Tawali Skull Caves – a little ghoulish perhaps, and maybe not everybody’s idea of fun, but it’s not everyday you can stand in the darkness surrounded by piles of skulls is it?
The skull caves are one of the “tourist attractions” of Milne Bay and a visit to them, together with a side trip to the nearby village and waterfall is a good way to spend a non-diving afternoon at the end of your trip – when you need to let your residual nitrogen levels reduce prior to flying.
The main skull cave that visitors are allowed to enter is located on the north coast of Milne Bay, near to Tawali Resort, and is a 15 minute walk from the village beach where you land.
The bush through which you have walk to get to the skull cave is quite dense and a guide is definitely needed, but wild orchids line the route and make the journey quite a pleasant experience.
The skull cave is underground and reached using a wooden stairway constructed by the local villagers who use the presence of visitors to show and sell their handicrafts and will be waiting for you when you re-emerge.
The cave is quite large and very dark, so a strong light is a necessary and there is very little movement of air so it quickly gets quite hot and clammy which adds considerably to the overall experience…
The cranial remains of a lot of people are distributed around the cave in a series of piles and there must be a couple of hundred of skulls altogether.
Exactly why the skulls are there seems to be the subject of some conjecture, but there are two contenders for the true story.
Firstly, and more sensationally, the caves date back to when missionaries first arrived in PNG and proceeded to prohibit the long legacy of headhunting and occasional cannibalism common across the whole of New Guinea at that time.
So the local villagers literally went underground with their prized skull collections to keep then hidden from the missionaries!
The second and more plausible reason is the cave is actually one of the burial caves from pre-missionary times when the skulls of important people from the area were kept as a gesture of the respect they were held in.
When these people died, they were buried upright with a clay pot over their head, and after some time when the head separated from the body it was removed and taken to the cave.