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Ramblings In The Philippines

January 1997


The trip this year was mainly a consolidation visit trying to finish off the Odessa-Tumbali system first looked at by Speleo Philippines '92 and extended ever since.  Odessa is in the Penablanca region of Cagayan Province in northern Luzon, not far from the provincial town of Tuguegarao.  In 1996 a few more passages, sinks, resurgences and other related features were encountered at the bottom end of the system so it was decided to go back and finish all these off so the cave could be knocked on the head once and for all.  If this was carried out and no huge leads were found then a detailed article for "International Caver," complete with photos and surveys, could be produced.  Furthermore, a very large resurgence was found in 1995 some 2kms around the escarpment from the Odessa resurgence indicating another system in the same plateau. It was hoped to push on into this to see if it connected, or had anything to do with, Odessa.  As a side show it was proposed to dive a large resurgence down in Antique Province, Panay Island poked at last year with goggles and a rubber ring.

I've produced this article in diary form, the verbage taken verbatim directly from my own day-to-day Log.

9th January

After a day or so collecting and fettling diving gear on the coral island of Boracay, just off the coast of Panay, we set off in Vince Villarosa's "Company car" to have a poke at this big resurgence at Malumpati near Pandan, a small town on the Panay mainland only 50 mins drive from Boracay.  A spine of reef limestone mountains runs down this particular seaboard of Panay (already attracting interest from marble quarriers) and the resurgence is at the junction of the mountains with the coastal plain.  I was joined by Matts Johncke, a Swedish PADI dive instructor, and his girlfriend Jessika who were friends of friends on Boracay and who secured some gear for me.  They fancied a few days off and came along for the ride.

From Malumpati (three huts and a sari-sari store) an idyllic amble alongside the river through butterfly-infested coconut groves leads after 2kms to a spectacular 40m diameter crystal resurgence pool fringed with palms.

The dive was intended to be only a recce using two small 6ltr. tanks and no buoyancy.  It was naively expected that the gaping hole in the pool bed would go down for a few metres or so and then flatten out into large passage boring off into the hillside to emerge in mega-dry passage that I could skip and dance up for 25kms. to a 50m entrance shaft.  Chance would be a fine thing.  The beautiful 5-6m diameter fluted shaft just kept on going until a vast boulder slope loomed into view and I alighted on a load of big Henry's at exactly -30m.

A large wedged coconut tree provided a convenient tie-off point.  Ahead of me lay a big black void. With small tanks, no line and no buoyancy it seemed sensible to retreat for a beer.

The team (Fred "Amigo" Jamili, Jaylin Thorman "Geek" Salazar, John "Snake" Delleva, Venus Guadalupe, Matts Johncke, Jessika Swahn and I) thus returned to Boracay for a day to get some 12ltr. tanks from Matts' dive place and also an ageing, rusting, hulk of a portable compressor held together with string, gum and a prayer.

11th January

The shaft was rapidly descended the next day in a wonderful free-fall.  Tying on I set off down the boulder slope only to encounter a big wall at -40m.  A little puzzled I searched to and fro and realised I was in a large domed chamber full of mega boulders.  A circular sweep of the place revealed no obvious way on.  Reasonable sized holes amongst the boulders may have been a route but with mounting decompression on the computer, big tanks and common sense I decided not to poke around them too much.  A retreat was made with pleasant 15 minute deco stops at -6m and -3m in a sunlit shaft.

With some air left I invited Matts to have a swim around the pool and to look at the top of the shaft but as he was enjoying himself and quite obviously very competent he went to the bottom of the shaft on his first cave dive.

On return to base at Malumpati village we found the locals had chopped a big green evil-looking snake in half and curled it up on our compressor.  Very droll.  A nightmare 4 hour pump of the tanks ensued on the apology of a compressor which hopped around the village trailing the tanks after it.  Surprisingly the air was quite clean and tasty with not a hint of petrol or exhaust.

12th January

The compressor gave up the ghost at 175 bar so with slightly low tanks we returned to the pool to have another look around.

To the side of the main pool is a smaller 5m diameter static pool, clearly a flood overflow.  I thought this may drop down beyond my limit in the main shaft.  Matts used a mask and fins to duck-dive down and see what was what but he only found a muddy bottom with a small passage leading off.  With a single tank he investigated this passage only to pop out into the main shaft about 13m down.

I then made a detailed investigation of the main shaft, spiralling my way down with powerful lighting but nothing of interest was found.

I can only assume that the flow wells up through the bouldery floor.  As the chamber is large and the January water levels quite low the flow cannot be felt.

