Saturday, December 1, 2007

Into the darkness of Kapalong caves

THERE is more to caving than meets the eye. The word bespeaks a formidable yet exciting challenge of crawling, squeezing or climbing your way in through cold neck-deep waters, or muddy and slippery track. Beyond the twilight zone, your life depends on your skullguards and flashlights, but don't resist the thrill of adventure. Gather your guts and let's go into the darkness.

After an hour's bumpy ride from Kapalong town to Sua-on Nature's Park in Davao Del Norte, 35 media practitioners partook of the bountiful fruits in season courtesy of our gracious hosts, the local government unit and Kapalong Tourism Office before proceeding to the first cave on our itinerary, Okbot cave.Our guide told us that several years ago, a man named Datu Okbot lived in this cave for a long time and until his death after he was driven away from the village, hence the cave was named after him.

Water flows through the narrow passage, but the sheer beauty of crystal stalactites and stalagmites, delicate curtain formations, columns and draperies that nature has wonderfully carved through the years met our eyes and put us in a trance.In Okbot cave, one has no choice but to get wet. The water that flows on the cave floor and water that drips from the ceiling surely would make the caver wet.After hours of surmounting several hard maneuvers including the 'slim test' passage, we reached the cave's end, posed for souvenir photos and made our way back. Ah, nothing's sweeter than a long night rest after Okbot cave.

After a hearty breakfast the following morning, we trekked to Otso cave, some 20 minutes away from the road accessible by vehicle. Unlike Okbot cave, one would hesitate to enter the dark entrance to Otso cave but once inside we were again treated to a spectacular view of nature's wonders.Otso cave lived up to its name. One has to perform the movements of the popular dance 'Otso-otso' to dodge the stalactites or the stalagmites.A few meters from Otso cave's entrance, Arjoy's camera flashed. He then pointed towards the cave wall three feet from where I stood. I trained my flashlight towards the direction he pointed and thought it was just another masterpiece of nature.

What Arjoy had just taken a photo of was a coiling banakon, or the feared black mamba. Black mambas are known to abound the caves but they have never hurt anyone before.We emerged from the Otso cave looking like we had just engaged in a mud fight. Trekking through a portion of the 19-km Banakon River Trail which features an underground river and a number of small waterfalls washed off the mud from our bodies.

Caving evokes insatiability. Each cave has its own personality and after exploring a cave, The need to explore more is irresistible no matter how exhausted we are. One can hardly resist the pull to be taken into the bosom of the earth.Not satisfied with the two-day media tour, photographer Arjoy and I decided to come back for more exploration a month later. This time we have the chance to experience real caving.

MALTAG CAVE: the ultimate experience
Maltag cave is located in Dakudao Ecotourism Park, an hour's ride away from Kapalong, Davao del Norte. The park hosts 18 caves and two cascading waterfalls. The area is unarguably an epitome of nature's bounty.We hiked on a rough road under the heat of the sun for more than three kilometers (it is never wise to trust the local folks who estimated the distance by pointing with their lips) before we came to Maltag cave's entrance. It was hidden beneath thick foliage. Kapalong tourism officials considered this as one of the technical caves (meaning challenging).

Entering through the narrow passage, we were filled with awe once inside. We could not stop the oh's, ah's and wow's to express the intense emotions we felt as we passed through stalactites suspended from a thirty foot ceiling, delicate curtains and shimmering white crystal formations flanking us on both sides.

Maltag cave requires a caver to execute all kinds of movements- crawl, kneel, duck, climb, go over or under stones, roll, jump, swim, cry, name it, Maltag provides it but unless one has gone caving in Maltag, he or she has not really gone caving at all. The ultimate test came when we have to leap from a ten-foot cliff straight into neck-deep cold water below. There was no other way to go but I miraculously made it.After more than three hours of exploring, the cave's end was in sight. Thankfully, Maltag cave has an exit point and we didn't have to make a return trip.Maningo caveJust a few minutes' walk from our camp site in Sua-on is cave. Hiding behind the shelter of a robust companion gave me the chance to really look at the eyes of a black mamba poised ready to strike.

On the way out, we had to maneuver 10 feet 90-degree slope but we did avoid meeting the black mamba this time.Kambal CavesIt was almost dark and we were tired but we willed our last few shreds of energy to conquer yet another pair of caves, the Kambal (twin) caves are short caves adjacent to each other. You get in at one cave, go out its exit and come back through the other cave. For the experienced caver, this one is not set with challenges but for a non-swimmer like me, it was hard. I had to hold on to a rope for life as the entrance to the second cave was filled with murky water.
(Lesson learned: take swimming classes)

Nah, you really have to be good in ducking when entering this cave because Kibyawan cave is home to thousands and thousands of bats, filling the cave's ceilings without an inch to spare. We had to wade in knee-deep 'guano' (excretes of bats used as fertilizer)We came out of the cave practically covered with bat dung and carrying the terrible smell of bats. We had to endure a 20-minute ride on a dumptruck scratching our itchy bodies after our other companions informed us we can't go to the waterfalls anymore as it was already flooded. Uh-oh.

Eco-Tourism Destination
Kapalong is truly a mecca for cavers, enthusiasts and tourists. Kapalong Municipal Tourism and information officer Edna Parcon said Kapalong has been slowly carving a niche in the tourism industry as the caving and spelunking capital of the region and is attracting a fair share of local and foreign tourists.

Parcon said that of the 42 caves located in seven adjacent barangays, only 32 are explored, 24 are documented and 12 are open for spelunking and caving. The rest are for research and reservation purposes.Other identified caves for exploration are the Datu Balong, Putol Putol cave, Ungoyan cave,Datu Kugsing cave, Busay and Kapunit caves.

Caves contain so much treasure but violating simple rules can damage them. Few years from now, there may no longer be wonderful caves in their natural beauty to explore. They may just disappear from our midst with the growth of modernization and misguided activities of the people.It didn't matter that I went home with all the mucles in my body aching (rightly termed as 'grabeng pamaol') but I have no regrets. It's an adventure I will never forget, and will grab again given the chance.*