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October 20, 2003

ROEL HOANG MANIPON

After more than two hours ride, we reached Mabinay, an upland town 87 kilometers northwest of Dumaguete City, the capital of the province of Negros Oriental. It is almost in the middle of the island of Negros. Furthermore is the town of Kabangkalan, the last town before reaching another province, Negros Occidental. Aside from the coastal route from Dumaguete to Bacolod City, the capital of Occidental, one can take the ride that passes through Mabinay, which the Mabinay people say, is the preferred route.

Since the interior of the island is made up of mountains, straddling across it like a backbone or ridges on the back of a turtle physically dividing the island into two provinces, one Cebuano-speaking the other Hiligaynon-speaking, the route undulated, liking driving through a series of hills. Sometimes, the ride felt like being in a boat amidst the verdure of vegetation veiling the inclines and declines.

Thus, we arrived in the province’s second largest town, a largely rustic enclave with a population of more than 64,000 and an annual revenue of about four million. Nestled on a track of land blanketed by grass, which seemed to be tended only sporadically, was the municipal hall, almost hidden by tall Gemelina trees, which bore small oval fruits that profusely littered the cemented path leading to the building. We kept squashing them under our feet, leaving brown, sticky smudges riddled with seeds that looked like bird poop, as we went up to pay the mayor a visit.

The municipal hall was a modest affair of concrete and wood, much like the nondescript houses usually found in the provinces. Only, this one was bigger. The wooden parts showed the detriments of humidity and inclement weathers, and the cement and hollow blocks were stained green with moss.

The mayor, Enozario T. Baldoza, was equally unassuming. He might as well be a farmer, or one of the simple townsfolk, rather than a suave politician. The swarthy mayor proved to be inarticulate, answering our questions in short, clipped sentences. Maybe he was not used to having visitors, especially a motley group of journalists from Manila, the girls donned in shorts and tank tops and the boys seemed all gay, who were rather boisterous and readying themselves for the next activity by passing around a bottle of insect repellent lotion and lathering it on their bodes while having audience with a government official and asking questions on tourism and the state of the municipality like rapid gun fires.

While still rubbing a dab of lotion on my arms, I was already poking around nearby tables and cabinets to see if I can find any interesting information about the place. Browsing through an old souvenir program of their fiesta, I chanced upon a legend telling the origin of the town and its name. Ah, yes, the mayor said and gave us a very succinct account.

It is said that the town of Mabinay is named after a beautiful girl who became a spring. The town legend tells of a beautiful lady named Binay who was much loved by the people. Then one day because of grief over a lost love, she disappeared, swallowed by the earth. In the place she disappeared there appeared a spring, which was named after her: the Mabinay Spring. The spring became the center of life and people began gathering around it.

Such was the birth of the town of Mabinay. In 1960, the souvenir program said, Mabinay officially became a municipality.

The Mabinay legend, however, shares striking similarities to other legends about springs like the Tiwi Hot Springs in Bicol, the Salinas Salt Spring in Nueva Vizcaya, Mambucal Springs in Negros Occidental and Sibul Spring in San Miguel, Bulacan.

After that short session, the mayor introduced to us our guide. We were here to check out the caves, which the town is said to have many of and to be famous for. Beam Libo-on is a member of the South Negros Speleo, a group of cave enthusiasts. The thirty-something, mustached Libo-on is actually an engineer or technician at the Philippine National Oil Company and has picked up an interest on caves He seemed to be the most reliable resource person about Mabinay caves.

He said that there are about a hundred of them. I was rather incredulous. If he was right, the whole town would be sitting on something like a giant ant colony with its networks of tunnels underneath the façade of ordinariness. Mabinay could be the single place that has the most caves that I know.

So far, 45 caves have been explored and documented. From 1989 to 1990, a group of Belgian and Dutch researchers and adventurers came to explore and document the caves of Mabinay. The venture was called the Belgian Dutch Philippine Caving Expedition. Two copies of the research and documentation were given to the town. However, these were neglectfully lost, a lamentable but not surprising thing for a country that cares little about preservation of knowledge and heritage and knows little about their value. But of recent, as interest in caves and spelunking burgeoned infected by new appreciation for the environment and exploration, interest groups also sprouted. As there are mountaineering groups, there are spelunking groups, which now serve, however makeshift, as a resource of information on caves in an area and spelunking. Many have come to offer services such as providing guides and tours. And this area, one can rely on the South Negros Speleo.

The South Negros Speleo (SNS) offers and arrange package tours for a group of about thirty, which includes transportation from Dumaguete to Mabinay and then back, guides, meals and entrances. The fees for a day’s activity include P800 minimum for a guide (and there should be two guides); P150 for transportation per person; P170 for meal, which includes breakfast and lunch; and P5 per person for entrance to the cave. For rentals of equipment, the safety helmet with headlamp, batteries and belt bag cost P75 and the over-all suit costs P100.

