‘Forbidden’ angles

IMG_5983The Forbidden Island is just one spectacular plateau that looks like it was sliced it off from the main island and pushed a bit off the shore but there is more to this slab of a rock than meets the eye.

I have seen the Forbidden Island from the overview and close from the base of the island before. The chance to see it from above and from the other side came last month when I was invited to an aerial tour of the island, and that was the first time I saw the top of the island from above. It was looking at this landscape from a whole new perspective.IMG_4028

I asked our pilot if he can maneuver the four-seater plane above the Forbidden Island as low and as close as we can get while I took photos of this popular piece of rock that jutted out like a crouching reptile.

The top of the plateau is rocky but some portions are flat and covered with green and it looks like you could spend a night camping there, but getting up to the top of this island is a whole new difficult story. It is almost next to impossible, especially if you are not that daring and you don’t have the right equipment.

The Forbidden Island is one of Saipan’s must-not-miss sites if you want to say you’ve been to Saipan. A trek down to the island itself requires at least 45 minutes, a sturdy pair of shoes, comfortable clothing and lots of guts. The jungle trail going down is easy, the trees providing shade from the heat and the only challenge you meet are the pine needles that make the pathway slippery. IF

When you emerge into the clearing where the jungle ends, that’s when the real challenge begins and it’s already too late and too far to go back. If you are scared of heights, just proceed with caution and focus on the road. If you can avoid it, try not to look the sides of the path where you will see yawning cliffs or you’ll get dizzy and give the adventure up.

Don’t underestimate this small slab of rock. It isn’t named Forbidden for nothing. It has claimed numerous lives in the past.

I’ve tried climbing halfway around the island and had to go back minus the soles of my shoes with numerous cuts and scratches in my arms and legs. I didn’t take the option of climbing straight up aided by a rope because it looked so hard and steep but the group I was with had to come back when our trek ended in a dead end. Fighting the strong currents of water when the tide is coming in is another challenge you have to consider when you go to the island.IMG_5989

The challenge actually starts when the paved road in Kagman ends and you take the rough road that answers more to the description of a river bed gone dry. The road is only ideal for four wheel drive vehicles and most parts of the road are like giant potholes, with elbow-sharp turns that could send you hurtling down deep ravines if you’re not careful but it’s worth the trip.

This article was also printed at the Marianas Variety


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Saipan Smiling Cove Marina

One more reason to love this island…

Stars& Stripes and sunset dinner cruises

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OVER the past years I have had the chance to be on three sunset dinner cruise boats: Puti’on Saipan, Jade Lady 111 and Stars and Stripes.
Most of the times, a spectacular sunset highlights the dinner cruise, but when the sky is grey, guests can still enjoy the performances of local talents.IMG_3219
I got the chance to board the Stars and Stripes again a few months back with Matt, Donna and Pat.I vowed I was not going to take out my camera and just enjoy the dinner cruise for a change even though there was the possibility of a stunning sunset.Stars and Stripes entertainer Roger Cadua sang songs in different languages to the great delight of the tourists who were on board with us.
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Pre-dinner drinks were served while Cadua taught the tourists how to dance the chacha.I broke my promise the minute a boat crewmember started to slowly unfurl the huge stars and stripes-designed sail. I started shooting photos while I stood on deck and forgot everything and everyone. The sunset was spectacular.Then it was dinner time and everybody lined up to partake of the delicious buffet spread while Cadua and his fellow entertainers continued performing.Stars and Stripes has been in the biz since 2005. Photos and videos of the boat have made their way to all parts of the world as the thousands of satisfied customer continue to share their unforgettable experiences through word of mouth, photos and videos and published articles.

Stars and Stripes owner Sam Markos said the boat was made in Singapore in 1988, and it sailed in Guam waters from 1988 to 2001. Markos bought it in November 2002 and brought it to Saipan where he and his wife Jenny have transformed it into a first class boat for cruising.

It has an air-conditioned room that can accommodate 100 people in case it rains. But most of the time, guests want to enjoy the view on deck.IMG_3130

If you have been on island all your life and have not been on Stars & Stripes, grab the chance to experience a whole new world out there even for an hour. For inquiries and reservations, call Sea-Lago Inc. at 234-7266.