13/14th January

A while was spent wandering around in the hills above the resurgence dropping various shafts to see if there was a top way in to the system.  As is usual in the Philippines, all the shafts were blocked with run in, boulders and trees.

Monday 20th January

Arrived in Tuguegarao in Northern Luzon for my main project in Odessa to be met at the airport by my host and partner, Jun "Criminal" Ocampo.  He said "I have a surprise for you". Thinking he meant cases of cool beer we wandered across the car park.  Over yonder in an airport-side bar was Mr James Smart Esq.  Stanley had met Livingstone after all.  He had been up in Sagada in Mountain Province for a month or more and decided he had enough time in his schedule to mozey across to meet up for a chinwag.  He had a superb time.  Sagada is a wondrous place apparently, rather like the old Raj hill stations in northern India.  A completely different country than the rest of the Philippines with pine trees, pine-clad lodging rooms, air you can cut with a knife, mist rising at dawn and a blanket required at night.  Lots of well known caves there but the French in general and Monsieur Mouret in particular seem to have done all those back in the 80's.

In the pm myself, Jun Ocampo and Efren Munoz packed up and made the arduous 30km trip to base camp at Tumbali.  Normally the trip would be made easily by jeepney but the pesky October typhoon had knocked out the road which was only fit for mad dogs, Englishmen and water buffalo. The jeepney got so far and then we had to hoof it.  A kindly village Kapitan lent us his buffalo and sledge so we buffalo-taxied the rest of the day at a gentle plod.  We had temporary respite from James as he had visa problems so made the overnight 'bus trip down to Manila to sort it out, hoping to join us later on.  True to form he asked us to transport his gear to Tumbali.

On arrival at our host's house, Segundino Tuliao, at Tumbali we found his bamboo house had been destroyed in the typhoon.  He had re-built the salient parts but the outbuildings, piggery, knife-sharpening area, kitchen and gin-drinking parlour had not been attended to.  We thus just set up the Ginebra (Filipino gin) operation in the courtyard adjacent.  As last year, locals began appearing out of the shrubbery to swell the circle to a dozen or so for a celebratory arrival session.

The plan was to look at, survey and finish off the resurgence end bits of Odessa and drop the shaft found last year which may connect with Odessa.  Depending on what happens, to then go around to Noodle Doodle (looked at by Blakey and Henry in '95) above the other resurgence to try and get down the pitch into the main river the other side of the resurgence sump.

Around the gin table tonight was renewed talk of the mythical "16 Chamber Cave". Our host, his sons and locals all talk of this place but nobody seems to know how to find it.  It almost certainly exists but where is it?  Fingers point in the vague direction above Noodle Doodle - anything in this area is of great interest as it may drop down behind the Noodle Doodle resurgence sump and thus into the system that undoubtedly exists in the plateau.  Last year we looked at a huge collapsed doline feature up on the hillside used for some years as an NPA guerrilla hideout.  I wondered if they thought this was 16 Chamber Cave?

Tuesday 21st

Visited the Alum Pot-type shaft already referred to, locally known as Bittu Cave.  The area had changed for the better since last year as the October typhoon had knocked a large tree over part of the shaft allowing a decent belay point.  One of the problems last year was a lack of safe belay points due to rotten rock and calcite but even now we had to use some outrageous deviations and "Expedition rigging" to get down safely.  The shaft dropped into a fine 10m wide chamber via a small ledge two thirds of the way down and then into pleasant walking passage, with several wet bits.  After 200m or so a 4m pitch was met with a small lake at the bottom.  With no ladder and the Filipino's calling for lunch we had to call it a day.  This was an exciting prospect as the cave seemed to be heading towards Odessa.

On the way to lunch I persuaded the guys to detour for an hour to check out one or two things I wanted to see.  It seems caving in this place is controlled by the stomach.  I am looked at with incredulity when I say I don't want anything to eat.  Trips can never be more than a few hours long.

In the pm Fred Jamili arrived from Iloilo City down on Panay Island.  He is boss of a Western Visayan group of cavers and had been with me during the diving at Malumpati.

Wednesday 22nd

Intended to carry on the exploration of the Bittu shaft descended yesterday but a change of wind direction brought in cooler wetter air.  I even had to sleep in a sweat shirt of all things.  A bit of rain that night and a cloudy morning persuaded me to leave Bittu alone.  It clearly flooded to the roof but I had no idea how it reacted to water.

So, we decided to try and get down the pitch in Noodle Doodle which Rich and Henry got to in 1995. Last year I did not have enough gear but the prospect looked exciting with a big black gaping void and a lake visible at the bottom.  I knew last year it was the other side of the huge resurgence sump that can be seen from the outside but obviously it was upstream we wanted to go.  However, I was also a little concerned that I could not feel a decent draught or hear running water.