Mabinay is where you can find the second longest cave in the country, the Odloman Cave System. It is also the sixth deepest cave. The longest, of course, is Saint Paul Cave in Bahile, Palawan with a length of 15,000 meters, and it is famous for its subterranean river. The Odloman Cave System has a length of 8870 meters and vertical range of 82 meters. Five entrances have been connected and the system consists of a mix of large and small galleries with some active stream ways. Exploration of this cave, however, is still incomplete.

It is also in Mabinay where you can find the eight longest cave in the country, which is Cayaso Cave with a length of 2,222 meters. We would not be going to those caves however. They are for experienced spelunkers. What we would explore were beginners’ caves.

We waited for Beam, who was joined by another guide named Jonathan, as he loaded the gears into a beat-up pick-up truck. It seemed like a good day to go spelunking, if there was such a thing. The rays of the morning sun shot through the gaps between the leaves of the trees drying up the dews still clinging on the grass. We occupied ourselves by squashing Gemelina fruits. Jonathan said that you could rub the juice of the fruit to your hair and it has a bleaching effect. I tried it on Totel, one my companions. It did not work. We thought he was pulling our legs.

Before we attempted another hair bleaching session, we hit the undulating roads of Mabinay on the way to our first cave of the day, the Panligawan Cave. We only stopped when there was no road suited for our van to go through. We had to walk the rest of the way. In a place hemmed by fields on one side and a copse of shriveled trees on the other, we donned our gears provided for us. A pair of knitted gloves was very helpful as we were to hold on to branches and sharp rocks. We wore hardhats with headlights and their batteries were in a belt bag. Attired in adventure couture, we felt like ready to rough it up.

The dirt road was strewn with pieces of cracked limestone, which made the trek a tad arduous. But the seemingly uninteresting litter of rocks could yield surprises. If you are observant and lucky enough you might chance upon a fossil as I did. I found a petrified clam shell to my delight.

Then the trek got more difficult. We had to get off the road and climb down a ravine where the cave was. The vegetation, which consisted mostly of hardy bushes, the kind that had more twigs than leaves, got thicker, and their stubborn twigs kept poking and scratching us. Beside the fossil, I made another delightful discovery. I chanced upon a millipede inching its ways around a moss-covered rock. The round, smoothly segmented insect, whose innumerable pairs of legs gracefully undulated while it walked, was the biggest I’d ever seen—about five inches long and a centimeter in diameter—and it is said to be endemic in the area. They may look icky but they are peaceful creatures, squirting a purplish liquid, which can stain your skin, when disturbed. I still have to understand how staining can protect it from its enemies.

Seeing my interest in the insect, Jonathan told me that there was an American researcher who regularly went into the forest to study millipedes. He was told that he was studying the effect of a kind of parasitic lice that is infesting the millipedes. And millipedes play a very important role in the ecosystem of the area.

Leaving behind the millipede and after working out a sweat, we arrived at Panligawan cave, which looked like a big gaping hole on the group. And we descended. The cave was a short one but it was cavernous. In the middle was a skylight.

After that, we visited a nearby cave called Pandalian, which also looked like Panligawan. By the way, Panligawan, as the rusty, vine-clad sign said and our guides informed us, is an Ata word meaning “courtship” and Pandalian means “marriage.” The Atas, an ethnic group belonging to larger group of people we commonly refer to as Negritos or Aeta, are the first inhabitants of Mabinay and other parts of Negros. It is said that Ata men brought women in Panligawan to court them and then to Pandalian to propose marriage. I don’t know if this is folk story or historically real. Panligawan sounded like Tagalog to me. But if what the sign and our guide said was true, we could be reading the vestiges of a dying language. The Ata people, which is only found in this town, only numbered nine or more families, and that was according to a 1973 study. Their Western Malayo-Polynesian language is near extinction.

Our third cave remained to be most spectacular. On an asphalt road, one would not expect a ravine because of the bushes and trees that hid it, much less a big cave with stunning formations. Congregating at the shoulder of the road, we descended one by one. It was a steep climb with thicker vegetation and more crawling, large millipedes for squeamish girls to shriek at. The entrance of Crystal Cave was unassuming, just a wide, open crack on the ground. The climb down was a little slippery as this cave is often wet. But after a few slips and scratches, we were rewarded with a shimmering spectacle of stalactites and stalagmites looking like little glacial turrets and pillars of salt. And they riddle the place. One cannot go in and out without breaking off a stalactite. But breaking a stalactite or stalagmite is greatly discouraged. Even touching them is discouraged. You might contaminate them, they say. Indeed, the sight of broken-off stalactites scattered around can be dismaying. Many of the formations are blemished with mud. These things took thousand of years to shape, drop by painstaking drop, only to be shattered by a clumsy step.

