Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bulabog Puti-an

View from the cave floor through a hole 60' above

In the morning, I met with the Bulabog Puti-an National Park Superintendent, a very humble man you'd never guess was in the face of loggers and miners and all sorts of people with interests more important than environmental protection. He showed me where I could cook food enough to last through the long next day's long boat ride. For a very small guide fee, he took me around the area for half a day. We visited tons of caves along easy trails. We hit it off immediately. He's a jovial, warm, interesting character with a love for nature and good enough English to delve into some deeper topics. We joked back and forth all the way through. In the beginning, we saw several large spiders similar to the black and yellow one I saw at the Twin Lakes, but a little bit smaller and with smaller webs than the behemoth that stopped me in my tracks. We also passed several trees more than 100 years old, with roots that emanated out from the tree like the Northern Lights in swirls and waves high above the ground.

The rocks along the entire trail and around the entire area seem like coral, rough limestone full of holes and crevasses that seem more like they were grown rather than carved by carbonic acid and water. Most anyone who has ever seen a cave could guess that the hillsides must be littered with caves. The first cave we visited was a hiding place for guerrilla soldiers during World War II, where they were able to outlast the Japanese forces wandering the jungle in search for the illusive caves. Mining destroyed much of what they had left, but there were still many inscriptions and things left behind. The  amphitheaters at the mouth of some of these caves are powerful and awe-inspiring. Impossible to capture in a photograph because of their panoramic nature. Maybe Picasso could have translated the many aspects to perception of these panoramic alcoves sunken into pocked limestone. Moss, small flowers and banzai-like trees grow out from the holes, vines hang from above, ideal habitat for vine snakes and even pythons.

These small red tarantulas were tricky to see because they sense the vibration of our steps so well

One of the caves was full of wildlife. Many chambers reach down into the earth, every one of them echoing with the screams and squeaks of flying rodents. Insect bats, nectar bats, and fruit bats make their home in this particular cave rather than all of the others. The old ladders and steps are worn away by time, so we climbed down using a vine as a repel rope down 20 feet or so. The mud on the floor is actually ankle-deep guano (droppings) that could suck your shoe off if you aren't careful to avoid areas saturated with moisture. All of the life of the cave thrives because of the bats. There were "spider scorpions" (really just big spiders with claw-like front legs), these small 2"-5" red tarantulas, rodents, snakes, and a host of other creatures and bugs I've never seen that even the guide didn't know the names of. Some look like something out of a science fiction movie and they are quick to move out of your way. Midway through, my guide explained that it's really his job to keep me out of harm's way in the cave. We moved slowly using cell phone flashlights and one headlamp that was really too heavy to keep on your head, trying to avoid startling wildlife. At one point he caught a nectar bat (I would have told him not to had I known in advance) but I snapped a photo since he already had it in his hand.

My hand was just in front of the snake from this angle
At one point there was a bamboo bridge over an old rock slide. My guide was carefully scanning the rocks on the right saying, "this is a snake wonderland." After he had crossed confident that there were no snakes to disturb, I made my crossing eyeing the wobbly bridge under my feet. I used the rail on the left just in case the bridge failed under my weight. I placed my steps, and then I shined the light where I had just put my hand, and watched as a huge "Mainina" snake head recoiled from my hand as I put it just 2 inches in front of its face. Rather than pull my hand quickly, I slowly move it away and let my heart resume beating at a faster tempo. I recognized this snake as one that had been pointed out to me on other hikes as a very aggressive and very venomous (though usually not deadly) snake. This was by far the larges I had seen. It was more than a meter in length, and I'm lucky it was either sleepy in the cool dark or recognized I wasn't a threat, otherwise my trip in Panay would have been littered with time spent in the hospital wondering how many weeks it would be before I could get antidote or be able to play the guitar again. After I pointed out the snake to my guide, "You missed one!" I told him how close of a call it was, and he replied chuckling, "Oops, I didn't see that one. I guess I'm not a very good guide." I tip-toed my way along the edge of the bridge farthest away from the snake but still fully within its striking range, and turned around to admire it from a distance once I'd reached the other side. Such a beautiful creature, with an obviously drowsy look in its eye. On the way out of that cave, there was a bright green vine snake slowly flowing down a vertical rock face that should have been impossible to cling to for a snake. This snake is even more venomous and deadly than the Mainina. When it had reached the ground and hid around a rock, my guide touched the tail and didn't even see when the snake whipped its head around the other side of the rock and nearly nabbed him in the finger. I said, exaggerating, "How did you not see that, you were one centimeter away from forcing me to carry you out of here!"

We visited a few other caves that were hardly as exciting but still different than the bat cave. Then we took the long way through the forest back around to the main office. We passed under chico fruit trees, unripe bananas and papayas and coconut palms. Then we passed under a pomelo tree full of ripe pomelos. A pomelo is a fruit that has the texture of a grapefruit with a flavor halfway between grapefruit and apple. It has the skin of a grapefruit, but add at least an inch thick of the white pulp between the rind and the fruit itself, and you have a pomelo. We threw rocks at the fruits high up in the tree and dislodged 6 of them. When we stopped later to eat one each, we had just passed through as section of palm trees that dropped these fruits that are hard, baseball-sized, inedible fruits. As they fall from the tall tops of the trees, you hear a pit-patter as it hits leaves going faster and faster as it falls, and then a resounding pop that sounds almost like gunfire or firecrackers when it hits the soil or limestone rocks of the forest floor. They drop every minute or two and are surprisingly startling. It was a thrill just sitting there munching on a juicy pomelo and wondering if you'd be the next victim of one of the fruits. 

Once we'd reached the Visitor's Center, I packed up my things, bid farewell to my guide, his caretaker, and the puppy that was devastated I had to leave, and headed back to the main road. A short tricycle ride later, I was in Dingle. I jumped on a jeep to the bus depot 15km up the highway, which turned out to be simply standing at a random place in the road with ten other people. 

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