Caving in the Philippines – # 1 getting there

Sydney > Manila > Tacloban (Leyte Island) > Catbalogan (Samar Island) – 10 & 11 January 2017
When MSS President, Jim C, asked if anyone wanted to go caving with him in the Philippines, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.  So, I booked my flight to Tacloban and Jim, who knows his way around the Philippines (after a few trips over there), did the organising … two caving trips on Samar.  Jim’s sister-in-law, Monique, was to join us on the 12th January for the 2nd caving trip.

To give a bit of history, back in 1976, I lived just outside of Manila for 14 months, and did quite of bit of travelling on some of the islands, so I was looking forward to going back 40 years later to see the changes (if any).

The holiday didn’t have a very auspicious start … I had to stay the night before at the Ibis, then get up at 3.15am to check-in at Philippine Airlines by 4.00am for the 6am departure.  I thought that was earlier than needed but found that the check-in line was very long when I arrived so good thing I didn’t go with a later start.  Then, the food on Philippine Airlines was less than average and there were no in-flight movies (you have to download an app before you get on the flight, but no-one tells you that).  This was a big disappointment for me, one of the joys of flying anywhere is the opportunity to watch back-to-back movies!

I got a birds-eye view of Manila and was astounded by the number of sky-rise buildings, the city is huge now, a lot has happened over the past 40 years!

I had a 5-hour lay-over in Manila sitting around the domestic terminal with nothing to read (I’d finished my book on the flight!), and the PA system was blasting away non-stop for the whole 5-hours.  On the plus side though, I met some lovely people on the flight and in the terminal, Filipinos are really friendly.

Finally, at 5.15pm I arrived in Tacloban.  Jim met me at the airport (the only westerner in a sea of Filipino faces) and we hopped in a van to go to our accommodation for the night.

The Rosvenil Hotel – our accommodation.  The original part of the building was a home built in the 1930s but a new 3 storey wing has been added at the back with modern motel-style rooms.  There were a lot of hotels in Tacloban, but I’d go back to this one again.  There is a restaurant next door which served fresh fish and cucumber juice – yes, that’s right cucumber juice it was actually really good!

We were intrigued by these two very large works of art in the reception area, each was about 2m x 1.5m brightly coloured and depicted the chaos of the rural Filipino cities, complete with electricity wires all over the place and washing hanging on lines.

The adventure starts, next morning Jim and I climbed into a couple of these tricycles – built around motorbikes.  We needed two because of our luggage … the tricycles took us to the bus depot.

The bus depot, this is a typical Jeepney, we used these from time to time, I liked the look of this one, it looked almost new. We caught a bus similar to the red one in the background, no air conditioning, wide open windows and lots of chickens and roosters on board.

Taken from the bus window … we’re heading off to Samar now, the streets are quite clean and in every village there were a number of small businesses, either selling auto parts or food.

In Tacloban, you would pass through a very poor area of shacks and hovels and then out of the blue would be a beautiful house, often with a small shop attached at the front or side, probably the owner of the house just leasing out part of the property to the shop-keeper.

This is the longest bridge in the Philippines, connecting Leyte to Samar. I have memories of the Marcos era and the stories of how little he did for the country, but this bridge (and other infrastructure that we saw) was built in the Marcos era and according to some Filipinos I spoke with, there hasn’t been much building such as this since the Marcos days, but they are hopeful that the current (anti-corruption) president will turn things around.

All the way to Catbalogan city (Samar), we passed villages that grew rice (and bananas, pawpaw and root crops).  The rice was harvested and then dried by the side of the road or on one of the many basketball courts in each village. The rice is only grown for local consumption.

Whilst it was a school day, there were lots of kids not in school, this one is using a crude “rake” to spread the rice out to dry.

Example of typical shacks/houses, cobbled together using whatever they can scrounge around. At the left is a roof made from palm fronds, I wondered how water proof they were and after a day of heavy rain, went under one of these rooves and it was surprisingly dry.

A more substantial house.

Rice paddies

I was curious about the proliferation of electricity wires, this one isn’t as bad as some of the others that I saw, like spaghetti hanging off the poles. Apparently even if it looks like a shack has illegally hooked into the power, there is a meter box somewhere!

Eventually, after a four hour bus-ride, we arrived in Catbalogan (Samar).  We got off the bus with our luggage at the depot (amongst 30 or 40 buses and just as many tricycles) and wondered where we should go next.  Two tricycles drove up to us and one said something unintelligible to Jim (at least to my ears) and Jim shrugged at me and hopped into the trike.

One of the two trikes that picked us up at the bus depot, off we went down some side streets, who knew where we were going.

Then the trikes stopped on this corner and we were at our destination.  We wondered how they knew to take us here, but then I figured that tourists were very rare in this town (I only saw one other westerner over the time we were here) and the trike drivers just assumed that this is where we were intending to go.

Joni Bonifacio’s home, outdoor gear store and office for Trexplore.

Joni is a one-man operation,  He runs caving and canyoning expeditions, has been caving for over 17 years (starting as a scout), and is a wealth of knowledge.  As we were a small group (2 now and 3 tomorrow), for convenience we stayed in a room in his house (with air-conditioning and our own bathroom).  Joni’s wife provided us with breakfast each morning we were there and we went out to eat at restaurants.  Catbalogan* is definitely not a tourist town, it’s a very poor area with no apparent industry, however, in amongst all the run down buildings there were two brand-new buildings, both built as cafes or restaurants and this is where we ate, they were modern set-ups and obviously catered to the more wealthy Filipinos that lived in the town.

*Catbalogan is the capital of Samar, with a population of just over 100,000.  The city was founded in 1596 by Jesuit priests that came to the area.  The city was captured in 1900 by the Americans during the Philippine-American War and then during WW2, the Japanese forces occupied the capital.  Twice the city has been destroyed by fires (in 1957 and 1969).

On November 8, 2013, super typhoon Yolanda (the deadliest typhoon on record to hit landfall) devastated Samar and Leyte.  Catbalogan was one of the most badly hit areas. The city was flooded with 4m of water in less than an hour.

Our adventure was to start next morning with a visit to Lobo Cave.


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3 Responses to Caving in the Philippines – # 1 getting there

  1. Jeff says:

    Interesting journey love the art at the reception!

  2. Jenny Hughes says:

    Sounds amazing….a little scary, but amazing.

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