Monday, July 24, 2006


CELL:09192943865 / 09053233572


EYEWITNESS - Howie Severino
JULY 15-17,2006



BY: Howie Severino's

Tuesday, July 18. 2006
Underground in Samar
With its extreme poverty and abundance of forested hiding places, Samar has been known for harboring communist guerrillas and bringing out the worst in counterinsurgency enforcers like Gen. Jovito Palparan and the US Army's Gen. Jacob Smith more than a century earlier ("I wish you to kill and burn, and the more you kill and burn the better you will please me.").

Over the weekend, my team and I went underground in Samar, literally, but the dangers were different. It turns out the country's third largest island (after Luzon and Mindanao) is also known to geologists and explorers for its massive network of caves, limestone rock carved by dripping water into beautiful shapes and patterns.

Constant drips that carry tiny amounts of minerals can create a centimeter of white rock every hundred years, piled over the millenia in haphazard and often stunning ways. In one huge chamber called The Stage, a tall, smooth rock wall rippling like a stage curtain stands behind a long, narrow, flat slab of rock. The curtain-like rock has crystals in the mix, making it glitter.

Some of these rock formations rise from the floor as columns that are already several meters high. Do the math and you will be amazed how long some of these natural edifices have been growing. "Buhay na bato," they're called.

I spent two straight nights in the caves of Calbiga municipality, hiking with my docu team through an extensive complex of chambers, squirming through muddy holes, and rapelling down vertical drops. To reach one important chamber, we had to climb through the narrow Snake Room, named after the black cobra that lies ready to pounce on swiftlets that get lost inside. When the cobra slithered out of its room to search for food, we sneaked in. Later in another chamber, we were surprised by a smaller cobra's suddenly raised head, in self-defense mode. Both sides slowly backed off.

We saw alien creatures: fish without eyes, large crickets with extra long antennae that act like canes tapping in the dark, and albino crabs. All of them have adapted to the extreme conditions inside Calbiga's Langun-Gobingob Caves.

Humans are among the creatures that have adapted. Samarenos had previously never thought of exploring the caves, believing that a wide assortment of monsters and bad spirits reside there. A few years ago, three local teens bravely but foolishly entered the caves without a guide and got stranded in the dark depths after their flashlight batteries went dead. They were rescued only after Army soldiers combed the caves with torches. The local government has since installed ropes leading from one of the first chambers to the exit.

We were accompanied into the darkness (with lights attached to our helmets) by the latest human adaptation: Trexplore, a gung-ho group of Samarnon nature lovers who have gotten to know the caves as places to love and explore and not fear.

"We're tired of Samar being known for bad things," Trexplore guide Joni Bonifacio (center, above), a native of Catbalogan, told us. "We want to be known for our caves and for taking care of them."

Our expedition leaders were strict about cave protection. We left nothing but footprints, even taking out our urine, deposited individually in a common gasoline container. Feces had to be sealed in a bag and brought to the earth's surface as well. That seemed pungently ironic when we were trekking over a huge mound of bat crap called guano, with each of our steps exposing big bugs feasting.

My team on this extreme adventure consisted of camera guru Egay Navarro, his assistant Jessie Bernardo, and cowgirl field producer Anj Guidaya, one of only two women who took part in the expedition (the other was the young Samarnon explorer, Lynn).

Our latest documentary, Dilim, airs on I-Witness this July 24.

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wow, another great episode, i'm sure =) love the photos, too, including the ones from isabela and sierra madre. hope i get to tag along with you again on one of your trips (vicarious shooting, but not for very long, i hope. still hoping i can do some work for you, someday, some way...).

by the way, finally bought an underwater still cam (though don't have it in my hands yet) that can also shoot videos up to 60 fps. all i can afford right now, but it's a start, right?

hi to anj and jessie!
#1 jeneen (Homepage) on 2006-07-19 02:26 (Reply)
Hi Jeneen, I can still smell the durian. ; ) Is your cam the new Pentax?
#1.1 Howie on 2006-07-19 09:30 (Reply)
Nice to know that responsible people are there first.