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First published at the Marianas Variety here 

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/59935-stars-stripes-and-sunset-dinner-cruises

Heaven 2: Where Blue Meets Blue

??THE surprises never stop if you keep on driving off the beaten tracks and explore any of Saipan’s rugged, dirt roads.

Recently, a friend and I followed the rough dirt road on Capital Hill passed the Wireless Cemetery. I had no idea where the road was leading to. My companion had been in the area before but he was not answering any of my questions.

He just drove on and on, listening to the groaning of the car while expertly avoiding the huge potholes in the road which really required a four-wheel drive and not my beat-up Mirage.

Just when I thought the road was never going to end, he stopped in front of a walled building which looked like a private residence. We were in the middle of nowhere. I had not been to the place before, but saw a couple of vans with the words “Heaven II” printed on them.

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I have seen these vans around and thought Heaven II was the name for a religious institution or retreat house but had no idea where it was. I finally learned that it was a hilltop resort.

There was nothing spectacular about the façade of the building. We stopped by the reception area to ask if we could snap some photos. Unlike other hotels in the tourist districts, Heaven II seemed abandoned and I was starting to wonder what photos I would take. We went around the side of the building and emerged into a spot which made my jaw drop, literally.IMG_7754

Before us was an irregularly shaped swimming pool, its blue waters reflecting the nearby white lounge chairs. The pool looked rarely used, and there was a wet bar poolside. Down below, the blue of the ocean merged with the blue sky, creating varied hues broken only by a sprinkle of red flowering shrubs below the pool.

If it was an “infinity” swimming pool — the water seemed as if it were dripping into the ocean. It was such a beautiful place with an amazing million-dollar view of the reef and with lush vegetation around. At the foot of the hill is the village of Tanapag.

 

 

 

Despite the shimmering noonday heat, the place was relaxing.

I was sure that it would also be a perfect site to shoot photos at sunset, when all the blue hues had disappeared behind a fiery mix of gold, red and orange sky. But we didn’t stay long enough to see the sun set although I plan to do so soon.

Spots like these are all over the island just waiting for the daring and the adventurous.IMG_7800

IMG_7751The secret is to go out and just drive. Follow the roads wherever they leads and ask questions later.

For more articles about Saipan, Tinian and Rota destinations, check http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links.

First published at the Marianas Variety HERE
    http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/58833-where-blue-meets-blue

Lazy afternoon on the Lazy River

DSC_7831AN afternoon floating lazily on the Lazy River at the Pacific Islands Club was something I always thought was a great thing to do if you’re a tourist. I had said no to many invitations until my very persistent buddy Tom refused to take no for an answer. –
We skipped lunch but munched on some sandwiches and French fries at the Buoy Bar just before heading to the Lazy River. A lot of lounge chairs were still vacant. It was just after 1 p.m. and only a handful of people were in the water. I learned why very soon. The river current was turned on at 2 p.m., and you couldn’t enjoy walking in waist-deep water.We went around the river twice when I noticed the difference. Suddenly, I no longer had to “walk” and my tube started floating and only then was I able to totally relax, feeling the warmth and the languid motion of the water.

On the Lazy River you stand beneath the waterfalls and let the water massage your body. There are areas where the water is smooth and slow and relaxing, while there are spots which you can’t stand for too long as the water seems to rip your body parts with its strong flow.DSC_8992

But you can’t float around forever. You have to try the other water delights PIC has to offer.

I was not especially looking forward to our next destination — the slides. Compared to other slides, those at PIC are short and small and looked friendly enough, until you try them.

I had never tried going down a slide even when I was a kid. I was planning to just stay at the pool and watch Tom but he had other ideas. He hoisted two blue water mattresses and dragged me up the stairs. I was alarmed but there was nothing I could do except sit on the mattress obediently and wait for my end.DSC_2757

Without warning, the pool attendant gave me a push and down I whooshed like a bullet, ducking, when huge amounts of water splashed on my head as I passed a waterfall. I went down one twist after the other and one more turn before I was finally ejected into the pool, my mattress and I flying to different directions.

