Fels Cave

Useful Information

Location: Lelepa Island.
(-17.6103470, 168.2099150)
Open: No restrictions.
Fee: free.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave
Light: bring torch
Dimension: L=50 m, H=35 m, A=22 m asl.
Guided tours: n/a
Photography: allowed
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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2008 inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


Lelepa (also Lélépa) is a small island, only five kilometers in diameter and with 500 inhabitants. It is located off northwest Efate island, and together with its neighbour islands Moso it forms a natural harbour, which is named Havannah Harbour, after the British ship HMS Havannah, which anchored here twice, in 1849 and 1850. The island has only one tourist sight, which is actually visited by European tourists since the 19th century.

Fels cave is the place where, according to legend, the last paramount chief, or Roi Mata, of what is now Central Vanuatu, died. The name is derived from Falesa which means cave in the Nakanamanga language. The form Fels is a local variation or dialect term. So Fels Cave actually translates Cave Cave, obviously an unintended tautology, so we will use the word Fels alone.

Fels is located 22 m above sea level and has a wide, 6 m high portal. The cave is actually a single, huge, almost circular chamber, which has a diameter of 50 m and a height of 35 m. It has formed in volcanic breccia and tufa, which is covered by reef limestone which protects the soft tufa from weathering.

Fels is famous for numerous up to 3000 years old cave paintings. They are located at head height around the chamber, except for the dark back wall, and are assigned to the Lapita culture. The oldest paintings are red spots and hand prints, probably between 2000 and 3000 years old. There are more 1500-year-old drawings, but most are from the last centuries, the most recent is from the 18th century. The paintings are black line drawings depicting birds, fish and anthropomorphic figures. There are also abstract motifs, like simple and complex geometric figures, such as angles, triangles and diamonds.

According to the oral traditions of Roi Mata, the Chief died in this cave and was buried on Eretoka, a tiny uninhabited island which can be seen from the cave entrance. Other legends tell that he was buried in the cave, but archaeological excavations could not find any remains, the cave was never used for living or for burials. Again, according to legend, the cave is the place where the souls of the dead go. There was a tradition to brush the sand in the cave entrance after someone died. On the other morning the footprints of the dead entering the cave could be seen. As a result, the cave was considered tapu, a polynesian concept which found a place in our western culture (taboo) after Captain Cook visited Tonga 1777.