We’ve not dragged out sleep deprived carcasses out of bed for a sunrise for a while and apparently Kiltepan Peak is the place to go. We knew we could get a car to take us there for ₱350 (good for as many humans as you can fit in the car I guess?) but we didn’t realise that the car would take us aaaaaaall the way to the top until the lady at tourist information told us. Wait… you mean we don’t even have to hike up a massive hill before breakfast? Luxury!
I mean, I’m sure you could hike up and slide back down the trail of your own pre-coffee drool if you wanted to but insert something about supporting the local community here and yeah, whatever, sod hiking that incline when there’s such a cheap transport option available. Our driver arrived earlier than expected which was fine because we were ready, and by “ready” I mean as functioning as you can be at that hour in the morning before some manner of caffeine has been applied to your brain, so it was 4.15am when we were on the road.
We were the first ones there, our driver showed us the best place to stand, we availed ourselves of coffee from the stall a few women had set up, then stood as close to the front as possible. We were above the clouds. It was magical. The wind swirled the clouds as the horizon began to glow, the ever-changing scene never got dull. The sky turned red then, as the sun made itself known it turned the whole scene golden. This had got to be one of the best sunrises I’d ever witnessed, not to mention one of the quietest. I’m sure in high season it gets packed out but there were maybe 30 people here today. We were back in bed for 6am to finish off sleeping. We’d decided to go caving later that day and I wanted to be semi-aware for it in case I had to dictate my last will and testament whilst hanging from a precipice.
I thoroughly researched the spelunking in Sagada. What I probably should have done is not researched it at all because the more I read the tighter the anxiety knot in my chest became. It fucking terrified me. Going off the reviews and blogs I read I was expecting to be ankle-deep in slippery bat shit as I clung onto sheer cliff faces and tried very hard not to die. I’m a pussy. I’m scared of heights and I’m about as sure-footed as a badger on ketamine. We ruled out the Cave Connection which takes you from Sumaging Cave through tiny holes and other places humans aren’t meant to go, all the way through to Lumiang, the burial cave.
It sounded like it’d end in nervous breakdowns all round and they’d probably have to send a rescue team in to fetch me because I was refusing to let go of the most stable rock I could find. So there’s a short course which just takes you around Sumaging Cave, the “big cave”. Even that sounded like it had a real chance of resulting in injury or death, everyone banged on about the lack of safety ropes or infrastructure and how slippery and dangerous it was. Oh my fucking god. I was bricking it but I figured I was more likely to regret not doing it than at least trying and turning back in abject shame when I froze up and cried a lot.
We rocked up to the official tourist information office and told them that we would very much like to go caving. I was shaking like a shitting dog despite the liberal quantities of Rescue Remedy I’d applied to my facehole. Fuck that hippy shit and hand me a Valium, please. We were assigned a guide and we opted for a shuttle rather than walking. Thing is though, we really did want to see the burial caves, we just didn’t want to nearly die in the process, so we asked our guide if it was possible to see them. He agreed for an extra ₱200 which was fine. It was only ₱500 for this caving trip and if you consider it was ₱1000 just for the hike we did a couple of days ago? Happy to pay it. And those prices are good for up to four humans too.
I love fixed prices, they make me so happy. Haggling makes me all kinds of stressed and I always end up feeling massively ripped off. I don’t know why I keep coming back to Asia, I should really learn to bargain for shit without turning a fetching shade of red and being convinced I’ve offended someone. Anyway. Caves. We’re doing caves. Oh fuck me we’re doing caves. But we went to the burial cave first which was nice and non-traumatic apart from the sheer quantity of steps we had to walk down and therefore back up again. But they were proper, man-made steps. Stable steps you could step on with confidence.
So these coffins are really really old and mostly date back to when the local people were pagans or animists. Like the hanging coffins they’re small and this guy says that’s to make them lighter because they have to carry them a fair way. After they converted to Christianity they started making coffins bigger so they didn’t have to literally break bones to cram the bodies in there, but the last person to be laid to rest here was in 1987. No one is buried here any more, he said it was unsanitary, and in a direct contradiction to what our last guide told us he said that no one was hung on the cliffs these days either, everyone was buried in the Anglican cemetery.
But once a year on All Saints Day, relatives of the people in the cave come to light red fire wood, and people do the same at the Anglican cemetery too. We stood and chatted for a bit until I became acutely aware of the millions of steps we had to climb back up. Turns out he likes steps about as much as we do and assured us he wasn’t here to rush, we could take our time, as we gasped our way up back to the car. We liked him already.
We’d stopped along the way for our guide to pick up a lantern then we pulled up outside Sumaging Cave where we showed our environmental charge receipt, our guide signed us in and we started our descent down some man-made steps. He stopped to get the lamp burning. As he pumped some manner of lever type thing I asked him how long he’d been guiding. “First time,” he responded without even looking up. We laughed along with the joke. Oh dear god I hoped it was a joke. He told us that some caves overseas have electric lighting but they’re not allowed to do that here. The cave is to be kept completely natural, once we were in the lantern and our head torches we’d had the foresight to bring would be the only light and as we travelled to the first, second, third parts of the cave there’d be no steps, it was all natural.