Without appreciation and knowledge about how those stalactites and stalagmites (rock formations) are formed, people who could not see any use for them end up sawing them and selling them to private homes to be used as ornaments. There are Philippine caves that suffered this state and many rock formations in these caves ended up (from what we know) in Japanese homes.

The caves are our legacy to the next generation, it belongs to all proud nation-loving Filipinos. Thank you for presenting another thing that we could really be proud of.

Ignorance of the importance of our caves make people vandalize them just like what we saw when we visited the underground river in Palawan, (incidentally included in the UNESCO's world heritage list)
Probably the caves in Samar deserve to be included in the list as well.

Guano is one of the things that make some of the Pacific Islands rich!!! Hope the people of Samar could harness the economic value of this gift from the bats!!!! I'm not sure if it is true but I've heard that certain Pacific island states have a delicacy that includes guano as a major ingredient.

Again, vintage Howie na naman ito, deep and encouraging!!!
#2 Cornel on 2006-07-19 12:51 (Reply)
Cornel, you're absolutely right about the vandalism. It happened in Calbiga, Samar too, with residents removing the stalactites to sell to a Taiwanese buyer, until that practice was stopped a few years ago. Evidence of the damage remains near the entrance. But deeper inside the caves, the rocks are pristine and breath-taking. It was one of the most memorable nature trips I've ever taken.
#2.1 Howie on 2006-07-19 16:07 (Reply)
Vicente Lukban's men fighting the guerrilla war aginst the Americans in 1900-02 tried manufacturing gunpowder out of Samar's plentiful guano droppings in an attempt to make their campaign self-sufficient since the U.S.Navy made it impossible for the guerrillas to receive outside help. The enemy also made it a point to close of the major entry points of Samar's coastline, one of them was the little town of Balangiga....

Howie, have you been to the Sohoton valley?
#2.2 gabby on 2006-07-19 23:46 (Reply)
Gabby, What happened to the guano-to-gunpowder experiment? Never been to Sohoton, although I hear it's spectacular.
#2.2.1 Howie on 2006-07-20 02:23 (Reply)

I've noticed something when I visited the Trexplore website. Are they actually burning something like a campfire inside the caves? Because if it is true then it might be a bad idea since it may create carbon deposits in the pristine walls of the caves and the crystals elsewhere may be darkened. The oxygen content of the caves for the other living beings could also be imbalanced. Electric rechargeable lamps might be a better alternative.

Would the guano also be high in phosporous? Maybe this is the reason why it was experimented as gunpowder. In any case, the nitrogen, potassium, phosporous mix in organic guano is the current rave of organic farmers in the US. Hopefully with the responsible partners we have in Samar, the extraction of this gift would lead to sustainable development for the humans, the bats and the other species that are really interdependent.
#3 Cornel on 2006-07-20 09:20 (Reply)
Perceptive comments Cornel. Actually, from what I observed, they light fires only near the exit and large cave mouth. In the deepest recesses, we just ate crackers and bread, no cooking.
#3.1 Howie on 2006-07-21 12:56 (Reply)
Thanks Howie, I really hope they do not pose as a risk. I thank them for even introducing gloves to the spelunkers. The acids in our hands are as powerful as a threat as the carbon deposits. Thank you for the deep respect your docu shows toward these natural monuments.
#3.1.1 Cornel on 2006-07-24 13:06 (Reply)
In the Sumaguin Caves in Sagada, our tour guide smoked cigarettes. I not only found it distateful, but wondered if it could damage the formations somehow. Bleh.

What about those gas lamps? Are those safe?
#3.2 Anonymous on 2006-07-24 12:25 (Reply)
It definitely would!!! The tar and other substances in cigarettes could react to the walls of the caves and could tarnish its virgin beauty. I've also been to the caves in Sagada and it is also nice. Only hope the local tourism officials could train the local tourist guides on what could and could not be done inside the caves.

