Desert Island Caveboy

28 Apr

View of caves on Lipuun Point, Palawan, the Philippines

Home sweet home for almost 50,000 years

Even with my spawn noisily constructing a hand-axe from fossil coral and driftwood and a six-year-old channelling his inner T-Rex, there’s something about caves that speak irresistibly of mortality.

More than 200 limestone caverns burrow deep into the rock of Lipuun Point, a protected peninsula of mangroves and scrubby dipterocarp forests half an hour’s boat ride from the little town of Quezon, Palawan. 90% or so remain unexplored, and excavations continue, apparently at random, exposing deep layers of peach, cream and dusty bronze.

In one of the largest, a tumble-down cathedral over 40 metres long and perhaps half that in height, they found the skull of Tabon “Man”, which some date to as old as 47,000 years.

It was hard not to wonder, as small modern children played noisily in the shafts of light between waterfall stalactites and tumbling vines, how different they are from the kids who played before them, almost 50,000 years ago, and the unknown man or woman whose bones miraculously survived that long.

Many of the later peoples who occupied this site buried their dead in jars. Some they placed in a dramatic arch, where their souls could choose to watch over the rich forest crater inland or the white sand atolls and limestone karsts that stud the turquoise South China Sea.

Love of their dead? Or fear of retribution? I vote for love.

Others they interred in Manunggul Cave, which winds low through the rock for 100 metres or so. There are too many fragments of burial jars to collect or count, let alone index, so we walked over scattered shards of these ceramic coffins, as bats and baby birds twittered from hollows in the rock.

Dulled by age and muted by dust, their decorations only loosely apparent, they call to mind the lines from the English Burial Service, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust”, or the Sufi phrase, “This too shall pass.”

Whoever they were, they and the people who loved them, have left more enduring traces than most of us will, and more, most likely, than the folks in Manila’s Chinese Cemetery who thought to equip their tombs with A/C and flushing toilets.

There was a wind blowing up on the South China Sea, clouding the waters. We took the boat to a little island, just a limestone rock with a sandbar tail, where fifty families live in nipa huts amid white sand and coconut palms.

At its very highest point, the sandbar is less than three metres above the level of the sea: most houses are less than half that. It’s possible it could be underwater within Z’s lifetime, gone with the coral and the marine life it sustains.

“How high does the sea come?” I asked the old lady who came here on holiday fifty years ago, met her husband, and, now a widow, runs the island’s little sari sari store.

“No higher than this,” she said, indicating the waves bobbing not halfway up the shelving white sand beach.

“Even in a typhoon?” I asked.

“Even in a typhoon.”

On Mariquit island, where flying foxes cluster in the mangrove swamp, our landing place was eerily abandoned. Ten very simple huts, some just a sleeping platform topped off with the a thatch of the spiky palm fronds known as nipa, stood amid coconut forest on a neatly swept floor.

In one, there was a pile of clothes. Outside another, cooking stones sat in insulating sand. A shell-studded path wound through the trees and sharp desert grass to the mangroves, lined with great middens of coconut and scallop shells, like a gift for future archaeologists, only a stray conditioner wrapper separating them from the neolithic past.

It felt like the desert island answer to the Marie-Celeste. An entire village, disappeared into the ether, mangroves and coconuts standing tall, and the saw-grass growing up around them.

And, just like in the cave, where, stripped of toys and technology, Z and the little boy played with the implements — voices, sticks and stones — their prehistoric predecessors might have used, Z played on the beach with nothing but what surrounded him.

A coconut shell becomes a bucket, and a mould for sand. Shells make scoops, and decoration. Driftwood and dried seaweed marks the beginning of a fire.

And — who knows? — we could come back to this sooner than we think.

3 Responses to “Desert Island Caveboy”

  1. jessiev April 30, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    very cool. and it is always interesting, to think of those who came before us.

  2. littlelune June 10, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    I love your blog. I love traveling and exploring and stumbled upon your blog somehow. I’ve traveled through most of Europe and a little of the United States but your blog has inspired me to start planning a journey to see the world, and I hope to save enough money to do so in a few years’ time. I am from the Philippines but now live in Boston and I’ve always wanted to go back and simply travel.

    I think it’s amazing that you have given your son such an adventure he will never forget.

    • MummyT June 10, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

      Thank you! Seeing much of the world is actually very cheap once you’re there. You will do it…

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