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In Full Swing

I’d said my prayers and signed my life away on a waiver. My poker-faced guide Melchor led me along a steel platform jutting over the edge of a cliff, like a mutineer walking the plank on a pirate ship. I could see the sheer drop through the metal screen beneath my feet. My heart thumped in my throat, and rendered speechless, I could only flash a helpless smile as my sister and friend cheered from the sidelines. With a helmet and harness tightly strapped on, I had finally mustered the guts to take on The Plunge, a bungee swing across a 280m deep river canyon in Danao, an otherwise sleepy town in the northern highlands of Bohol, now reverberating with the cheer of onlookers. I’d dared myself to conquer what’s reputedly the highest canyon swing in the world, featuring no less than a 70m free fall.

Melchor secured me onto the rope clipped to a steel cable that ran all the way to the other side of the gorge. Facing the cliff, I sat on the end of the platform, which at the creaky turn of a manual winch, folded down, leaving me precariously suspended midair. I twisted around to admire the panorama behind me, allowing myself to be momentarily distracted by its magnificence. The mid-morning sun emerged from behind dark clouds, illuminating the last wisps of fog clinging to the forest canopies that flanked the thunderous Wahig River far below, fed by last night’s heavy downpour. “Are you ready?” he asked, snapping me back to the perilous situation at hand. I managed to let out an affirmative howl that echoed across the canyon, as he began the countdown. “On the count of three!” There was no turning back now. One… This was the point of no return. Two… I held onto the straps at the end of the rope, and looked up to the blue sky, surrendering to the challenge.

The mighty Wahig River carves its way through the verdurous landscape of Magtangtang village.
The mighty Wahig River carves its way through the verdurous landscape of Magtangtang village.

PASSION PROJECT

Established in 2006, Danao Adventure Park is the brainchild of the late former mayor Louis Thomas Gonzaga who, inspired by an adventure trip to New Zealand, envisioned promotings tourism in the region by introducing exciting outdoor adventures in the mountain municipality of Danao. The park, located at Magtangtang village, is far away (72km to be exact) from Bohol’s well-established tourism circuit centred in the province’s capital of Tagbilaran City and its adjacent resort island of Panglao. Eco-tourism activities like river trekking, kayaking and spelunking were launched and, within the next few years, facilities were built across the canyon for more adrenaline-pumping rides like zip-lines, rappels, open-air cable car, and a superlative canyon swing. “Most importantly, this project directly helps local communities,” said tourism officer Mitzi Galvez, “providing an alternative source of income for villagers who’ve become staff members and guides.” After all, she explained, Danao Adventure Park is the largest employer in what was once considered the poorest municipality in the province. “Moreover, profits from the park’s operation fund social services such as free hospitalisation and ambulance service, as well as scholarship programmes,” she added. With outdoor activities built around an incredible landscape, the obscure and impoverished town became a thrill-seeker’s mecca in no time, placing itself on the map and significantly boosting the local economy with the influx of tourists.

Its quick rise to fame, however, was brought to a sudden halt by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked Bohol in October 2013. The destructive tremor emanated from an epicentre along a newly discovered fault line not far away from Danao, damaging the park’s facilities, hiking trails and access roads. The steel platform for its most popular attraction, The Plunge, toppled off its promontory and fell into the gorge.

The Suislide is an exciting 480m long zip-line that takes visitors across the canyon and back.
The Suislide is an exciting 480m long zip-line that takes visitors across the canyon and back.

Over the next four years, the destination gradually recovered from the disaster, culminating in the reopening of a newly built canyon swing last year. “We’re back in business!” said Galvez. New attractions like the Cliff Walk – an overhanging walkway along the other side of the canyon – are also being constructed, so the town can reclaim its reputation as Philippines’ extreme adventure capital.

REBEL WITH A CAUSE

But, there’s more to Danao than meets the eye; the action that echoes through its history is almost palpable. At the park’s restaurant, a painting of a Filipino man holding the lifeless body of another next to a Spanish friar serves as my introduction to the town’s tumultuous past. Beyond its natural beauty, Danao was also the setting of an exceptional saga in the country’s colonial history. Its dramatic landscape bore witness to the exploits of legendary hero Francisco Dagohoy, who led the longest revolt against Spanish rule in Philippine history that lasted 85 years (1744-1829), and founded the Bohol Republic, an independent government headquartered in Magtangtang village, right where the adventure park is located today. A memorial garden with an imposing statue of Dagohoy at the park’s junction serves as a poignant reminder of this historic feat.

