of his village but for now he's just its mechanic, resplendent in greasy, grey overalls, still stinking of busted sumps and year-old motor oil. You could call him a cave guide, too, but then again the last tourist who asked to see his cave came through three months ago - or was it four; he can't recall exactly - and that's hardly going to feed his family.

The island of Mangaia is full of caves. There are hundreds of them on an island so small you can circumnavigate it in an hour but there are no "official" tours and certainly no lighting, handrails or safety helmets; to look through them you'll have to find the family whose land they're on and ask for a personal tour. Finding them is easy, though: just ask around - everyone knows everyone's business here.

"It's probably best if I drive us there," Mautairi says, commandeering my rental scooter. He has a point - there are no bitumen roads on Mangaia. The goats, chooks and pigs of the island prefer it that way and they're the ones that count - they outnumber people 10 to one. Livestock wander narrow, dusty dirt tracks at will, often setting up camp in the middle. Technically, that has to be pretty dangerous but we won't get above 30km/h and, besides, the island's two police officers are far too busy fishing to move on pesky vagrants. Mautairi, it appears, is on a first-name basis with every goat, rooster and pig we motor past. "That's mine," he says, pointing to a particularly handsome "billy". "That's Taoi's pig - you know, the man you met yesterday." News spreads pretty darn fast on an island of 500.

It's not far off dark but that matters little - where we're going will be pitch black. In the muggy dusk, the high cliffs of makatea - or fossilised coral - look imposing and ghostly as we drive through the lush taro plantations of the island's interior.

The entrance to Mautairi's family cave - dubbed Tuatini and said to be the island's grandest - is up among the razor-sharp coral. We struggle down an overgrown muddy track, our tiny wheels slipping and sliding. Mautairi hacks at a makeshift path with a machete and we scrape through with spiderwebs in our hair to climb an ancient stairway in the cliffs. Mautairi pauses to check two tiny torches. "You don't want to get stuck in here," he warns. "I'm the only one who comes in here, so they wouldn't even find our bodies. A tourist came in by himself. I found him two days later - man, he was scared."

I've dressed for tight, muddy tunnels but the beam from our torches illuminates a subterranean Disneyland, a stunning series of grand chambers framed by exquisitely formed stalactites and stalagmites that continue as far as the torchlight reveals.

The scale of the chambers reminds me of the Jenolan Caves. For millions of years these formations have slowly evolved, seen by only a few outsiders. Mautairi's ancestors spent time inside and their cooking instruments litter the ground, along with fish hooks and the candlenuts they used to light their way. They also left something else here: themselves. Mautairi shows me their grotesque, grinning skulls arranged in neatly stacked burial chambers.

Below my feet, prehistoric purple crabs scurry drunkenly into the shadows. The chambers expand the further we walk, with the patterns becoming more intricate. Each chamber leads off to another but only Mautairi knows the way. His uncle used to come here. When Mautairi told him he wanted to show visitors through the family caves, his uncle told him that, like him, he must learn his way back out by leaving leaves shaped like arrows at regular intervals. Mautairi was terrified. At first he ventured no further than a few metres but now he says the cave feels like a second home.

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Last year he took an American cave specialist in the same direction for four hours and still didn't reach the end. They only returned when their torch batteries began to falter. "The air got thin and hard to breathe and the water dripping from the ceiling became completely salty," Mautairi says. "We were right under the ocean. No one's ever been right to the end. Maybe it doesn't end?"

Mangaia is the closest of the Cook Islands to Rarotonga, the main island, yet it is little known. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that until 2009, it had a yearly tourist marketing budget of $86.

"We couldn't even afford pencils for the year," says the part-time tourism officer, Taoi Nooroa. Whatever the case, Mangaia used to receive just two tourists a month. But times are changing fast. These days, there's often two a week.

