"The helmets were not optional"
After reckless sleep and a dozen other nightmares morning broke its singular veil and transported us to the world of vivid sight and realism. Heavy bodies broke the soft canvass of fresh sand leaving behind irregular foot prints, proof of a night of slight excess.
The National Park office was grasping at lucidity, guards wiping sleep from their eyes and attempting to conduct themselves with authority and assuredness. We paid our fee's, accosted an aging Englishman and his hysterically young escort to share a boat with us, and proceeded to walk barefoot down the pier (hot concrete) to the array of brightly coloured boats moored offshore and bobbing up and down with the slow heaving of the ocean. Our guide divided the gathered tourist into groups of six and proceeded to shepherd us into the waiting boats. With a couple of heaves the spluttering of the engine gave way to a mighty roar and the six of us turned and hurtled off on paths immeasurable and unrepeatable
The engine shut off and we leapt into the water, wading slowly onto the pristine shore. Palm trees bent in unison along the wide, perfectly white beach. A clear heaven above so blue and infinite. Green mountains awash in tones of jade and muddled with trees rose beyond the scope of our reach and towered with majesty and silence.
A path had been nailed together through the jungle with wide planks of dark wood and a few scattered signs. Five minutes later we turned a corner and reached the entrance to the famed Sabang Underground River.
The water was crystalline blue. Achingly clear. A couple of paddle-boats tugged at their ropes under palm tree leaves. We donned helmets, filled out forms of consent and hopped into the narrow boats to begin the 3.5 kilometer journey into the mountains. The darkness was crushing and immediate. The whole world was left as a silent murmur beyond the fragments of light that still clung to the rocks around the entrance. We were immersed in darkness. Save a flashlight at the front of the boat you could not even distinguish the passengers in front. The landscapes became eerie as the temperature changed to a strange humidity.
Behind us the boatman paddled while rattling off sentences of instructions as to which direction to turn, where to look, how deep a certain cave was, reassuring the French women that the flying shadows were swallows and not in fact bats......The cave opened and closed. Deep vaults and narrow hallways, spectacular formations and deep marble..... We rowed.... the minutes passed..... kilometers seemed like meters....faces following the glow of the flashlight opening the impossibility of darkness to new interpretations.
Two hours later and the small sliver of natural light reflected on the water like a comforting embrace. The outside became nearer and nearer until all of a sudden we were face to face with the very palm trees under which our boat had been tethered. I was mildly glad jumping onto firm ground, and yet equally pleased at the sights rendered to us in the complete darkness of the cave.
We gathered our things, as the herds of Japanese and Chinese tourists poured upon the opening (late risers, damned to visit in groups and not in silence) and walked upon the nailed planks back to the beach that opened up from under trees and shed such brilliant light.
The Bitter Man
A backpacker by default since birth, have scanned almost 100 countries in the search for perfection and imperfection in equal measure.