It was a scorching Friday morning when a good friend picked me up in my hometown, Narra. Our itinerary: Gangub Cave in Bataraza town. Only a few motorists and public utility vehicles were travelling down south that day, so having the road all to ourselves was kind of liberating. The road trip was enjoyable since the southern national highway is almost completely cemented, giving us a smooth ride.
After driving a borrowed motorcycle for three hours, we finally reached Bataraza past 11 a.m. We had our lunch at a restaurant along the national highway in the poblacion before we headed over to the Municipal Hall to meet the municipal tourism officer, Sir Junaide “Jun” Dawili.
All I thought we’d only be accompanied by a local guide, but we’re elated and humbled to know it was Sir Jun himself who will tour us. So together with Sir Jun’s outdoors-loving staff, we hopped on his Tamaraw FX, with him driving us to Gangub Cave in Barangay Sandoval, some 30 minutes south of the town center.
From the jump-off point along the national highway (left side, if you’re travelling to Bgy. Rio Tuba), a dirt road spanning 1.5 kilometer leads visitors to Gangub Cave. When you find yourself passing through the shade of oil palm trees you know you’re a few steps away from the information center. There you’ll meet longtime local guides, Jaime and his wife, who will have you registered and oriented before you explore the cave.
Out of the nine caves located in the area, Gangub Cave is the only accessible and open to the public. It’s situated atop a karst hill surrounded by lowland forests and rolling mountains that are soothing to the eyes. Here you can get sweeping views of the Sulu Sea while taking in the fresh mountain air that cuddles your work-inebriated body. Like me, I know this is the kind of place you’ve been looking for to escape from the demanding, stressful adult life.
But here’s the catch: there are 110 paved stair steps going to the cave itself. And if you’re not the athletic type of traveler, I’m sure you’ll run out of breath as you ascend. While dragging my feet up, I can’t help myself but bathe in my own sweat; good thing I brought a water tumbler that kept me hydrated throughout the tour. (Don’t clutch a bottled mineral water when you tour around, please; it’s not eco-friendly). The stairway, meanwhile, is flanked with shrubs, gracefully greeting visitors who are excited to see this cave that exudes an aura of mystery and timeless charm.
You’ll feel how small you are when you finally stand at the magnificent cave entrance. It’s towering, with an elevation of around 39 feet or two to three story-high. On its right side, trailing vines believed to have medicinal properties latch onto rocks. If you’re feeling tired, have a quick rest on wooden seats flanking the cave entrance, where you can also hear bats screeching symphonically.
Gangub Cave is also known as Panuyon Cave. “Panuyon” is a native term translated as bat, and it’s fitting since Panuyon Cave is home to a colony of bats. I’ve gone to caves in Puerto Princesa City, Quezon and El Nido, and I hadn’t seen as many bats there as Bataraza’s Panuyon Cave. I think this is because it’s less frequented by tourists, making it an ideal habitat to these shy, nocturnal mammals congregating on the cave’s ceiling.
Intricately shaped by nature and time, Gangub Cave boasts of a high dome-like ceiling akin to a cathedral. However, as you enter in, it’s not the burnt incense that will greet you but the rancid smell of guano or bat poop instead. If you’re unlucky, chances are you’ll get droppings on your head. So you know what to do: just look up from time to time!
There are also some holes on the cave’s ceiling that allow sunlight to get in, lighting up some portions of the cave floor where massive guano deposits pile up (although a large portion of these had been excavated, placed in sacks and sold as fertilizers by locals). The cave’s jagged walls, meanwhile, have varying shades of beige, brownish-orange, moss green and black. To appreciate Gangub Cave’s expansive interior better, carry a flashlight with you or wear a headlamp if you have.
And, oh! Didn’t I tell you the cave is used as a gathering place for a local Christian church? Yes, you heard it right. At the opening part of the cave, there’s a pulpit facing two rows of wooden pews, all covered with plastic sheet blanketed with guano deposits. I wonder how the church goers manage to pay attention to the preacher without being distracted by the squeaking bats and the thought of droppings falling on their heads. (Anyway, Sir Jun told me they have already advised the church to relocate somewhere since the cave is a government property)
From that spot, walk a little bit further, turn right and enter into a chamber where you’ll pass through a portion with a low ceiling, requiring you to bend slightly as you tread a path leading to the cave’s exit that’s perfect for photo opportunities. However, this one’s dead end since it overlooks a forested ravine.
My heart was swelling with joy throughout the cave tour. The sad thing, though, was seeing some part of cave walls vandalized long before the destination started to be taken over by the local tourism office. But with its congressional declaration as a tourism destination a few years back, I am hoping the local government will get enough funding needed to better manage and preserve this natural gem.
Bataraza town is a 4.5-hour drive from Puerto Princesa City. It’s accessible by public utility vehicles like shuttle van and bus which leave San Jose Terminal almost every hour. You may ride a van bound for Bgy. Rio Tuba, Bataraza (P400) and ask the driver to drop you off in Bgy. Sandoval. For more information and assistance, contact the municipal tourism office at 0918 780 3985 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. This article has also appeared on Palawan Daily News.