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Published: August 9th 2008
Sleep wouldn't come even in this semi-luxury, AC'ed bus
. Maybe it had to do with still being on a natural high from swimming with the whale sharks. Or maybe it was because of the frequent stops for bathroom breaks and midnight dinners. Or maybe, just maybe, it had to do with the heart-breaking, never-ending screams of a baby one row back. Whatever the cause, sleep just wouldn't come. All night we drove, half-conscious but fully annoyed, from Legaspi in Luzon's deep southeast to Manila arriving at about 5:45 am. The intention was to breeze thru the capital and head up north. As it turned out, the station with buses to Banaue was on the other side of town. A kind bus driver offered us a free ride and we stretched out in recliners watching Manila come alive with the sun.
Ten hours, a tricycle and two jeepneys later, we pulled into Banaue, collapsed on the bed of a hilltop guesthouse more exhausted than exhilarated. In the cool of the afternoon, we ventured out to explore. The town itself was rough-and-tumble, smallish and very hilly. We picked our way down steep concrete steps that led to the town center. The center
featured a small well-stocked market, a decent collection of good restaurants and (just for us tourists) a disproportionate amount of souvenir shops and a few internet cafes. But besides the hospitable rural 'feel', the center of Banaue offered little else. So why Banaue? Why did we endure the tortuous 22-hour commute from south to north?
The answer lay a just few hundred feet away from the center. You see, some 2000 years ago the Ifugao people, who inhabit the rugged and mountainous Central Cordillera region of northern Luzon, painstakingly hand-carved thousands of terraces into the mountainside. Each 'step'
in the terrace is a self-contained rice field complete with an elaborate rain-fed irrigation system. Each rice patch has little dams around the edge trapping water inside and also serving as a foot path. We noticed that the higher plots had little overflow 'valves' that, under the right conditions, feed water to the next level ensuring that the entire mountainside is irrigated. All throughout the valley, as far as the eyes could see, terraces cascaded down the mountainsides. Occasionally, clouds would descend and obliterate the view forcing us to wait in frustration for the visual feast to continue. A picture of beauty
On the way from Sagada to Banaue
and symmetry, these remarkable feats of imaginative, ingenious engineering still manage to astound even the most hardcore traveller.
We chose to have dinner in a restaurant with marvellous, panoramic views across the rice terraces. Good food, great view. What more can travelling nomads ask for? Friends, maybe. Enter Sarah and Derek, two New Yorkers similarly entranced by the spectacle. We struck up a conversation. They had been travelling the Philippines for a few weeks and nearing the end of their trip. Something they said really caught our attention. They told of a place, even further north and even higher in the mountains of the Cordillera, where ancient tombs were suspended on the faces of cliffs; where networks of caves burrow deep into the earth; where the air is the cleanest and freshest and the days are cool. Everything sounded fairy tale-like except the erratic jeepney schedule but we were already hooked. Saying 'goodbye' to Derek and Sarah, we headed out into the dark but surprisingly busy Banaue streets already hatching a plan for the next day. The situation was this: we had only 3 full days left in the Philippines. We’d rush up to Sagada early in the morning,
overnight there and then come back to Banaue in time to catch the night bus. The only reliable bus service back to Manila departed at about 8pm. We purchased tickets for the following night ensuring our places and retired early.
At the crack of dawn we were sitting in the back of a jeepney bound for Sagada. Early morning fog chilled and blanketed everything. In the jeepney were about 7 other tourists. We were closest to Arian, a burly Sharjah-based academic and a young doctor/notary couple. All three were, rather coincidentally, from Holland. The discussions, on the hair-raising ride on a treacherous mountain road with more than its fair share of landslides, swayed from geo-politics to travel adventures. The Dutch doctor told us a particularly creepy story about a colleague who got a tiny scratch from a bat and died of rabies in the space of two weeks. We swapped our Singapore tales and Arian chipped in about life in the UAE. And when it seemed like everything was simply peachy and we would actually get to Sagada in time to do some exploring, Murphy’s Law kicked in. The jeepney broke down AND right under an outcrop of perilous
Time was against us. It was already 12 noon. We had to get to Sagada in time to do something exciting or our entire day-trip would have been for nothing. Minutes later, we were chugging along again. We switched jeepneys in a cute mountain village called Bontoc and about 1 pm, we burst through the fog and pulled up in Sagada.
The group split up. Arian stayed with us. We ditched our bags in a nearby guesthouse and found ourselves a guide and a bus. Our chosen activity for the afternoon: CAVING
. On the way to the caves the driver stopped the bus and directed our attention to the face of a jagged cliff and, surely enough, suspended on primitive support were the Sugong ‘hanging’ coffins. Being buried this high was a status symbol. Jeff, our guide, told us that there were many other hanging coffins in the vicinity. Leaving the vehicle, we trekked down a steep slope to the mouth of a huge, dark and foreboding cave. This cavity in the earth was the Lumiang Burial Cave
. As if the name wasn’t scary enough
, about 100 coffins were piled up at the mouth of the cave.
Some coffins are about 500 years old. Against conventional wisdom (you know, the wisdom which cautions against going into a cave with tombs at the entrance) we followed Jeff, who was now brandishing a gas lantern, into the abyss. Our headlamps cast pathetic beams in the pitch black. We clawed our way along 3-inch-wide ridges with seemingly bottomless drop-offs, inched on our backsides down dizzying descents all the while wondering what we had gotten ourselves into this time. At one point, Jeff asked us to see if we could identify the path we must follow. We couldn’t because it was a tiny hole snuggled between razor sharp rocks and heading down to ‘who knows where’. Jeff rigged the safety rope and disappeared with the light. Then he called up and Shanna slipped thru the crevice and rappelled to the bottom. Arian followed and Vibert brought up the rear. We were hundreds of feet below. The air was cold and damp and eerily still. The deeper we went into the cave, the wetter it became until we reached and waded thru a chilling underground river. Ninety minutes passed. We were running on pure adrenaline now. Through the rivers; down the rabbit-hole;
across the ledges we went, crossing, unknown to us of course, from the Burial Cave into the Sumaging (Big) Cave.
A particular scary episode was when we stumbled upon a colony of bats. The story we had heard only a few hours earlier only served to heighten our fears. The high-pitched screams from the bats sounded like they weren’t happy to have intruders. Thankfully, we passed thru without incident. The underground rock formations like giant turtles, chocolate fountains and angel wings were many and impressive and so too was the deep, sub-zero pool of water to which Jeff had led us. Arian and Vibert plunged in. Shanna declined.
After 4 solid hours underground
, we emerged to the weak light of dusk. Every muscle and joint in our bodies ached and the fabric covering our behinds was threadbare. If we’d go into another burial cave is uncertain but that this was the best caving experience in our entire lives is without any doubt. 😊
😊 The bus driver in Manila
😊 Derek and Sarah
Tot: 2.411s; Tpl: 0.119s; cc: 28; qc: 133; dbt: 0.1136s; 1; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 1;
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