Getting Dirty in a Burial Cave | Cook Islands

Bones in Burial Cave Cook IslandsWe push through the overgrown vines and underbrush to reach a moss-covered tree. Thick vines hang from the branches and drop somewhere into the depths of the earth. Our task? Climb into the hollow of the tree, which leads to a burial cave filled with bones.

After shimmying down the tree root, it takes a moment for my eyes to barely adjust to the darkness. Most caves around the world follow a standard pattern: An entrance, lights along a pathway, notices not to touch anything. No lights lead the way through the cave, and we navigate the tunnels with headlamps and adroit movements, careful not to step on discarded teeth, fragments of femur and the occasional skull.

Rimarau Burial Cave is a sacred site, a place where the people of Atiu (an island in the Cook Islands) laid the bones of their loved ones for many, many years. I imagine what it must have been like to parade through the dense jungle and crawl into this dark cavern, balancing the body of a family member with grief.

These tunnels are small and tight. Dirt and bugs mix on my sweaty neck as I crawl through the cave on my hands and knees. Water drips from the stalactites above me, the slimy residue crawls between my shoulder blades.

Teeth in the burial cave Cook Islands“Feet on the right, bones on the left,” our guide instructs as we push our backs against the wall and make our way down a thin artery of a tunnel.

Rimarau Burial Cave is packed with piles of bones, the skulls set carefully beside or on top of larger bones. Teeth are mixed in with the dirt, scattered throughout the cave. I inch up to one of the piles; my light shines on the skull. It’s like a scene from a movie, and I’m fascinated with the intimacy of the situation.

It’s not a circular path, and for every narrow pathway we climb down, we have to crawl back to the heart of the cave. The humidity has manifested itself as water droplets which I blink from my eyes. Grime covers my elbows. My back aches from being hunched over.

We flip off our headlights and pull ourselves back up the tree’s root, blinking in the sunlight. Our cheeks are covered with dirt. Our clothes are smudged with gray water. Our knees are red and speckled from crawling through a cave that houses thousands of years of history.

My trip to the Cook Islands was sponsored by the Cook Islands Tourism Board, but all opinions are my own.

16 Responses to “Getting Dirty in a Burial Cave | Cook Islands”

  1. Jenna

    What a cool experience! How did it smell? Can any tourist go, or do you have to know someone?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Great questions, Jenna. It smelled warm, wet and earthy, like a hot basement that’s been closed up but with a bit more dirt.

      Reply
  2. Erin

    Visiting the burial cave was one of our favourite experiences on Atiu. While we scrambled around on our knees amongst the bones I thought how impossible it would be to have an experience like that in Europe or North America.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I agree, Erin. I think experiences like that are really only possible way off the beaten path!

      Reply
  3. Brian

    We love crawling through caves . . . just got out of Carlsbad Caverns in NM a couple of hours ago. The thing that we find so fastinating about spelunking is how different all the caves are. We haven’t been to the Rimarau Burial Cave yet, but it sounds like something that is right up our alley. Thanks!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’ve never been to Carlsbad Caverns, but I’d like to go. Is there a tour there, or can you actually go spelunking?

      Reply
  4. Abby

    “Thousands of years” is so hard to wrap your brain around! Wow.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I know, right??

      Reply
  5. Deb

    What a great experience! I can’t believe I didn’t comment on this already because when I read it a couple of weeks ago, the experience really stuck with me. I must have been distracted by something after I read it. Anyway, I’m back! Not many people get to experience something like this. To actually crawl through a burial ground and have to keep your eyes out to make sure to not crush bones, must have been creepy and amazing all at the same time!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      It was AWESOME in every sense of the word! I had absolutely no idea what to expect and loved every minute of it!

      Reply
    • JoAnna

      Now that I’ve done it, I can’t imagine not doing it. It was such an awesome experience.

      Reply
  6. Milena Yordanova

    This experience looks so interesting and creepy! I would love to visit the cave one day.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      When people ask me about my most memorable travel adventures, this is one of them that is at the top of my list.

      Reply

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