Espiritu Santo’s Best Trekking & Hiking Adventure
Six hours of bumpy 4WDing driving down rough dirt roads and through mud wallows large enough to swallow a car whole, 18km of hiking through rainforest and river beds and more than 22 river crossings wading through fast flowing water up to our knees. All in a bid to reach the mythical Jordon River Gorge Espiritu Santo. At times I began asking myself, is this really worth it? But as I entered the gorge and the 60m high walls closed in around me, creating a series of epic waterfalls cascading into the crystal clear Jordon River below, the answer became abundantly clear. Hell yes!
Big Bay Bush Jordan River Gorge Espiritu Santo
I first heard whispers about the “Big Bay Bush” and the Jordon River Gorge via friends working for the Department of Tourism on Santo. They spent a day exploring the area with local chiefs and guides in the hope of opening up the area for tourism and hiking. The photos they brought back with them seemed almost surreal in their ethereal beauty (think mist waterfalls more than 50m high!).
A chance meeting with the legendary Fred Kleckham and Mayumi Green (owner of Wrecks to Rainforest tour agency) a month later sealed the deal. Fred is one of only a handful of white people to have hiked extensively through the Big Bay Bush area (he was the first Aussie tour operator on Santo way back in 1989).
His descriptions of an insanely high gorge carved by the Jordon River, epic waterfalls and a cliffside cave with a river flowing out of it piqued my curiosity and when Mayumi declared she was organising an expedition to explore the area I jumped at the chance to trek the Jordan River Gorge Espiritu Santo.
Custom Story Jordan River
The Jordon River pretty much divides the top half of Santo into two (it flows north – south). A local kastom story claims Mt. Tabwemasana (the highest mountain in Vanuatu) gives birth to the river and looking at Google Earth this is spot on! From the mountain it winds its way down through steep valleys and past the picturesque village of Ankoru (our starting point for the trek) to Big Bay, near the village of Matantas. It’s a distance of some 30 km.
Fred says the river received its current name thanks to Portuguese explorer Juan DeQuiros, who “discovered” Vanuatu in 1606 and named it after the fabled River Jordan in the Middle East (where Jesus was baptised).
The hike up to the gorge from Ankoru takes around 2.5 hrs. There are myriad river crossings and along the way we pass many spectacular waterfalls (one more beautiful than the other). We also pass several traditional villagers (man bush) walking down the valley carrying taro over their shoulder (apparently for use in a kastom ceremony back at Ankoru).
Chinjala Falls, Jordan River Gorge Espiritu Santo
By far the most spectacular of the waterfalls that we stumble onto is the impressive Chinjala Falls. It’s easily 60m high and cascades over terraces of limestone flowstone covered in lush algae and plants. At its base is a series of striking emerald green pools. Truly a natural wonder akin to the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
As we begin to enter the main section of the gorge, the limestone walls start closing in around us and the sound of our voices and the cascading river echoes eerily off the walls. In some places, the walls of the gorge resemble a strange sort of layer cake. There are mist waterfalls everywhere, tumbling down from the top of the gorge and evaporating half way down or dripping down the sides of the rocks. It’s very prehistoric and literally takes your breath away.
Bat Cave Jordan River Gorge Espiritu Santo
Eventually we reach a narrow section of the gorge where a huge limestone flowstone guards the entrance like some ancient rock sentinel. Our guides point to a small cave half way up the cliff wall and begin to whoop and scream like maniacs. Within seconds dozens of bats pour out, and not just any old bats but bats with bizarre tails that make them look like tiny flying monkeys (apparently they are a primitive version of the more common fruit bats).
Keen to discover the giant cave with the waterfall flowing out of its mouth we ask the guides how much farther we have to go and they tell us another 1-2 hrs of trekking. We do some mental math and realise we have no chance of getting back before dark if we continue on. It has also started raining and the river is rising before our eyes. We have visions of us being cut off from the outside world like some sort of Indiana Jones adventure gone wrong and having to be helicoptered out! We reluctantly turn around and start heading back down the gorge towards the “Centre”, the nakamal and clearing where the local villagers plan to build a series of huts for overnight trekking.
By now some of the river crossings are up to our waist and the water is flowing much, much faster making it tricky to keep on our feet. We persevere and eventually make it back to Ankoru three hours later – tired, muddy and wet but ultimately elated!
I make a vow to return to this amazing area and reach the waterfall cave on the next trekking trip. Currently there are no commercial tours to the Jordan River Gorge Espiritu Santo but Mayumi from Wrecks to Rainforest is planning to work together with the local chiefs and tourism operators to create a special trekking tour of the Jordon River in the not so distant future.
For more information on other amazing Espiritu Santo treks and hikes click HERE
And if you plan on trekking around Santo the best place to base yourself is Turtle Bay Beach House on the east coast. It’s fantastic value and is halfway to everything. It has a laundry to clean all your dirty clothes plus all the rooms are self-contained so you can make up food and drink packs for your day or overnight excursions.