Sagada, Mountain Province, the Philippines
March 1, 2015
Airplane turbulence aside, there had been very few instances, if any, in my travels when I feared for my life. I usually perished the thought of perishing on my journeys; otherwise, I would never embark on one. That sense of trepidation, however, came over me as I stood transfixed at the jagged jaws of Sumaguing Cave, aka The Big Cave, in Sagada. Stalactites and chiseled boulders protruded like menacing teeth around the black hole that dropped deep into the mountain. Would I offer myself to get swallowed up by this monster of rock?
Our collective answer was an unequivocal yes. Following our registered guide, Crescio, who had produced a gas lamp, we gingerly walked down slabs of rock stacked to form a staircase. Although we were not at all prepared for hardcore spelunking, it paid that we observed necessary precautions we thought up along the way:
1. Whatever you do, keep your balance at all times.
Even at the mouth of the cave well within reach of sunlight, one could never be too careful standing on uneven rocks. Sukwoo almost lost his balance while framing a shot, consequently capturing my hand-to-heart reaction. It was a timely reminder that no photo was worth a concussion.
2. Be equipped for pitch darkness and a watery world.
Cindy, channeling her inner Girl Scout, strapped on her head flashlight and was good to go. Although the guide’s lamp was big and bright, it could not possibly illuminate each of our paths. I did not come similarly prepared for my own safety, but I had considered the protection of my gadgets sealed in waterproof ziplock plastic bags. At least we were appropriately dressed to get wet and dirty: light clothing and sandals.
At one point in the descent, I looked up and saw a dark hole above me. Only then did I realize we were not just going into the mountain but DOWN inside it. The view down and up the abyss were the same. The cave was a vertical tunnel, said to be at least 300 meters deep.
3. Focus your mind and stretch your body.
The first stage was the descent that involved crawling and a lot of contortions. Sliding down huge rocks while resisting the pull of gravity felt like a tug of war. We knew from the start this was not a walk in the park. It required focus, both visual and mental, in EVERY step.
First I had to get a grip, a good one, even on guano (bat poop)-covered rocks (goodbye eeewy qualms!), and then steady my foot on a flat or concave surface. All this as my body stretched Pilates-style between my hand and foot that were poles apart. I imagined I could finally do the split.
Eventually the guide ordered us to chuck our footwear and go barefoot for better traction on limestone surfaces, probably a leftover evolutionary adaptation from our caveman ancestors.
4. Light your way through wading pools.
The second stage was the sightseeing one. Finally ledges leveled off wide enough for us to safely whip out our phones and cameras. Limestone shapes and patterns, sculpted and designed by water, were eye candy. Photo ops all around.
Clear water collected on these shallow catch basins. They invited knee-deep wading, but we were horrified to see a black hole in the middle of one. The guide admitted there was no telling how deep it went. Certainly we did not want to end up on the other side of the mountain through a sinkhole.
5. Listen to your body.
Before long, the guide snapped us out of our camwhoring reverie and pointed at the next stage that led to a narrow tunnel. I could see another group of tourists using climbing ropes and human ladders. The fun part! My quivering leg muscles, no thanks to a knee bump I had earlier, would not have any of it though. Plus images of my loved ones back home flashed in my mind; I thought this dark, cold chasm could not be the end of me. I would rather wimp out and decided I had had enough.
6. Do a Spiderman on the ascent.
The ascent required some stunt moves. As we clambered up, the guide advised us to plant our bare feet flat on waterlogged limestone rock faces. The increased surface area of the skin allowed enough traction for us to stick on the rock before we leapt onto a higher level. Think Spiderman. The wimp had turned into a superhero. Each step was literally a leap of faith.
As soon as we emerged from the depths, the guide told us that the cave’s latest casualty was a woman swept away by a flash flood just a couple of years ago. “NOW you tell us that,” we chorused. Her body was never recovered.
Spelunking in Sumaguing Cave was akin to descending into Dante’s Inferno, albeit a chillingly cold one. Each stage presented its own difficulties and dangers. This “buwis buhay” (deadly…or better yet, death defying) experience was truly unique; we swore never to go this way again. Despite being witness to the otherworldly beauty of the underworld, we all heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of light. We had been to hell and back.