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Yalo and Apialo are two ‘spirit’ caves located in Northwest Malakula. The terms ‘yalo’ and ‘apialo’ mean ‘place of the spirits’ in the languages of the Small Nambas and Big Nambas people. Yalo cave is located in Small Nambas territory, close to the site of Wonbrav in the Tenmiel area. Apialo is located approximately 7km to the south of Yalo in Big Nambas territory, between the coastal villages of Lekhan and Benenavet. The coastal and inland communities residing in the area between Lehuru and the northern bank of Malua Bay River believe that when a person dies their spirit enters Yalo cave. Those living to the south of Malua Bay River, between Alpalak Village and Benwé, believe that their spirits travel to Apialo cave. Yalo and Apialo are central nodes in the spiritual landscape or sacred geography of Northwest Malakula, regarded as places where a sense of community with and connectedness to the spirit world still exists. People conduct pilgrimages to these caves to visit their ancestors who are believed to have left tangible imprints on the walls of the caves in the form of rock-markings. Yalo and Apialo contain approximately 750 and 1500 rock paintings and engravings, respectively, many of them hand stencils. Descendents seek out the handprints of their ancestors, as well as their footprints – traces left behind as a result of their incessant dancing.
Yalo is a large limestone cave with a main chamber that extends to a depth of some 120m and reaches a maximum height of about 30m. Apialo is a smaller cave than Yalo, approximately half its size. Aside from the cosmological similarities shared by these two caves, they are strikingly alike in terms of the ways in which people have physically modified them over the course of history. Both sites were initially occupied around 3000 years ago, as testified by the results of a rock-art dating program. They both have a main chamber with a large hole in the roof. At Yalo, a single tree has grown up through this natural skylight; at Apialo, two trees emerge out of this hole in the roof. Decorating the walls of these main chambers are numerous engravings, many of them images of faces, which are locally interpreted as self-portraits of the ancestors. The side chambers at both caves, which can only be viewed with the aid of torchlight, are where much of the painted art is located, in particular the hand stencils that living members of the community seek out during their visits to the caves.
At both sites a spirit enters the cave in one of two ways: either through the entrance reserved for spirits (mortals must enter through a separate corridor) or down the trunk of the tree. The manner in which a person dies determines which path into the cave a person will take. Death resulting from natural causes permits a spirit to enter through the ‘spirit corridor’ at the front of the cave. A death by unnatural causes, such as by killing, restricts the spirit to enter and exit the cave through the hole in the roof of the main chamber. The blood of these unfortunate victims is said to be visible on the trunk of the tree soon after death.
The social and spiritual importance of Yalo and Apialo extends well beyond the caves themselves, incorporating an entire landscape of physical and metaphysical points that play a role in the journey to the afterworld. For example, when death befalls a Big Nambas person, the spirit commences its journey at the site of Navet’itiet, a stone used by the spirit to file off its own nose. This stone is located in an inland cave that is decorated with engravings, some of which resemble those found in both Yalo and Apialo. The spirit then continues its journey to a coastal site near Purr Village where there is a wild apple tree (nakavika). The spirit eats the fruit of this tree and spits it over its family to help them to forget it. The spirit then goes to the river at Tenmaru and beats the water with a banana leaf, at which point it realises that it is dead. It then makes its final journey to Apialo.
Mortals who wish to visit these sites must comply with very specific custom (kastom) rules. People are required to enter the site in even numbers and, at Yalo, they must also signal to the spirits that they wish to enter by blowing into a natural hole (bubu) in the rock which makes a deep trumpeting sound that resonates throughout the site. A person wishing to visit an ancestor at Apialo first kills a pig that is then strung up and left to rot. The person then smothers their body with the remains of the rotten pig in order to render themselves unrecognisable to the spirits as a living being. This practice enables them to communicate with their dead relatives.
Apialo and Yalo are linked to the broader sacred geography or cultural landscape of Northwest Malakula by virtue of a powerful connection between places in nature and the spiritual journey to the afterworld. The social connections and exchanges which link people to this cosmography are still practiced, even though not all of the traditional burial rites and rituals have survived conversion to Christianity.
The people of Northwest Malakula are concerned about the future protection of their spiritual sites in a climate where development and tourism pose a threat. At the behest of the local community, a management plan has been developed for Yalo Cave and a community project is underway to define the nature of tourism desired in the Northwest Malakula area. Currently, the sacred geography of Northwest Malakula is entirely managed and protected by the local community by virtue of the strength of their spiritual links to place and the kastom rules that dictate how people may behave in relation to these places. These sites are also listed on the site register at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, which provides an important additional form of protection.
While there are many sacred geographies known throughout the world, such as the ancient Mayan landscapes in Central America or the Neolithic and Bronze Age landscapes of Britain, there are no other examples known to us that match the associative cultural landscape of Northwest Malakula which represent a living unbroken tradition. The communities of Northwest Malakula continue to look towards Yalo and Apialo as the end-points of a spiritual journey that is mapped into their landscape. These two caves are natural monuments that have been modified through time according to strict kastom codes, to the extent that cultural features (such as the spectacular body of rock-art) blend with the natural in a uniquely similar way at both sites. The shared physical features of these two sites combined with the widespread regional respect for the metaphysical features that they embody, unify the Small Nambas and Big Nambas community.