EARTH’S crevices have their own way of greeting visitors. Some are plain holes at the side of the hills or mountains, others are like remnants of unplanned diggings on plain surfaces covered by tall and unkempt grasses.
In this interior village far from the población of Matanao, Davao del Sur, the Su’bon Cave looks like a gaping mouth of an ancient Tyrannosaurus rex, with fangs still ready to devour the adventurous spelunkers.
A lone white-barked tree rises in splendor atop the cave’s entrance, but its roots grip through the entire outside passage like an immotile creature unwilling to part with its bosom to cling for life. A creek flows endlessly from its mouth, indicating the cave’s origin as a waterway weaving from some hole aboveground and creating a deep crevice that the Blaan tribe described as a hole emitting an unpleasant odor, hence the name Su’bon.
“Our tribespeople speak of this cave with a bad impression of its smell,” Mylene Fernandez, a Blaan tribal cave guide, told the BusinessMirror during a municipality-sponsored guided tour to one of the 63 caves of the town, of which only two have been officially designated as safe and legally allowed to be opened for spelunkers.
In the distant past, what once emitted an unpleasant odor now unveils a breathtaking natural wonder—a magnificent architectural masterpiece supported and embellished by an array of both miniature and massive stalactite columns meeting their stalagmite counterparts. Together, they create pillars reaching heights equivalent to a four-story building.
At some point of the 250-meter length of winding trail, explorers and visitors would be forced to crawl on all fours for about 20 meters, with only less than two feet of breathing space between the cave’s array of stalactites and flowing cool waters of the cave.
Next, another cave welcomes you with an expansive chamber soaring up to 50 meters in height, marked by the presence of two or three winding tunnels branching out like dampened whirlpools.
THE province of Davao del Sur has been anchoring its tourism blitz on its blessed location at the southern foothills of Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak at 10,313.6483 feet or 3,143.6 meters. Besides towering majestically above all other mountains in the country, this dormant volcano is famous for its being home to the rare and endangered Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), the rare Waling-Waling orchid, and a host of other endemic and critically endangered flora and fauna.
Clover Jane C. Sabornido, tourism officer of the municipality of Matanao (this place is called Matan-ao by the local inhabitants and the surrounding provinces), said the municipal government has also devised plans to take a chip off of the provincial push for tourism attraction.
“We were thinking of what else should we do to partake of the blessings of the province’s tourism promotion. We agree that we have these caves, all 63 of them in one town, and we find it our unique feature to capture the interest of tourists and to contribute to the total allure of the province,” she told a group of online video bloggers and journalists on September 6. A cave congress was the central event, with spelunking taking the spotlight as the pinnacle activity.
This town is 92 kilometers southwest of Davao City and the caves are some 20 kilometers to the west of población Matanao.
In nature’s belly
THE Su’bon Cave is one of the first batches of caves, along with Asbang Cave, to come out of the evaluation by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). It was assessed since 2018 and the DENR gave the green light for public spelunking in 2021.
On its social media page, the DENR regional office described Su’bon Cave as one of numerous caves yet to be explored and to be assessed. “The Su’bon Cave in Sitio Talambato in Barangay Asbang and Labas Bantong Cave in Barangay Colonsabac have already exhibited splendid features that can attract nature lovers, thrill seekers and cave enthusiasts.”
“Both caves are classified Class 2, which are caves having areas or portions with hazardous conditions and contain sensitive geological, biological, archaeological, cultural and historical values or high-quality ecosystem. It may be necessary to close these sections seasonally or permanently. Class 2 caves are open to experienced cavers or guided educational tours/visits,” it added.
Sabornido said other caves would be also explored but the processing time of at least three years for each cave would be impossible to have all of them opened for spelunking soon.
The caves’ opening happened to be within private properties, although Republic Act 9072, an Act to Manage and Protect Caves and Cave Resources and for other purposes, places caves under State management and protection.
The management team of the Matanao caves charges P200 for the cave visit, which they consider affordable and attractive for visitors. They mentioned that in the future, if they offer more challenging adventures, they might consider increasing the fees.
Due to the pandemic, the promotion and opening of the caves have been conducted online up to this day. The town’s social media page has already garnered 17,000 followers, and booking and registration are now exclusively done through online platforms.
The town also tapped the Blaan residents, like Fernandez, to be trained and employed as cave guides. “They are a shy people before, but look at them now. They are as capable and very adept at what they are doing,” she added.
Spelunking is conducted only in mornings because rains come in the afternoon.
At the mouth of the cave, Fernandez would be reminding each batch of 10 visitors to observe proper decorum and wearing of helmets. Occasionally, she would brief some DENR personnel of the throng of non-biting wasps at one of the exposed stalactites at the cave entrance.
At the end of the Su’bon Cave lies a 40-foot vertical drop with a diameter of four meters, concealed by trees and tall grasses. While there is a path ahead, the guides have advised against human entry to safeguard the development of delicate cave features that remain soft and fragile to the touch.
SPELUNKING is available year-round, Sabornido said, and the town has opened the cave festival as a regular activity held in May. Then another festivity would happen the following month, in June, as Matanao observes its founding anniversary.
By October, the town would host an extreme sports challenge, and this year, it would be the second edition of Matanao Mountain Marathon, on October 14 and 15.
On its social media page, it said the event “is now part of the international race calendar of Asia Trail Master (ATM) in Hong Kong as Championship points and Grandmaster quest points. With only 4 categories -6km, 21km, 42km and 70km mountain madness that showcase most of the hidden gems of Matanao—caves, waterfalls, peaks and beautiful ridges.”
There are waterfalls located near the caves in Sitio Talambato, which offer a panoramic view of the mountains and stretch as far as the neighboring province of Sultan Kudarat.
“We are really blessed with natural endowments in this town,” Sabornido said.
Photos courtesy of Matanao Tourism Office
Image credits: Matanao Tourism Office