The Torpedo Boat Extreme Ride (Paranas, Western Samar)

One article in 8 Magazine (a travel mag dedicated to Region 8 tourism) that interested me was the unique, 21-km. Torpedo Boat Extreme Ride along the Ulot River (Samar Island’s longest River) in Paranas in Western Samar, the newest signature eco-tourism adventure in Samar.  A joint project of the Department of Tourism and the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP) and part of the Ulot Watershed Ecotourism Loop, it was launched on November 30, 2010 but the operation was stopped in January the next year after floods hit the area.  It reopened in the third week of March after the quality of the water in the river improved.

The rapids of the Ulot River

The 455,700 hectare SINP, the biggest natural park in the country, was declared a protected area on April 13, 2003 by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 442.  It covers 333,330 hectares of land and a buffer zone of 125,400 hectares of primary forest and a large, contiguous tract of secondary forest in good ecological condition.  It boasts of many caves, various wildlife species and river systems such as the navigable, 9-km. long Ulot (a Waray term meaning “monkey”) River, which is within the Ulot Watershed Area, one of Samar’s 8 watershed areas.

Buray Junction

The Ulot River starts from the mountainous town of San Jose de Buan (Western Samar) in the north, flowing downstream to Paranas and finally draining at Can-Avid (Eastern Samar) in the east.  Including its tributaries, the river’s length could reach 520 kms..  For years, it has been used as a nautical highway  for transporting goods and people, linking Western Samar with Eastern Samar until the 1940s when a gravel road from the west to the east was opened.

The SINP Headquarters

It just so happened that me and my son Jandy were in Tacloban City during the Holy Week break and I reserved a whole day for this one-of-a-kind adventure. To get there, my brother-in-law Manny and his Taclobanon wife Paula generously offered us the use their Mitsubishi Lancer and their family driver Cherwine B. Avis.  We left the city by 8:30 AM, a Black Saturday, and traversed the Maharlika Highway going to Catbalogan City. Upon entering Paranas, we inquired at a nearby police station for directions going to Buray Junction.  It seems we just passed it, the junction readily identified by a Petron gas station (the only gas station we espied throughout the trip) at the corner.

We missed seeing this sign on the road to SINP

From the junction, the SINP headquarters was a further 16 kms. away, along the Wright-Taft Rd..  The road was concreted, with occasional potholes and cracks.  Along the way we passed the upscale Villa Escober Spring Resort.  Just before reaching SINP, a huge boulder from a rock slide was blocking the road but we just drove around it.  Upon reaching the SINP headquarters (around 10 AM). We parked the car along the road, as the park gate was closed, and I entered via an open pedestrian gate.  The offices were also closed, it being a holiday, but, luckily for us, I met the watchman Mr. Raffy Manrique who offered to personally  bring us to the Torpedo Boat jump-off point, a riverbank just 150 m. away from the SINP headquarters, at Sitio Campo Uno in Brgy. Tenani.

L-R: Raffy, the author, Cherwine and Jandy

Upon arrival, we registered our names at a logbook and met up with Mr. Gilberto P. Eneran, the current head of the Tenani Boat Operators for River Protection and Environmental Development Organization (TORPEDO), who would man, together with the father and son team of Oscar and Nicky Obleno, our 4 m. long torpedo boat. Gilbert, as boatman, operated the engine while Nicky, at the front of the boat, acted as timoner (pointman), the one who navigates and pushes the torpedo boat away from the rocks.

All aboard and ready to go

All experienced boatmen trained on safe river travel, they had been operating boats before, transporting illegally cut trees in the area, but now helping protects and conserve the SINP.  The TORPEDO now has 57 members and 23 boats.  They are part of the Ulot Watershed Model Forest Stakeholder Federation, an umbrella of 9 people’s organizations involved in the SINP (tour guiding, boat services, catering, food production, etc.).