He seemed to look at us, perhaps to gauge our terror, before he took a photo of us and we made our way into the cave. We’d invested in gloves on the advice of the blogs I’d read so we didn’t have to claw our way through bat shit bare-handed, and we were decked out in our brand new rubber shoes with the surprisingly badass grip. Sexy as fuck. The first bit is sort of a downwards scramble, most of which I slid down on my arse. It’s not actually as slippery as the Internet made out and whilst you could hear the hundreds of bats, there wasn’t a disgusting amount of shit. It was actually okay.
Straight away there are some incredible rock formations, he pointed out shapes such as an elephant and told us in the cave you had to use your imagination. No, really, you’ll need quite a lot of imagination. There were already a few tour groups in there so it was quite well lit with all the guides’ lanterns and guys, it was beautiful. I knew it was going to be but it surpassed expectations. This is where we parted company with our gloves and attractive rubber shoes. Yep, we’d be barefoot from here on in and there were no bats to shit on your parade. It looks like there are two kinds of rock down here; there’s the white limestone which is slippier than a housewife 100 pages into “50 Shades of Grey”, then there’s this lovely brown rock which is sandstone and adheres wonderfully to human flesh. There was a comforting amount of friction between my hands and feet and the sandstone despite the water constantly running over it like a mini cascade. You just have to place your feet flat and they stick.
We traversed and maneuvered around formations called things like the “pregnant queen of the cave” until we got to a boulder we had to sort of abseil down with a knotted rope. You fucking what?? I knew from reading that we had to climb up this bastard at some point but nowhere had it said I had to walk backwards down a fucking rock without being securely attached to anything. Tarrant was fine. She loves an abseil. I don’t abseil. I watch Netflix and eat Doritos. The domestic tourists at the top who weren’t going to do this bit wished me luck and down I went, trying to keep my feet apart as instructed, unsure whether I should keep my arms straight or hug them into myself and try not to cry.
But you know what, mate? I did it. I made it down. Me, with the upper body strength of a one armed three year, I managed to get myself to the bottom with only a knotted rope and a death grip on said rope. It’s worth it too, it leads you to a formation they call “king’s curtain” and it’s stunning. Our guide told us it was the highlight of the cave and I think I agree with him. I mean, there are a metric fuck tonne of beautiful formations here but this one, you pretty much trip up over your own jaw. He took a bunch of photos for us and we carried on, by this point we were a bit wet from shuffling through the water and it was steaming off us, me more than Tarrant, probably because I’m hot like lava. Uh huh.
We shuffled our way through the cave, squeezed through a hole I had to repeatedly tell myself was more than big enough to accommodate my tits and vast arse, traversed and splashed our way through pools of ice cold water until we got to the motherfucking scariest part of the whole bastard spelunking experience. Legit. There was a rope stretched across what looked like a ravine, but it’s not. He swung his way across like he was part monkey with the lantern in one hand and hanging off the rope with the other, then he came back for us and helped us across one by one. Literally helped us. He physically placed my feet where they needed to be as I clung onto the rope like my general bone structure depended on it. Which it bloody did, I don’t think a fall would have killed you unless you hit your head but it’d certainly change the shape of your limbs.
I was a brave little solider though apart from all the swearing I did, and after that it was plain sailing through this gorgeous cave, wading through waist deep water, climbing and ducking and generally marvelling at where we were. He showed us some fossils in the wall from when the area was under water, millions upon millions of years ago, pointed out some rocks that looked like genitals which appealed to our sense of humour which is similar to that of a 13 year old boy, then it was back to the boulder to haul ourselves back up the knotted rope.
This was easier than going down for me, I’m not overly fond of walking backwards down a cliff but this was much easier than I anticipated. Though to be fair it was probably 90% survival instinct as all of my basic motor functions tried to work out what the actual fuck I was doing in a bastard cave. He pointed out the last few shapes; a rat chasing something and a chicken running away, then he pointed to a shape and asked us what we thought it was. We came up with a few ideas like a face or a cat. “To me,” he said, “it is a rock!” Ah ya funny cunt! To be fair he’s a legend and we really enjoyed our tour with him. He has a cracking sense of humour, not once did we feel rushed, and several times he stopped to take photos of us.
Getting up was easier than getting down, and if anyone is thinking of doing this, please don’t hesitate. Yes, it’s slippery in parts but you can just sit down and slide. I can’t speak for the Cave Connection but the short course through Sumaging Cave doesn’t seem to have any certain-death type drop offs and there wasn’t as much bat shit as I was lead to believe. The gloves were good for clinging onto the slippier rocks on the way down, I’m not sure I could do it in flip flops but the rubber shoes which you can buy from the market by tourist information were perfect. It was exhausting because I’m not very fit and have just spent several weeks in Indonesia shovelling fried rice into my chops and I’ve literally just had pneumonia, but it’s one of my favourite things we’ve done since we left the UK. I’m the biggest pussy I know and I fucking loved it.
Sagada, Mountain Province, Luzon, Philippines
Stayed at: Residential Lodge