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The inland plateau, 40 to 50 metres high, used to be the bottom of a lagoon, which was lifted up by geological processes. The former coral reef forms a ring of cliffs almost all the way around the island, interrupted by only a few passes, such as those at We and Jokin.

Like the other Loyalty islands, Lifou’s subsoil is basically karstic (highly porous limestone). There are sinkholes, ground subsidence, numerous caves and depressions, but no flowing surface water. Drainage takes place in subterranean fissures and gaps where the limestone has been dissolved, creating cracks and underground channels. The greatest density of these spaces is found at the level of the old coral reef.

A speleological survey of Lifou was carried out in 1995 (Lips, 1995). The largest cave network found is at Wedrumel (the Hnanawae and Gojij caves), altogether around 11km long!

Another expedition to Lifou’s caves was undertaken in 2009. It left the explorers dumbfounded: they discovered that the Hnanawae Cave, on the Wedrumel tribal lands, previously reported to be 8.7 kilometres long in 1995, now extended for more than 11 kilometres. It is thus considered to be the largest cave known in the territory up until now. You can visit a small sector of these subterranean realms, in particular the Saqea Cave, near Cap Jua I Waimo, with Jeanne Hnaïe Passil as your guide.

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Where to stay?

More than her work (she studied to be a professional tour guide in New Zealand), it is heredity that defines Jeanne Hnaïe; a woman deeply attached to her ancestral homeland. She will offer you a warm welcome to Wedrumel, where there are two « farés » (traditional Melanesian huts) in the hollow of a lovely, lush forest, surrounded by trees rippling in the sea breeze, with the strong scent of humus and  tropical vegetation in the air.

Accommodation, with the Hoceleny tribe (tel. 47 92 58 - mobile : 82 16 23) consists of two local style huts, furnished with beds on legs; baby beds (with mosquito nets) are also available. Bathrooms, with hot water, are located in a separate block.

Visiting Saqea Cave (2 to 9 people at a time). After a long stint giving guided tours of her uncle’s cave, Jeanne now offers us the opportunity to discover a new underground world: her father’s cavern, Saqea. Some two and a half kilometres long, touring it takes about two hours. After demonstrating how to put on the helmets and the headlamps, and providing few further instructions, Jeanne gives a brief chat about this ancestral site of hers and invites the visitors to delve into the murkiness of the first chambres. There are no dizzying precipices to worry about here, instead you find yourself wandering amidst stalagmites and stalactites, with some narrow passages. Slippery surfaces are not a big problem either, but you should be prepared to do a bit of trudging. In some of the chambres with high ceilings, your headlamp will reveal impressive stone curtains and enormous columns. Hnaïe will take children from age seven and upwards on the tour. Be sure to bring good footwear for hiking, water, some energy food like cereal bars and fruit, a helmet and sun cream. The entire itinerary is clearly marked out and secured with a « Fil d’Ariane » (Breadcrumb).

Note: « Saqea » means « Expand the Big “Case” (hut pavilion) ». It implies prosperity.

Texte Jean Francis Clair

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