Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Of underground expeditions and hiking in the clouds

Each sharp bend in the winding mountain road was heightening our sense of anticipation. Our destination was Sagada, a must-go for adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies, located high up in the mountain province of the Philippines. The journey had taken us sixteen hours from Manila and the twelve of us who had been on the road were waiting to set foot onto the mountain township. Its not like the journey had been any less exciting though. Lining the long and winding road were the famed rice terraces that are centuries old. These terraces have the distinction of being on the UNESCO world heritage site list. Built by the Ifugao tribe for their own community, the terraces are a spectacular sight. For as far as we could see, the mountains around us had been carved into large rice fields that looked like massive amphitheatres. It was in awe-struck silence and with our eyes fixed on these man-made structures that we made our way up to the sleepy town of Sagada nestled in the Cordilleras mountain range.

Scarcely had we taken in the mild wintery feel and the cool mountain breeze, that it was time to head to yet another site Sagada was famous for. Its limestone caves that form a crisscrossing network deep underneath the mountain town. Our group was being taken on a cave connection adventure. This meant that we would be doing some hard-core spelunking to get to the tourist friendly Sumaguing cave that was known for its limestone formations. Our entry point was the lesser-known Lumiang cave. Once used as a burial cave, even today massive pinewood coffins mark the entrance and set the foreboding tone for the rest of the adventure. Local guides who led the way with Petromax lanterns accompanied our group in our descent to the bowels of the earth. “This cave is only 100 metres deep while Sumaguing is around 163 metres, ” the head guide told us in a hearty manner. Not sure whether the information was vital to my survival, with a slightly pounding heart, I took my first step into the depths of the clammy cave. And within a few minutes, I knew that there was no training or information that could have prepared me for this underground expedition.

Cold and moist to the touch, the cave is filled with narrow claustrophobic spaces that you have to squeeze through to move forward. Right hand clutching onto a rock above ones head, left in another crevice, right foot firmly placed on a largish rock while the left foot dangles in space looking for a foothold. As the hours went by our movements started to have a distinct rhythm, ‘Stumble, grasp, clutch and slide’. As we moved closer and closer to the second cave the terrain changed from rocky to muddy. Left with lone rocks to clutch onto, more and more of us found ourselves clambering up clay slopes, slipping and sliding all the way. With the help of ropes and the will power to see daylight again, and to the accompaniment of the shrill shrieks of the thousands of bats that inhabited the caves, we ploughed on. When suddenly, we stopped in our tracks to see the breathtaking sight that made it all worthwhile. This was Sagada’s underground river, the force that had shaped these limestone caves and the formations inside, over thousands of years. We had to wade through the bone-chilling, crystal clear waters to exit the caves. At the end of five and a half hours, it was a dirt and bat dropping encrusted group that emerged into the open air with shaky knees and scrapes galore. And yet what we had seen and experienced made all the aches and pains, pale in comparison.

The next day at the break of dawn, we trooped up Kiltepan viewpoint to catch the first sunrays touch Sagada. And true to its reputation, the sight of the sun breaking through the clouds and bathing Sagada in its mild orange hue was stunning. After watching Sagada wake up, we headed towards our next challenge, a one and a half hour trek to the biggest falls in the area Bomod-Ok. We hiked along rice terraces, across streams and through small village settlements. Even with the occasional stop on the way to take pictures, it was not long before the waterfalls came into view. Cascading from a height of almost two hundred feet, we felt the cold spray from the falls temptingly dust our skin. It was all the invitation we needed to unload our backpacks and dive into the ice-cold waters. It was a thoroughly refreshed group that made their way back the mountainside to call it a day.

We all woke up with a twinge of sadness on the last day, as in a few hours it would be time to head back to Manila. But even then there was no time to dwell on it, as there were places to see and experience before we left. First stop was the St Mary’s Episcopal church the oldest in the mountain province. After a few moments of peaceful contemplation inside the calm, stone structure it was time to hike across the Cavalry hills to the Echo valley. Cupping our hands we shouted out syllable after syllable and waited for the valley to obligingly repeat our words. And then came the final destination, Sagada’s centuries old living tradition of the Hanging Coffins. Perched precariously on the Sagada’s limestone cliffs, these coffins dot the landscape, with the oldest coffin being centuries old, while the latest just a few weeks.

To me, Sagada was a kaleidoscope of experiences that are mystical and overwhelming. And while we kept our faces to the window for the last glimpses of the township, I realized that what one of my fellow travelers had told me at the beginning of the trip was indeed true. “If this is your first visit here,” he had said, “Be warned, for Sagada is addictive!”