By IAN MCDONALD KAUKUI
AOTAHA Cave is a must visit place when in Bellona, Renbell Province.
Situated at the eastern end of the island, Aotaha means “Day break”.
The name is derived from its location where itis the first place to see the sun as it rises on the horizon.
Aotaha is 15 miles south east to Rennell and is 7 minutes’ drive-away to the Airport.
The Cave provides comfortable accommodation for tourists as well as special sites for couples who are on honeymoon.
In an interview with Star National Magazine during a short visit to the cave, the owner John Tay Taugenga said he first started working on the cave since he was young.
The idea of turning the cave into a tourist attraction started in 1987 after the government advertised that it had set aside funding support for those who wished to go into small tourism operations.
“I was encouraged because the advertisement clearly stated that the funding support was for any interested persons whether educated, uneducated, old or young people.
“I was so lucky in my application but unfortunately, I never received the funding support,” he stated rather lukewarmly.
Mr Taugenga said that the influx of tourists to the Island after the devastating impacts of Cyclone Nina in 1993 had given him the inspiration to go into tourism.
“One of the main destinations was the eastern mostpart of the island where they took photos and video clips of the damages done by Cyclone Nina and also to watch the big waves crushing against the rocks,” Mr Taugenga said in retrospect.
Noticing that there is money to be made,Mr Taugenga and his family started clearing and cleaning the cave and filling it with gravels and later decorating it withcarvingsand other local craftsfor visiting tourists and other visitors to see and buy.
Mr. Taugenga said that whilst work continued on the cave, hewrote letter to the Director General of the Solomon Islands Tourism to pay him a visit which he responded positively and visited the cave towards the end of 1994.
“I, my wife and our first born sonwere then invited to a workshop conducted by the South Pacific Tourism Council in Honiara where we learnt more on tourism and hospitality,” he added with smile across his face.
“In early 1995, wewere fortunate to receive some financial support from the Ministry and we started purchasing some materials such as mattresses, bed sheets and pillows for our establishment.” He continued.
In 1996,the flow of tourists started to trickle in.
Most of them came in groups of 8, 9 and even 10 and most werefrom Sweden, Norway and England.
The cave operation was lucrative and profitable until the Ethnic Tension set in where tourists were scared away from visiting Solomon Islands.
“Those ethnic tension years had seen a sharp drop in tourist numbers if any at all,” he said.
He mentioned that he had also received a total of 5 honeymoon couples from overseas which included two from Sweden, two from Australia and one from Canada.
Mr Taugenga and his family are currently working on a new honeymoon cave just beside the old one but is located a lot higher than the first one.
This new cave is much comfortable than the first one with a panoramic view of the ocean in a distance.
Currently the first cave accommodates two honeymoon rooms and three single bedrooms.
In terms of government support, the only financial assistance he received was in1995 and nothing to date.
“Just a few months ago, I went to Honiara and approached the Ministry of Culture and Tourism but their response was that the 2018 budget was already used up during the Melanesian Arts Festival,” Mr Taugenga iterated with a look of scepticism.
I was instead advised to wait for the 2019 allocation or the next cycle of funding.
During Manasseh Maelanga’s visit to the cave in 2017 when he was the Deputy Prime Minister then, he promised that his government would assist me to further my operations.
I know now that was another political rhetoric.
Mr Taugenga said that he is planning on expanding the caves but that depends very much on the availability of funds.
“The work on the new honeymoon cave will be completed by the end of this and should be operational by next year,” he said with conviction.
“I encourage local couples to spend their honeymoon here,” he said mockingly.