How do you fancy squeezing through narrow gaps deep underground, wading through waist-high, dark water and slipping on slimy rocks with only a kerosene lamp and a local guide for comfort? Well that’s what we signed up for when we took on a dangerous but exhilarating caving adventure in Sagada, the Philippines.
The Dangers of Sumaguing Cave
As well as hanging coffins, waterfalls and awesome hikes, Sagada is famous for its impressive cave networks. We opted to take a four-hour tour from the popular Sumaguing cave through to the Lumiang cave which takes you hundreds of metres underground through a labyrinth of spectacular rock formations and underground rivers. Enter without a local guide and you’d likely get lost forever in the cold, dark stone depths.
The tour definitely isn’t for the faint hearted; you need to be relatively fit and unafraid of being trapped miles underground in confined spaces wading through water which, at times, reaches as high as your chest. Back in the UK, Andrew once took some kids from his school on a caving trip; for safety reasons everyone wore boiler suits, helmets, head torches, boots and knee and elbow pads. By contrast, we headed down to Sumaguing cave in shorts, vests and flip flops with our local guide, Virgo, who was carrying only a kerosene lamp.
If you think I’m exaggerating the dangers, a few days after we left Sagada a group of tourists and guides were trapped in the cave by rising underground water for two days before being rescued. One member of their group slipped and was washed away by strong currents; the cave was shut off for weeks afterwards while they searched for her body.
It’s no wonder I was feeling nervous as we approached the mouth of Sumaguing, which was surrounded by stone hanging coffins with hundred-year-old bones encased within. Here are some video clips of our exciting caving adventure:
The Cave Connection Tour
Virgo cranked up the lamp while Andrew strapped on the single head torch and I tried not to panic as we picked over rocks and began the long descent down into darkness. Within minutes I saw what we were up against as Virgo disappeared down a tiny hole in the rocks, beckoning me to follow. I hesitated at the mouth of the drop, the flickering orange of the lamp illuminating Virgo’s kind face below:
“Give me your foot Miss,” he said calmly, pulling it down onto this knee and supporting me as I squeezed through the dark gap into the unknown.
The journey continued ever deeper into the blackness. Virgo instructed us to take off our flip flops so we could grip the slippery rocks more easily; even with his help holding my arm, telling me exactly where to step and when to sit and slide down the most dangerous rocks, I was struggling to stay upright. I couldn’t stop imagining myself slipping over, my head cracking against one of the jagged yellow-brown rocks as I went. The only way to tackle the cave was to go one careful step at a time, testing each foothold before putting your weight down. To keep the panic at bay I tried to concentrate only on Virgo’s instructions and to copy his footsteps exactly.
I was doing alright until we reached a sharp drop down a steep crevis. A rope had been attached to the top of the fall and the only way to get down was to dangle from the rope and lower yourself to the bottom. I happen to have pretty scrawny arms so relying on them to hold my entire body weight was terrifying; while Virgo stood below, waiting to catch me and Andrew stood behind urging me on I hesitated, unable to let myself slip into thin air. Slowly I inched my way off the edge, crying out in alarm as my legs scrambled blindly for a foothold and I gave in to the heart-pounding panic. I slipped clumsily downwards, crashing into Virgo at the bottom, my arms shaking with adrenaline.
I barely had time to recover as Virgo was now standing below a huge rock, slick with running water, gesturing for me to climb up onto his shoulders and hoist myself up into the narrow tunnel above. Pulling myself shakily onto his shoulders I clung to a rope, my knees scraping wet rock as I heaved myself upwards, cold cave water soaking through my clothes. It was a huge relief to slip through to the next part of the cave system, a series of high-ceilinged, echoey caverns filled with massive stalactites and stalagmites and vast underground pools and rivers, which Andrew dove eagerly into.
Virgo led us up a gentle incline to a large open space; the light of the lamp threw crazy shadows against the walls, which were carved with the names of people who’d passed through over the years. We became aware of a slightly sweet, earthy smell and the sounds of high-pitched squeaks and tiny wings beating the air – Bats. Virgo angled the lantern upwards and we could just make out the darkened shapes of furry bodies hanging from the ceiling and soaring high above us.
As the journey relaxed Virgo pulled out his iPhone and treated us to such musical delights as Uptown Girl, Gangnam Style and unidentifiable country and western tunes – things couldn’t get more surreal. As we neared the end of the cave Virgo began pointing out all the different cave formations; a frog stone, huge pillars of chocolate cake, a dinosaur’s footprint, lions, tigers and elephants. Virgo was in his element now, laughing and telling us stories about the formations, making us pose for pictures.
Going Deeper Underground
“Now,” Virgo said, becoming serious again, “There is a third optional part of the tour,” he paused for a moment before warning: “But it’s more adventurous.”
Turns out ‘more adventurous’ meant descending further into a narrow underground river and submerging up to my chest in dark, icy water. So did we want to do it?
Of course we did.
Virgo wasn’t lying when he said this part would be more difficult; we followed the river downwards, clinging to ropes as we descended down the sides of the steep stone tunnel. The water below us was so deep and dark you couldn’t see to the bottom and I clutched the rope harder, unwilling to surrender myself to the unknown depths. There came a point though where I had to simply let go of the rope and plunge downwards, crashing into Virgo as I slipped into the icy blackness, screaming out as I fell. We waded through the tunnel in silence, concentrating on clinging to the wall and stepping carefully from one smooth underground rock to the next.
Eventually, soaking wet with shaking muscles we climbed out of the river towards the pinpoint of daylight signalling the cave exit; relieved, exhilarated and exhausted we emerged into the sunlight – we’d survived our underground adventure.
*Our cave connection tour cost 800 Pesos (£11.50) for two people; we loved Virgo so much though we paid an additional 200 pesos as a tip.