KABACAN, North Cotabato (MindaNews/28 January) – It was almost 14 years ago yet when I started hearing about the caves in Pisan, a remote village in this town. And when I was in college at the University of Southern Mindanao some of my friends planned to explore the caves and some waterfalls in this rice-producing village.
But the unstable peace and order discouraged me as well as other adventurers from pursuing the escapade. It was at the height of then President Joseph Estrada’s all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Pisan is a known “operational territory” of the MILF. Government forces bombarded the village day and night at the height of war, sending thousands of villagers to evacuation centers.
Since last year I have been contemplating to explore even just one of the six cave networks in Pisan alone, a former battleground that’s being touted as among the top destinations in the province now that peace seems to have prevailed. The plan came after an invite from Sara Corpuz-Guerrero, the town’s tourism officer.
Guerrero said a tourism crew is already in place and ready to assist spelunkers and tourists. She added that the fee is just P50 at the tourism office and P5 upon arrival in Pisan. Local guides ask P300 for a daytrip.
So last week, I quickly arranged with the local tourism office that I would visit even one of caves in Pisan and a portion of the Kulaman watershed.
I’m not really into caving or spelunking. I usually prefer mountain trekking. Caving requires a different set of skills and training. Besides, I don’t have appropriate gears to explore the underworld.
At 6:30am on Saturday, a habal-habal driver fetched me in the town proper. We drove through the dusty roads passing rice fields on the vast plains. For photographers who wish to capture rural life, this could be one of the most picturesque villages in the province.
About 20 minutes later, we arrived in Pisan, which is 15 kilometers away from the town proper. Upon arrival, village chief Armando Peralta introduced me to Edgar Biernes and Gordon Delambasin, who would be my tour guides.
Tourists are required to register at the barangay outpost.
Minutes later, we drove through the bumpy and partly muddy roads leading to our first destination in Sitio Tulunan. As we approached the sitio, Kagawad Ali Abid, who is the chair of the committee on tourism of the barangay met us and joined us in the trip.
Tropical depression Agaton last week had brought moderate but continuous rains in this town and left the road going to the site muddy. We were forced to leave the motorcycle in one of the houses, about a kilometer away before our destination. Though the road was still passable, Delambasin opted to leave it since he just borrowed it from his nephew.
“I’m afraid that I might damage it,” he said.
If not for the heavy rains, Biernes said, the motorcycle could make it to the end of the road.
The trees along the road provided shade as we hiked on an open trail going to the cave. We encountered several motorcycles ferrying passengers and sacks of vegetable. Passengers had to disembark and hike because of the muddy road that made it hard for the drivers to negotiate.
After a 30-minute hike, we reached a place on the foot of a peanut-draped hill they call Acacia, after a tree that stands on the foot of the hill and just beside a small stream. Underneath the tree was a hut, where Zainaira Alanangsa was cooking “bulua” using a homemade oven. Bulua is a Maguindanaon version of “mamon” and is made of flour, egg and sugar.
The next 10 minutes of hike finally took us to the mouth of what they call “Lope Cave.” Abid explained that the cave got its name from a settler named Lope, who now lives in Kabacan.
From a distance, the mouth of the cave looked covered with thick vegetation. It was just a short sloping climb of about 20 feet from the foot of the mouth followed by a short descent into the entrance. The triangular-shaped mouth was about 25 feet high and 30 feet wide, mossy stalagmites protruding from it. Sadly, the pillars inside had been defaced by paint and carvings.
Biernes said the vandalism was left by tourists many years ago when tourism guidelines were not yet crafted. “Now it’s prohibited. That’s one of the roles of the tourist guides, to tell the tourists that vandalism and leaving trash behind is forbidden,” he explained in the vernacular.
After taking pictures of the entrance zone, Biernes led me to the twilight zone, where there is lesser light. It was a muddy descent. He said the mud was caused by the recent rains. There was less sunlight, making it longer to dry.
Biernes wanted to show me the underground stream. It was about 30 meters away according to him, and we could already hear the sound of the flowing water. But the muddy trail prompted us not to continue. Besides, we only brought smaller headlamps.
So I opted to stay in the twilight zone and take pictures of the stalagmites and the stalactites. The highest portion of the ceiling was about 20 feet. Traces of bats left a dark spot on the walls and ceilings.
After about 45 minutes in Lope Cave, we hiked back to Acacia and had our snacks – what else but 10 pcs of bulua from Babu Alanangsa which only cost us P25. She also served us free native coffee.
What astounded me was that, while at the village, you could hardly distinguish who among them is an Ilocano or a Maguindanaon. Local guides and villagers are talking to each other in mixed Ilocano and Maguindanaon dialects.
Maguindanaons speak fluent Ilocano fluently. The same is true with the Ilocanos, they speak fluent Maguindanaon too.
Usok cave and waterfalls
We headed back to the barangay proper and took a different route to Kulaman watershed. This time the road was way better and graveled. It took us about 10 minutes to reach the end of the graveled section where we had to leave the motorcycle.
Abid said the road improvement was still ongoing all the way to the tourism center, which the local government had built with support from the provincial government.
Only three huts stood along the road and beside the small rice field. They were just temporary shelters for farmers who would work in their farms at daytime and return home before dark. “Many people used to live here but the wars in the past have displaced them and they never returned here,” Abid said.
“This used be a logging road,” the barangay kagawad continued as we took the rolling trail leading to the watershed area, where the newly-built tourism center sits on a clearing surrounded by tall hardwood trees.
The chirping birds and whirring of insects greeted us as we entered the rainforest. Tall and bigger trees appeared as we walked deep into the jungle. “Mao na ni ang Usok,” Biernes said referring to the place.
Villagers call it Usok (smoke) because it appears like smoking whenever strong water currents flow from the cave. “Maybe because of the freezing water temperature from the cave,” said Guerrero.
As I climbed over the short waterfalls, I was elated to see the mouth of the cave where water gently cascaded down the six-foot falls and into the stream.
“Naa pa waterfalls diha sa sulod,” Biernes added.
It was tempting to take a dip in the crystal-clear waters and several natural free-flowing swimming pools. Unfortunately, I did not bring my waterproof casing for my camera and some extra clothes. Besides, a daytrip may not be enough to fully appreciate the beauty of these natural wonders.
Abid suggested that a two-day trip would be the ideal timetable to be able to take good pictures. And I thought seeing the Lope cave and Usok waterfalls was enough!
“You should come back and spend a whole day here up to the cathedral,” said Biernes referring to the other cave. “After the caves, take a bath before going home.”
The cathedral, he opined, is perhaps the most stunning of all the caves because of its enormous interior that resembles – of course – a cathedral. Most of the tourists visit the Cathedral and Usok caves, he added.
After taking pictures, we headed back to the town proper.
A day was not enough to completely appreciate these natural wonders. Maybe I should return to discover more of Pisan’s underexplored beauty. (Keith Bacongco/ MindaNews)