Flailing my arms, I surfaced, sputtering. I had swallowed a couple of mouthfuls. I also had a wardrobe malfunction. My shirt strap came down and left me exposed. Luckily, everyone was busy and no one except Tom saw me. Lesson learned — when you go on the slide make sure your bathing suit fits you snugly.

Miraculously, I had enough guts to go down the slide again, and I finally mastered the technique of how not to get separated from my mattress at the end of my wet ride.

I also agreed to float from the Point Break. The surging water was enough to make me say no but the pool attendant sent my tube spinning several times before giving it a final push. I almost died. Or I thought I did. DSC_7532I closed my eyes and hugged the tube tightly. I felt like throwing up before reaching the Lazy River. It was a few seconds of agony that seemed to last forever.

If you don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut or an acrobat, don’t start from the Point Break. Or you can but just don’t let the attendant give you a spin. That spells the difference between an enjoyable and a dizzying afternoon.

Anyway, when you want rest and relaxation, try a lazy afternoon swim in the Lazy River. Rates are lower during weekdays and not a lot of people use the facilities but if you want to mingle with an international crowd, go for a weekend swim. The muscle pains are worth the bliss that awaits you.

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/58488-lazy-afternoon-on-the-lazy-river

Exploring Saipan’s seldom-frequented roads

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I THOUGHT I had been everywhere on Saipan until I discovered roads I didn’t even know existed. Recently, my buddy Pat and I decided to pay a visit to the radar tower in San Roque, a site I had visited and photographed several times before so we decided to make this trip different. Bordering the radar tower on the right side was a huge stone pile with some tangan-tangan trees. The pile — or wall — of stones looked dangerous to climb but my companion was unstoppable and I was not about to stay below.
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Finding footholds and handholds while protecting my camera was a real challenge but I slowly made it to the top. And there, I gasped. We were at the very edge of a high cliff and one wrong move could send us hurtling to our deaths below. I held my breath. I was too scared to move. Spread out before us was a glorious panorama of jungle and cliffs bordering the endless blue ocean. A narrow road snaked its way through the jungle, and I was disoriented, not knowing where we were.

We decided to find out where that road below us began and ended. Ever so slowly, we picked our way down, quaking in fear when a stone just stepped on rolled down. Finally, we made it back to the radar tower and were soon inside the cool safety of our rented RAV-4.

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Driving down from the radar tower, we turned left at the fork with the sign “DPS Shooting Range” on the roadside. I’d never been on that road before but the thrill of the unknown kept us going.

The road was wide enough for one car only, but we were the only ones there. The roadsides were thick with bushes that would have made it impossible to park anywhere.

We drove on down the mountainside until we passed the DPS Firing Range, a place I hadn’t seen.IMG_8404

Past the firing range, the road got steeper and, at times, almost impossible to find, but there was no going back now. We knew we had to keep going and find out where we were headed. After several minutes, Pat decided to make a left turn at a fork in the road, expertly dodging huge boulders. It was a short road and, finally, we couldn’t go any further.

Then I looked up and stared at the gaping mouth of a huge cave. Only then did I discover we were at the Kalabera Cave. I had driven several times to the area from Bird Island but never went beyond the Kalabera Cave crossing before. The road would discourage anyone who values his car.IMG_8379

Anyway, it was an exhilarating afternoon and we got back home, memory cards loaded with new photos of this beautiful and ever surprising island.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Ladder Beach gazebo: Your new wedding venue

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Photos by Patrick Horton

AN unplanned drive to the southern part of the island one afternoon led me and photographer buddy Donna to Ladder Beach where we got a pleasant surprise.

We had not visited the place since her wedding in September last year, when we all had to find our way through the tall brambles and bushes that covered the stairs going down to the beach and blanketing the parking area.

This time, we found the parking area and the concrete stairs clean and free of vines and bushes. But there were more surprises.??????????????)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We saw a brand new pavilion and perched atop the cliff just above the cave at the beach was a brand new white gazebo overlooking the azure blue waters and the island of Tinian — the perfect venue for early morning or sunset weddings, or for any special occasion.

