Ifugao harbours many ancient secrets. Another legend, whose details escape me, tells of a group of Ifugaos who were travelling through the mountains and forests of Pangagawan, in the south of Kiangan, perhaps hunting or gathering plants. Apparently, they happened upon a deep cave, and upon exploration, discovered a passage to the Skyworld within.
That cave is now becoming established as a special tourism asset, and if you're the adventurous sort, then this is not something you will want to miss. You too can delve to a whole other world a hundred metres beneath the surface: a realm made of darkness and limestone, shaped and contorted over thousands of years into vast and surreal formations; and so too of subterranean rivers and waterfalls, which weave through the darkness and churn from depths of stone.
Appropriately, an expedition to those depths is serious business, and the journey to get there alone will test your worthiness to enter. You would certainly be wise to stay the night at the lodge in the forest over there, due to the distances, energy requirements and rain patterns involved; and the cave passages twist and project in all imaginable shapes, which will certainly bend, bruise and cut you as you contort yourself to negotiate them. Fortunately, the local guides will provide you all the oversight, equipment and support you need to explore them safely; and you will emerge, at last, with experiences you will not forget any time soon.
Oh, and remember to bring toilet paper.
To reach the Pangagawan Cave, you must first get across this mountain.
There are two phases to this: a trial of endurance, and a trial of precision. The first, of endurance, consists in getting to the top. Initially this is easy going, through village outskirts and farms with some lovely views on offer.
|More beans are grown up here.|
And then you enter the forest, and the path becomes narrow, steep, and closed in by foliage.
In due course you will make it to the top of the ridge, most likely sweating profusely. The views are certainly rewarding though.
|On the right, the southern lowlands of Ifugao (towards Lamut) are just visible.|
Then comes the trial of precision. You now go down a path as steep and rocky and densely forested as the one you took up. What is more, it will have been raining the previous afternoon, making for a constant hazard of sticky, slippery mud. Lest you twist your ankle or fall and break something, every footstep must be planned and undertaken with meticulous caution.
Emerge in one piece and you'll reach the lodge in a forest clearing. At present it has all the basic necessities to support an adventurous caving party for a night in the forest, including cooking equipment, while a spring nearby provides water for washing or drinking. As yet it lacks latrines, but the forest itself will provide a worthy substitute.
Oh yes, it's a vertical entrance. A metal ladder leads straight down 30-40m into pitch blackness. No, not this ladder: it's on the bottom-right side in this picture, and you have to switch to it a few rungs down. And see the barely-visible wooden beam that cuts across the hole, down below? That passes straight across that ladder right next to it, meaning you have to get past it as you climb down. Fortunately you'll be outfitted with rappelling gear, just in case it all goes wrong.
All the light in the pictures that follow comes from torchlight and headlamps. For a special experience, turn them off and learn what absolute darkness really feels like. It brings an exhilarating peace, through which one may feel connected to the entire universe.
This darkness is perhaps one reason there is not so much life down there, though what life there is is specifically adapted to those conditions, so far as to appear exotic to the surface world we come from. There are bats, of course, though far fewer than they once were, due to hunting; but keep your eyes out too for the most bizarre of crawling friends.
It would not be advisable to move very far without switching the lights back on. Beyond the initial descent, the cave sprawls out into a jagged, rocky labyrinth where every misstep entails a slash from a protruding piece of wall, or a loss of footing on bumpy or slippery stones, or a twisted limb as part of you gets stuck in a fissure. What's more, the first set of caverns ends in another sheer drop to the lower section, with no ladder this time, and you'll have to rappel down with ropes to continue.
Soon the water starts. Puddles develop into trickling streams, and streams into gushing waterways which span the full width of the tunnels.
And eventually, after hours of spelunking, you'll come to the heart of the mountain, at least the deepest so far rediscovered: a single high chamber, into which plunges a great subterranean waterfall.
In the end, we didn't find that gateway of legend to the Skyworld after all. We weren't far off though: caves like this really put things in perspective. The human history of Ifugao has been estimated to go back anywhere between a few hundred to two or three thousand years, with previous posts in this series covering the endurance of the rice terraces, and the incursion of challenge after challenge across this period. The human race, as a whole, may be put at 50,000-200,000 years old, depending on how one defines it. Yet all that time, all those events, have been but a blink in the perpetual vigil of this underground realm which has shaped itself over millions of years, scarcely touched by the world above.
Therein lie secrets from a world long preceding our time. The caverns are a cathedral of nature, on a scale of space and time far greater than the perspectives which, in our daily lives, we often mistake as absolute. Let it be that a journey through these realms relieves you of the artifices by which you might address politicians as “your Excellency”, or wear suits and ties in the belief that those afford dignity. It is places like these, rather, that instil what respect and solemnity are really all about.
The waterfall is only half the journey, of course. You'll have to get out the same route you took in: including the long verticals, this time with gravity against you and a lot less energy than you arrived with. But overcome these you will – because there's not exactly much other choice – and when you reach the surface, it may be to find that night has fallen, with the sky lit up by beautiful fireflies.
|Fireflies which don't like appearing on cameras.|
And that's the Pangagawan Cave – well, almost. There's one more thing. Remember that mountain you laboured up and down to get there? Guess what the only way out is. Yes.
This concludes these multi-part impressions of Ifugao, its rice terraces, its heritage, its challenges, its secrets. But before we bring this series to a close, check back for one last post from this voyage to the Philippines: on Manila and its surroundings, specifically the rich and historical province of Pampanga.