I found this old photo from about twenty-years ago. While working at the Burial Sites Program, my co-worker, Kana'i Kapeliela, and I emerged from investigating a lava tube in a large South Kona development. It was a little before 10:00pm at night when we finally made it out. We had started at the entrance about 5:00pm, after the construction site had shut down for the day, because the passages would branch off and split up and lead into all directions.
You could always see roof-fall inside of the tubes where potions of the ceiling fell down inside. We never wanted to be unknowingly crawling under a roadway with heavy trucks driving directly above us, as you could easily be killed. So we began our investigations at night, spending sometimes four to five hours crawling through just one tube system to confirm the existence or absence of cultural remains, especially ancestral Native Hawaiian human skeletal remains.
We hadn't extensively investigated and explored lava tubes to this extent before being involved in a lawsuit over identification, protection and disposition of the many ancestral burial sites on the project area. The presiding Judge in the case, had asked our Division archaeologist, on the witness stand, who from our regulatory agency goes into the lava tubes to verify the presence or absence of remains.
The archaeologist told the truth and said nobody from the State. The contract archaeologist was the one who checked and verified the lava tubes that were discovered during construction activities, when an opening would collapse in, and reveal the once hidden lava tubes.
The Judge and the courtroom observers were all shocked, and rightfully so. The State was ordered to independently investigate and explore the breached lava tubes independently of the developers contractors and consultants.
Burial staff were not trained as archaeologists, but we volunteered to assist in verifying, especially when our archaeologist at the time was suffering from chronic ailments and quickly became nauseous when entering the tubes with us.
His health was frail at the time and we didn't want to have him die, so we volunteered. Seemingly, for once, nobody in the office challenged our expertise or experience as being unqualified to conduct what was tantamount to archaeological survey, not being archaeologists. It would turn out to be brutal and dangerous work at times, little did we know.
Thus Kana'i and I found ourselves responsible for entering the property in the evening, to inspect breached lava tubes found during utility trenching or other Earth-moving activities of the day.
Often when driving through the project during the day, conducting inspections, we would see lava tube entrances that had been breached and subsequently filled in and blocked with giant boulders. We would ask the workers and contract archaeologists, if anyone had gone into the tube to determine the extent of the tube and the presence or absence of cultural remains.
The answers were usually the same. "Yes. So and so was the monitor at the time of the discovery, and they went in and said there wasn't any sign of cultural material." We would make notes of the location of the tube on the project map and determine which one we would investigate later that evening.
We were at a disadvantage when we retuned under cover of nightfall in the quiet, dark and eerily still construction site. We had to provide our own light, using flashlights and sometimes the headlights of our rental car.
Also, some of the breached tubes had their entrances blocked by massive boulders lifted with giant machinery that very same day. We had nothing to remove them. However, through prayer and observation, and the assistance of the ancestors, we learned that if we dug with our hands, below the boulders, through the dirt and removed the smallest of stones, eventually the boulders would shift and come tumbling out, as we quickly scurried away as not to get crushed or killed.
Sometimes we would spend an hour slowly digging with our gloved hands until enough boulders shifted and rolled allowing us an entrance point.
It was an important lesson, understanding how seemingly massive and immovable obstacles in Life, can often be shifted and removed, through the steady and careful identification and removal of the smallest of blockages, using Faith. I still ponder on the lessons even today.
The next morning, the work crews would arrive and wonder how the massive boulders were all removed. Simply hand-digging. We said nothing however.
Some of the tubes which were supposedly investigated upon breach and discovery, were obviously not investigated, as we would crawl in, and find some knee and handprints, and drag marks, in the fine silt covering the bottom of the cave, for about ten-feet, then it would suddenly end, while the tube itself went on for a hundred yards, as we would ultimately find out, crawling inch-by-inch to its terminus. Untouched pristine silt.
Once inside of the tube, if there were multiple branches, we would volunteer to each take one and crawl to its terminus to save time. It was very dangerous however, to lose sight and sound, and the whereabouts of your partner for hours on end. We were alone. Just our rental car parked outside. No third safety person. If something happened to us, it would probably would take until the next morning for anyone to notice our vehicle, and then enter the tube to search for our bodies.