It is only now that Mabinay is taking note of the tourist potential of its caves. Exploration of the caves by non-researchers or spelunkers is not yet regulated. A designated path for spelunkers to follow seems necessary in Crystal Cave so that they would not lumber around and breaking off stalactites. Aside from the stalactites and stalagmites, the Crystal Caves had columns, a formation where a stalactite and a stalagmite meet making a pillar. It also had draperies, which looked like wavy curtain hanging from the ceiling, and flowstones, which looked like draperies but were thicker and adhered to the wall of floor.

Crystal Cave was longer, the darkness could get thick, and the floor treacherous as it is alternatingly muddy and craggy. It has a length of 209 meters and depth of 5 meters. It had a BCRA grade of 3, which I presumed to be the difficulty.

Much of our day in Mabinay was spent visiting three caves. There were still forty-three to go! But we had our fill of caves enough to last for a month or so.

For vacationers, exploring caves can be an exciting alternative from going to the beach and mountain climbing. But this is not an altogether leisurely activity, but exploration has its own kind of pleasure that is somewhat profound. It is the thrill of discovery, the reward of knowledge and experience, among others.

For beginners, a guide is very helpful and even necessary. One must begin with beginners’ cave to acquaint oneself with the underground experience and the nature of caves. This may involve simple trekking and climbing. Advance caving goes into complex caves and involves crawling, squeezing into tight places and swimming on underground rivers.

Before visiting caves, there were some guidelines that were given to us: Never go alone; go with somebody who is familiar with caves; use PPE (personal protective equipment) like skull guards or helmets with headlamps, over-all, hand gloves, proper shoes, etc.; take at least three flashlights and other sources of light (candles, matches, lighters); also take extra batteries and flashlight bulbs; make sure people know where you are; get the cave owner’s permission before visiting the cave; and do not go into caves when it is raining or when it might rain (caves can flood in a short time). And of course, try to educate yourself with caves, its formations, flora and fauna, history, etc. Knowledge widens your horizon and hones your appreciation.

Anyway, after three caves, I suggested that we see Mabinay Spring, as I took a liking for “legendary” places. Ensconced in a growth of trees through which a wide muddy road ran though, the Mabinay Spring showed rudimentary and even incongruous development. The embankments of the spring itself were cemented, and concrete steps were built leading bathers into the water. A wall beside the steps has an opening where water spews forth clear and clean. People who live around the area fetch their water here for drinking and other uses. The spring was made into a low-end resort of sorts. Concrete benches and tables and picnic areas had been put up but had become barely conspicuous among overgrown grass and rambling vines. That day we saw groups of students having picnics and a swim. The spring cascades into a stream disappearing into a forest. Further on, our guide said, was another cave.

We bathed in the clean and fresh waters from which the town originated. Mayor Baldoza came over in a van, set up a little table and a couple of benches and drank Fundador with his kumpares. He waved at us and invited us for a drink. We declined, but accepted a plate of green mango and guava wedges sprinkled with rock salt.

A resort of the high-end variety is the Tirambulo Highland Resort in the barangay of Paniabonan, where we had our lunch. The owners, the Tirambulos, are said to be the richest family in the town. The resort is a sprawling area of lush grass and robust trees. In the middle is a man-made lake called Lake Cristito Tirambulo. One can rent one of the cottages that scattered over the sloping area. Cottage for two costs P800 per day; for four, P1,400; and for seven, P1,500. Aside from Tirambulo Highland Resort, Mabinay has no hotels or inns for tourists. As for now, staying with a local family is suggested.

As we depart, there was a drizzle that concluded into a brief downpour. I was riding at the back of the pick-up, savoring the wind that contrasted to the dank air of the cave and getting used to the up-and-down rhythm of the ride. The cold raindrops salved the scratches and bruises on my skin and refreshed the dried mud stains on my shirt and feet, souvenirs of my brief visit. And, together with the clam fossil and the memory of seeing large millipedes, represented my images of Mabinay, rough and rustic, and also surprising and fascinating.

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Getting There: Cebu Pacific has daily flights from Manila to Dumaguete. The plane leaves Manila at 1:40 PM and arrives in Dumaguete at 2:50 PM. One-way ticket costs P2,864. Air Philippines has twice daily flights leaving Manila at 6:10 AM and 1 PM. One-way fare costs P2,853. When you are in Cebu, you can ride the Supercat Fast Ferry that goes to Dumaguete via Tagbilaran in Bohol with daily trips at 8 AM and 3:30 PM. Fare costs P480. From Dumaguete one can get jeepney and bus rides to Mabinay. Accommodation: The Tirambulo Highland Resort has cottage accommodations. You can call (035) 225-1858, 225-5416, 422-4956 and 225-1825. Cave Guide: For information, Elery “Beam “Libo-on of SNS can be connected through his mobile numbers: 09207009698, 09189227391 and 09174855894; or e-mail: eleryvon@yahoo.com