A world of water
Head to Palawan in The Philippines for stunning seascapes
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