Biak-na-Bato was declared a National Park by President Manuel L. Quezon in 1937. History has it that Filipino revolutionaries like Emilio Aguinaldo used the numerous caves of Biak na Bato as their base of operations during their freedom fight against the Spaniards in 1896. It was here in Biak-na-Bato (Split Rock in English) that the Philippine constitution was signed.... in a cave.
The "60km" trip ended up taking just over 2 hours. We breezed through local Manila traffic, notable only for a long procession of fire engines of every vintage and color, sirens wailing in honor of National Fire Prevention month. Once we hit the tollway it was a different story. Just after the entrance to the four lane highway, traffic backed up. Our two northbound lanes quickly turned into three as the roughly paved shoulder became a lane. As things got worse three lanes became four with fourth lane traffic spewing up dirt and grass from the side of the road.
Traffic eventually cleared and Chito blasted northward to the St. Rita exit onto the "national highway," a two laner similar to county trunk KR. The difference is that the national highway runs directly through every town and we had to contend with busses, tricycles, pedestrians and motorbikes the whole way. (Note: Contend= to cross into the other lane of traffic to pass a slower vehicle). We followed the signs to the turnoff for the last 12 km stretch into the park. The side road had once been well paved but with the potholes we spent almost as much time on left side of the road as the right. Good four wheel drive territory for sure. The other minor hazard is that local farmers use the highway to dry their rice (taking up an entire lane) so we were often down to one lane at best. The rice, carefully raked with handmade wooden rakes, gives the narrow road the feel of a Zen garden.
First impressions don't always tell the whole story, a good thing too. We pulled into the park parking lot to find an array of kiosks and stalls selling cheap souvenirs and junk food. Music blared from a loudspeaker mounted in a tree. We had read that going on a weekend was not a good idea (but weekends are all we have) since it the park was popular with locals and school field trips. There were not as many vehicles as we expected but the jeepneys came and went.
A large map at the entrance showed an extensive system of trails and twenty caves. The guides estimate that there are closer to a hundred caves in Biak-na-Bato's limestone cliffs. We paid our P20 admission fee and with Chito's help soon arranged for a guide. Bobby looked to be in his teens or maybe slightly older. His command of English was only slightly better than mine of Tagolog (in other words virtually nonexistent). Chito was our lifeline as he found himself in the unfamiliar role of translator.
Thin straps only slightly larger than a shoelace tugged over Bobby's shoulders. When he turned around I saw that they were tied to a plastic 5 liter container labeled "Shell Gear oil" complete with screw-on top. Protruding from the top on either side were two wires, one red and one green. These were twisted to a piece of white zip cord (wire like you would find in an inexpensive extension cord or lamp cord) which wound its way to what looked like a motorcycle headlamp mounted on a visor. This was to be our sole source of light in the caves.
We headed up the trail for Santol cave, only 850 meters away (about a half mile) by the first marker. What the map didn't show was that this was mostly vertical rise, up steep rocky trails. I expected a cave entrance in the face of a cliff but what we found was a gaping hole winding down into the earth. Clambering down rocks now worn smooth from many hikers we descended a bamboo ladder into darkness. And indeed it was dark, pitch black except for Bobby's lamp. He knew the territory well and soon our feet were slithering over muddy rocks in the cool moist air. Bobby's light revealed shimmering stalactites and stalagmites from finger size (one year's growth) to yards wide all around us, and beautifully eerie rounded shapes called flowstones. Everywhere the ground was damp and muddy (and slippery) as the water dripped and fed new cave growths. Eventually we descended to the lowest chamber, as big as a small house. Chito and I followed Helen & Bobby watching where they stepped as the light was gone by the time we stepped in the same place.
I'd acquired a new camera since losing mine in Argentina and am still figuring it out. The technique here was to frame a picture in my mind, aim and look through the viewfinder at pitch black and squeeze the button. The flash was pretty strong and it lit up the cave for an instant. The only catch is that it is a tad bit difficult to focus in pitch black. Some shots turned out beautifully and some not at all. With a digital camera at least I could keep on trying and just delete those that didn't work out.
When we finally climbed back out into the blazing sunshine I was dripping with sweat. We descended the loose rocky path back to the main trail and stuck out for Bahay Panki or "the bat cave". Along the main trail, more like a sidewalk really, were numerous huts where people were cooking and eating. Seems some families live in the park and collect bat guano to sell as fertilizer. They also catch bats for food. From time to time Bobby stopped to point out endangered trees or to pick up trash beside the trail.
Bahay Panki was much larger and more open to the outside. Rather than wade into the cave, we took a roundabout approach and scrambled over some large rocks to enter a high, rounded almost cathedral-like chamber chirping with bats. Inside was a large green pool, cool and clean, where people were swimming. It looked to be about a hundred feet up to the top of the dome which opened to let a shaft of sunlight beam in. High up we could see bats fluttering around. There are reportedly three different species of bats living here. Occasionally one would dive down close enough for us to get a look.
We'd been in the park about two and half hours by the time we go back to the parking lot and Bobby offered to take us to four more caves. Since time was marching on and the afternoon was already partially gone, we drove about 10 minutes and parked by some houses. We got out of the car and followed Bobby up a road he told us was built by the Japanese during the war.
These four caves were hideouts for Filipino resistance fighters, first from the Spanish and later from the Japanese. The first constitution of the Philippine nation was signed in one of these caves when independence had been declared but not yet won.
The first cave, the Filipino command headquarters, went straight down through a hole barely big enough to fit through, the bamboo ladders shaking as we descended. The one light illuminated only our feet or our heads, so it was slow going. This cave was much smaller at first. We had to bend down to avoid banging our heads on stalactites. We snaked along wondering what Filipino heroes might have tread these same paths before us. Finally we opened onto a larger chamber with a hint of daylight at the far end. In all of these caves we entered on one end and emerged on another.
A short hike brought us to cave two, the food storage depot, then on to cave three, used as a hospital with many side passages for safety from enemy pursuit. The fourth cave showed signs of digging, treasure hunting for the gold the Japanese were supposed to have buried as they retreated from the Philippines.
As we were coming out of the last cave, Chito turned to me and said "I feel like I'm inside a National Geographic Magazine."
It was after six o'clock when we got back to the hotel hot, tired, sweaty and dirty, but grateful for our journey though a slice of Filipino history that most will never see.