Beautiful curtain waterfalls along the way

The wooden boat, without outriggers, is powered by a 16 HP engine.  It has elevated sides to prevent water from getting in and the boat from tipping.  Aside from the crew, our boat could seat 5 passengers but it was just me, Jandy and Cherwine.  We sat on seats with backrests and, on the sides, were inner rails for us to hold on as well as protect our hands from boulders the boat may hit along the way. For our added protection, we wore life jackets and helmets. 

A quiet rural scene along the river

The first leg of our challenging but not nerve wracking, wet and wild adventure ride was a 10.5-km. journey downstream.  One thing that made this boat ride truly remarkable was the natural scenery the route provided, with tick forests, the habitat of exotic flora and fauna, all around us. We started in calm waters, with some beautiful curtain waterfalls to be seen along the riverbank.  Soon enough, ripples began to appear, followed by white water rapids encountered in shallow and narrow areas called sinisikuhan (“bent elbows”).  Here, the waters move fast at the river bend and, as the boat speeds away, water splashes hits our faces or drenches us.  As our boat had no outriggers, we really got to feel the swaying of the boat.

The fun begins here …..

Our boatman, with their knowledge of river maneuvers and keen eyes to spot obstacles such as rocks or boulders that block our way, skillfully and safely run the fast moving rapids.  Occasionally, passenger boats coming from or going to Brgy. Tula would pass us by.  After 45 mins. our boat stopped at Deni’s Point, a picnic area a few meters from a 10-ft. fall that drops into the river.  Boats that have to continue beyond this point would have to unload their cargo and passengers, drag the boat to an area where the grade is gradual, pull or lower the boat down with a rope, reload the cargo and passengers then continue on with their trip.

Passenger boat coming  back from Brgy. Tula

Deni’s Point is a tranquil, secluded and scenic jungle spot where one can commune with nature. Surrounded by tall trees, its riverbanks are lined with big stones and huge boulders. Across is a small curtain waterfall.  Here, Jandy and I swam its clear waters while Cherwine dove from a huge boulder into the fast flowing river.  A lifeline was thrown across the river to catch should we be swept by the fast moving waters.

The swirling rapids of Deni’s Point

After our 45-min. sojourn in this beautiful spot, we returned to our boat for the second half of our extreme ride, this time an exhilarating 10.5-km. and much longer upstream ride (called the “Salmon Run Experience”), back to the takeoff point in Sitio Campo Uno.  This time our boat trip, now going against the Ulot River currents, would meet and feel the onrushing waters and we were to experience even bigger splashes as our boat plunge through the waves.  Everyone heaved a sigh of relief every time we pulled out of a challenging rapid.

The waterfall at Deni’s Point

At a particular area called the “Salmon Run”(referring to a time when salmon swam up the river to spawn at their place of birth), the drop is around 3 to 4 ft.  Here, tourists normally would have to get off the boat so that the boatmen could pull the boat up the rapids.  However, since we were only three, we were allowed to stay on board the boat.  Back at Campo Uno, we had some snacks and soft drinks at a nearby sari-sari store (there are no eateries here) before indulging in another favorite river activity – kayaking.

Nicky manhandling the torpedo boat at Salmon Run

We each had a crack at this on a single yellow-colored kayak, me being the last to try.  I wondered why Cherwine and Jandy gave up after just one short round but I soon found out. Going with the flow of the water was easy, going against it wasn’t.  It was a struggle just getting back to the takeoff point.  After this very tiring activity, we decided to just loll around in the quiet river waters, still with our life vests on.  Thus sated, we left the place by 3:30 PM and we were back in Tacloban City by 5:30 PM.  Truly an experience of a lifetime.

