Driving back to Sabang didn’t have quite the same excitement as it did on the first attempt; much of the road had been traversed already. There’s something inviting about knowing that every turn, every slight bend of the road would eventually reveal a new piece of terrain, or patch of jungle. Up until Teresa and I sped through Buena Vista for the third time in 24 hours, we didn’t get that distinct pleasure that comes with a fresh road. While it was still a peaceful and beautiful drive, time speeds by quicker when you know exactly how long it’ll take to reach a destination.
When we passed Buena Vista, though, we were treated to even denser forestry that closed in on both sides of the road. The air was thicker and our surroundings became a deeper, darker shade of green.
And then it opened up to a backdrop of towering karst limestone.
When I envisioned Sabang, it was somehow busier, and more urban. We were approaching the northern coast of Palawan where waves courtesy of the South China Sea drive their way to shore. Before this, though, is an open landscape of emerald green, backed by the string of karsts. At the base of a tower along the road lies a network of caves that I believe are connected to the Subterranean River itself. The tour would only take us on the first fraction of the river’s underground extent while studied professionals and, in the past, ecclesiastics would be given permission to explore further. Additionally, two segments of the television show The Amazing Race have been filmed at this particular locale.
Shortly after, we arrived in Sabang. The road took us right to the shore where a line of indoor kiosks sold tickets to the river. We parked out motorbike, bought the tickets, stepped out into the sunshine and enjoyed a few snacks from a couple of the dozens of vendors selling street food. We found fresh fruit shakes as well as a skewer of fried bananas, Teresa’s favourite.
Walking over to where several small boats were docked, Teresa spotted a man wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs t-shirt. We walked up to him and struck up a conversation. He was the first fellow Canadian we’d met in the Philippines so far. Working on contract for an agency, he told us about getting his trip funded and how he’d be spending a year living in the capital on business. It was a very inspiring way of meeting someone across the world who was living in the same city as us.
Before long, Teresa and I boarded one of the dozens of motorboats going through the rotation. The entrance was about a half hour ride from the shore, along the coast of a long sandy beach with amazing swimming potential if it weren’t packed with these boats. The view was phenomenal as well, with the karsts punctuating each end.
There really were a lot of people here. I guess we should have known, but most of what we’d done in the Philippines up until now had been relatively secluded from tourists. Don’t get me wrong, we saw travellers all over the place, walking the streets amongst the locals, staying in guesthouses, driving the same kinds of motorbikes as I was. But this was the first instance of so many people in one place, all there to do exactly the same thing. It made my head hurt at first because I’d somehow tricked myself into believing that everything we’d be doing would allow us to avoid this kind of madness.
We were ushered to the cave mouth where the river spilled into the sea, waiting to be loaded onto a canoe with ten other tourists and a guide. This area reeked of bat droppings, similar to when we were in the heart of Sumaging Cave in Luzon, a sort of rotten goat cheese funk. It added to my headache at the time. The scenery, though, was unreal.
We waited here for another forty five minutes before being invited onto the canoe that set sail shortly thereafter. Upon entering the cave, the smell immediately disappeared. The canoes ahead and behind were at a far enough distance that we couldn’t hear them anymore. It was beginning to feel serene and peaceful again, the darkness of the cave filling all the space around us.
The guide was very informative, down to earth, and funny. With his flashlight, he pointed out a wide variety of formations, many resembling identifiable objects and thus named after them. Priests had been invited in decades ago to bless certain parts of the cave or inscribe the walls with snippets of biblical literature. Some merely left a signature and date.
In addition to hundreds of bats, we spotted a milky-coloured snake up in a lower part of the ceiling, poking its head out curiously from a crack in the rocks.
We were taken about a kilometre and a half deep, if I’m remembering correctly. Eventually, we came to a part where the water was too shallow to safely traverse in our current vessel. Here, we turned around and headed back out. We went all the way back the way we came, stopping just before the beach, on the cusp of the jungle, to take in a local water monitor that looked fairly comfortable around the crowds.
After being taken back to Sabang’s shores, we trudged the last bit of the way through the water and onto the beach, rather than the cement docking area where we’d initially boarded. We walked back to the bike, got a couple of mango shakes, and set off, back to Puerto Princesa.
I enjoyed the Subterranean River; it’s a unique natural formation and its surroundings are very beautiful. But I think I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. I would even say that the failure we suffered on the first day was a contributing factor to that enjoyment. It makes the experience feel more complete. Things aren’t always supposed to go right on these trips. Speaking for myself, it’s sometimes difficult to fully appreciate the joys without encountering a few pitfalls along the way. Not only that, but what we went through the day before simply allowed for another reminder as to why Teresa and I love exploring different parts of the world. It tends to bring out the best in the people who live in those parts. Almost everyone we met was willing to help us without expecting anything in return. When we were picked up by that tricycle driver and taken to the vulcanizing shop in Buena Vista, we tossed him 100 pesos for his time and effort. I want to laugh every time I think of the dawning smile on his face. He wasn’t expecting anything for his help, it’s just what he would do for a person whether he knew them or not. All of that natural beauty I’m always gushing about wouldn’t be as vibrant and colourful without all of these beautiful people to coexist with it.