Anything that has carbon emission is suspect! Since gas lamps have carbon emissions too, they are also a threat.
#3.2.1 Cornel on 2006-07-24 13:32 (Reply)
Sir Howie, I'll say it again.

YOU ARE THE COOLEST PERSON ON TELEVISION EVER. You outdid yourself again. You should be an inspiration to all the wussy dads who keep on taking their family to Baguio for the holidays. hehe.

Just as when we were all getting caught with the wonder of nature, Howie grounds it back to the socioeconomic realities that threatens the very existence of these structures.

Seriously, this adventure makes the entire Sagada spelunking deal a whole lot like child's play.

Could you post/email me details of how one could get to have that amazing experience? The entire experience appeals to me - except for the carrying your excrete around part. hehehe.

Great job, Sir Howie. Magtatayo na ako ng fans club para ako presidente. haha
#4 benj (Homepage) on 2006-07-25 01:03 (Reply)
Thanks Benj for the honor. But in my other life, I AM a wussy dad who has taken his family to Baguio for the holidays. For spelunking info in Samar, google Trexplore. That will get you to adventure guide Joni Bonifacio's blog with notices of upcoming activities.
#4.1 Howie on 2006-07-25 18:07 (Reply)
Oopsie. Haha, no offense. :p

I could only imagine how heavy that container was after an entire three days. Other than the entire excreta thing - and of course the fact that your last step could very well be your last --- it's a really an adventurer's wet dream.

the samarnons seem to have a pretty good understanding of how precious their caves are. kudos to them. pinoys have a weird concept of ecotourism, exhibit a, Donsol.
#4.1.1 benj (Homepage) on 2006-07-26 01:08 (Reply)
Haha, no offense at all. Just really amused by the wussy dad reference. The trick inside the cave is not to eat much so you don't have to deal with the excreta thing. With baby steps, bright flashlights, and expert guides, it should also be safe -- certainly safer than crossing a busy street in Manila or living in a population teeming with cell phone snatchers!
# Howie on 2006-07-26 06:58 (Reply)
Hi Mr. Severino,

I don’t usually watch TV but when I saw your docu last night I just had to watch it. I now have the urge to go to Samar and go on an adventure like that. Let me just say that I admire your work and have been a fan since your days with the Probe Team.

I replied to this tread because in fairness to Sagada there are more caves there other than the famous Sumaging Cave. On my second time there we tried what the locals call The Cave Connection and it took around 5 hours to complete, it was the longest I’ve been underground, but I was told that there were other routes in that cave system that would take 2 weeks to complete and have only been explored by a group of Italian cave explorers along with some of the local guides.

Thank you very much for injecting some sense and intelligence in the otherwise mundane and idiotic world of Philippine television.

More power to you.

#4.2 Ronald (Homepage) on 2006-07-25 20:53 (Reply)

I was truly inspired with the docu last night. The power of life is manificently displayed in the fact that even in light starved areas like the caves life thrives. Made me think about our country. We may be in our darkest hours but, life will continue to thrive and its power could not be stopped/suppressed. However fragile, life will have a way to empower beings. Either we bring life and be the catalyst to enhance life's quality or contribute to degradation. We always have a great choice.

May IWitness have a time slot the Filipinos deserve to have. It seems like it was produced for people of another time zone.

Pagpalain ka magiting na Pilipino!
#5 Cornel on 2006-07-25 14:45 (Reply)
very interesting, educational, entertaining episode! enjoyed watching it!
#6 scott kho (Homepage) on 2006-07-25 15:51 (Reply)
Grabe! This documentary is one of the best I’ve ever watched. The interior of the cave is worth all the risks. It is a perfect example of how mysterious nature can be; one of the many wonders of the underworld. I hope the people of Samar will protect the cave from those mining companies who want to disturb the purity of the cave.