Jandy tries his hand at kayaking

Samar island Natural Park: Sitio Campo Uno, Brgy. Tenani, Paranas, Western Samar 6703.  Mobile number: (0917) 702-7467.  E-mail:  Website:  The Torpedo Boat package costs PhP1,800 (maximum of 5 tourists per boat), inclusive of the SINP entrance fee, boat rental, tour guiding fee, safety gear rental and community development fee.  A single kayak rents for PhP50 while a tandem kayak rents for PhP75.  Tubing (PhP20 rental fee) is also offered along the Ulot River.  

Our torpedo boat team – L-R: Gilbert, Nicky and Oscar

The SINP headquarters also has accommodations for visitors wishing to stay overnight.  It has 3 airconditioned rooms.  One room has dorm-type double deckers good for 15 people (PhP100/pax/day) while 2 other rooms can accommodate 4 people each (PhP150/pax/day).

Catbalogan and Calbayog City (Western Samar)

Early in the morning, Charlie and I checked out of our rooms at Leyte Park Hotel and departed Tacloban City for Calabayog City to continue our GPS mapping for EZ Maps.  As always, the 9.5-km. long road from Tacloban all the way to the foot of San Juanico Bridge was excellent.  Past the bridge, we were now on Samar Island and the road here, though concreted, was intermittently pockmarked with potholes, preventing us from really speeding up, especially at the curves.

Aerial view of the town from the municipal hall

After a 4-hr./97-km. drive, with Charlie on the wheel of the Ford Explorer, we made it to the provincial capital of Catbalogan by 9:30 AM.  It was already drizzling when we arrived. At the municipal hall, we visited the Town Planning Division and had a late breakfast at Orange Julius.

The town plaza
The Provincial Capitol Building

Leaving Catbalogan, we next continued on our way to Calbayog City, again experiencing the same road conditions as before.  However, it was a shorter 60-km. drive.  It was already raining heavily when we arrived at Calbayog City.  Here, we visited the City Planning and Tourism Office and had a late lunch at Bread n Mix.   We did GPS mapping of the city before checking in our tired bodies at airconditioned rooms with bath at Eduardo’s Tourist Inn.

Handumanan Building
Calbayog City Hall

Marabut Marine Park (Marabut, Western Samar)

The resort’s beach and catamaran

On April 20, Holy Thursday, I decided to visit to Marabut Marine Park and Beach Resort in Marabut with my brother-in-law Manny and my son Jandy.  Marabut is the last town before the border with Eastern Samar, off the southern coast of Samar.  However, Manny’s car was trapped in the garage due street diggings along the street.  Mr. Victor Macasera, my Astra medical representative guide to Sohoton Caves, came to our rescue by offering to bring us there.  After our usual early morning breakfast and loaded with our usual picnic basket prepared by Paula, manny’s wife, we departed Tacloban City around 9 AM, crossed the San Juanico Bridge to Samar, turned right at the fork to Basey and proceeded, down a well-maintained road, to Marabut town.

Burial cave

Soon, we espied the beautiful stack of small limestone islands of the marine park just off the horizon.  Near the resort, we made a stopover at a small cave along the highway.  Inside, we saw a cross, an image of the Blessed Virgin and a net-covered concrete vault containing the mixed up bones of victims killed by the Japanese during World War II.  About a kilometer past the cave, we came upon the road sign and an  700-800 m. long access road leading to the resort.  Past an old, wooden loggers’ lodge was the entrance to the resort.  We parked our car and rented a picnic shed for our use.

The islands of the marine park

This 1-hectare resort, opened in 1997, sits on a 90-hectare land planted with rice and coconut trees.  It also has a reforestation area planted with mahogany and gmelina trees. The resort is owned by the Unimaster Conglomeration, Inc. of Mr. Wilson Chan, the same corporation that owns the Leyte Park Hotel in Tacloban City.  It has 5 nipa, bamboo and wood duplex cottages with bath, an open-air restaurant and a bar.  Being a holiday, the resort was full of Filipino-Chinese guests brought over from Leyte Park Hotel via a huge double-hulled catamaran moored along the beige sand beach.  Beyond that were the 15 dramatic limestone islands that constitute the marine park, all leased from the local government for the exclusive use of the resort.  Although filled with guests, the beach was surprisingly empty of swimmers.