Donna and I did not stay too long that time but I went back a couple of weeks ago with another photographer, Patrick, who happens to be a friend of the gazebo owner, Jack Atalig.

Atalig said after they constructed the gazebo, a couple of weddings were held there, as well as other events such as family get-togethers, birthdays and Christenings. Atalig wants to make the place an ideal destination not only for tourists but locals too.

Under the noonday sun, Pat and I went to see how Ladder Beach looked from the other side. We picked our way through the tree stumps and parted overhanging branches to get to the rocky part that jutted above the water on the left side of the beach. From where we were, Ladder Beach with the gazebo and the pavilion looked ready for visitors.??????????????)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ladder Beach has always attracted locals and tourists because of its pristine waters that are perfect for snorkeling. The caves by the beach also provide a perfect shelter, ideal for picnics.

With his new facilities, Atalig hopes to welcome more visitors to Ladder Beach.

Sunrise Hotel

If you’re on Rota, you should check out the Sunrise Hotel which is also owned by Atalig and managed by Jackie. It is located at the foot of Mt. Sabana and some distance away from the sea — a feature that makes it unique.

It’s not your usual commercial hotel where you take elevators and run into other guests in the lobby or hallway. It’s a row of rooms that face the gardens and open straight to the parking lot. You go to sleep listening to the chirping of the birds and wake up to the same sound. While there, I had a moment of panic when I heard a flapping sound at the window while I was in the shower. I did not move for a long time but eventually I discovered that it was just a bird outside. It’s an incident that you can experience only at a Rota hotel.

I stumbled upon the Sunrise Hotel on a recent trip to Rota when I emerged from driving through the deep jungles of Sabana Mountain. The hotel is fenced by a row of gracefully swaying palm trees and a low stone wall that resembles a fortress of some kind, one that makes you want to go in and explore. Behind the hotel are Japanese guns and other World War II relics worth exploring.

Among the other bonuses you get at Sunrise Hotel — in addition to meeting and chatting with host Jackie — is the hot water which is perfect after a day of exploring the island. You can also flop into bed to watch TV or a movie on your laptop, or just drift off to dreamland in the cold blast of the A/C unit. All this at very affordable rates that you can find only on Rota.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Fun and thrills at the Wave Jungle

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IF you are too lazy to explore real jungles, there is one you can enjoy without sweating it out or hiking deep into the woods. I’m referring to Saipan World Resort’s Wave Jungle, the island’s largest waterpark.

Over the last five years, I had been invited often to try the Wave Jungle, but there was always a reason why I couldn’t go. Until buddy Patrick arrived from the mainland and insisted it was one thing in his list that I should try all the slides. Each time he mentioned it I just give a non-committal shrug and hoped he was not serious, until last week when I finally ran out of alibis.

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I have always been scared of slides and I still didn’t how to swim but there was no way of persuading Pat I could not do it. The night before we were scheduled for the Wave Jungle, I secretly wished it would rain hard or I would get sick so I would not have to go, but my wishes were not granted.

The weather was as bright and sunny as ever, and I did not wake up with a chill or anything. Pat hauled me off to Saipan World Resort where we had a leisurely lunch first at Buffet World. My stomach was doing all sorts of acrobatic flips as I watched people slide down the tubes, screaming. I wanted to stay at lunch forever but very soon, lunch time was over.

I gulped a glassful of white wine before following Pat to the changing room. He was as excited as a little kid while I felt I was heading toward the altar like a sacrificial lamb.

At the water park, Pat hoisted a tube and pulled me up to the stairs with him. I took a deep breath and slowly climbed the stairs to the highest point which was the entrance to the Master Blaster, the “worst/best” of all the slides. Luckily the tubes were designed for two and I was not going to do it alone. I nervously slid in behind Pat, echoing the words of Queen Esther — “if I perish I perish” — as I braced myself for the trip to kingdom-come.

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I barely had time to complete one deep breath when I began to zoom down so fast. I was unable to control a scream and it was so loud I was surprised it came from my throat. Everything happened in a dizzying yet exciting swirl as we sped into a tunnel, emerged into the light before dipping again into yet another tunnel which produced scream after loud scream from me. We zoomed down into a series of twists and turns so fast that, before I knew it, the tube had already spat us out into a pool where a lifeguard assisted.