Sir Howie, I salute you and your whole team for coming up with this exceptional documentary. (Kaiinggit naman po kayong lahat.) Congratulations also to Mr. Egay Navarro for a great cinematography. I really admire cameramen when it comes to doing this kind of work; looking for a good shot in the middle of darkness.
#7 guia on 2006-07-25 16:31 (Reply)
Kuya Howie!!! Um, this is a random fan talking, but I really want you to know that Dilim was the most awe-inspiring episode ever. It was as good as exploring Egyptian pyramids, only it's naturally creepier and muddy. I thank the storm for no classes on Tuesday, or else I normally wouldn't have been able to watch it, as well as to you folks who make these kinds of things possible. It's one of the few things I watch that actually had an impact on my life.

Maybe you could do reruns of i-witness at an earlier time? It's a pity we students can't watch it because of the time slot.
#8 Tina on 2006-07-25 19:14 (Reply)
Another one of those docus that I never regret to stay up late for. Although my claustrophobic self was creeped out, I could never imagine this cave destroyed. Those miners should look for something else to put their drills on. It's time we do something to appreciate and protect these kind of resources! Kuya Hohwie the best ka talaga!
#9 reza on 2006-07-25 20:51 (Reply)
hi! howie.
im a pilipina working here in Qingdao china,i hope i can watch also your SAMARNON expedition.actualy im a samarnon also but i never been into that place.but even i can only saw some of your photos and read about the i feel i should go ther ones i take my vacation.thanks a lot for the info.

#10 rebecca on 2006-07-26 09:04 (Reply)
A big part of the documentary was the spirit of Samarnons -- the perennial underdog motivated by pride in what they have. As poor as their province is in money, the ones I met understood that the value of their caves goes beyond what mining can deliver.

The show got lucky last night -- since classes were called off, students could catch it for a change.

Ronald, Benj, Cornel, Scott, Reza, Guia, Tina: Many thanks for all the kind feedback.
#11 Howie on 2006-07-26 10:22 (Reply)
Such a wonderful and great feedbacks from your most recent expedition! Although I haven't seen it yet, (GMA Pinoy TV might show it within this week I'm hoping tonight's episodie 7/26th), I'm looking forward to it.

More power to you Howie and your I-Witness Team/Staff!
#12 Shirley on 2006-07-27 04:39 (Reply)
Wow! What can I say! Benj is right, Sagada spelunking is a picnic compared to Sir Howie's Samar Cave experience. Astig raise to infinite exponent. Hope I can try exploring that cave one of these days. So bad I missed the I-Witness episode of this. Wala po bang rerun?

Kudos to Samarnon for their great ways on preserving their caves. Hope ganyan lahat ng Pinoy. Save Sumaguing and Lumiang caves and all the other caves and Philippine's natural wonders that are in danger now. Sayang naman kung masisira at mapapabayaan.

Kudos Sir Howie! Astig!
#13 bleue (Homepage) on 2006-07-27 10:37 (Reply)
We will try po pala caves in Davao Oriental and Del Norte this August. Have you been to these caves before?
#13.1 bleue (Homepage) on 2006-07-27 11:08 (Reply)
Bleue, haven't been to the caves in Davao. Report back to us once you do it please!
#13.1.1 Howie on 2006-07-27 22:30 (Reply)
Sure sir Howie! Can't wait for your new explorations. I'll try Samar if i have time. Nakakatakot pero exciting!
# bleue (Homepage) on 2006-07-28 13:44 (Reply)
Hi Sir Howie!

I finally watched your show last nite (7/26th @11:30 PM thru GMAPTV). That was a cool trip! I can't imagine those 2 days you guys were inside that cave! Those hidden insects and that snake! yikes!!!

I was also quite wondering about that pool you guys jumped in... Wala ba'ng "syokoy" doon??? lolz ... nakaktakot baka biglang may kumain sa inyo'ng alien monster from Mars... just kidding!