Life is simple on Mangaia. Don't expect fancy restaurants - although a new four-star villa has just opened, with a restaurant promised for 2012 - and the island has just one bar, called Babe's, which is only open Friday and Saturday nights (darts night, on Friday, is the pick). Locals live in three tiny villages and fish each day to feed their families. Outside these areas there's nothing but wandering animals and idyllic, empty beaches. And caves.

While Mautairi's cave may have a reputation as Mangaia's grandest, everyone on the island agrees: Maui Perau's cave is the most exciting. Perau is the island's school-bus driver. Each morning he flashes me a maniacal grin as he drives past, both hands off the wheel and waving madly like a long-lost relative. When I meet him outside his family cave - Te Rua Rere - he high-fives me, tells me I'm his first client in three months and says he has no idea what to expect inside.

Within a few metres of the entrance, Perau shows me some of his ancectors' skulls. "Hey bro, haven't seen you around, what you been up to?" Perau asks of a toothy skeleton. We enter an amphitheatre-like chamber and the stalactites and stalagmites are as arresting as Tuatini's. As we move forward, the chamber narrows to a tiny passage. "From this point on, it gets real hard," Perau giggles.

We cling to rocks, balancing on thin precipices above drops impossible to calculate. Perau points out overhangs to use for grip, then clambers away into the dark. "Watch out round here," he says. "The roof fell in on me a few months ago. Lucky I was standing just to the side and I'm not too sure how to get through now." We climb on, propping each other up, barely hanging on.

"There used to be a ladder here but it fell down and there's no way I'm dragging another ladder all the way in again." There's a raw kind of excitement to getting through Te Rua Rere; while Perau's not entirely reckless, he does let me discover my own way through these steep, narrow chambers.

On numerous occasions, I'm forced to back down and start again, hanging on for dear life. When we make it out to perfect sunshine, I feel like I've won a battle.

But Te Rua Rere isn't conquered yet. The only way back out to the top of the high cliffs of makatea surrounding us is by climbing 30 metres up the roots of an enormous banyan tree. "I call this the widow maker," Perau says. The makatea is sharp - when it touches my skin I feel it split. I stumble my way up, keeping hold of the thick vine - as wide as a man's thigh - hands searching for somewhere on the makatea to stop me spinning.

At the top, Perau asks me to join him on a descent of Mangaia's most revered cave, whose name relates to a part of a woman's body. He tells me we will take ropes and drop 30 metres into pure blackness in the hour before dawn. When we make our way up the cave's main chamber the rising sun will light our way, rising above our exit point beside a lagoon, illuminating the cave's walls.

That night I'm convinced by fishermen I meet at a barbecue to avoid the notorious cave. But there are others on Mangaia to conquer: Piri Te Umeume, Tautua, Toru A Puru and Kauvava are some. But who knows, perhaps there's a cave even more spectacular than Tuatini and more challenging than Te Rua Rere; one that's never been seen by a traveller. All you need do is find a family member to lead the way.

The writer travelled courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism.

The fishing's great

Climb on a specially built outrigger canoe (with an outboard) and take on Mangaia's tricky harbour for a deep-sea fishing charter with a difference. You might be lucky enough to have island policeman Aerenta Matapo take you out. He's pulled in a 235-kilogram marlin on a hand line. Your accommodation operator can organise a charter for you.

Trip notes

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies to Rarotonga from Sydney direct every Saturday and via New Zealand most days, airnz.com.au. Air Rarotonga has 40-minute direct flights to Mangaia from Rarotonga three times a week for $NZ470 ($375) return, airraro.com.

Staying there

Mangaia Villas offers luxurious accommodation for $NZ375 a night. mangaiavillas.com. Self-contained rooms at Babe's Place cost $NZ75 a night (single) or $NZ120 a night (double), which includes all meals. babesplace.co.ck.

Caving there

For more information on caving in Mangaia, talk to your accommodation host or see cookislands.travel/mangaia or islandhoppervacations.com. Cave tours generally cost $NZ30.