All geared up and ready to go

As we were going around the resort, we came across a group of tourists milling around a dazed man pockmarked with red sores from head to foot.  He was just bitten by a jellyfish while swimming along the beach and was being administered with antibiotics.  It was jellyfish season. No wonder the beach was empty.  So much for the swimming.   Still the limestone islands beckoned.  As we were preparing the table and ourselves for lunch, I espied a number of brave sea kayakers heading towards the islands.  I immediately made a reservation for a 2-pax, sit-on sea kayak.  If I can’t swim along the beach, I could at least kayak.  The resort has 8 plastic kayaks – 3 single and 5 double; plus one outboard motor boat.   Kayak rental is PhP75 per hour, inclusive of life vests but with no helmets.

However, I was placed on a waiting list.  There was nothing to do at the moment except eat, and eat we did.  With food enough for double our party, we feasted on tipay (scallops baked in garlic), kilawinpansit canton, grilled tilapia and steamed rice, all washed down with bottled water or canned soft drinks.  We were too full to even touch the ripe mangoes for dessert. Pretty soon, the previous kayakers returned and as soon as the kayaks were parked, I immediately laid my claim to a kayak. Jandy and I quickly applied sun block lotion, packed our snorkels and camera in a dry plastic bag, donned our shades, rubber slippers and life jackets and were soon on our kayak.

Sea kayaking wasn’t a breeze as I first thought it would be.  Jandy was seated up front and it took some time for us novices to coordinate our paddling and maneuvering efforts.  For a time we seemed to be going nowhere, but soon we got the hang of our double oars and were soon on our way in a leisurely, exploratory pace.  Still wary of going very far, I decided first to visit some of the mainland’s inaccessible and scenic hidden coves just around the beach.  Going there only seemed to bring the islands closer to me and, with a little guts and a prayer, were soon paddling full speed ahead.

The nearest was a magnificent 3-peak island with a white sand beach tucked in between them.  Shooting straight up from the sea like natural skyscrapers, the islands’ towering limestone cliffs’ base were heavily undercut by wave action and were topped by dense jungle.  This scenery reminded me of similar islands (although more compact and much nearer) seen as I toured the equally beautiful Dimakya Island (Club Paradise, Coron in Palawan) and Gigantes Islands of Iloilo.

Pretty soon, after about 20 mins. of paddling, its white sand beach hove into view as the surrounding waters became clearer.  We had to maneuver around to avoid some large rocks visible under the water and soon hit dry land.  We were the only visitors there and we both felt like Robinson Crusoe (or is it Swiss Family Robinson?).  We donned our snorkels and explored its clear waters and coral garden of staghorn and brain coral.  No jellyfish in sight. Thank God.  This condition was soon broken by the arrival of 3 other kayaks from the resort, all paddled by Filipino-Chinese guests of the resort.  We gladly lent our snorkels (and rubber slippers) to the group.

I had my eye on visiting the next island’s white sand beach, and seeing a golden opportunity, suggested a joint kayaking safari with our new friends to the island.   Our next destination was similar to the first except that its peaks were not as rounded.  We reached it after 15 mins., but we were not the first arrivals as a large outrigger pumpboat loaded with tourists was already there even before we left the first island.  Snorkeling here was quite a disappointment and the only floating creature I espied was a jellyfish!  We quickly made a dash for the shore.  Instead, I tried to go around the islands’ heavily undercut girt but soon gave it up upon reaching waist-deep water.

From the island we could espy the third island’s white sand beach (only 3 of the 15 islands have white sand beaches).  In the distant horizon was the all too familiar Tooth Island, a bizarre, hourglass-shaped limestone outcrop (no beach) featured in a colored postcard.  My spirit was willing but I was already tired.  I decided to abandon the idea and instead started paddling, together with the others, back towards the mainland.  Although tired, our strokes were more fluid, just like professional kayakers.  After about 30 mins. we were back at the resort, having been gone for 2 hrs., dead tired and with aching muscles.

