The famous subterranean river. One of the most incredible experiences in this part of the world. We were going to canoe down it. But that was later in the day. It was now 6am. We had a light breakfast of egg, toast, and ham slices that tasted like a sponge that had been left in a pan to soak up the oil overnight and put in the fridge for 20 minutes before being served.
We shared our van with three other young couples. I regretted finishing my pot of tea. I was desperate for the toilet before we had even picked up the last couple and headed off towards Sabang proper, through a tour agency booked through the Blue Lagoon the night before.
We picked up our bubbly tour guide as we entered the vicinity of Sabang. She immediately gave us the good news – there were soooooo many tourists now, we would need to wait at least two hours once we got there, but we could do ‘forest walk and zipline’ or ‘mangrove tour’ for around 300 pesos each. Or just sit and wait. She gave us some time to think about it. We had a toilet break at a scenic spot (5 pesos each for the toilet), then got back in the van. Now we were given the hard sell. “Who is coming on the tour. Hands up?” She demanded. Surely there are more subtle ways of organizing these things. Anyway, we were told we couldn’t drop our luggage at DabDab Tourist Inn first (a hotel we had booked in Sabang), as we had planned to, so we decided to do the Mangrove tour. It was a good choice in the end. We enjoyed the gentle boat ride through the mangroves, the old guide really doing his best to explain things to us. He seemed to have a genuine love for mangroves and his job, and towards the end he sang a quite beautiful song, creating rhythm with his hands and feet and mimicking the sounds of blowing through a conch.
Of course, this lovely experience paled into insignificance as we were driven to the jetty to board ‘boat 40’ and sail across the choppy waters to the gorgeous beach framed with limestone karsts, beyond which is found the famous subterranean river. It was fairly well-organised, if a little ‘loose’ and chaotic, this being the Philippines after all. We picked up a helmet, and were given an audio guide device, before being herded onto canoes, which held around 8 people, with the paddler at the back. We headed down the turquoise-coloured lagoon and into the mouth of the cave. The audio guide explained the various sights we would see along the way, as we channeled deep into the caves. The caverns were immense, the water 9 metres deep in places. Stalagmites and stalactites formed the geography of the cave. Thousands of bats hung sleeping. We were advised not to open our mouths else we might get bat droppings missiling in.
Some of the rock formatations were incredible – hauntingly beautiful; formed over millennia and resembling all kinds of weird shapes the way clouds do – to some a Jesus, to others a prophet.
The ‘cathedral’ was the most impressive chasm, the formations of the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, Jesus – almost as though sculpted by the hands of God himself.
Throughout the tour, despite all tourists being advised to stay slient, our guide humoured us (and himself it must be told) with his dry humour and observations. “Don’t worry sir mam, no crocodiles in here….only the government” “Are you happy? I am not happy. You are too heavy. I am so tired” “This rock here looks like sexy woman. You see her ass? Oh….I can see she’s getting old now” (as his shadow stroked the drooping shape of an ass on the rocks). The audio guide kept insisting that the tour should be conducted in silence, but, like a rebellious teenager (which he was), the young man insisted on speaking over the audio guide, pointing things out himself, making his jokes, completely breaking the oath of silence. He was a hoot!
We emerged from the caves some 30 minutes later. An incredible experience – truly a wonder of the natural world. I wanted to explore more, and was told that it was possible to do a 4.5km tour through the depths – a trip that took some 8 hours. Next time, then.
Back on the mainland of Sabang we dragged our luggage a short distance to Dabdab Tourist Inn, a gem of a place situated right next to the sea, in a well-kept garden. The bungalows were pretty, with nice terraces that invited afternoon snoozes. As the woman with a kindly village face was showing us the room, a wild boar emerged from under the reception / restaurant, and started hurtling towards us. “Don’t worry about him, he thinks he’s a dog” laughed the woman, before shouting at him. Scared, he turned and bolted away back under the restaurant. The woman warned us not to feed it, as it wouldn’t hesitate in jumping up onto the terrace, and ‘gnawing’ you in a ‘playful’ way.
It was pretty, the place. Cocks strutted around, silent now, but perhaps charging their voices in the sun to bray full pelt come 4am.
We had a couple of warm beers I had bought from the village stall, and fell asleep until 4pm.
Later, we booked, through Dabdab, onward journey to Port Barton for P600 a piece. Then we strolled down to one of two resorts here – the posh Sheridan. Boasting a long pool, luxurious loungers, and a stunning mountain backdrop, it was a perfect place for us to grab a couple of towels (“room 179” I said to the towel guy – I’d made a note of room numbers as I walked past the pool). We enjoyed a swim in the luxurious surrounds. It was the best place to while away an afternoon.
After this, refreshed, we had a wonderful massage in a little wooden hut around the corner of the Sheridan. Then we went back to the Sheridan for dinner. Not the P1,600 a head Chinese New Year celebration dinner on the beach front lawn, but a more relaxed affair on the decking away from the hysteria. We had fettucine Bolognese and a a pizza. On the stage to our right, the many Chinese guests were being treated to Dragon Dances, Lion Dances, live performances, and a sumptuous buffet. We still felt part of it, we were close enough to hear and see everything, but far enough away to be able to talk. And it was a lot cheaper.
We retired to the hotel after this, picking our way along the dirt track in the darkness, pausing occasionally to gaze up at a night sky full of shining stars. It had been a truly fantastic day.