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2017
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Into the caves of Balbalan
by Regino Wacas

For many years, the people of Balbalan, Kalinga were only mindful of gold mine tunnels beneath the towering mountains of this beautiful municipality.

Recently however, another kind of nature’s wealth stirred interest among the local folks – not manmade tunnels but natural caves adorned with beautiful rock formations.

The caves or liyang in the native tongue of Balbalan were discovered about the same time when people settled in the villages. In fact, villagers of Barangay Tawang frequented Dinugdugan Liang, to collect shiny black stones which they use to make into dinug or beads. But what lies deep within the caves – the beauty of their architecture and their importance to ecological balance – are all for the villagers. They regard the caves as ordinary natural tunnels where bats rest for the day and where the spirits of the mountain dwell. These superficial appreciations of the caves would be amplified with the conduct of the first-ever scientific expedition of these natural wonders.

Jumpstarting the expedition

Originally, the Multi-National Expedition Team (MCET) contacted Balincaguin Conservancy (BC) to have an expedition in its home area of Mabini, Pangasinan, but the BC’s officers felt there were not enough caves in Mabini to warrant a three-week, 12-member exploration team. So, BC contacted the Sierra Madre Outdoor Club (SMOC) and they suggested the caves of Barangay San Miguel, Baggao, Cagayan, starting with Duba Cave.

By a stroke of luck, and in less than a month before the arrival of the MCET, BC performed a pilot trip to the Uguid Subterranean River located in Barangay Maling, Balbalan, as requested by the Provincial Culture and Tourism Committee, chaired by Board Member Camilo T. Lammawin Jr.

BC was impressed with the mountainous terrain, the cloud forest biome, the stories of the numerous caves in Balbalan, and most importantly, the support given by the local government units during the pilot trip. So much so that BC offered bringing the MCET to explore the caves of Balbalan.

Arriving on Jan. 9 in Tabuk City, the Northern Luzon International Caving Expedition Philippines (NLICEP) was greeted with a program and cultural show hosted by Gov. Jocel Baac, Vice Gov. Allen Jesse Mangaoang, Rep. Manuel Agyao, and Lammawin.

The team consisted of cavers from six countries. They are headed by Michael Laumans with fellow Germans Helmut Steiner, a biologist, and Dominik Frohlich, Matt Oliphant, a photographer; and Nancy Pistole, a cartographer both from the U.S.A.; Brazilians Rafael Camargo, a photographer, and Livia Cordeiro, a biologist; Lebanese Chadi Chaker and Joey AbouJaode; Jean-Pierre Bartholeyns and Marc Vandermeulen from Belgium; and Roman Hapka from Switzerland.  

Team 1, which I led, was assigned to the western barangays in the Cal-owan region of Balbalan, and Team 2 led by Jerry Rendon of BC was assigned to the southern barangays particularly at the Ugid Subterranean River at barangays Maling and Balantoy.

The team hit the road to its first destination 9:30 a.m. of Jan. 10.

An hour later, the Cal-owan region, which stretches towards Pinukpuk, loomed across the mighty Cal-owan River as our vehicles hummed west. Water buffaloes and farmers wearing straw hats waded slowly in the mud. We were not fortunate in our take-off as the road was very slippery after a heavy downpour the night before jump-off. 

We arrived at Barangay Wagud in Pinukpuk 20 minutes before lunch. We were delayed by 30 minutes because another vehicle got stuck on a very slippery climb. The vehicle though made it after all members of the expedition team voluntarily got out and pushed the vehicle.

At the end of the road at Barangay Wagud, my crisis management instinct would again be put to test as I was informed by the porters sent by Punong Barangay Jerry Bagsao of Tawang that there are only five of them who were able to make it as the men from the village are busy searching a missing person. I requested for 10 porters to meet the team at the road end. Nevertheless, I instructed the five porters to carry up to their capacity the most important baggages which the MCEP members segregated and the other luggage will be picked up later that day by horseback.

We then hit the muddy foot trail from Wagud to Tawang after having light snack from a sari sari store and with the porters eating their lunch packs. According to the porters, it will take them two hours to walk the distance but for urban legs like that of the cavers and me, it will take three hours.

We waded through the muddy trail and reached Tawang in less than 15 minutes. The porters did not know that the members of the expedition team were fresh from another international expedition in Laos where the foot trails are far more taxing to negotiate than where we just passed through.

Reaching our destination, we established our base camp at the barangay health station at Sitio Bulao that evening and I assured my team that we are all in good hands as we are billeted in a health station. After interacting with the barangay officials about our activity the next day, we settled for the night after a heavy dinner of pinikpikan.

