Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

caves of Samar

SARAH CONNOR

Going on a Trexplore Adventure is like falling down the rabbit hole. A rush of adrenaline and sensation take you to worlds you could not have even imagined. Tree-surfing among the clouds on an island’s summit. Standing in a perfect black void surrounded by an orchestra of drips. Confusing bumbling fireflies with shooting stars. Crouching in a rocky enclave behind a veil of tumbling water. Seeing a spider’s eyes flash like jewels. Bathing in mounds of bubbles in an underground river. Relishing the squelch of knee-deep mud. Assuming your own royal chamber that glitters like gold.

And the characters you meet along the way are equally wonderful: a fearless explorer who understands the cavernous depths of the earth so well that he has almost become a cave creature himself; a playful apprentice who sings love songs, and laughs easily and loudly; a ponytailed man with a beautiful round belly who can tell an epic tale with his body alone.

But this isn’t a world of Alice’s imagination, this wonderland is a real place, and the characters are real people. Trexplore, a small company on Samar Island in the Philippines, takes ordinary people on extraordinary adventures. It was created in the year 2000 by cave master Joni Bonifacio, a young family man with an unusual hobby. Although Trexplore offers all types of adventures including trekking, canyoning, and mountain-biking, its main focus and Joni’s real passion, is caving.

Joni Bonifacio’s ‘romance with the rocks’, as he fondly calls it, began when he was a teenager. Joni’s interest was aroused by the discovery of Langun Gobingob cave in Samar, the biggest cave in the Philippines and at the time, the second biggest known cave in South-East Asia. He wondered why international spelunkers were exploring Samar’s caves, while Filipinos were afraid of the spirits and snakes the caves are said to hold.

RappellingHis first caving expedition took place when he was only sixteen years old. He went with a group of friends and a local guide into Langun Gobingob for two nights and three days. From then on he was hooked. Sometimes he would memorize the map of a cave and explore it by himself, remaining in the cave overnight.

It takes a brave man to do what Joni has done. When entering a deep cave, the complete darkness and the maze of tunnels and chambers going in all directions instills the sense that caving is serious business. The average person experiences apprehension even when accompanied by an expert with equipment, as for most the chance of being lost in the dark underground is terrifying. To enter a cave alone, especially one with the magnitude of Langun Gobingob, certainly takes a resilient and curious mind. In the early days, Joni’s caving skills were completely self-taught, but after joining international expeditions he learned advanced caving techniques. Today with twenty years’ of caving experience, he annually joins international speleologists as they undertake expeditions to discover and map new caves in Samar.

To an adventure lover, Samar Island is a bountiful playground. The rugged landscape dares mountain bikers to accept its challenge. Waterfalls and rivers spill down mountains, tempting thrill-seekers with the more dangerous sport of canyoning. The topography is also ideal for the formation of caves. Of the thousand or so caves that populate Samar’s terrain, fewer than ten per cent have actually been explored. Aside from being home to the biggest cave in the Philippines, Samar delivers an exquisite variety of underground environments. Subterranean rivers, lakes, waterfalls, earthen chandeliers and twinkling candlesticks, craggy stalactites and mammoth stalagmites, giant gill shaped sparkling crystals, gardens of coralshaped calcite, fields of mud, massive spaces and tiny tunnels, natural bath-tubs, and bubbling flowstones. You probably won’t come across any talking rabbits or pipe-toting caterpillars, but these environments are still inhabited by some seriously strange creatures, including the blind fish, crabs, bats, birds, eels, snakes, and spiders. Some are harmless, some will kill you, and some are yet to be identified.

Trexplore is the only company properly qualified to take tourists caving in Samar. It is popular with both Filipino tourists who are looking for an adventure holiday, as well as international travelers who are passing though. It caters to beginners who may need someone to hold their hand as they face their fears, and can equally impress seasoned explorers with authentic expeditions. Every tour is different. There are no robotic tour guides repeating the same tired lines. These adventures are unpredictable. Which is part of what Joni loves about his job. His fresh sense of humor keeps the mood light and his clients’ nerves calm: ensuring an enjoyable experience. And if you want to follow in the footsteps of the great explorers and spelunkers, he may even take you on your own expedition into the wilderness. Who knows, you could discover the next Langun- Gobingob cave.

These trips are not for the faint-hearted, and like all adventure sports they carry with them certain risk. Joni knows the terrain, he knows how to use his equipment, he knows how cave-fauna behaves, and he knows how to look after his clients. But there are unavoidable dangers and help is usually a long way off. You rely on each other, potentially for survival. Being underground is a completely different experience to any other. If you haven’t done any serious caving, and we’re talking caves that are kilometers long, then there’s a whole part of this glorious planet that you’re missing out on. It’s a real-life fairy tale.

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