On the way to Lumiang Burial Cave in Sagada, you will see these impressive rock formations high in the mountain tops. If you look closely, you will notice some wooden coffins hanging on them. These are the Sugong Hanging Coffins built thousands of years ago in the ancient funeral tradition. It is believed that suspending the casket high on cliffs and mountains brings the dead closer to heaven.
Amazed? I am, too! Now, let me take you to a hell of an adventure more than six feet below the ground.
We walked for about 40 minutes from the town center before we reached the entrance of the Lumiang Burial Cave. An accredited local tour guide was with us. He was s a 27 year old man with a kind face and a medium-built physique. He was not very spontaneous though; he was answering my questions with short, straightforward facts.
The road going ups and curves are concrete and the trail leading down to the mouth of the cave are also paved and secured with hand rails.
“This is where all your environmental fees (35 pesos per tourist) go to,” the tour guide commented when we paused and side stepped to allow the foreign tourists to come up first.
The narrow lane was too risky to be shared by more than two people at the same time. They were mostly Americans and Europeans in late adulthood who were probably enjoying their retirement benefits by traveling the world. Though they looked tired and gasping, they were all smiling when they passed by us.
Piles of wooden coffins made from hollowed logs were stocked at the right edge of the cave and above where they are attached on the wall right below the ceiling. I was astonished at how those coffins stayed fixed in that altitude for a very long time. I was not allowed to touch or open the coffins. The cave was huge and dark. Its mouth was gaping widely as if readying itself to swallow its next prey.
Two other guides joined us at the entry point. They did a few agile hand strokes and the kerosene lamps glowed to bright yellow light. The cave came to life and I made sense of the whole interior. Everything that you could possibly see shouted adventure. Cold and smooth rocks of nondescript shapes and various sizes reflected the light, illuminating our area.
The first few meters were easy because we were stepping on the some flat surfaces. There was one tour guide at the front of the queue, another one at the middle, and the third one at the end to make sure everybody was tracking the same direction.
When we descended deeper into the cave, the temperature became colder. There was a narrow hole that we have to fit ourselves in and then go down by way of a rope to reach the bottom. This was the first part of the six challenging rope pit stops. The guides were experts and knowledgeable and we really have to listen to them. They directed our feet to where they need to step in, and sometimes we have to land on their shoulders, arms, or legs if we could not reach a certain grasping point.
The ladies were always the first to go so we can watch them at the back. It was amazing to see them all charging to the challenges, and that gave me so much motivation. I was glad that I had finished my first marathon a week prior to this, so my muscles have already been warmed up.
This was the next station that required us to use a rope to climb to the top against a slippery wall. The guides were there to support, but the completion of the challenging task still relied on us. Their advice was to grip the rope firmly and never let it go whatever happens. The rope held our lives. Who holds yours?
Where was the darkness leading us? I really had no idea. We boldly vanquished every darkness that came our way and trod every navigable channel to survive. Each aperture brought us to a new space of surprising obstacles. Going down from a higher altitude was very difficult and scary especially when the rocks are slippery and wet. I was either gliding inch by inch on my butt or crawling slowly on my stomach. I never dread heights, but the rocks below seemed pulling me down.
There were at least three stations where my courage faltered. One of them was a slippery, slanting wall that had less rough edges to grasp and few shallow carving to put my feet in. There was an instance when I accidentally put both of my feet together because I could not reach the other point. I was clinging to the wall for a while and trying to compose myself, oblivious to the repetitive instruction and impatient tone of one of the guides.
In my favorite pool, I can always jump in and lose myself, but here in this very huge cave, it was a totally different case. As I looked down, the sight added to my fear because there was nothing there to cushion my fall. I might really suffer serious injuries, and worst stand face to face with death. Then, a strong hand gripped my left foot and swayed it across to a parallel point. I stretched my arms to the limit and was able to land on the other side.
After a seemingly endless navigations within the Lumiang Burial Cave, we finally crossed the connection and reached the Sumaguing Big Cave. We were serenaded by the squeaking-like sound of the bats above. Sumaguing Big Cave, as its name suggests, is bigger and has a higher ceiling than the first cave. We waded in a knee-deep water, but it is deeper in other parts where we were not allowed to go to.
The water was crystal clear and was very chilly. It has a pricking sensation on the skin that relaxed and healed my sore muscles. I cupped a small volume and flashed it on my face. It was very refreshing!
I saw a pool of water that is 15 feet in depth according to the guides. Too bad for me, I did not bring my jammer, goggles, and extra clothes to change into. That must have been very exciting!
We kept walking in the water and hopping carefully from one rock to another to prevent sliding and falling off. There were more smooth spaces and rough walls in Sumaguing Big Cave than in Lumiang Burial Cave. The water that surrounded us was a total relief; nobody ever complained when we needed to climb to a higher surface while the water was flowing along our limbs.
Here was the fifth challenge that we needed to pass with the aid of a rope, and definitely one of my favorites. The wall was actually rough, and the flowing water tickled my soles. For every pull of your hand on the rope, you have to balance by stepping your opposite foot up on the wall. No kidding, this was one of the easiest parts of the adventure.
That moment when it was just between you and the wall that was as cold as death, the dripping frigid water, the rope that holds your grip of life; that moment when fear was all over you, but you determined to push yourself to the top; those moments to me spell the meaning of true adventure!
Here are few tips that you have to remember if you’re looking to experience this memorable cave exploration:
- Be in light clothing (fitting dri fit shirts and shorts or leggings are good; they easily dry and give you enough flexibility when moving).
- Do not wear accessories or any dangling objects; they might interfere as you move through narrow crevices.
- Use rubber slippers or sandals that have strong , rough soles and straps, those that will cling to your feet even when they become wet.
- If you are bringing a camera, make sure it is securely fastened on your body.
- The caves have splendid scenes that are worthy of every shot, but do not get very excited taking photographs. Make sure you are in a stable platform. Do not take pictures while moving.
- Listen attentively to the tour guides; they know the complex anatomy of the caves more than anybody else.
We emerged from the Sumaguing Big Cave after more than three hours. We were all tough SURVIVORS!