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Dazed, I tried to regain my senses. After checking i was alright, Pat declared I was all ready for another round and marched us again up the long flight of stairs. The second time was not as scary as the first and I began to enjoy the thrill as I went for yet another slide. And another…My throat was becoming hoarse from all my screaming.

We floated lazily in the “Amazon River” a couple of times to regain our breath before going up the stairs again for another heart-stopping adventure: the Body Slide. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think of going down that slide, or any slide ever. I stepped onto the slide entrance after Pat had zoomed into the darkness and started enumerating the reasons why I couldn’t and shouldn’t follow him. Suddenly the lifeguard gave me an unexpected push, a wave and a “there ‘ya go!” and sent me spiraling down the body tube at explosive speed. I thought I was going to die any second and hit my head on the walls of the twists and turns and dips and I just held my head, bracing for the worst. In seconds that seemed like eternity, I landed with a huge splash in a pool below, disappearing beneath the water. Pat caught me but not after I gulped a couple of mouthfuls of pool water and had another wardrobe malfunction.IMG_1918 (2)

Shaking my head to his challenge to do it again, we headed to the Wave Pool where I made the mistake of wading in without a tube. Fighting off the huge waves still dazed from the slides and full of the food and wine I had for lunch was just too much to handle, and so I ended up…swallowing more pool water.

Exhausted, we went for another round in the Amazon River to get our heartbeats back to normal, the jacuzzi and the swimming pools to get our breath back. The loud screams from the Master Blaster never ceased, but it was fun to note that most of those who were screaming were adults.

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The Black Hole is not for the faint of heart. It’s a closed tube that spits you into a huge bowl and rotates you several times before depositing you in a free fall into the pool below. I saw Pat do the Black Hole and got dizzy just watching him. I didn’t try the famous Black Hole and the Tube Slide. He tried the Tube Slide and came out grinning like a kid.

Water park manager Ed Johnson said the Black Hole is one of the two most popular attractions in the Wave Jungle, next to the Master Blaster. One friendly warning — make sure your bathing suit or shorts fit you snugly to avoid wardrobe malfunctions when you fall and resurface.

A whole day is not enough to try and enjoy all the amazing slides and fun that the Wave Jungle has to offer for the whole family. There are kiddie pools with giant reptiles floating in them for children to ride on and play with as well as lounge chairs for those who just want to soak up the sun.

Another thing — if you want to try the Wave Jungle adventure after a hearty lunch at the Buffet World, go easy on the wine and beer.IMG_1822

Summer promo

As a special promo for the summer, Saipan World Resort will charge a Water Jungle entrance fee of only $10 for students.

Johnson said this promo is for schools to use as an incentive for students who are doing well academically. He said for the past couple of weeks, several schools have brought students to the Wave Jungle as a reward for their accomplishments. With his team of certified lifeguards stationed all over the Wave Jungle, Johnson said visitors can enjoy the amenities, have fun and still be safe at all times.

For more information, visit http://www.saipanworldresort.com/english/waveJungle/waveJungle.asp or call 234-5900.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Bonfires and moon reflections at Laolao Bay

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FOR someone who has been on island for the past five years, I can’t help but sometimes feel bored and think that there’s nothing more to do to break my daily routine. I thought I have been there and done that already. But one dreary Sunday evening, a text message from my friend Donna piqued my interest.

She said Matt was suggesting a quick trip down to Laolao Bay where we could have a bonfire, complete with hotdogs and marshmallows. I texted back “yes” as quick as I could but I was scared to drive alone so I proceeded to San Antonio to pick up Junhan who I knew was home already.

Driving to Laolao Bay after sunset was a new experience for me. I had been to the beach so many times in the past, but I still couldn’t get used to hear my car squeak and groan as it maneuvers through the rough and bumpy roads that resembled a dried up river bed. But most of the difficult parts of the road had been paved already.

A small bonfire was already crackling when we got to the beach. It got bigger and bigger as Matt and Junhan fed it with dry twigs and pine needles.

