It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve been underground so one Sunday afternoon our grotto president, Rawen Balmaña and I decided to do a quick pilot trip to some local haystack hills. These hills are at the southern end of a small range of haystack (limestone) hills with the Hundred Islands National Park
at the northern end extending to the sea. I know of a dozen sea caves within the national park so why not in the southern portions. Below is a photo of Cathedral Cave I took maybe 5 years ago.
We heard from locals that there are 5 known caves in the general area and ask to be brought to the longest first, which they have named “Lusot
” meaning “to go through
.” It was a short half-hour walk from the trailhead through rice paddies with remnant rice stalks and actually stacks of rice hay. Rawen commented that this was an easy “ridgewalk in the race paddies.
During the hike, our guide, who’s name is Jones, was concerned that I was wearing boots because he said it is a muddy cave but I told him that although this particular pair is new I’ve used the same type (military desert boots) in muddy conditions with no problems. I showed him the waffle treads and told him these are better than the lug treads because the mud doesn’t buildup as much. He just said, “OK
,” shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and gave me a “It’s up to you
" look. BTW, Jones was using the common flip-flops and Rawen was wearing Teva-like sandals.
The entrance is easy because it was at the same level as the rice paddy (no climbing involved) and while waiting for the GPS reading, Rawen and I mounted our lights on our helmets. I asked Jones if he brought a light and he relied, “No, my son took my flashlight night-fishing and it was low battery
” so I let him use my handheld backup. From his puzzled look, I had a feeling this was the guide’s first encounter with cavers and caving equipment (and this was w/o vertical gear). Then he gave me a questioning look when I was putting on my kneepads so I told him I spend a lot of time on my knees when taking photos; he nodded his head as if to say “Oh I see
” and another shrug of the shoulders. When I pulled out my camera and flash to take some entrance shots his face lit-up and his interest showed, as it turns out he used to be a local photographer (film) taking photos for graduations, weddings, fiestas, baptisms, etc.
Before entering the cave I noticed that Jones took off his flip-flops, which is no surprise to me because most of the guides here will go bare-footed when they want more traction. But then he stripped down to his briefs; I thought maybe he doesn’t want to get his shorts wet and shrugged my shoulders as I followed him in.
Only a few meters in and the floor turned from damp hard packed mud to a different type of mud we haven’t encountered in caves; it was very sticky, consisting of fine particles. We figured some of the clay from the fields seeps into the cave during the rainy season. The further we went in the deeper the mud got, to the top of my boot (9.5 inches). By this time, Rawen did the smart thing and took off his sandals so he can go bare-footed too.
Up to the middle of my shins now, according to Jones someone, maybe the landowner, drained this portion so they can harvest catfish and eel so there was no standing water. This made each step laborious. I’ve been in rice paddies this deep before but always with water to help lubricate my feet so I can pull them out for the next step. I almost felt like I was in quicksand (quickmud) because I had a hard time pulling out each foot, hampered by a boot, Luckily, I can feel bedrock at the bottom, sigh!
We ain’t there yet… now mud is to the bottom of my keeepads (purely kneepads w/o shin coverage), then over the top of my kneepads. Now steps are taking more than a minute each with Jones pulling my arms to help for each step. Stepping was easier for the two of them because they were barfooted. This is when I asked myself, “Wut da f*** am I doin in this mUCK?
OK, now it’s nearly to my crotch, I was so tired so I rested and pulled out the camera to shoot Rawen directly behind me (the entrance can been seen in the background). Keep in mind, he is 6’2”, mud’s up to his thighs and I’m 5’7” and I’m wearing boots and kneepads, to boot! While I rested Jones went back to the entrance to get bamboo stick so I have something firm to step on and although they sank to the bottom of the muck they really helped. Jones told us he has been in this cave many times to catch fish, I turned to Rawen and chuckled, “This muck makes it hard to keep up with the Jones!
We finally got to standing water (about 30 meters in), rested and washed off the muck. Jones took us into a branch the leads to the ”Simmimbaan Room
”, which translates to “church
” or “cathedral
” and loops back to the main passage. However, a few meter into the branch he saw a Philippine Cobra
blocking the way and said it looks like it was sleeping, so we said there will other days to explore “Simmimbaan
.” I was too tired from the muck to even pull out my camera, which is unusual for me.
The standing water was waist-deep with the muck only knee-deep and the water help lubricate our steps, which took only half-a-minute per step now. A couple bends we reached the loop that leads back to the sleeping cobra and a few more bends we reached the end of the muck! This was good time to rest again and to photograph the upcoming borehole passage. I took a lot of shots trying various lighting techniques so I have more time to rest. I gotta admit that this was the most labor intensive 50 meters in my life!
The water was only shin-deep with a bedrock bottom (no muck!) and finally disappeared. The rest of the main passage seemed ordinary compared to the start. The exit was about 5 meters above the rice paddies and 143 meters (GPS distance) from the entrance. We went in 3:00 p.m. and came out 4:30 p.m. I can’t wait to get the other grotto members in this cave to survey it!
We weren’t able to find the second cave because the guide couldn’t find his marker which was a large mango tree that was blown down by a typhoon many years ago. We suggested that maybe it has rotted away or it has been cut into firewood but he assured us that it was a very, very large tree that would take a long time for that to happen.
So, it was on to the third cave, which we eventually found by asking nearby farmers. From the rice paddy, we climbed 20 meters to the entrance that opened into a room with scallops on the ceiling. What’s unusual about these scallops is they were symmetrical; couldn’t tell the direction of flow.
This cave has a history for cave parties (lots of beer & gin bottles & litter) and treasure hunting (debris from diggings). We didn’t stay long because it was getting late and two more caves to check out. Before we left our guide pointed to a small pit near the entrance that may need vertical gear; again for future trips.
By the time we came out the sun was setting but we went on to caves #4 & #5. When we reach the particular haystack hill (both are on the same hill). We found the path has been heavily overgrown with underbrush and we didn’t bring a machete so decided to call it a day.
On the way back to the trailhead, we talked to other farmers and found we were looking at the wrong haystack for cave #2; so next time we know. The farmer folks were asking if we gathered bird-nest, a common misconception along with treasure hunting. Thanks goodness for playback on digital cameras so I could show them that we were there to take photos and they never realized the beauty within their caves.