Catbalogan > Calbiga > Catbalogan, Samar Island – 13 & 15 January 2017.
This trip is our “extreme adventure” as Joni’s website calls it. Three days of caving, one night underground and the second night at the exit of the cave. Gobingob is the largest part of the cave system, easily accessible taking 3 hours to get there from Catbalogan, with only 1 hour of walking. Its main chamber is huge, 340 by 140 metres at its widest points, and there is an upper level which takes 3-4 hours to explore.
Located near the village/town of Calbiga (half way between Tacloban and Catbalogan) Gobingob is said to be 7 km long. It is the second largest cave system in Southeast Asia and the largest cave system in the Philippines and lies within the 333,000 hectares of Samar Island Natural Park (SINP).
Joni told us the story of how some Italian cavers discovered the cave system. Apparently, the Italians were on their yearly exploratory expedition to the Philippines and asked around in Manila about caves to explore. They met someone from Calbiga who said that there was a big cave down there and so, the Italians determined to take a look. In 1987, an eight-person team of Italian cavers arrived, they had to convince local guides (who weren’t all that keen on the idea) to accompany them to the cave. They had to trek and cut through the thick jungle to reach the cave entrance. What they found was fantastic!
Somehow, once they’d gone back to Italy, word got around and a person from possibly Taiwan got wind of the cave and convinced the locals to mine the stalagmites for him. The Filipinos didn’t really understand what a prize they had on their doorstep and no-one stopped the devestation. I’m not sure how long the mining continued, but he paid the locals a pittance to go into the cave, break up the stalagmites and walk it out. Apparently it was to be carved for pendants and nick-knacks. The village elder also decorated his house with some of the stone. So, accessible parts of stalagmites were knocked off and carried away over most of the Gobingob section of the cave. One of our guides was a young man at the time and confirmed the story.
Thankfully, the Langun Cave section, which is accessed via a 30 metre vertical descent was spared.
The plan was to walk to the Gobingob cave entry, have lunch (before entering), enter the cave and continue through to the “football field”, set up camp there, have a nap and then after dinner we’d do a passage which could take up to 5 hours (there and back). Next day we’d continue through to the Langun cave section, set up camp and then take a look at the lower level. Next day we’d walk out. Piece of cake right?
Tricycles, loaded up (2 of them) and off we went to the Catbalogan bus depot where the four of us climbed into a standard bus (with all the packs) for the 1 hour trip.
On arrival at Calbiga, three motorcycles met us and we climbed on along (with packs all on one bike)
Wasn’t “overloaded” until Joni climbed on the bike in front of our driver (Joni sat side-saddle!)
Stopping at the local village to get the approval of the village elder (and I assume pay him a fee). These small villages are well looked after and the people own the houses and have title to the land that the houses are on.
A little further on, we met up with our four porters for the next few days, I wondered what the machetes that they had strapped to their waists were for, why would you need them in a cave, but you’ll see that they did come in handy later on.
Back on the bikes, the road turned into a “track”
30 minutes from the time we got off the bus, we left the bikes (which were driven back to the village), and started our trek to the cave through some fields first and then into the jungle.
It was extremely muddy in places, this track is used both to go to the cave and for farmers to tend to their crops.
We had to walk down hill to a small stream and then up the other side – it was a very steep hill and in the heat/humidity it was punishing.
Finally we are at the viewing platform, built by the government, along with some steps down to the cave entry and a “what not to do in caves” sign. The entrance was truly impressive.
Part of the track beside the limestone cliff-face which took us down to the cave entry
There was a flat spot just above here where we had lunch and Joni gave us the obligatory briefing before we entered the cave. This included instructions on how wees and poos were to be disposed of. Big bottle for one (easy for guys, Monique and I had to use plastic bags and then empty into the bottle), Number 2s were onto a piece of plastic, then put into plastic bags and into a garbage bag. I didn’t what to ask what happened when the trash was walked out of the cave, sometimes it’s best if you don’t know!
Nicely formed steps down into the cave again these were put in just after the cave was “officially” discovered and explored by the Italians.
And finally we’re inside, there were a lot of rocks to scramble over, basically for the next couple of hours. There were also “track markers”, these were metal poles that had been cemented in which designated the route to take, I’m assuming that made it easy for those mining the stalagmites to find their way in/out.
A really unusual stalactite
This was an interesting stalagmite, it was about 1.5m across and a metre high and perfectly flat where the drops from the ceiling were falling.
Another nice formation, this would have started out just like the one above and millions of years later, here it is. Monique hasn’t done too much caving and you can see she’s really into it!
Because of the humidity, there was a lot of water particles in the air (hence the spottiness of the photos). Here we are at The Stage. This has to be the biggest formation that both Jim and I’ve seen, Jim said it was bigger than anything he’d seen in Tassi. Years ago they had put in yellow metal poles, not sure why they are there, but they’ve been pounded into the limestone under the formation.
After The Stage, we went down a short passage and into a muddy section (was only about 10m but it was ankle deep) that brought us into the Football Field. This is a large dome, about the size of a football field, the floor is absolutely flat and either wet sand or mud. Just near where we set up camp, there is a water hole (for drinking water if you run out). We wouldn’t need it on this occasion, the porters walked in about 20l of water. Here the porters are setting up the kitchen part of our camp.
