Puerto Princesa City, the Philippines
March 24 – 26, 2013
Ten percent of the Philippines lay on hard yet soluble bedrock. For millions of years, water, aided by tropical heat, had carved out a large swathe of Visayas and the entire length of Palawan into a karst landscape of sawtooth peaks, whitewashed cliffs, and rocky mountains undermined by a network of caves.
On a family trip to Sabang Beach, we traversed the narrow width of Palawan marked by a dramatic panorama of cliffs and buttes of the Cleopatra’s Needle mountain range. The views merited two stops for photo ops by the roadside. Mom gamely brushed off the hassle of getting on and off the van; she was getting her karst fix.
We pulled over at what turned out to be a viewing area overlooking a typical pastoral scene. Beyond the flat expanse of rice paddies stood a wall of rock, mottled with white and grey. A wooden sign said Elephant Cave. No pachyderms in sight, perhaps the pattern of rock dissolution on the cliff conjured up an elephantine form. In the same panorama, a foliage-covered limestone obelisk rose a distance away from the rock face, towering over the surrounding field.
A pair of thatch-roofed huts stood guard at the mouth of the cave. Otherwise, the place seemed untouched by tourism development, surprisingly so, considering its prime location by a major highway. No rock climbers, no resorts, no concrete walkways. No frills, just the wall of millions-of-years old limestone rock, pristine and majestic.
At 15 to 30 million years old, these limestone formations may be considered young by Palawan standards (those at El Nido up north were ten times older). Still, from where we stood, they were sentinels of passing geologic eras, a snapshot of a dynamic process that continued to this day. Millions of years hence, what would water make of this rocky landscape?
Traversing Ulugan Bay on a outrigger boat heading to Puerto Princesa Underground River, we were treated to the same spectacular limestone vistas of St. Paul National Park. Mt. St. Paul loomed behind craggy curtains of rock slowly undermined by the lapping waters of West Philippine Sea. This time, Mom didn’t have to budge from her seat to get a front row view.
If we had beheld the karst landscape from afar on land, we got a closer look at seaside limestone formations by boat. At close range, the handiwork of water on rock was more barefaced. Cliffs were chiseled into blades and pinnacles with shards of rock scattered at the base; crevices devoured entire trees, revealing only their leafy tops. Apparently, solid rock was putty in the fluid hands of water.
It was all eye candy for Mom who developed a love affair with karst landscapes that had started in Guilin, China. The love continued to the Chocolate Hills in Bohol and the Grand Canyon. Palawan could not be far behind. After all, more than half of the country’s karst landscape formed the porous and picturesque backbone of this elongated island of sculpted rock.