It was the last day in Donsol for Sarah and me, a bittersweet occasion for two reasons:
- My sister and friends had only just gotten there.
- Our 2-week trip was coming to an end.
There wasn’t a whole lot on our agenda today because Donsol doesn’t quite lend itself to multiple excursions and crazy adventures in its off-season. I hoped that my sister and our friends felt like they got a lot out of Donsol and were enjoying this odd little pocket of the Philippines.
On our last day, we decided to travel to a nearby underground river and cave. As with most things in the Philippines, we were given some vague information and left to figure out the rest by experience.
It had rained throughout much of the morning, and Game of Thrones was airing its penultimate episode again at noon. Sarah and I had become twitchy addicts of the show – Sarah sacrificed her 3G to stream Episode 8 on her phone a few days earlier – and we were desperate to see who’d won the thrilling battle of the bastards. Since it was still raining, we figured we’d book the tour for 1:15 – with enough time for the trails to dry up and for us to catch Game of Thrones.
Back in our room, we turned on the TV to find snow.
“The power is out in Donsol town,” Annie told me. “We’re lucky. We’re on a generator. Lights and electricity, but no cable until 6pm.”
Such is life.
We were retrieved by a man named Christian who drove a giant white van at frightening speeds around winding, unpaved mountain roads. Annie had said that the journey would be about 45 minutes, but even at Christian’s wild speeds, this was not true.
At one point, about an hour in, I felt like I was going to hurl and asked if he’d slow down. He did – for about a minute.
By the time we reached the waterfall, marked by a single poster and a quiet bamboo hut in the woods, most of us were tumbling out of the van in our own personal waves of nausea. We’d been told to bring our good cameras and things, but immediately upon arrival, Christian instructed us to leave them in the car.
“Bring a towel. You will get very wet.”
This didn’t match up with what Annie had said, but oh well. We locked our valuables in the van and plodded over to the bamboo hut where a woman rattled of prices to us. Kacey looked around uncomfortably.
“I don’t like this,” she said.
In the States, any kind of excursion is often marked by a giant tourism center selling you overpriced crap. You’re shuffled into the exhibit or into a crush of a dozen or so people pushing at the entrance.
Here, there’s no one. It was a tiny unmarked stand in the woods. I could see how it would scream horror film.
Then the woman behind the desk asked to take our photo. Sarah and I felt pretty used to this by now. Kacey’s discomfort grew, and she later told me why:
“This is how people get kidnapped. Someone sends the photo to the kidnappers and they pick out who they want. I didn’t know what reason they had for taking our photo, so that sprang to mind.”
“Maybe for their website?”
“…you think they have a website?”
Fair point. A Google search just now reveals that no, they do not. Maybe they thought we were with the Survivor crew.
We were led down a slippery path – we’d been told that flip flops would be sufficient for the trek, which didn’t seem so at this stage – to a river at a cave opening. As we clambered down off the path, we left our flip flops and towels along the rocks and waited for the men to pull the raft out of the cave.
A pulley system had been set up, and while we’d told them we didn’t want a guide, we had 2-3 men with us to steer the raft and, later, follow us as we swam further and further up river.
The cave journey was short. Once we’d all boarded the raft, the men started poling it into the cave, which grew dark and bat-infested. We shined a light up on the ceiling and spotted hundreds of dozing bats, one or two occasionally waking and diving down near our heads.
The last underground river tour I’d been on had featured a man directing light on various stalactites and barking, “Cauliflower!” or “Jesus!” at us, so this was pleasantly relaxing. At the end of the cave, a short 2-3 minutes from the start, we were invited to get off the raft and clamber up a small waterfall and into a burbling river.
Up ahead, the river curved gently right and left, its banks studded with occasional waterfalls. Intrigued – and past the point of worrying about flesh-eating river bacteria or leeches – we swam up past all the waterfalls, until we wondered if the river ever ended. Our exploration consisted of swimming, climbing over rocks, and hiking barefoot along submerged logs. It was thrilling.
As we boarded the raft back through the cave, Jaclyn said it was the coolest thing she’d ever done. I was feeling pretty exhilarated myself.
Before returning to the van, we were taken to another much larger waterfall. We swam around in the pool and took turns paddling against the current into the waterfall. Jaclyn had her Samsung phone the entire time, swimming admirably with one arm in the air to keep it dry. For this reason, we actually have some photos from the day.
If you’re going, bring a waterproof camera or a GoPro.
The ride back was calmer. The sun was setting, leaving a powdery pink sky behind, streaked with dusty purples and lavenders. We passed by men leading their water buffalo home, goats bleating on the roadsides, chickens, children running along in the shoulder. Again, I thought how fortunate we were to glimpse this part of our country – and how especially exciting for them to see barangays and countryside instead of only Manila.
Back at Vitton, we debated going to karaoke again, but decided to drink beers at the restaurant instead. A sad-looking cat with an upsetting, partially-amputated and infected back paw, had been hobbling around imploring us for leftovers, its infected leg dragged along behind it. For days, Allison had been talking about bandaging it.
A prepared nurse, she’d brought a First Aid kid along. Hopefully no one got injured in Bali, because she used a good stretch of gauze to bandage the cat’s paw, after glooping some disinfectant gel on it. Jaclyn bravely held the cat – who was surprisingly serene throughout the entire thing, purring mightily – while Kacey passed things back and forth and dangled extra gauze in front of its face.
It was the most attention that poor cat’s probably ever gotten.
As the night wound down, a British couple arrived at the bar to procure beers for their room. The girl, overhearing us talking, approached the table.
“Sorry to eavesdrop, but we just got here today. We’re staying for a week which now seems a bit long. Is there much to do here?”
Before I could open my mouth, everyone else was telling her excitedly that she could hop islands, go into town, trek a waterfall, bandage an injured cat. (Just kidding about the last one.) A week might be a bit much, but for a few days, there was plenty.
This made me happy. I’d been worried they wouldn’t have a good time, or would leave the Philippines thinking it was absolute rubbish. There’s a strange sense of pride that comes with hearing people speak highly of where you live, even though you personally have done nothing to be proud of. Oh well. I’ll take it.