I was overweight and stressed out from the work itself. I could have easily had a heart-attack deep inside with no chance for help. We moved on Faith alone, protected only by our own Humility and assessing our own Hearts and the Love for the Ancestors.
Some tubes required you to crawl on your stomach, lifting yourself up by a few inches, and pulling yourself forward a foot, then laying down again, only to repeat the process. Like doing low push-ups, one at time, while you move forward. Some on dusty silty floors. Others on pahoehoe or a'a lava which tended to shred up your shirt and stomach. Other tubes would have areas where you could stand up and walk, and yet others, shot up with twenty foot ceilings like cathedrals.
We also learned, from being inside of the tubes, that sometimes a tube would be breached, like under a roadway, but you would have no way of knowing it from the surface. The roads looked normal. However, when you went into the lava tube, you would eventually find a portion of the tube that was blocked completely from the collapse above.
Whether the collapse fell and crushed burials, or whether the tube continued on the other side of the collapse, and held cultural materials, couldn't be determined without discover another entrance to that particular tube system.
We had tried using handheld radios, but quickly learned that they were effectively useless in the tubes as the useful range quickly went to zero in the twisting irregular passages.
When we had to split up, we would often yell to each other, until the yells became muffled. Then finally, only vibrating murmurs, and then ultimately just dead silence. I would yell and listen for the faintest sound of a response. Nothing.
Everything was pitch black, and we had to bring multiple sources of light because if your one flashlight stopped working, and hour to two deep into the cave, you were done. No way to crawl out without light, even in the brightest of Sunlight outside. Pitch black.
We found passages blocked by roof-fall or filled in, which led to other potions of the tube, and often dozens of more yards, or another twisting and undulating hundred yards. More branches, more forks. Ledges high above us, fifteen feet or more, which led to new tubes, and drops and lower tubes below us from the once molten lava of akua Pele as it made it's way to Kanaloa's Domain, the Ocean.
We would often see cultural material, like kukui nuts, and the shells of small crabs, used for what we called "kupuna energy snacks." Faunal remains. Artifacts. Sometimes carrying poles used to carry the bodies into the furthest recesses of the cave. And yes, many human remains in some of the caves.
It was important to know who was where, because the development activities above could collapse in portions of the tube.
An attempt to plant a tree on a golf-course fairway in the middle of the trial, ending up puncturing a lava tube and when we investigated, the puncture debris had fallen right on top of a kupuna.
Sometimes I would be so exhausted, after crawling for hours on my stomach, sometimes inches at time, trying not to inhale the fine dust and disturbed silt, inches from my face, that I would turn over on my back, and turn off my light, and just lay there in the cold dark silent space. Trying to capture my breath.
It was like the tubes absorbed any possible sounds and it was quieter than you ever thought a silence could possibly be. Just listening to your own breathing, and your own Heart beating in the blood vessels in your ears.
It was at those times, that I softly spoke to the ancestors around me. Explaining why we were there invading the refuge and sanctuary for the Souls. Understanding that the darkest of black, was the World of Pō. Illuminated and Balanced only by the Light of my Own Being. My Own Soul. In a place where the Veil between here and there, us and them, was already kapa thin.
Other times, I would be trying to squeeze through a small opening, only to have my stomach get stuck halfway through the opening, and be wedged there, unable to move forward anymore or reverse back out. My bulging hernia didn't help in those situations, as I would have to wait until I could slowly and painfully shift my guts around, to finally get through and continue investigating.
Another time we entered and crawled through a tube, only to find that it led to a ledge and about a 10 foot drop to a lower cave where we had suspected there had been a unreported surface breach and collapse.
The ledge we had to crawl upon seemed fragile, like it could give away under our individual weight and send us plummeting down below to possible injury or death.
We took a chance, and I slowly crawled out onto the ledge on my stomach, while my partner held the flashlight to illuminate that portion of the cave. I inched ever so slowly, until I could hang onto the ledge with my upper body, and slowly slide my legs across the over the ledge and pointed them at the dark ground behind and below me.
We had seen a large boulder looking piece of lava that seemed like I could possibly hang onto the ledge, and get my feet down to touch it, and then lower myself down. It looked about six feet down in my estimation, and I being six-feet, should able to extend my legs down backwards, and reach it to lower my whole body down. I erred, however, in my estimation of its distance. Almost fatally.