But really, it was a great show! It shows how rich our country is and we should be proud of our natural resources!

More power!
#14 Shirley on 2006-07-28 03:26 (Reply)
hi howie,

i remember experiencing going back to the very womb of the earth in a cagayan cave. the experience was mystical and spiritual. it felt like i am a newly born person after the pilgrimage. thanks for the reminder.

best regards,

#15 leonardo g. villafranca (Homepage) on 2006-07-31 22:35 (Reply)

just wondering dude, are you from the villafrancas of bicol?
#15.1 benj (Homepage) on 2006-08-01 03:10 (Reply)

I visited I-witness archives in, so bad the links to online streaming are broken. I hope they fix it up so I can watch the Underground in Samar episode of Sir Howie.

#16 bleue (Homepage) on 2006-08-01 13:33 (Reply)

Thanks for this feedback Bleue. I'll alert my colleagues to it.
#16.1 Howie on 2006-08-03 03:42 (Reply)

Hi Howie,

I've been to the calbiga caves six years ago and they are truly spectacular. unfortunately our guides were farmers who were not experienced in spelunking so we got lost for four hours inside while trying to find our way out.

I just hope that people will realize that samar is beautiful and worth exploring. I suggest that you go to sohoton, beaches of guian and rock formations along the coast of marabut, and surfing in eastern samar.

#17 Mel on 2006-08-01 22:15 (Reply)

This is so beautiful!!!

I've seen caves in Palawan, the caves of Sagada, and the little ones in Mt, Banahaw and they have all fascinated me to no end.
#18 Ala Paredes (Homepage) on 2006-08-07 15:53 (Reply)

FRIDAY JULY 28, 2006
Quidnunc's Neighbor
Chito Dela Torre

No hell inside Calbiga’s caves!