About 50m from the campsite and water hole is another water hole, this one can be used for swimming.
We were so sweaty after the walk in it was a relief to get in and have a swim, the bank was way muddy though and getting out was an issue, you had mud up to your chins.
The camp set up, kitchen area on the right, blue sleeping area on the left. Once they set up, the porters placed about a dozen candles around the area so we didn’t need head torches. We had a nap once they set everything up, everyone else slept but me, it was so quiet and there were constant drips from the ceiling (sometimes falling on my face!). After the nap we had dinner.
The porters having their dinner, after dinner, the one on the right, walked back out to the village. He would be walking in again in the morning with our breakfast. The one on the left is Landon (the head porter) and his English was excellent.
After dinner, we set off on our evening excursion. A possible 3 hour walk up a passage and 3 hours back, getting back to camp around mid-night. I wasn’t all that keen on this but with a major case of FOMO I set off. We had to climb up a large mountain in the cave (seemed like a mountain anyway), then down another one and up another hill, all bouldering, very tiring.
Cave spider (I think), toe to toe it was the size of my hand
It was about this time that I decided I was over up and down boulders and the thought of another 3 – 4 hours of it (I’d been going an hour) just wasn’t appealing, I’d already seen a lot of really nice formations. Plus there was nothing at the end, just a dead end, so, despite the fact that I didn’t want to sit in the cave by myself, I sent the others off and said pick me up on the way back. The porter lit a little candle for me so I wasn’t totally “in the dark”, I tried to get some sleep but couldn’t get comfortable, so just waited there for them. I wasn’t all that keen on sitting by myself, I’ve never been keen to sit alone in a cave, what if there was an earthquake!
As it turned out, an hour later Jim felt that his keen had had enough so they too turned around. Joni said later that they’d gotten further than most people, very rarely did anyone get to the end! I was so pleased to see their lights coming my way!
We got back to camp quicker than I expected and we all fell into bed, it had been a long day. Took a while with the sound of all the dripping but eventually I slept!
Next morning our porter arrived with breakfast (omelettes), we ate and then packed up. The same porter (at the right), took out all our garbage in that wire basket at the back and he’d meet us again next morning at the next camp site.
Ready to set off for the next part of the adventure, note the mud covered boots! We left our campsite and it was weird, we turned in a direction that was totally “off” for me … my internal compass felt we should be going a totally different way. Nevertheless, we climbed a small pile of rocks, and then dropped over the other side and came to the 30m pitch that we had to get down.
The sure footed porters just down-climbed but safety conscious Joni set up a top belay for the three clients and down we went.
Nice shot of Monique preparing to down-climb
If I’d known that our head lamps weren’t as bright as the one I left behind at home, I would have taken my good one, whilst the formations were incredible, you didn’t get a feeling for the size of the chambers we were in, this stalagmite had to be about 6m high.
Another huge formation
After a short walk across a small river, we came to these stalactites, the chamber had filled up with sand and these formations were almost touching the ground, reminded me a bit of Eagles Nest at Yagby.
Walking across the “surface of the moon”, this had to be 100m of mud, you had to be careful not to step in the holes filled with water because that was soft shoe-eating mud.
a Millipede that we found in the cave
Jim and Monique looking at the millipede. We’d walked along this watercourse for some time now, crossing it and recrossing it. I had visions of walking back and laying in the pools of water but by the time we got to the campsite I’d had enough of walking for a while, particularly past the mud.
This was a large pool. The porters had to walk around it because they couldn’t get their packs wet, I would have just swum through the pool, but they kindly put a hand line up so that we could stay dry.
And, here we are at the exit of the cave, I’m standing on a huge bank of guano (from the bats) ahead of me is a bank covered in ferns, around to the left (out of the pic) is where Joni usually camped.
Walking towards the campsite, note the bank of guano at the back and the ever present mud we were walking in.
The water was very high, this is normally not a water crossing. It was quite deep beyond the little rock that Joni and the porters are standing on and they were worried that their packs would get wet. Note all the silt that had been churned up by the porters walking across to the rock.
Jim and Monique about to cross
I think they had fun getting us across this deep part, I don’t know why we just didn’t get in and swim!
And here is where Joni usually camps, the water had completely covered the sandy bank that he usually uses as a campsite.
So, the machetes came out and they sharpened some sticks to make shovels and commenced to flatten an area of the hill for us to sleep on. I’m a bit ambivalent about the whole thing, seemed sort of sacrilegious doing this but it was “sort of” outside the cave!
And an hour later here was the platform and steps for us to get to it!
Our bed for the night, amazingly the three of us didn’t slide downhill on the tarp but when we woke up, Joni had!
We were supposed to go down this opening here (our sleeping platform is up to the left) to another chamber but the water was still too high and it was deemed too dangerous so we waited a couple of hours for the water to go down.
The kitchen area
The porters sorting the rice, it’s local rice, would have been dried on the side of the road (and chickens would have walked around and pecked in it!) and so they are looking for stones in the rice before cooking it.
