The morning was still dark when the young men arrived with their machetes and flashlights. We were on one of the most remote islands in the world, about to venture into an underground network of sacred caves known as te bangabanga.
The land below the surface of Banaba, a Pacific island nearly 200 miles from any other civilization, is riddled with te bangabanga. For centuries, the Banabans relied on fresh water from these caves for survival during long periods of drought on the isolated island.
Our group, still groggy, started hiking through the woods towards the center of the island. But gradually, this “hike” turned into intensive rock-climbing. Banaba is a moonscape of coral pinnacles—some 10 or 12 meters high. That’s because the British Phosphate Commission, after strip-mining the island for nearly 80 years, left in 1979 without rehabilitating the landscape. (You can read more about this history here.)
After two hours of climbing, we finally reached the entrance to the cave, where a rusted metal ladder descended into a dark abyss. Some of the younger boys excitedly climbed down, their flashlights clanging against the ladder and their laughter echoing up the cave’s narrow entrance.
The inside of the cave is spectacular: Hundreds of stalactites hang from the ceiling above huge ponds of freshwater. We could stand completely upright in the opening chamber, but as we moved deeper into the cave, we had to army-crawl through narrow tunnels or swim underwater to reach further chambers. Some of the channels go deep under the sea, but a proper archaeological and scientific team would be required to safely navigate the deeper tunnels of the cave.
As we swam in the cool, fresh water, I thought of the legends I’d heard about the sacred caves from te unimane, or the elders.
As we swam in the cool, fresh water, I thought of the legends I’d heard about the sacred caves from te unimane, or the elders. Some describe hidden caves filled with diamonds or pearls. Other stories tell of men surviving underground in the caves for weeks on end, or tunnels furnished with carved stone tables, beds, and chairs, as if someone had made a home.
Of the many legends, however, the story of discovering drinking water in the caves is one of the most important for the Banabans—this water allowed their ancestors to survive for centuries before there was any contact with the outside world. This legend has been passed down from generation to generation through oral storytelling using song, dance, and dramatization.
As the Banabans tell it, a village leader was searching for water during a terrible drought. He could find no water anywhere on the island, so he called to his ancestors for help. Suddenly, the spirit of a large crab appeared, and where his claw marks were, there was water. The ancestors informed the man that this crab came from inside te bangabanga, but that these sacred caves were only to be visited by women.
The ancestors explained that before entering the caves, the women were to be anointed with oil and given te bunna, special necklaces that would guide and protect them through the cave. According to the legend, this process allowed the women to bypass the spirit of the giant crab and fill their coconut-husk canteens with fresh water. The Banabans survived the drought, and from this point on, women were revered in Banaban society as water-fetchers for their villages.Unfortunately, for most Banabans, [these sacred] caves exist only in the stories, dances, and legends passed down through the generations.
Unfortunately, for most Banabans, the caves exist only in the stories, dances, and legends passed down through the generations. In 1945, the Banaban people were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji, more than 1,000 miles away. Returning to Banaba, one of the most remote islands of Kiribati, has been nearly impossible, due to financial, family, and employment-related obligations, never mind the great distance and lack of regular transportation.
Even for the approximately 200 residents still living on Banaba, visiting the caves is difficult due to the destruction left after the phosphate mining. Many of the caves are now filled with scrap metal and industrial waste, and some are completely destroyed. Most of the older residents on Banaba are unable to make the physically exhausting journey through the coral pinnacles. And for the locals who do make it to the caves, rappelling down several stories from the surface with only a rope for support, or climbing down decades-old rusted ladders, pose even more challenges.
After exploring the caves, I finally understood why they are such an integral part of Banaban heritage. Though we didn’t see diamonds, pearls, or carved furniture on our journey, I was amazed at the expansiveness of the cave network. We could have spent days or weeks exploring all of the different passages, tunnels, and channels underground. Considering the difficulty of reaching the remaining caves, I felt lucky to have visited them—especially given that 70 years after their displacement, very few Banabans will ever visit these sacred spaces themselves.
Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to document the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She is following the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past 70 years. She also follows the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She is telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced using a combination of written stories, images, and video.