For the first time since being engaged in spelunking, Joni Abesamis Bonifacio has been part of a documentary on international television. GMA 7 featured the Gobingob-Langun caves of Calbiga, Samar in last Monday’s (July 24, 2006) evening episode of iwitness documentaries by Howie Severino. The documentary was entitled “DILIM”, in Waray-Waray “Sirum” (English: Darkness). A caption on the introductory part of the documentary described Joni as a “Cave Explorer”. In the acknowledgement portion, the Trexplore was mentioned. I was happy for all of these.
What kept me glued to the tv docu was the repeated plug, since Saturday (after Joni told me about the schedule of the presentation, when I met him coincidentally as I was entering the Rose Pharmacy at Rovic building along P. Zamora street in Tacloban City for my Nexium and other medicine supplies which my doctor insisted in the morning of that day to maintain until my first therapy on July 29). The plugging was very enticing, tempting, and intriguing. It suggested that Howie had reached the gates of Hell which he said were found by him in the darkest parts of the Calbiga Caves. (at 6:02:53 p.m. of July 24, Joni texted me a reminded: Underground in Samar! Inside RP’s longst, darkst cave-cobras, cliffs n a quest 4 a rare fish. Dilim – an iwtnes docu. Mamaya na 12 aftr Saksi GMA 7. Pls pass. Tnx)
Joni had been narrating to me the many times that he had been going to the caves but never for once did he mention of hell or its gates or anything that would suggested there in those caves was Hell. I was intrigued, because more than two decades ago, I read of an article which said that a Russian scientist had given up digging more than 1,000 kilometers into the depth of the Planet Earth after cracking a stone wall that revealed underneath real Hell with screaming sounds and flying objects that scared him a lot. I had therefore thought that probably there was a second Hell, or another gate to Hell, and that one was to be found only in Calbiga.
Before watching DILIM, I also thought that probably, for the past 60 days that I had not had any contact with Joni, he must have chanced upon the second Hell, and so I said, I must watch this one. I said to myself, I had never actually been to the caves in Calbiga, except through pictorials and video shots which I requested of Joni and now-relaxing-cave-explorer-journalist Ricky J. Bautista to take for my tv program on Decobeam CATV in Catbalogan between 2001 and 2003. Well, I could hardly climb up and down mountains and trails due to difficulty in breathing which almost thrice cost my life. (The last time was when we negotiated last November 30 the sloping road to Bahay, Tarangnan, constructed as a project of Samar First District Reynaldo Uy for the Poverty Free Zone-funded expanded tahong project and the evening visit of Samar governor Milagrosa T. Tan – during which I lost my breath several times during our ascent for the provincial road.) And so I was indeed interested to see how hell looked like, in Calbiga.
Joni said GMA 7 contacted him more than a week ago. Howie made arrangements for their tour of the caves. Howie wanted to find our for himself for his travelogue documentary what really was interesting about the Gobingob-Languan caves. Joni suggested what Howie should bring along with him. For the local counterpart, he said, the Trexplore would bring their own needs and tap the tourist guides whom Trexplore helped train in Calbiga.
If I recall it right, the three days of stay of Howie and the documentary team from GMA – two nights spent at the “Football Field”, and the last twilight at the opening of Langun where they watched millions of bats flying out of the cave to seek for food – were divided in the presentation into six segments. There was no hell in the first two, none still in the second, except that Howie described the pitch darkness of the Gobingob caves which explains why the creatures didn’t need eyes in order to survive. There was heaven on the third.
In short, there was no Hell. Not even was there any encanto or any evil spirit which, according to the earlier information fed Howie, dwelt inside the caves, which thus scared everyone in the town, province and island. On the contrary, Howie and his team recorded enthrallments and bewitching bewilderments, like what he described as the “Water Terraces”, etcetera.
In his narration, Howie did not make mention of any hint from Joni himself, that instead there is nearby another part of the cave systems a so-called “Canyawan )Devil’s Cave)” and another named after him by a French caver who reached his find by first taking a helicopter from Tacloban to Borongan in Eastern Samar and from there taking a long pumpboat ride through an eerie-breezed river before trekking for two days to reach halfway to the route to the cave. Still there is another cave-featured in Waray-Waray La (the tv program that I maintained weeklu on Decobeam CATV’s community channel 7 in 2001) – found in Talalora (whose absence of any road link to the national highway secluded it esoterically in history even if it already became a town of Samar) which local folks said was a place where witchcraft and voodooism (barang) were being fulfilled (gintatahas), and guarded by venomous snakes. One more that could have been told would have been the twin cave openings somewhere in Sta. Rita (another coastal town south of Talalora and where the San Juanico Bridge begins on the Samar side across the strait to Leyte) where no one could enter without the recital of an incantation by a sanguan and where one attempt by a local government unit team to document the caves instantaneously resulted in the unexplainable ruin to the still camera immediately after it flashed at the opening of the caves.
On the whole, however, the initial try of Howie and his team was already good. But they must retread their way into Calbiga’s caves; to explore not the darkest depth but their longest stretches which some had believed lead to other cave openings in the Pacific coastline of Samar Island up to Northern Samar. Joni’s last guided French caver had not even completed half of the caves nearby but strongly theorized those were part of the Calbiga caves.
I was doubly happy about what I saw in the documentary. Firstly, it fulfilled Joni’s wish in 2001 that someday these caves in Calbiga would be seen on international tv (and GMA had gone international since last year!). Secondly, it fulfilled my prediction, that his wish would come true in year 2006!
I am sure, too, that my dearest friend, Engr. Ray P. Gaspay, would be happier about the tv docu by GMA. He too helped much in the showing on the local tv outlets Joni’s cave explorations and wished that someday Joni would earn a recognition by our own Philippine tv media.
For an add-on, at each year of WOW Philippines, Joni maintains a pictorial exhibit of Samar’s heavenly (not hellish) caves. For more information about caving in Samar, you may text Joni Bonifacio @ 09192943865 or e-mail him at