Just on dusk the bats that live in the cave were on the move, the sound of them flying was eerie.
Thousands and thousands of them, they seemed to have some sort of plan about the flight, they circled around and around, making spiralling patterns in the sky, the spectacle lasted for about 10 to 15 minutes. Next morning they returned but in dribs and drabs.
Cooking some prawns for our dinner
The porters slept down on the flat, they’d cleared away some ferns, I actually thought we could have slept down here too, but maybe Joni wanted the platform for future rainy seasons when the water was too high.
After dinner the water in the slot had gone down far enough that we could get through without having to put our head under water. Jim went down first
At the bottom of this passage was a small hole that you had to go through, just high enough that we didn’t have our mouth under water!
And then we had to wriggle through the “snake” passage. I’ve heard since that there are sometimes snakes down here but the porters go through first to move them, if I’d known that I wouldn’t have been so keen to go down. Jim had the most trouble with this passage, nowhere to put your feet to get you some forward momentum, you should have seen the porter go through, but then look at the size of him!
Here’s Joni, the last one to come through the snake passage. After getting through, we continued downstream. Again, on the side of the watercourse the mud was horrific, shoe eating mud!
After 20 minutes walking we came to this waterfall, most of you know me and waterfalls, had to drag myself away from it in the end!
The waterfall was at the end of a number of flow-stone formations with water cascading over them
We turned around and went back upstream and through the snake passage – it was hard getting out as it dropped down a metre into the water. Joni came through feet first at the end – wish I had gone feet first, I grazed my elbow and knee and the grazes have only just healed after 2 weeks.
The duck under to get to the climb out. You can see why we couldn’t have gone through this section when the water was higher.
Back at camp and into bed. The porters had lit the candles around the platform so that we could see if we woke up during the night.
Just before we were ready to pack up. The porter on the left was the “main guy”. The one on the right was the one who brought in our breakfast each morning, Jim and I expected to see him come down the exit track (from above), but at 7.30am we saw him coming down the route that we had walked the previous day. He must have set out at 3.30am to get to where we were by 7.30 – no helmet, no head torch and thongs (although sometimes he wasn’t even wearing the thongs!).
Ready for the walk out!, I didn’t realise that they’d put the wee-bottle in the front of the photo!
This fern was really interesting, haven’t seen it any other place apart from right down the bottom at the water-level of this cave, it almost looked prehistoric.
The climb up was punishing, probably only 100m straight up, but in the heat/humidity seemed like 1,000! The head porter stayed at the back with me and we had a conversation, his English was excellent. He was intrigued by my age and marital status (you can stop laughing now JV!). Almost at the top I sat down on a rock and when I got up my old shorts ripped on the limestone. The porters all thought this was very funny!
Back in the jungle on flattish terrain, the track wasn’t well worn, evidence that this trip isn’t done on a regular basis, possibly once every 2 or 3 months.
The machete came out when we got to a part of the track overgrown with tall grasses.
The “track” out, this eventually passed by small fields of root crops, pineapple and pawpaw.
Eventually we got to a village and walked down to the “spring”, fresh drinkable water came out of the cement structure and we all (porters included) got in and had a bath and we washed the mud off our boots.
The bikes appeared out of nowhere and we were on the way back to the main road. Note the machete on Landon on the right!
The motor cycles dropped us back to where we’d left our dry clothes so we changed and sat down to a local “delicacy”, boiled native chicken in a soup. It didn’t look all that appetising but I peeled off the chicken skin and tried it, it was delicious, ginger had been used in the cooking and it was really refreshing.
Waiting for the Jeepney that would take us back to Catbalogan. This is the restaurant that we had the chicken soup in. I was fascinated by the number of half-finished structures everywhere we went there looked to be unfinished buildings/homes. I guess they build from the bottom up and inhabit what is finished off, or half finished, the restaurant owner must live on the middle floor – note the washing hanging out to dry.
And so, the Jeepney picked us up and before long we were back in Catbalogan. Again, this trip was so well organised, the porter with breakfast turned up right on 7.30am as Joni said he would (was he hiding around a corner so he could walk in right at that time), he didn’t wear a watch, so even more impressive.
The Italians who have been back a few times and explored the whole of the cave system, are coming back in April, they are pushing through on a cave diving expedition to see where the river that we had walked down the night before comes out. Joni will be organising everything for them, providing porters for them and ensuring things run smoothly. When they return to Italy, they kindly leave a lot of their gear behind.
I’d love to come back and do some more caving with Joni, maybe bring Bailey along in a couple of years time. Samar is a very poor area, I’d like to see Joni’s business prosper as his cave tourism is sustainable and the only impact that I could see were the footprints in the mud … and that would have happened with the first Italians that explored the cave, who was to know that once the mud is walked upon, it doesn’t become smooth after heavy rain.
So, the adventure continues, in the afternoon we all hopped in a van, including Joni, his wife and their 4 year old son and drove back through Tacloban and onto another island, Biliran where it was intended we do some “canyoning”. Stay tuned for the rest of the adventure!