Wasting no time, we took photos and videos of the hungry flames. It was a thrilling experience watching the fire smolder into a pile of embers only to grow big again as more twigs were thrown at it, producing a soothing crackling sound while we heard the waves lap on the shore a few feet away.

Ems and Donna were industrious enough to barbeque hotdogs but without the marshmallows because they forgot to buy them.IMG_3510 - CopySoon, a big round moon emerged from behind the brooding clouds, casting an eerie glow on the water. From afar, the lights from Laolao Bay Golf Resort Hotel gleamed like eyes in the dark. We could also see the shadowy silhouettes of the cliffs and Forbidden Island beyond.

For the next few minutes, we clicked away as we tried to capture the spectacular yet spooky beauty of it all with our cameras. We chased the reflections on the water as the moon played hide and seek behind the clouds.

Shivering in my thin shirt, I knew I could not last longer on the beach and had to go back to the cottage. I knew I didn’t have enough photos of the moon reflections on the water to satisfy me. I also brought the wrong lenses with me — zoom lens that couldn’t capture the entire scene, and an ultra-wide lens that captured more than I wanted to cover.

But now I know where to go and what to do the next time a “next time” comes around. Funny how a simple bonfire could light up a somehow ordinary night on the beach, and funnier to think that except for Matt, it was all our first time to do it.

If you think you have been here forever and have done everything there is to do, think again. You might just be surprised at what more this paradise of an island has to offer.

(First published at the Marianas Variety)

Trekking on Edge

A TREK toalt Naftan Point was not on my mind when I joined a group of six others on a late Saturday afternoon. We were in the parking lot of American Memorial parking lot flipping coins to decide where to go for a shooting adventure when I remembered the Rabbit Hole in Naftan. I had only seen pictures of the place but had’t been there yet.

Without hesitation, we boarded two cars and off we went to Saipan’s southernmost tip. Turning at the intersection of Obyan Beach, we began driving on an unfamiliar rough road and ended in someone’s driveway. First try. We went back and followed another road, this time much smaller and rougher than the first one, and ended up on a small clearing with barely enough space for the cars. We tried again and finally found the right road — a tree-lined single lane grassy road that went narrow and narrower as we inched deeper into a jungle of tangan-tangan.

We reached a point where Mervin and Tony had to go down and start clearing protruding tree branches so we could drive through. It was agonizing to hear every squeak and scrape of the branches and shrubs under and on the sides of the car. I was just waiting for the final thud that would make us stuck in that jungle. It went on for the next half a mile or so as we plodded on, finally reaching a small clearing to park our cars.alt

Our trip was not over yet. Carting our heavy cameras and tripods, we slowly inched our way in the jungle — this time parting thick shrubs with our hands and ducking under roots and branches and avoiding one of the hundreds of spider webs along the way.

Emerging into the open, we followed pale pink ribbons tied to waist-high shrubs as we looked for the Rabbit Hole.

The sun was relentlessly unforgiving, beating down on us who had no shelter. Groping our way along the cliff and finding secure handholds and footholds was a real challenge. One wrong step could send us hurtling down into the rocks and the churning waters below.

We reached a cliffside where a spectacular panorama awaited us. Way down below and nestled between sharp cliffs was a cove with a small flat surface but with rugged edges resembling a stage. It was mesmerizing to watch huge waves crash on the “stage,” before rolling back to the ocean in rivulets.

I was too engrossed taking photos and video I did not notice Mervin making calls on his cellphone. We were lost. We were not supposed to be on that dangerous cliffline.

The sun was beginning to set, and we had to head back. I did not relish the idea of getting stuck in a jungle at night and share my blood with thousands of mosquitoes. None of us was prepared for that trek — we were wearing too comfortable sandals, carrying too much gear and were mentally conditioned to shoot photos in friendlier and nearer areas.

We failed to find our destination, and Tony ended up with a torn eyebrow after hitting a protruding tree branch. Our cars suffered a hundred or so minor scratches but we got the photos we wanted, and the adventure we did not plan.

The Rabbit Hole, will still be there, somewhere, next time.

First published at the Maaltrianas Variety