We took loads of tethers and tapes and in the end fashioned a safe enough belay to descend the slightly awkward 13m pitch straight into out-of-depth water.  This place was wonderful - a 30m long lake (the upstream pool of the resurgence sump) with a lovely cascading river dropping into it. Myself, Mark Dia and Jun Ocampo thus skipped up this streamway for 50m until three large circular lakes were met. Swimming across these I found myself faced with a big blank wall in every direction.  Swimming through a small hole I popped out into two more lakes but with no dry way on.  Half an hour searching for a way on revealed nothing.  Another crashing disappointment.  The way on is obviously underwater, hence no draught felt at the top of the pitch?  This would make a really great diving project though.

On the way back to base we stopped on a grassy knoll to ponder the escarpment before us and conclude that the only way into the undoubted system that exists in there is either by diving or by searching the top of the plateau for a shaft or top way in, as with Odessa.  Its forest and thick scrub up there and would be hard going but that's what has to be done. Our host, farmer and guide thinks he knows of a cave some locals used to go bird nesting in but when you ask him about the next day he's forgotten.  We'll have to grab him during one of his lucid moments.

Fred Jamili, on arrival here at Tumbali from our diving exploits at Malumpati, said two of his caving group went down the submerged shaft at the risings after I had left, the first two Filipino cave divers.  They were competent sea divers and regular cavers so thought it safe to just go down the shaft and back.  They both survived.

The wind had shifted back to its normal position and the day was clear and hot so we decided Bittu cave was safe enough today.

Fred Jamili, Jun Ocampo and I descended to the previous limit and dropped the 4m pitch into a nice lake with a very pleasant white flow stone marking an inlet on the right, a change in the rock type and some nice marbling.  The passage turned 90 degrees to the left, away from Odessa unfortunately, reduced to low wide bedding and ended in a filthy sump pool 50m further on. Another disappointment.  The unknown leads in downstream Odessa are all wettish with flowing water but this cave was dry apart from static pools and canals so God knows where this one goes.  Dye tracing required again.  We surveyed out totalling 450m or so of nice cave but it really hadn't added to Odessa. On return to the pitch we noted with amusement that our rope had disappeared.  Efren, our erstwhile companion and observer from the DENR (Dept of Natural and Environmental Resources) who looked after the rigging had pulled it up to adjust some rope protection and the end was lying on a little ledge.  Much shouting and toing and froing eventually retrieved it.

Friday 24th

Now that most of the Odessa resurgence area loose ends had been tied up we turned our attention to the hill and plateau above Noodle Doodle.  Our Wednesday descent into the main cave beyond Noodle Doodle confirmed the obvious presence to a sizable system.

Segundino, our host and guide, suddenly announced last night at supper that some years ago he had gone bird nesting in a big cave on top of the hill above Noodle Doodle and it had a river in it.  We said “that'll do nicely” and he said he would take us.  However, having experienced his memory before we were not entirely confident.

An hour's hike in the hot sun (even at 8.30am) reached the welcome relative cool of the forest and then the fun began.  I was told we were on an old logging trail but I was damned if I could make it out. After 30mins of hacking up this “trail,” Segundino said “Tarry a while my good fellows, I'll go and find the cave", or words to that effect.  So we sat down for a breather in dense undergrowth and waited, and waited ........... Two hours later we were getting a little worried.  We had no idea where we were and each way looked the same. Not much we could do really, get lost or wait.  He probably thought he had only been gone 10 minutes.  After another hour matters were getting ridiculous so we slowly headed off in the direction we thought he had gone and after a few hundred meters came across our lunch sitting in a clearing.  Segundino had obviously dumped the bag to wander off unhindered.  We thought this was a reasonable place to wait and have lunch so a bit of leaf litter and a few sticks of valuable hardwood were thrown together and the rice billy was soon puffing away.  The smoke also drove the mozzies away.  A rather bizarre sight dear readers - one BEC, three Filipino cavers and a DENR goon sitting lost in a gloomy sweaty little clearing covered in anti-mozzie smoke brewing noodles and rice.  Not only that, but the iron pot to cook in, two cans of pork and beans, five tin plates and cutlery .... and the kitchen sink.  Unbelievable these guys.

A crashing of undergrowth, a swish of a machete and a few oaths in Tagalog heralded Segundino's return out of a bush just in time for lunch.  He had not found the cave.  We asked him when he had last been bird nesting there and he said 40 years ago. No wonder he couldn’t find the place, he normally has trouble working out what he did yesterday.

So, a hot trudge back to base.  On arrival, one of 'Dino's sons said he knew where the cave was.  We nearly throttled him.

