We 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.
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.