Unfortunately, as I crawled out, and attempted to position myself on the ledge to lower my legs down, I got to a point where I was hanging on the ledge by my torso, locked under my ribcage, while my legs were dangling and swinging blindly below, trying desperately to feel for any foothold, but nothing was there. I had misjudged my own height against the apparent height of the boulder.
I was stuck in that position, and my diaphragm was compressed on the ledge by my own body weight, and I was starting to hyperventilate out of fear, and soon was having trouble breathing. I couldn't let myself down, nor pull myself back up, slowly suffocating and losing muscular strength.
My partner could see the desperation in my face and started to try and slowly crawl onto the ledge towards me. He saw my feet were too far from the rock below. I desperately told him not to because our combined weight would surely snap the ledge and we would both plummet to injury or death, using up what breath I had left in yelling that out.
I will never forget that moment. Stuck there, suffocating, thinking I was going to pass out, and fall down and fall backward and break my leg, or hit my head on the many lava boulders, and that could effectively be the end of my life.
I thought about my family, my wife, my two-year old and my newborn. Life's over. For what? Trying to save the bones of my ancestors. I actually went numb and started to pass out, still stuck on the ledge, as the edge dug into my stomach and chest. There was no where to go. Up or down. I was stuck and immovable.
All I could think of was "help me..." to anyone who was listening. Anyone. Screaming only in my quickly fading mind resigning itself to unconsciousness and joining the Ancestors prematurely.
Then I don't really have an explanation for what happened next. As my legs were flailing around beneath me in the dark, I suddenly felt rock touch my the bottom of my right foot. It was impossible.
Either my leg somehow grew longer, or the rock I felt moved up to meet my foot. It hadn't been close enough for me to touch as my partner watched in horror, wanting to crawl out to me to try and pull me up.
But it was somehow miraculously and mysteriously there.
I extended my foot down and slowly, using what little strength I had, to lift myself up inches, to get my locked ribcage off of the ledge, the only thing that had kept me hanging there, and slowly lowered my other foot down, feeling the same rock below me, until I could lower my whole body down and fall to the tube floor.
It took me awhile to catch my breath and allow my Heart to stop pounding in my chest.
My partner then crawled back out of the tube and found a metal ladder in a manhole that was being installed and carried, slid and dragged it, inch-by-inch, back into the tube and we set it up and secured it, so he could safely climb down and more importantly, we both could climb back up and out when we were finished, provided we didn't discover any other entrances or exits in that tube system, during our exploration.
Sure enough, we didn't go very far before we discovered a massive collapse and breach of the tube from above, where a roadway was in the project area. It had collapsed in, and it had been filled in with rubble.
We had no idea what lay on the other side of the rubble, or what may lie beneath. However, it confirmed our suspicions of unreported breaches.
There are many more stories best saved for another day and time of reflection.
I was always amazed at how difficult it was to traverse many of these lava tubes. Even though we had modern protective gear, helmets, kneepads, respirator masks, gloves, and flashlights, we would often emerge beat up and bruised, and even bloody at times. The amount of blood that pours out of scalp wounds is always alarming for the shocked observer.
Yet, you could crawl for hours, only to find an ancestor, lovingly placed in the furthest reaches of the cave, hundreds of yards, carried by someone who Loved them, without the benefit of our modern day protective gear.
A kukui nut oil lamp or torch. A carrying pole. Some crab snacks. A malo. And not much else. It made us truly understand the tremendous effort and personal sacrifice our ancestor made to ensure that a loved and revered family member would rest undisturbed for Eternity.
Yet, the Human's insatiable appetite to build and develop the land to accommodate more and more of their consumerism and materialistic desires destroys and disrupts the true Spiritual Cycles that give All of Us Life.
And there are truly no words to express my gratitude, to the kupuna in that cave that night, and to the mysterious Rock that helped Save my Life.
That simply delivered a Father and Husband back home to his family. Not in a casket. But Alive...
Important Memorable Experiences, Profound Lessons, and the continued Refinement of my Soul on this Shared Human Journey.
Thank you. Have Faith. With Humility and Gratitude. Learn to Trust. Believe in Love...
Love you All...
Be Safe and Well out there...