February 17, 2004 (STAR) By James Mananghaya - Massive and marvelous mineral and rock formations, lush hardwood forests, diverse wildlife, friendly and environmentally conscious people —name it, Biak na Bato has it.

Nestled at the tri-boundaries of the towns of San Miguel, San Ildefonso and Doña Remedios Trinidad in Bulacan, the Biak na Bato National Park is a prime spot for nature trekkers, cave explorers or weary souls hoping to have a respite from the hustle and the bustle of concrete city life. It can be likened to a mother’s arms that ease the troubles of a tired body with a warm embrace.

The national park is 12 kilometers away from the main highway, a long drive but a pleasant one as the sight of still verdant mountains and flourishing rice terraces ease the eyes. Upon reaching the place, visitors would be welcomed by friendly and accommodating park attendants and caretakers. And for a fee, those who wish to explore the mysteries of its caves would be accompanied by a guide, usually a member of the Samahan ng Mamamayan Para sa Kalikasan ng Biak na Bato, a non-government organization founded by volunteers from Miriam College in Manila and are now run by residents.

There are cottages where tourists can have picnics and even those who wish to stay overnight. The park boasts of pristine rivers that flow from the mountains.

Security, too, is nothing to fret about, as there is a detachment of the Army’s 56th Infantry Battalion taking care of the safety of the place. They have also been instrumental in the protection of the national park against poachers, loggers and other selfish individuals whose only interest is raking in money at the expense of Mother Nature.

Initially, it was not included in the Department of Tourism’s list of must-see and must-go to destinations in the country, but through the initiative of the provincial government, under the stewardship of Governor Josefina Dela Cruz, it is now included in the WOW Philippines list of tourist destinations for cave exploring. The DOT has even built a park police and information outpost inside the national park where visitors can easily avail themselves of assistance.

But aside from the wonders of its caves, a lot of things can be discovered when visiting Biak na Bato, including its valuable contribution to the country‘s cultural heritage.

The national park was developed in 1997, during the incumbency of former President Fidel Ramos. Roads linking Biak na Bato to the Cagayan Valley Road were concreted in time for the 1998 Philippine Centennial Trek, as this cave network played a very vital role in shaping the country’s history. It was in its walls that Filipino revolutionaries of the Katipunan found shelter against Spanish military forces. The walls of its caves have been silent witnesses to the signing of the pact of Biak na Bato, an agreement between Primo de Rivera and Aguinaldo that paved the way for the founding of the Biak na Bato Republic in November 15, 1897, the Philippines‚ first step to becoming the First Republic in Asia.

In fact, a cave inside the national park was named after Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo. Guides here said that it was in that cave that Katipuneros under the general from Cavite held office, and was also their fortress. Its walls are now silent witnesses to what transpired during that time.

About a kilometer away from the entrance, a tall Dao tree, a hardwood variety stands proud. A tour guide explained that the said tree has lived for more than a hundred years. There had been attempts to bring it down, but chainsaws would be rendered useless, as it has been said to be laced with lead, when it was hit by gunfire. The said tree has been used by Katipuneros as a bunker, and a watch tower against advancing Spanish forces during that time. Now, it remains standing proudly, as if boasting off its contributions to the revolution against the conquistadores, a living testament of the Filipino’s love for freedom and courage in the time of foreign oppression.

Biak na Bato National Park is a network of more than a hundred caves spanning 2, 117 hectares. But as of the present, only 17 have been explored. Most of these caves boast of crystalline mineral formations — stalactites and stalagmites that show the magnificent artistry of Mother Nature. Tour guides explained that these mineral columns or pillars take more than a hundred years to form and some of these are inaccessible because of too narrow entrances. One of the most explored cave in the park is the Paniki or Bat Cave, home of at least six species of the winged mammal. Hundreds of thousands of kabag-kabag, ngusong kabayo, bungisngis, sibsib, bayakan and pakibu are sheltered in the cave‚s walls, creases and ceiling.

Danilo Mandras, who has been a tour guide since the national park was developed, said that of the six varieties, the bayakan is the biggest, having a wingspan of one meter, while the pakibu is the smallest, not bigger than a human thumb; it is also the smallest species that lives in Biak na Bato. Aside from these bats, there are nido birds nesting in dark caves.

Roberto Maron, who has been living in Biak na Bato for 38 years, and team leader of tour guides here said that locals used to gather the nests and sell it to traders for the manufacture of nido soup, a popular delicacy in some parts of Asia. But after the SAMAKABA was founded to protect the national park, they have successfully discouraged the people from gathering the nests of the tiny birds, as any disturbance in their natural habitat drives them away.

Biak na Bato boasts of a wealth of flora and fauna. Inside the national park are various types of orchids, trees, shrubs, ferns and bushes. The bokawe or buho, used as a weapon during the revolution abounds here. In the hardwood forest, a tired visitor is soothed by a harmony of sounds made by different animals-monkeys, wild boars, eagles, monitor lizards, and other species of birds that nest in towering trees.

Maron said that not only local tourists flock to Biak na Bato to bathe in the cool mountain river water or explore its caves. There are also foreign tourists, mostly Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Australians and Germans who come here to view at the wonder Mother Nature has bestowed this historically and environmentally rich place.

At present, national and local government agencies in Bulacan, together with the people of Biak na Bato work together to preserve the beauty and wealth of this national park, something Gov. Dela Cruz refers to as a great legacy for the next generation of Bulakeños. She said Biak na Bato should be protected so that the youth would have a concrete testament of the courage and heroism of their forefathers, for them to do their part in protecting the environment, as well as their national identity and freedom.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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