Grace Like the Underground River

Puerto Princesa City, the Philippines

March 25, 2013

Youth, large, lusty, loving – youth full of grace, force, fascination.

Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace, force, fascination?

Walt Whitman wrote the words that my mother seemed to live by. Her dream of visiting the Grand Canyon came true the previous year, but she ain’t done yet. She still had Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, to check off her bucket list. She had just turned 80, not an age for dilly-dallying. We flew to Palawan that summer with my eldest brother and nephew.

Underground River
Sailing into Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature

TTT and Mom @ Sabang Wharf

Garbed in spandex, black jacket, aviator sunnies, and wide-brimmed tarsier hat, Mom was on bring-it-on mode on D-day. By 8AM, Sabang Wharf was already buzzing with tourists processing their permits (issued in the city proper), registration, and payment of environment fee. While my brother and his friend Adam Ausan, a colleague from his stint as a conservationist in Palawan decades back, were doing the paperwork, Mom and nephew were sitting pretty under a flaming fire tree. She had to conserve her energy for the main event, not squander it on bureaucracy.

We got our permits, thanks to my brother (R) and Mang Adam Ausan (L)!
Sabang Wharf, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Registration @ Sabang Wharf

The Underground River was fairly remote, accessible by boat or on foot over rough terrain. My brother would’ve preferred that I trekked over a mountain and waded across an estuary as a form of brotherly torture, but the trail was, thank goodness, under rehabilitation then. Instead I got to join Mom on the boat. A fleet of outrigger boats was waiting for our picking to take us to the same place in no time, in relative comfort.

Getting on the Outrigger Boat @ Sabang Wharf
Mom and TTT En Route to Puerto Princesa Underground River
Destination: Mt. St. Paul. Puerto Princesa, Palawan

The process took half an hour before our adventure began in earnest. It took three men to help Mom up the boat’s wooden ladder. Good thing it was smooth sailing, literally, from there, a breezy 20-minute ride traversing Ulugan Bay framed on one side by limestone cliffs chiseled into craggy monuments, a foreshadowing of things to come. Mt. St. Paul was visible at a distance. Incredibly, we would be going into the mountain rather than on it.

Cliff and Cove @ Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Parking is More Fun in the Philippines: Puerto Princesa, Palawan
St. Paul Limestone Cliffs

As we approached the shallows, Capt. Boatman jumped overboard to pull the boat aground at Sabang Beach, a scene straight out of the viral Parking is More Fun in the Philippines video. Mom, once again, exerted monumental effort to get off the boat and find her balance on the soft sand. Finally, touchdown Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Touchdown Sabang Beach, Palawan
Flexing our Muscles for Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

Despite the welcome sign, we weren’t quite there yet. We had to register anew at the final gatekeeper that put a cap on the number of daily visitors to the national park, and walked for another 20 minutes, Mom’s pace, through a forest of mainly dita trees to reach the staging area. This obstacle course did not dampen Mom’s spirit, thanks largely to the wooden walkway and the amusing simian welcome party.

Registration Area @ Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
Simian Welcome Party @ Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
Granny and Grandson Walking Through the Rainforest to the Underground River

We geared up at the staging area under the cool rainforest canopy. A few steps away, the emerald-colored Cabayugan Estuary calmly beckoned. Helmet, check. Life vest, check. Can-do spirit, double check! We were good to go. We got on a smaller row boat that would deliver us into the jagged jaws of the Underground River.

All Aboard to Puerto Princesa Underground River
To the Mouth of the Monster @ Puerto Princesa Underground River
Into the Underground River

How quickly we were plunged into pitch darkness. Mom had evaporated before me, as did everything else, until the guide flicked his floodlight on, revealing Mom’s tarsier hat slung around her back, giving her away among orange helmets and vests.

Navigating through the Underground River
The Cabayugan River Cave System @ Puerto Princesa Underground River
Mom’s ID: Her Tarsier Hat

The Underground River was a portion of Cabayugan River that flowed right into a cave system under Mt. St. Paul, one of limestone mountains that formed the backbone of Palawan Island. Typical of karst formations, Mt. St. Paul was porous; water had tunneled through it for millions of years, creating cavernous spaces within the massif.

The Bat Cave @ Puerto Princesa Underground River
Guano (Bat Excrement) Stains on Cave Walls @ Puerto Princesa Underground River

Romnick, our boatman/guide, turned out to be quite a comic, peppering his spiel with dry humor, which somehow lightened the underworld creepiness. Mostly, I couldn’t tell facts from his jokes. He pointed at one dark passage and called it the “bat room” because of bat poop smell wafting from it, but I couldn’t sniff it out. He warned us to avoid open-mouth amazement at the massive rock formations he trailed his spotlight on, as we might get a taste of guano, bat excrement that stained the cave walls. Being nocturnal, the bats themselves were nowhere to be seen, only their cathartic by-product, which looked like leopard print wall art.