Saturday 25th

A local bloke (but not from Rodney Stoke) said he knew of a doline/wide shaft-type thing with a more or less horizontal entrance.  This was more like it, if it was true. Anything vertical in these parts is likely to be choked, a la Dachstein snow plugs, so what we wanted was a horizontal entrance at the bottom of a wide shaft or depression which was less likely to be filled, as with Odessa main entrance.

Off the intrepid team set at 9am to beat the worst of the heat, up on to the plateau through quite difficult terrain zapping with poison ivy.  After two hours of numerous choked shafts our guide confessed he could not remember where this fabled place was either?  Amnesia seems to be a local trait.  Again out came the rice pot, noodles and Pork & Beans and a pow-wow was had amongst the smoke of the fire (to keep the mozzies at bay).  You can picture the scene no doubt, dear readers. I said shaft bashing was OK as far as it went but I did not want to make a habit of it as 99% were going to be choked. From past experience we could have been there all week but I knew just as well that you have to force yourself to do as many as possible as that last one may just be the way in.  After a few more shafts were called it a day and retreated.

We reached base Camp to find that James had arrived from his Visa exploits in Manila, three days late. He was rapidly told that caving here had finished and we were re-locating back to Tuguegarao in the morning for R & R, fresh clothes and regular food and drink.  He was not too disappointed.

The other team had gone back up on top of the hill above Noodle Doodle with Segundino's son who had said the evening before that he knew where this birds nest cave was, you know the one with the big river in it.  Apparently they found this place but it turned out to be a squalid little hole 5m long with a fetid pool at the end.  A typical Filipino caving occurrence this.

Tuesdav 28th

Jun Ocampo had heard about cave potential a little further north from Tumbali in the Baggao area. This area was also on the western flanks of the Sierra Madre and in fact only 20kms or so north of where we have just been in Tumbali.  However there were no passable roads north from Tumbali so we had to make a two hour regular 'bus ride to Baggao from Tuguegarao.  We eventually ended up in the nice little town of San Jose.  A friend of a friend of Jun's lived in San Jose, Edilberto "Chit Chit" Herrero, and he knew something of the area so we descended on him for a chat and some grub before tricycling the 5km or so to the even nicer little village of San Miguel nestling beside the huge Pared River at the foot of the mountains.

Wednesday 29th

A kindly Sari-Sari store owner put us up in San Miguel, which pleased James as it had a good stock of liquor, and over a beer we planned to make a quick recce to a known river cave nearby.  The very impressive Pared River runs out of a gorge and on to the San Jose flood plain at this particular point, although at this time of year the flow is well down and only about 1/4 full, just nice enough to wade across.  The river bed is actually about 300m across, an awesome sight in the rainy season.  On the far side of the river from the village an impressive resurgence issues out of a 30m high limestone cliff.  A short swim across a crystal pool and through the entrance arch leads to a magnificent enclosed doline 40m high, ringed with trees and encircling a sunlit area of limestone boulders and clear pools.  The cave-proper starts immediately in a 30m wide and 20m high passage.

As it was mid-morning and the guys did not want to start work straightaway we just went in for a short way for a look before starting serious work on the morrow.  After 300m or so the dry land disappeared and we were faced with a 5m wide canal running between soaring cliffs, most of it out of depth.  Captain Speleo (as I became know for some reason) swam off trailing Filipino's behind, it was too difficult to resist.  After 100m or so of swimming we alighted on a large jammed tree only for a few of the guys to say they were getting cold.  It seemed nice and warm to me!  Then Jun got cramp, then a non-swimmer started to sink ........ Things started to look a bit dicey so I ordered a retreat and we limped out in varying degrees of cheerfulness. I had my pecker up by now and wanted to make a start so after lunch.  Fred Jamili and I returned to start surveying and sketching the entrance doline and first section of passage to the canal.

Thursday 30th

It did not seem necessary for all five of us (plus the guide) to proceed upstream so Captain Speleo, Fred Jamili and Efren Munoz intended to carryon surveying upstream from yesterday's work whilst Jun Ocampo, James and Mat Batang, our guide, were going to hike up the hill to look at the top entrance and hopefully cave downstream to meet us.