Jandy and I turned over our kayaks and life vests to Manny and Victor and they were soon kayaking to the nearest island.  While they were away, I decided to interview Mr. Angel Quiminales, the resort manager.  Angel gave me an overview of the resort’s beginnings, facilities and future plans including a future saltwater swimming pool and additional cottages. My heart sank when Angel told me of a hidden lagoon located just 400 m. from, and to the right, of the mainland beach.  It sank even deeper when he told me that the second island I visited had a beautiful cave with beautiful stalactites just around the beach.  It was a frequent destination for foreigners.  If only I knew.  After this 45-min. interview, we decided to call it a day, thanked Angel and paid our bills (picnic shed and kayak use).  We left Marabut by 4 PM and were back in Tacloban by 5 PM.  The next day, being Good Friday, I decided to rest.

Calbiga Caves System (Western Samar)

I have heard a lot about this relatively unknown, 900 sq. km. Calbiga Cave System in Western Samar, said to be the largest cave system in Asia, and Jandy and I opted to do some cave exploring there. Jandy and I woke up early, had a hearty breakfast, brought my camera, videocam, flashlight, spare batteries and a pack lunch (prepared by my sister-in-law, Paula) of corned beef sandwiches and bottled water, donned our media jackets (with its many convenient pockets) and proceeded, by jeepney, to the Tacloban City bus terminal by the pier.

The low cave entrance

We made the 59-km. (1 hr.) trip from the city to Calbiga via the 7:30 AM regular bus to Catbalogan, passing the same deplorable road conditions we encountered the day before. Upon our arrival at the town, we immediately registered our names at the municipal hall so that a mayor’s permit could be processed and secured.  A group of 9 had registered even earlier, having been in town since 7 AM.  Before we were issued permits, Municipal Administrator Mr. Mario Cabujat gave us a short talk on the past history of the caves and the dos & dont’s in exploring the cave.  After the briefing, we were all given our respective mayor’s permits.   The other group was kind enough to let us hitch with them in their AUV.

The initial 4-km. road going to Brgy. Panayuran was concrete-paved  up to a kilometer, becoming rough the remaining distance.  Our AUV arrived at the jump-off point by 10 PM and parked our vehicle.  We then negotiated with the residents for some guides and working Petromax lamps, settling on PhP250 per guide and PhP50 per Petromax lamp.  I got one guide and lamp while the others got another lamp and guide.  For additional lighting, some brought along some “Molotov cocktails” (actually kerosene-filled bottles with lighted rags as wicks).

A phallus-like stalagmite

Soon after, our group, now enlarged to 14 (another resident tagged along), started our trek along a well-marked trail passing through tall, 10-ft. high cogon grass.  Midway, the trek became steep and rocky as we entered a light forest.  We made a number of rest stops and the trail became narrower as we neared the cave. After an hour’s hike, we reached the dark, low cave opening, located below a limestone cliff studded with weathered stalactites. Going down from the main entrance (there are actually 5) was easy but going about this cave was a struggle as one had to hop from one rock to another with hardly any flat area.  Deciding on which rock to step on wasn’t easy as a lot were sharp and some were loose.  The cave floor was also littered with detached stalactites from previous illegal mining operations.  Some passageways were also narrow and low and one has to watch his (or her) head negotiating these areas.