Jellyfish Stalactites @ Puerto Princesa Underground River
The Candle, One of the Largest Stalagmites @ Puerto Princesa Underground River
Giant Squid Stalactites @ Puerto Princesa Underground River

Romnick irreverently grouped stalagmites (rising from the ground) and stalactites (hanging from the roof) into supermarket sections: vegetable, fruit, and fish. True enough, familiar figures of squid and even puso ng saging (banana heart) loomed above us. The joke was on Mom: she had to go all the way into the heart of a mountain only to find herself back to her weekly haunt – the grocery store.

But all was not mundane; there was also the sublime, which Romnick called Cathedral Cavern (aka Italian Chamber) because the cave’s roof was so high, the light he pointed upwards was devoured by what seemed like a black hole. Back to eye level, the stalagmite tableau of the Holy Family was the chamber’s highlight at the far end of one corner – the Holy of Holies, if you will.

Puso ng Saging (Banana Heart) Stalactite @ Puerto Princesa Underground River
Bottlenose Dolphin Stalactite @ Puerto Princesa Underground River
Holy Family Stalagmites @ the Cathedral Cavern of Puerto Princesa Underground River

A kilometer or so into the Underground River, Romnick made a U-turn. Alas, the remaining seven kilometers was not navigable by tourist boats. Still, it was enough to leave me in awe of nature’s majestic artistry exhibited in this natural museum. Water and time that flowed so inconspicuously had carved out this space and filled it with rock sculptures, all works in progress. Slowly, surely, serenely, formless water had conquered a mountain of rock. Mom described it all in one word: fabulous! After about half an hour in the darkness, we emerged from the underworld squinting at the glorious world of light.

Romnick, our Funny Guide
Light at the End of the Tunnel: Exiting from the Underground River

The experience brought to mind the book Mom gave me from Doulos, the floating bookshop, titled Grace Like a River, the inspirational autobiography of musician Christopher Parkening. The foreword described it as “a story of how the grace of God has conquered him.” On it Mom wrote:

I hope (wish) you experience “grace like a river” as the author experienced it in his life!

Bucket List – Underground River, CHECK!
Mom and Brother (and Photobomber) @ Sabang Beach, Palawan
The Look of a Bucket List Checker: Mom After a Trip Down the Underground River

Back at Sabang Beach, we pranced and took jump shots, not out of conceit for having conquered the Underground River, but out of gratitude for this rare chance to share the experience with Mom. That I got to do what meant to me most with people I loved most was more than I had bargained for. It was by grace that, at an age when most would live on memories, Mom was still making some. Not only had I experienced grace in my life, it had conquered me.

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10 thoughts on “Grace Like the Underground River

  1. Reblogged this on Curly Bookworm and commented:
    Simply nostalgic!
    Streams of memoirs flooded me! I can’t wait for the next Palawan visit! I’ve been almost a decade since I first visited there, December 2004! 😀

    Have you been to Ugong Rock Cave? 🙂 It’s a must visit cave too!

  2. Simply nostalgic!
    Streams of memoirs flooded me! I can’t wait for the next Palawan visit! It’s been almost a decade since I first visited there, December 2004! 😀

    Have you been to Ugong Rock Cave? 🙂 It’s a must visit cave too!

    1. Thanks for reblogging, Curly! No, we skipped Ugong Rock Cave. All roads led to the Underground River only because that was what Mom wanted to see. We didn’t want her to over-exert physically. I’ll be back to Palawan, surely, and I’ll make sure that’s in my iti!

      1. Awww! Happy for your mom! She’s blooming and beaming with gaiety! I can’t wait to meet her 😀 It’s evident where you got your adventurous side 🙂 Kindly send my warmest regards.

        btw, you’re welcome! I wanna re-blog some more post of your picturesque travelogue-sort-of 😀

  3. Thanks again Kuya for sharing this. You really have great experiences. Although for some, they may find such very simple. But with your Mom, it truly becomes a priceless adventure. How is she doing now, by the way? I am still looking forward to similar escapades you enjoy. Someday I’ll get to share them too.

    1. I’m a simple traveler, Lil Sis. I love just “being” in a place rather than “doing” many things there. Not the kind who’d look for theme park rides in a nature reserve. I guess that’s why I enjoy traveling with my mother. The smell-the-roses pace and just basking in the ambiance give us time to ponder and appreciate the moment and togetherness.

      Mom is getting better by God’s grace. Still weak (far from how she was in these photos), but at least the worst is over. I try to be home as much as I can so she wouldn’t feel left out.

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