As I suspected, on reaching the canal it became very obvious that surveying the out - of - depth canal would be a nightmare, especially as Fred could not swim.  Although Fred had a good buoyancy jacket and Efren had a 1 gallon gasoline can strapped to his bulk, bobbing around surveying was a lot different than merely swimming.  So, we decided to abandon the surveying for the time being and just go exploring. Capt. Speleo and Efren thus assisted Fred through the watery bits by Speleo swimming ahead to provide Fred with a beacon to aim at and Efren swimming alongside him.  Good fun was had by all and Fred even got to learn a bit about swimming.  Around several corners we espied daylight, half-illuminating the passage we were swimming up 30m high and 10m wide with lovely banded limestone - Tiger Limestone as Efren poetically put it, a brilliant description which should be entered in the Karst dictionary toot - sweet.  The daylight marked another doline collapse, again some 40m high and 15m in diameter.  This also coincided with a nice little waterfall and was a good place to rest after the swimming exertions and to re-charge the carbide.

Whilst Capt. Speleo was standing in the doline sketching, a "yoo-hoo" from the upstream darkness heralded James's arrival, his unmistakable silhouette ruining the lovely curves of the passage.  Speleo waded across to say hello (Stanley always seemed to be meeting Livingstone) and it was clear he was on his own, Jun and the guide not fancying the swimming after the previous days wetting.  We thus continued surveying out to the entrance where we met up with Jun and the guide.  A very pleasant lunch was had on a massive boulder sitting in the huge sink entrance, darkness beckoning on one side and sunshine on the other.

The upstream section of cave actually continues here; the river water takes a dive to the downstream left further up the valley to gouge its way through a smaller section of cave before entering the large main passage downstream of the existing dry entrance.  This was looked at but time forced a retreat until the morrow.

Friday 31st

The six-man team decided to go back up to the sink to survey and investigate further.  A nice day up in the river gorge with lunch, lounging about on boulders and doing a little caving and surveying seemed an ideal way to spend a Friday.

Various activities were carried out; I and two others continued surveying the cave and also a surface traverse to link the various cave features and entrances together, whilst others did some photographing and one or two lay about on the rocks.  A leisurely lunch was had amongst the boulders and a doze in the sun. We shuddered to think what this gorge must have looked like in the October floods.  James's caving sandals broke so he caved barefoot for a while.  Never a dull moment with Speleo Philippines.

In the pm your correspondent and Jun went to look at another large entrance a little further up the valley, obviously once connected to Dubba.  A vast dry sandy and guano tunnel bored off into the hillside, our guide announcing as we left there was a little stream at the end ........... After an hour's surveying we came to this "stream", a thundering river obliquely hitting the dry passage and then sumping.  Knowing we did not have time to survey it I followed this upstream for 10 minutes whilst Jun waited.  What a place - superb stream passage that just seemed to go on and on. Out of time we just continued surveying the main dry passage for another few hundred metres to a large dry overflow entrance, daylight and some very angry bats.

On the way back Jun ran out of water for his carbide so my wellies that everybody laughed at came into their own.  Imagine dear readers this quality hunk of British caving manhood lying on his back in the guano while his companion filled his carbide from the water and urine mix pooling in his left wellie.


That was it for your correspondent, end of holiday.  A few chores and enquiries in Manila were required and then Lufthansa beckoned.  A return was made to Tuguegarao as some of the others had to go back to work and see families.  I then returned to Manila by the overnight 'bus (never again, now I know why I usually fly around) with Fred "Amigo" whilst the others stayed in Tuguegarao.  They were planning to go back to Dubba a few days later to finish exploration and surveying.

Once in Manila, Fred and I tried to find a) a source of Flourescein and b) a tame Geologist who could enlighten us further.  I have come to the conclusion that you can spend a lifetime caving in the Phils but 90% of the time down Caribou holes. or grotty places with not much depth or length. You can find caves virtually everywhere but what I am after is the big one.  It therefore makes sense to identify the type of limestone that is capable of sustaining decent cave systems ego Dubba, and then look for areas in the country where that limestone predominates, just to give us a head start. The majority of the reef limestone is like clinker and seems unable to span more than 4m or so.  The more I see the more I think the Odessa-Tumbali system was just a fluke to be where it is amongst generally naff limestone.  You thus find lots of breakdown, blocked shafts and small caves.  We thus went up to the University in Quezon City, Manila but the Geology Department was deserted.  Some local cavers will be continuing on the search for a Geologist.  A source of Flourescein was found via a Chemist somebody knew so that looks like a project for the guys for next year.

As far as reports and articles are concerned I have a busy three months ahead of me writing up recent data and finishing off various reports already in production.  Various reasons combined to delay the Speleo Philippines 95 expedition report so I've decided to convert the draft of that expedition on my Word Processor into a weighty tome covering all caving activities between the end of the inaugural 1992 Expedition and 1997.  This will cover recce work by Alex, Rich et al in 1994, the 1995 Expedition to Mindanao, my solo trips in 1996 and 1997, and those wanderings made by James Smart over the aeons.