A world of wa­ter

Head to Palawan in The Philip­pines for stun­ning seascapes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - PHILIP SHERWELL

As the boat­man pad­dles us across the small man­grove­fringed la­goon to­wards the jagged open­ing in the rock, there is no clue that one of the nat­u­ral won­ders of the world — and that is an of­fi­cial des­ig­na­tion — is about to swal­low us up.

We gen­tly coast from pierc­ing light into ut­ter dark­ness be­fore our eyes slowly blink into fo­cus, our hel­met­lamps pick­ing out the un­fold­ing riot of swirls and shapes. We have en­tered the long­est sub­ter­ranean river on the planet ac­ces­si­ble to reg­u­lar trav­ellers — the 8km-long Puerto Princesa Un­der­ground River. This be­guil­ing sliver of wa­ter snakes through the mid­dle of Palawan, an is­land of empty beaches, emer­ald la­goons, tow­er­ing lime­stone cliffs and di­verse ma­rine life.

Still largely un­ex­plored and un­ex­ploited, this could be one of South­east Asia’s fi­nal fron­tiers, closer to Bor­neo than it is to the rest of The Philip­pines. To an out­pour­ing of great na­tional pride, the river was voted one of the New Seven Won­ders of Na­ture in 2011 in an on­line “world of” user-based sur­vey.

UNESCO had al­ready granted it World Heritage Site sta­tus in 1999, de­scrib­ing the moun­tain-to-sea ecosys­tem, the im­pres­sive cave sys­tems and the tidal flow be­tween un­der­ground river and ocean as a “sig­nif­i­cant nat­u­ral global phe­nom­e­non”.

The mys­ter­ies of the cave com­plex are still be­ing nav­i­gated and charted by an in­trepid group of spele­ol­o­gists, ge­ol­o­gists and ex­plor­ers from the Ital­ian group La Venta. In one of their re­cent ex­pe­di­tions, they dis­cov­ered the un­der­ground river has a sec­ond floor, which means that there are small wa­ter­falls inside the cave.

For tourists mak­ing the one-hour trip, the ex­pe­ri­ence is much more se­date. The glo­ries in the gloom emerge as we slip deeper into the sub­ter­ranean world, ac­com­pa­nied by the re­lent­less ban­ter of our ir­re­press­ible guide.

A mys­te­ri­ous and ma­jes­tic ex­panse of cathe­dral-like chambers adorned by an ex­plo­sion of sta­lag­mites and sta­lac­tites takes shape in the lamp­light, re­sem­bling at times noth­ing less than an en­tombed and an­cient ge­o­log­i­cal ver­sion of Gaudi’s Sagrada Fa­milia basil­ica in Barcelona. The yawn­ing, high-walled chambers in­voke awe, while the frenzy of weirdly shaped sta­lac­tites ta­per­ing down from the roof and sta­lag­mites jut­ting up from the ledges are oth­er­worldly.

Our torches pick out large colonies of sleep­ing bats as they cling to the roofs and walls of the chambers. Sleep­ing space here works by a time­share ar­range­ment as the caves are home to bats by day and mil­lions of swal­lows at night. Their roles are re­versed at dawn and dusk as the noc­tur­nal and di­ur­nal in­hab­i­tants trade places, flock­ing into and out of the caves via the same small sea open­ing.

Alone among the world’s no­table un­der­ground rivers, this is the only es­tu­ar­ial one that flows di­rect into an ocean. That is more than just a trivia fact, for it also means we ar­rive by a dra­matic seaborne ap­proach, speed­ing through the wa­ters from the nearby town of Sa­bang on a wooden banca, the open out­rig­ger that is a ubiq­ui­tous form of mar­itime travel in The Philip­pines.

Back at the land­ing point, we choose the over­land route through the park along the Mon­key Trail, seen off by one of the gi­ant pre­his­toric mon­i­tor lizards that linger at the start of the walk in search of scraps and pose men­ac­ingly for pho­tos. It is an in­vig­o­rat­ing 90-minute hike of peaks and dips through an­cient for­est and dra­matic rock fis­sures, with the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of the jun­gle cho­rus of caw­ing birds and chirp­ing cicadas.

The five-hour road trip that fol­lows, on to El Nido, the is­land’s sec­ond UNESCO-recog­nised site, flies by in a reverie of spec­tac­u­lar views across moun­tains, coves and beaches. All glim­mer mag­i­cally in the trop­i­cal heat, bursts of vi­brant bougainvil­lea de­liv­er­ing colour to the rain­for­est that car­pets the sparsely pop­u­lated ter­rain. We have one short com­pul­sory stop when the ve­hi­cle is searched at a check­point for il­licit man­goes. The au­thor­i­ties are try­ing to stop the spread of the mango pulp wee­vil from the in­fected parts to the un­in­fected north. With no for­bid­den fruit aboard, we are al­lowed to con­tinue.

An hour later we ar­rive with jaws dropped as we soak up our new sur­round­ings in one of Asia’s most beau­ti­ful, least crowded and most sym­pa­thet­i­cally de­vel­oped desti-

Spec­tac­u­lar Palawan, above; en­trance to the 8km-long Puerto Princesa Un­der­ground River, left

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