To visit the Underground River was the underpinning of our trip to Palawan. We had even booked a hotel nearby. And then we nearly didn’t make it! Strong currents on the Sunday – backlash from the typhoons further north – forced the coast guard to cancel all boat trips. As we had originally planned to meet friends in Puerto Princesa on Monday morning we got ever-so-slightly panicky, but luckily it didn’t prove too hard to alter our plans, and Monday dawned clear, calm and navigable.
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park was established in 1971 to conserve this extensive and stunningly beautiful cave system beneath a limestone mountain, through which the underground river flows to the sea. In 2012 the Underground River was officially chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
The Underground River Cave is more than 24 km long and contains more than eight kilometers of the Cabayugan River, which winds through the cave system before emerging into the South China Sea. The lower portion of the river is brackish and tidal. The area also represents one of the most significant habitats for biodiversity conservation in Asia.
We left the hotel immediately after an early breakfast, and walking along the beach to the quay where we clambered aboard our designated outrigger and headed out to sea. We followed the beautiful coastline until we reached a small bay where a flotilla of boats was already jostling for position just off-shore, and rode the rolling surf onto the beach. From there, we followed the boardwalk to the river, where smaller boats waited to take us into the caves. We all donned hard hats (low tunnels?) and then hovered beyond the bank as the ubiquitous photographers took photos of us setting out on our next Big Adventure.
Entering the Underground River cave system felt like a journey straight into a Tolkien novel, and I found myself on the look-out for Gollum and Goblins. Or perhaps we were in one of those human biology documentaries about the living body, when you travel with a microscopic camera down the throat and along all the important arteries?
The caves were unexpectedly full of bats. The smell initially gave them away, and then we began to notice large numbers of fist-sized bats clinging to the roof of the cave, looking ready to plummet head-first into the water. As soon as the boatmen started using their high beam torches, there was a rustle and a flap, and stray bats began swooping delicately through the caves, dodging the boats and their passengers with admirable skill. As we spotted the heavy streaking of guano on rock walls, the importance of our hard hats suddenly became obvious, and we all shut our mouths firmly as we looked up.
Our guide, Ricky, was quite young, but very confident and full of practiced patter, fluently cracking jokes like an experienced stand-up comedian. My favourite moment, however, was an unintentionally funny remark: Ricky was describing the ‘Bonfire bats’ and it took me several moments to realize I had misheard ‘vampire bats’. In the meantime I had images of small flying mammals bursting spontaneously into flame!
The rock formations were truly impressive. Stalactites and stalagmites garnished all the caverns and tunnels through which we rowed. The largest cavern we visited has been christened The Cathedral, with its towering roof and stalagmites in the form of the Holy Family. Another stretch of the river is known as the Market Place, filled with stalagmites shaped like artichokes and banana hearts and stalactites in the image of zucchini flowers, mushrooms and okra… well, he told us to use our imaginations, and anyone can see carrots and cucumbers!
Time passes strangely in the dark. We could have been in there for only an hour or for a whole day. Eventually, as the tour progressed, the river began to feel like rush hour, as more and more boats joined the throng, passing each other skillfully in the tighter channels, the boatmen hailing each other with funny – and doubtless oft-used – quips. At the end of the tour we wandered back up the boardwalk, now swarming with mid-morning tourists, amongst whom a handful of macaques wandered confidently, unflustered and apparently unaware of our presence.
We spent a few final moments cooing over a clutch of gorgeous baby monkeys showing off on the edge of the clearing, while two hefty monitor lizards, unperturbed by our presence, baked quietly in the sun nearby. Then it was back to the beach to leap the waves and clamber aboard our boat for a final putter up that glorious coastline and back to base, agreeing that we were really glad not to have missed out on such a special trip.
*With thanks again to Nicky Barker for sharing her beautiful photos.