The first chamber, 5-km. long, 40-m. wide  Langun Cave, was huge.  Our flashlights could barely penetrate the darkness, much less reach the over 50-m. high ceiling.  Surprisingly, bats do not inhabit the caves.  The only flying things about are swallows (balinsasayaw).  We rested by a beautiful calcite formation with a small, clear reservoir of mineral water and refilled our water bottles and ate our packed corned beef sandwiches here, sharing some with the two guides.  Water was occasionally dripping from the ceiling, reminding me that it was seeping water that hollowed out these caves by dissolving the limestone and combining to precipitate  calcite over millions of years.  Also, the evaporation of water in places, leaves minute deposits of calcium carbonate that hang hollowly from the cave’s roof (stalactites) or rise solidly and more stumpily from the floor (stalagmites).  It is said that it takes a hundred years to make 1 cm. of pure white stalactite or stalagmite.

“Lady with the Lamp”

After our half-hour lunch, we resumed our exploration, taking my camera and videocam but leaving behind my backpack with my rubbish inside.  Every now and then we would come across beautiful, stalagmites of glittering snow-white calcium carbonate crystal, without a trace of other minerals, carved and combined to form beautiful shapes.  Unlike Sohoton Caves, none of them have yet been named. I therefore dubbed one with helictites (an occasional twisted, twiglike growth) as “The Lady with the Lamp” (in honor of Florence Nightingale, God bless her soul!), a beautiful, bullet-like,  snow-white stalagmite I dubbed as “The White Phallus” (I could think of no other description), another I dubbed  “The Inverted Shoe” (or bakya) and a huge calcite waterfall imbedded with tiny calcite crystals which glittered when lighted by our lamps, I dubbed as “Vakul,” because it reminded me of the Batanes headwear worn by Ivatan women.

“Casper the Friendly Ghost”

Our entry into 270 m. long, 160 m. wide Gobingob Hall, the second chamber, was no less easy and quite unglamorous.  We had to pass through a floor of soft and moist muck.  Our shoes sunk with every step and efforts to raise them was an ordeal.  Oftentimes they remained stuck in the mud.  One member of our party broke her slipper while others just took them off and walked barefoot.  After what seemed an eternity, we were ushered into a huge cathedral-like chamber with huge stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Unlike the previous chamber, the floor here was level, albeit muddy, with long-legged crickets, faded to a pale and sickly hue, hopping around. Inside, too, was an underground stream.  Italian spelunkers have found blind cavefish (the first in the country), crabs and other small shellfish here, true troglodytes wholly adapted to sightless existence in caves.  Try as I must, even with my flashlight, I could not espy a blind cave fish in the still waters.  Other members of the party were able to see one.  I was, however, able to observe, up close, a colorless blind crab caught by one of the group.  It was later released, unharmed.

“The Inverted Shoe”

Our visit to this chamber ended our cave tour. We retraced our steps back to where we left our backpack, proceeded on the cave entrance and emerged, dead tired, at 2:30 PM after 3 hrs. of exploration.  The thought of hiking the 3-km. uphill/downhill trail back to the village daunted me and after a few minutes hike, I asked my guide to carry my backpack the rest of the way.  We reached the village by 4 PM. After washing up, paying the guides (I paid my guide an extra PhP50 for carrying my backpack) and signing the required guestbook, we left the village at 4:30 PM for the trip back to Tacloban.  After 2 or 3 stops due to overheating plus a detour to Basey to drop off some passengers, we reached Tacloban by 8 PM.

The Calbiga River (Western Samar)

After lunch, Jandy and I took a jeepney to the Tacloban Bus Terminal, near the port, to get a Catbalogan-bound bus to Calbiga in the hope that we could still do some spelunking at Calbiga Caves.  The 59-km. bus trip took all of 1 hr., crossing the San Juanico Bridge, and on to the Maharlika Highway, passing the towns of Basey, Sta. Rita, Villareal and Pinabacdao before reaching Calbiga. Travel time would have been shorter where it not for the deplorable road conditions, with potholes everywhere and, in some places, half of the road had all but disappeared, creating one-way portions.  In Brgy. Lagayan, an alternate route has to be cleared to replace an irreparable portion of the highway.  Upon arrival at the town, we were informed at the municipal hall  that it was too late in the day to visit the caves.  Instead, we just had to console ourselves with a boat trip to Calbiga River’s Carewos Rapids.

