Sabang, the Philippines -- There's no mistaking the river's mouth. A gaping hole in the side of a cliff marks the St. Paul's River's exit from its subterranean meandering.
As attractions go, it is the only thing my regional guidebook thinks worthy of mention in the area. Local propaganda, on the other hand, holds it to be one of the seven wonders of the world. Naturally, it's my first destination in the Philippines.
I'm in Sabang, a sleepy little town on the west side of the island of Palawan, a 400-kilometre-long strip of undeveloped beauty. It's the perfect antidote to two months on the backpackers' trail in Thailand. Facing the prospect of not being offered a banana pancake for breakfast doesn't scare me in the least.
There's no tour bus option here, no handy flight with waiting taxi. I sleep overnight on the deck of a ferry, then take a three-hour jeepney ride from Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital, to Sabang.
For those unfamiliar with the indigenous vehicle of the Philippines, jeepneys are the Frankenstein of the transportation world. Originally built over suplus second-world-war American jeeps, the vibrantly painted vehicles are now made here, with sizable passenger cabins, bumpers and racks of various sizes and forms that sprout from the unlikeliest places. Fabric fringes line the windows.
I opt to travel on the roof, baked by the sun as we traverse a dazzling tropical landscape of lush green hills. Smiling children outside thatch-roofed huts shout when they see me. The highlight of the journey is a lengthy chase involving three men and an uncooperative large pig. The pig is fast, but it eventually ends up on the roof of the jeepney, lashed to the rack 2 feet away from me.
Sabang is delightfully untouched. Some huts are available as cheap accommodation. I eat at the sole restaurant on the beach, watching the sun drop into the China Sea. The next day a decent hike through the jungle finds me staring into the maw of the underground river.
A hand-painted sign indicates where a banca boat is tied up on the rough-hewn dock. I join a Norwegian couple, perhaps the only other tourists in the area, in the boat, and we're soon being paddled upstream into an aqueous heart of darkness.
Daylight quickly disappears around a bend. The inky blackness is complete, broken only by the beam of a big flashlight in the bow that our guide shines about the caverns, pointing out formations like the cormorant, the Madonna and baby and the cathedral. Bats whoosh through the cool air as we dodge stalactites a kilometre upstream before turning and gliding back to the daylight.
After we emerge blinking, we're met at the dock by a Japanese man dressed in conservative pants and white pressed shirt who wants to ask me a few question.
He explains that he's from a large company that's considering locations for a new resort. Sabang and its underground river are on the list.
The thought of some concrete hotel monstrosity rising up next to the river appalls me, and I see the same reaction in the Norwegian couple. But our interrogator is polite and the questions are harmless. He quizzes us about where we're from and what we like about the area, then gets down to the nitty-gritty.
"How did you get here?"
He pulls a little notepad out and jots down our answers.
He drops his pencil. And his jaw.
"Foreigners can travel by jeepney?"
The Norwegians and I nod in unison. Together we see a way to save Sabang from a horrendous all-inclusive fate. "It's fun," I add, warming up to the task. "I got to ride on top with a giant pig."
The resort man's eyes grow as big as saucers.
"The smell took some getting used to, believe me, but the two of us bonded."
The Norwegian woman says, "We came by jeepney, too. I was pecked on my shins by some chickens, but it didn't hurt that much."
The interview is over.
"I did not know foreigners could travel by jeepney. Thank you for your answers. You've been most kind."
We walk off hiding our smiles, happy at having saved this little piece of paradise" for the time being.