As depicted in the artwork, the revolt was triggered by a Jesuit priest’s refusal to provide a Christian burial for Dagohoy’s brother, a constable who died in a duel (a practice banned by the Catholic Church) while trying to apprehend a fugitive, upon the orders of the priest. The infuriated leader called to arms fellow Boholanos to defy Spanish colonisation and fight against unjust practices like forced labour, excessive taxation and the payment of tributes.

Dagohoy, derived from the Cebuano phrase dagon sa hoyohoy or ‘amulet of the breeze’, was the nom de guerre of village captain Francisco Sendrijas who reputedly possessed a talisman that granted him superhuman powers like invisibility, clear vision in total darkness, and the ability to leap across rivers and mountains. Folk magic aside, the elusiveness of the revolutionary and his insurgents may be credited to their mastery of a vast network of underground passages, allowing swift evasion from their pursuers. The karst formations of Magtangtang are riddled with numerous limestone chambers and tunnels, which became ideal hideouts and escape routes for Dagohoy and his 20,000-strong followers.

Magtangtang's karst landscape is riddled with chambers and passages, which were used as hideouts by Boholano revolutionaries during the country's revolt against Spanish rule, led by legendary freedom fighter Francisco Dagohoy.
Magtangtang’s karst landscape is riddled with chambers and passages, which were used as hideouts by Boholano revolutionaries during the country’s revolt against Spanish rule, led by legendary freedom fighter Francisco Dagohoy.

On the first day of our visit, in an attempt to follow the hero’s footsteps, my sister, friend and I ventured into the only cave reopened to tourists since the earthquake. After enjoying breathtaking bird’s eye views of the landscape from the cable car and zip-lines running across the canyon, we were curious what challenges awaited us beneath the surface. From the entrance, a short habal-habal (motorbike) ride and downhill hike brought us to the inconspicuous mouth of Baliho Cave, framed by slippery boulders and jungle vines. Accompanied by two guides, we slipped through the tight entrance into narrow passages that opened up to chambers draped in sparkling stalactites and squeaking fruits bats. I kept my eyes peeled for other fascinating inhabitants along the way like cave centipedes, whip scorpions, camel crickets and red river crabs. The deeper we ventured into the cave, the more challenging our path became as we eventually found ourselves squeezing through muddy potholes, wading through streams, and roping down vertical drops, where poor footing could prove fatal.

Thousands of bats make their home in the inner chambers of Baliho Cave.
Thousands of bats make their home in the inner chambers of Baliho Cave.

Fortunately, our nimble guides assured our safety, assisting along the trickiest sections of the trail. I can only imagine how rebels centuries ago navigated these subterranean strongholds with nothing more than a flickering candle or oil lamp.

Visitors can spot fascinating wildlife when spelunking. At the exit of Baliho Cave, we spotted a brown tree frog resting along the stream flowing out of the cavern.
Visitors can spot fascinating wildlife when spelunking. At the exit of Baliho Cave, we spotted a brown tree frog resting along the stream flowing out of the cavern.

ON CLOUD NINE

On top of the park’s reopening of its popular activities, tourists have regained interest in Danao with the recent discovery of a scenic natural phenomenon. The following morning, witnessing this new attraction required a 4.00am wake-up call and a chilly pre-dawn motorbike ride, zooming through meandering roads shrouded in thick fog from the adventure park to a hilly lookout in Concepcion village, just outside the poblacion or town centre. A mere 10-minute walk from the highway to the first of a series of grassy knolls called Laguna Hills immediately revealed the spectacle: a golden sunrise over a sea of clouds concealing the valleys below. It was a magical view. The billowy blanket stretched westwards to the distant Chocolate Hills, a geological wonder of more than 1,700 grass-covered limestone domes – the iconic landmark of Bohol. Mountains peeked above the ocean of fog, looking like islands, before the cottony layers lifted away and dissipated as the sun reclaimed the sky, revealing glistening streams and rice paddies between coconut groves beneath.

Danao's countryside is exceptionally tranquil and beautiful during sunrise when a sea of clouds (a phenomenon that usually occurs at very high summits) unfolds from the viewpoint at Laguna Hills in Concepcion village. Two young travellers are pictured here taking snapshots of the unique sight on their smartphone, as they watch the sunrise from the hills.
Danao’s countryside is exceptionally tranquil and beautiful during sunrise when a sea of clouds (a phenomenon that usually occurs at very high summits) unfolds from the viewpoint at Laguna Hills in Concepcion village. Two young travellers are pictured here taking snapshots of the unique sight on their smartphone, as they watch the sunrise from the hills.