To our first cave

On our second day, I divided my team into two. The first team composed of the senior citizens, will explore the nearer caves which according to the villagers are 30 minutes away from our base camp. I joined the team of the younger and expectedly stronger ones to the farthest cave at Tawang Proper, which could be reached after two hours of hiking. Porters were assigned on both teams as I did not expect that inside the luggage we brought all the way from Tabuk are all caving gears. The foot trail from Sitio Bulao to Sitio Tawang Proper was of a more challenging condition with steep climb and mud up to the knee.

We reached our second camp at 10:45 a.m. and we were happily received by Manuel Lingbay, the owner of the house where we will be staying. We lunched at our second camp and by 1 p.m. we were rolling again for another 30-minute trek towards what we would later discover as our greatest conquer.

From the edge of the creek, our group of eight trekked up a steep slope, lifting ourselves and our backpacks over roots and rocks along the trail until we finally arrive at the mouth of a very big cave around five meters from the top to the bottom and four meters across. At the entrance, you can hear the rumbling of the water inside.

Welcome to Dinugdugan Cave

Entering a cave is like walking to a movie house to watch a matinee. You leave the brightness of the day behind, step into a cool dark world, and wait for your eyes to adjust.

In this case there is no smell of buttery popcorn, only the aroma of damp earth and bat waste. We made our entrance on a slippery and ankle-deep mud that descends in gradual steepness. With gears lent to me by the multi-nationals, I followed my buddy Rafael Camargo from Brazil. I chose Rafael to join me because right from their arrival I easily bonded with him as there is no dull moment with his sense of humor and frequent inquiries. We also share the same passion in photography, that’s why we easily blended.

I meticulously followed him inside the chambers of the cave and after four hours of amazement, we went out.

In Tawang, respect for nature comes from the heart. It is a trait formed by a combination of tribal values, education and experience. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, some companies planned to log out the forest of Barangay Tawang as what they did in neighboring municipality of Conner, Apayao, but villagers opposed it.

Lingbay said the vibrant environment gives life. With deep respect for nature, this tribal community developed methods of farming and planting which are kind rather than destructive to the environment.

Dinugdugan Cave consumed two days of our itinerary and a day later we met the older members of the team. They were able to explore and map five caves.

Day four brought us to Barangay Mabaca where a number of cave systems were also discovered by the villagers. At 1,270 meters above sea level, this barangay located on a vantage point overlooking the village of our origin and some parts of Cagayan Valley, we explored three more caves. These are the Littalitan Cave, Magtuon Cave, and the Maaya-ayas Cave.

According to Marc Vendermeulen, the Maaya-ayas Cave is one of the best he had ever seen. When I asked why, he said it’s an active river cave with beautiful formations inside. Most of all, it is highly technical. Simply put, it’s for professional cavers and not for beginners. In their assessment, they recommended all the other caves for tourism purposes except for the highly technical cave because it’s risky for tourists.

Seven days later and after 51 kilometers of hiking we met the other team, which explored the Ugid Subterranean River at our convergence point at Sitio Utah at Barangay Gawa-an for the joint exploration of the Utah Cave. Unfortunately, there was not much to behold inside that cave because of vandalism. The other team on the other hand, spent much of its time at the Ugid Subterranean River, which they classified as a “talus cave.”

A talus cave is defined as rockslides and rock falls producing piles of debris. The rocks of the collapse, called talus, are large boulders with irregular shapes, which don’t fit nicely together. Hence, spacious chambers may form in the talus piles producing a cave-like configuration. Rocks may also fall or slide into narrow fractures or canyons, which confine the rock piles, forming caves through which streams may flow. Talus caves are also referred to as breakdown caves.

The team went on a pass through the renowned Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park on its last day of the expedition.

At the end of the Balbalan exploration, the NLICEP was treated to an exit program hosted by the Balbalan LGU headed by Mayor Kenneth Dale Mangaoang and Vice Mayor Eric Gonayon. Vice Gov. Sonny Mangaoang and Lammawin also came up to Balbalan to attend the team’s exit conference.

All in all, the NLICEP team covered six barangays of Balbalan, visited 12 caves, and surveyed 10 of those caves for a total of 4,001 meters.

An initial synopsis of data has been submitted while maps and photos are being developed. The final report will be published by the MCET in a few months and will be included in a proposed Atlas of the Great Caves and Karst of the Philippines.

Leaving Balbalan that afternoon, folksongs and the traditional instruments of the children of Balbalan, serenaded us during the cultural entertainment prepared for us. A mantel of peace enveloped our group as we left the blessed forest communities of Balbalan, more hopeful for having found them and a little richer in spirit for having shared them.

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