Carewos Rapids

The 18-km. long and 10-m. deep Calbiga River, with some 60 challenging rapids, is reputed to be the country’s only navigable wild river suitable for white water rafting.  Docking near the rapids, we tried swimming but this was actually difficult as we had to battle the rapids.  A rope was thrown across both banks  of the river as a lifeline in case we do get swept away.

According to the International Scale of River Difficulty, these rapids are classified as Class III or Class IV, depending on weather conditions.   The river has long rapids with high waves and a lot of irregular rocks.  The Calbiga River requires mandatory scouting, a good quality boat (a smaller boat is recommended because of the width of the river) and equipment, an expert boatman and powerful and precise maneuvering.

Carewos Rapids: Brgy. San Mauricio, Calbiga, Western Samar

Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park – Natural Bridge (Basey, Western Samar)

Sohoton Natural Bridge

After about an hour and a half of exploration, we exited the cave and proceeded back to our boat for the trip to Sohoton Bridge.  After a short distance, shallow water grounded our boat to a stop and we were told to alight and walk the remaining distance.  There are 2 winding, moss and fern covered trails going to the bridge, one a longer but more scenic 700-m. hike and the other being half the distance.  We took the scenic route.  Pretty soon we came upon the huge, 15-m. high natural parabolic stone arch entrance (from which the park got its name) stretching across the valley and connecting two mountain ridges.  Underneath is the Sohoton River.

The Sohoton River

Based on my research on caves, I theorized that millions of years ago, the bridge was formerly part of a tunneled cave with the Sohoton River flowing underground through it.  The active river eventually enlarged the cave too much for roof stability, collapsing some parts to form cylindrical shafts leading above ground.  Further collapses reduced the cave roof to stretches of tunnel or arches, forming a gorge.  The process of unroofing ceased when the level of the river fell. The narrow Sohoton natural bridge is the one remaining arch of this cave.   That this bridge was once part of a cave is seen from the huge stalactites still hanging below the bridge.

We went no further than the natural bridge, returned back along the trail, clambered down to the riverbank and retraced our steps back to the boat which was moored near the river’s rapids.   Feeling hungry, we invited Sidong and the boatmen to join us for lunch and we feasted on the contents of our picnic basket – tipay (scallops baked with garlic), lechon manok, (roasted chicken), lechon de leche (roasted pig), rice; and then pushed it all down our systems with bottled water and canned soft drinks.  The river was inviting, so we were soon down to our trunks and tried to test our strength against the rapids.  After a one-hour refreshing swim, we got dressed, packed our stuff and made the 90-min. return trip along the river back to the town.  Upon arrival at Basey, we paid our guide and boatman and were soon on our way back to Tacloban, arriving in time for the Palm Sunday mass.

Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park – Sohoton Caves (Basey, Samar)

The “Guardian Angel”

On April 16, Palm Sunday, Jandy and I made plans to visit the 840-hectare Sohoton Natural Bridge National Parkin Basey, Samar, established as such by American Gov. Frank Murphy on July 19, 1935 by virtue of Proclamation No. 831.  Joining us as guide was Mr. Victor Macasera, a medical representative from Astra Zeneca.  We woke up early and I packed my camera, videocam and other essentials for this day trip. Victor soon arrived and joined us for a hearty breakfast.  We left Tacloban in Victor’s car by 9 AM, bringing with us a picnic basket with packed lunch prepared for us by my sister-in-law Paula.   The 26-km. trip from Tacloban City to Basey took us a mere 20 mins., passing through the 2.16-km. longSan Juanico Bridge, Southeast Asia’s longest bridge, which connects Leyte Island with Samar Island.  There was still a break in the bridge’s railing, where, on February 11, 6 drunk Army men, coming from a fiesta in V&G Subdivision, crashed their vehicle through the railing, into the San Juanico Strait, and all drowned.