This accessible viewpoint overlooking the sea of clouds was discovered by local photographer Reil Cenabre late last year while searching for an elevated spot to photograph the sunrise over the poblacion. “I was very surprised to discover that such a sight – which can usually only be admired from the summit of very tall mountains – could occur just off the highway in my hometown,” shared the Cebu-based IT professional, who vacations in Danao to capture its beauty through his photography. “I’m told that the amazing phenomenon happens throughout the year when the weather conditions are right,” he enthused. His images and time-lapse videos on Facebook quickly went viral, prompting curious travellers to flock to the site, and establishing a new tourist attraction in town.

One of the highlights in Danao Adventure Park, root climbing involves scaling an 18m high rock wall blanketed by the roots of a century-old balete (strangler fig) tree.
One of the highlights in Danao Adventure Park, root climbing involves scaling an 18m high rock wall blanketed by the roots of a century-old balete (strangler fig) tree.

The morning’s marvel warmed up our intrepidity, so our group returned to the adventure park, trekking down to the bottom of the canyon for the next activity called root climbing. Along the river, an 18m tall rock wall covered with the massive roots of a 100-year-old balete (strangler fig) tree offered a unique twist to wall climbing. Having survived three hours of spelunking the day before, I swiftly pulled myself up the rock wall, grabbing roots as thick as my arms, then effortlessly rappelled down the other side. Noticing my gung-ho attitude, the rappelling guide suggested that I finally take on The Plunge. “It’s an experience like no other!” he insisted. Thanks to the infectious enthusiasm of the park staff and my travel companions, I found myself later that morning facing my fears, suspended above the canyon, holding on to dear life as Melchor commenced his countdown to oblivion.

LETTING GO

One… Two… Three! I heard the faint click of the release. My heart stopped. A moment of weightlessness lifted my legs up, as I fell backwards in dreamlike slo-mo. The platform above me floated away. Before I realised it, I was plummeting 20 stories down, but my harness tightened and caught my fall. Tautened, the lifeline threw me across to the other side of the canyon like Tarzan on a jungle vine. As I swung back and forth across the gorge, I let go of the straps and leaned back, my arms and legs outstretched, hooting excitedly in disbelief, as my fears were swept away by a liberating sense of bliss. Little did I know that a visit to this quiet corner of Bohol would turn out to be this action-packed.

Reputedly the world's highest canyon swing, The Plunge features a 20-storey free fall, swinging riders across a 300m wide river canyon in the north-central highlands of Bohol island.
Reputedly the world’s highest canyon swing, The Plunge features a 20-storey free fall, swinging riders across a 300m wide river canyon in the north-central highlands of Bohol island.

Apparently, in the misty highland retreat, you’ll have the time of your life when, just like a renegade hero, you forgo the well-trodden path and simply take a leap of faith.

ROAD TO ADVENTURE

From Tagbilaran City, visitors can take a bus or van from Dao Integrated Bus Terminal to Danao town, then transfer to Danao Adventure Park by habal-habal (motorbike) or tricycle. The total travel time over the 72km distance from Tagbilaran City to the park, which has its own restaurant and provides basic accommodation, takes approximately three hours. www.danaoadventurepark.com

The jungle-lined Wahig River is perfect for a kayaking excursion. The travellers pictured here take their time paddling their kayaks as they enjoy the beauty of their natural surroundings.
The jungle-lined Wahig River is perfect for a kayaking excursion. The travellers pictured here take their time paddling their kayaks as they enjoy the beauty of their natural surroundings.

OFF THE GRID

Detour from the tourist trail and experience these unforgettable off-the-beaten-track excursions in Bohol.

  • Embark on a tranquil kayaking tour along the Abatan River in Maribojoc to view colonies of fireflies that thrive in the mangrove forest illuminating the greenery at night. www.facebook.com/kayakasiaphilippines
  • Trek across emerald rice terraces to the 18m high Canumantad Falls, Bohol’s tallest waterfall, before taking a sunset boat tour of fish pens, seaweed farms and sand bars around Cogtong Bay in Candijay. candijay-bohol.gov.ph
  • Discover the mystical island of Lamanoc with its shaman caves, ancient grave sites and prehistoric art in Anda, accessed by a mangrove boardwalk and paddleboat ride. The town also has pristine beaches, cave pools and exceptional dive sites off shore. www.andabohol.gov.ph

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