San Juanico Bridge

Upon our arrival at Basey’s port, Victor parked his car at the pier and arranged for a small pumpboat, Petromax lamp, permit and guide, all for PhP600.  He chose a small boat for two reasons.  First, we were just a small party and second, its shallow draft will enable us to negotiate the shallow portion of the Basey River.  The guide assigned to us was Mr. Francisco “Sidong” Corales, a 45-year old park ranger and certified spelunker.  The trip up the winding Basey (or Cadacan) River was engrossing.  From the wharf, it is an 11-km. (1.5 hr.) boat ride up along the 50 to sometimes 200 m. wide, golden brown Basey River.

Basey River

The initial portion was along evergreen banks lined with coconut trees, swamp plants and nipa palm (Nypa fruticans).   We had an intimate glimpse of small villages with river dwellers going about heartwarming daily activities like washing clothes and bathing children.  We also passed a colorful assortment of small native outriggers loaded with produce and passengers.  As we went further down the river, it started to narrow dramatically and the scenery began to change to eerie jungle, with massive and very rugged limestone outcrops gradually towering on both sides of the river.  We also passed bizarre, weather-sculpted limestone rock formations.  Huge trees, with interlaced roots and thick branches, hug the river’s edge and large, ancient-looking boulders also jutted out the water.

Bizarre rock formations along river

Occasionally, there were shallow portions along the river and Sidong and the boatmen had to alight to push the boat.  Pretty soon, we reached a junction where the Basey River branches out into the Bugasan and Sohoton Rivers and just before that was the unprepossessing entrance to the Panhulugan I Cave, the largest (546 sq. m.) and most spectacular endogenic cave in the park.   Directly across is towering Panhulugan Cliff, a high and steep rock formation, and cutting into the face of this cliff is  the 3.5-m. high and 50-m. long scar of Panhulugan Cave II. During the Philippine-American War, Filipino insurgents dropped rocks and logs down on U.S. troops coming up the narrow curve of the river.

Panhulugan Cave I entrance

We moored our boat at the entrance of Panhulugan Cave I, climbed a series of steps, crossed a bridge and stopped at a resting area with concrete tables and benches.  Here, Sidong showed us a map of the park and briefed us on what to expect inside the cave.  Upon entering and squeezing our way through narrow and sometimes low openings, we were ushered into a mystical and magical world of beautiful, glittering and exotically shaped and patterned stone unseen except with our Petromax lamps.  There were some walls of sparkling, pure white crystal and chambers replete with stalactites and stalagmites.  Geologically active, water constantly drips from stalactites and there are also large accumulations of materials beneath the chimney holes.

With their wild and vivid imagination, locals have christened many of the beautiful and breathtaking formations after religious icons, animals, plants, parts of the human anatomy and domestic as well as foreign tourist destinations.  Only nature can create and preserve such wonders.  One formation resembled a “three-legged elephant” complete with trunk (above).  Others were appropriately named the “Chair of Alexander the Great,” the “Ice Cream Cone,” the “Guardian Angel,” “Anaconda,” “Statue of Liberty” and beside it, the “Holy Family.” A fenced off portion has a flow area similar to the famed “Banaue Rice Terraces”.  A miniature horizontal ribbon-like formation is aptly named the “Great Wall of China” and beside it the “Chocolate Hills” of Bohol.

The Breast Room

Sidong also tried his hand in music, tapping on some seemingly hollow formations like organ pipes to create musical notes. He also ushered us into the Love Room where the ceiling was covered with the so-called European, American and Filipino versions of the female breast as well as the male sex organ.  One chamber has 15-m. high ceiling which exudes the solemn atmosphere of a high-domed cathedral.  Its eerie silence sent a tingling feeling down my spine.  Before exiting, Sidong showed us what appeared to be ancient animal bone fragments embedded in one of the cave walls.