Dwellers of the Rock

During the dry season the Tau’t Bato’s homes are nestled within the beautiful, densely forested, and remote Singnapan Valley. When the rains arrive and valley floods the tribe relocate to live inside large caves. I made the long journey up into the jungle to spend time with one wonderfully welcoming Tau’t Bato family.

The remoteness of beautiful Singnapan Valley in southern Palawan is what first caught my attention. I then started hearing intriguing stories of how the tribe who lived in the region moved into large caves every year to ride out the deluge of the rainy season. Thus, their name Tau’t Bato, which means ‘dwellers of the rock’. I knew that I would have to make the long journey into the jungle to meet these people.

Rarely visited by outsiders, this densely forested region is also home to Mount Mantalingahan, the highest peak in Palawan and an occasional destination for hardcore mountaineers. From what I could gather there really were very few individuals who ever travelled up into the valley, and we were only the second visitors to the area that year.

The Tau’t Bato — also Tao’t Bato or Taaw’t Bato — are really just a subgroup of the larger Pala’wan indigenous group. They speak the native Pala’wan language and practice many of the same beliefs as the Pala’wan.

The only difference being that in this particular community, those living in the area of Singnapan valley, the families take shelter in the large nearby caves during the rainy season. During the dry months each family has their own land and they are able to live in a house within the valley, however, with the very heavy rains and flooding during the wet season taking shelter in the caves is their best protection. Back in the 70s it was President Marcos who gave the tribe their cave-dwelling name.

During the 70s President Marcos actually made multiple visits to Singnapan to explore the area. Our guide, Buano, and our host, Tumihay, who was just a little boy at the time, remembers the helicopters flying into the valley with Marcos and Imelda onboard. Tumihay said President Marcos only stayed for 30 minutes because he was afraid that the people might attack him. The helicopters brought clothes, rice and some other provisions to distribute to the tribe. This is the first time Tumihay remembers anyone in his family ever wearing western style clothes.

However, the reason Marcos was so interested in this area was because of the riches it held. For many months Marco’s team raided caves in the area — the burial sites for the Tau’t Bato — and collected all the gold and other valuables from the bodies. Buano also said that it is possible they also found Japanese treasure in the caves, because many of the caves Marco’s team explored were caves that the Tau’t Bato never went into.

Years later there were many stories that Marcos hid a lot of his wealth in the caves of Singnapan. During the 80s and 90s the area saw numerous visitors from all over the world searching for Marco’s hidden wealth. However, in reality, President Marcos was there to take all the wealth he could from the tribes, not to leave hidden treasure of his own.

Reaching Singnapan Valley was itself no easy task. From Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, it is a day of travel on a not-so-comfortable bus. Once you have arrived in Rizal, it is then a strenuous day long trek by foot up the mountain into Singnapan.

The trail was rugged, slippery and the air was as thick as one could imagine hot jungle air to be. Every ten minutes or so I had to ring my shirt out from the sweat it collected. Our bags were soaked with sweat by the time we arrived and our bodies felt on the verge of collapsing.

We did have our guide, Buano, with us and we had employed two of his grandsons as porters. Having quite a bit of gear and all of our provisions for four days it was necessary (we had about 15 kilos of rice alone). Once we arrived we were welcomed by our host Tumihay and his family who were the most gracious people. Below you see their home the evening we arrived into Singnapan valley — it sits in a small clearing within the valley surrounded by forest in a very serene location.

Although a native Tau’t Bato, our guide Buano had moved away from Singnapan many years ago and built a small home down the mountain closer to the barangay center. He told us that he thought he was 87 years old, but like most other Tau’t Bato, even the children, he did not know his age exactly. I suspect he was a little younger than 87, but he hiked the trails like he was in his 20s and went barefoot the whole way. Below you see Buano and Tumihay eating kamoting kahoy by a gas light while telling stories a little later during our stay.

During our stay we had to be very careful of mosquito bites as Singnapan Valley is still very much infested with Malaria. It is a huge concern for the people who live in this area and taking preventative measures is a must. Here you see a Tau’t Daram man burning grass to help keep mosquitoes away from his home.

In 2005, three journalists from Manila came down with cerebral malaria while making a documentary about the effects of malaria on the Tau’t Bato. Reyster Langit later died while being treated in California and his two companions also died of complications from the disease, one in Manila and one in Puerto Princesa.

However, when we asked Tumihay about the three journalists who had died, he said he wasn’t sure if it was malaria or not, and we learned there was a different story that had circulated among the locals. Apparently, the journalists hadn’t been listening to the Tau’t Bato or respectful of their customs — instead carrying out forbidden acts such as defecating in the river during their stay. Upon being asked not to do these things, they had continued to do so. As a result perhaps some of the tribe members had put a spell or curse on the journalists, and this is what killed them.

This being said, Tumihay admits that he has had malaria in the past and one of his daughter’s children died as an infant because of the disease. It is certainly present and we proceeded with caution during our stay.

Traditionally, the Tau’t Bato have always used blowguns to hunt in the forest, however today shotguns are now often the more practical option. Blowguns are still used on occasion, but shotguns are definitely now the weapon of choice for hunting in the forest. Below you see Panglima, a chief mediator of the Tau’t Bato. We met Panglima while hiking around the valley one day.

However, many families still regularly use other traditional method of hunting. Here you see Mariam, one of Tumihay’s eight children, making a bat catcher that will be used later in the evening to hunt for dinner. The spines on the edges of the branches are very sharp and will clasp to anything that touches them, including the bat’s wings.

Tumihay is one of those guys I could see myself hanging out with very often. Easy going, highly motivated and one of the nicest people you could ever meet. He didn’t mind at all that I was right by his side while he was going about his chores throughout the day. Not to mention that his family opened their house for us during our stay and offered us what little food they had.

On our second day I asked him if he could show me around some of the caves where they live during the rainy season. Without any hesitation he grabbed his blowgun and said, sure, let’s go hunting and I’ll show you the caves. First, we walked near the entrance to a large cave while Tumihay looked for birds and other prey to hunt with his blowgun.

As it was the dry season none of the families from the valley were currently living in the cave, and although Tumihay wanted to show me the large cave where they live during the rainy months, the ladder to reach the opening was broken. Instead, we explored some of the other more accessible caves. One day, I will have to make a trip back during the rainy season see what it is like living within the cave.

The next morning Buano took me up the mountain to another small clearing in the hopes of meeting an older man named Oki. One of the main differences with the Tau’t Bato and other Philippine indigenous communities we have visited was the distance between their homes.

Whenever we wanted to reach anywhere within Singnapan Valley it required quite a hike to reach our destination. Below you can see Oki walking back home through a path in the forest.

Oki was still out in the forest collecting tobacco leaves when we arrived, and so we ended up talking to another family for a couple of hours. During this visit we met a young man who had a huge slash on his foot and could barely walk. Apparently, he had fallen a couple of weeks earlier and sliced his foot open on a sharp rock.

Without any access to medical treatment his whole leg had swelled up and his foot looked like something out of a horror film. I will spare you all from the photo. I told Buano that if his wife wanted to hike back with us to town in a couple of days I would be happy to buy them antibiotics and cream for the wound. She gave it some thought, but told us that she would be afraid to hike back alone. At least when we left, there were good signs, and the swelling in his leg was starting to come down.

We did later meet with Oki and his wife who were very friendly. Many of the Tau’t Bato men and women heavily smoke tobacco leaves, and during the thirty minutes we spent with Oki in his home he had three smokes

The women wake up early to start their work in the valley. I noticed that all of the able-bodied people of Tumihay’s family pulled their share of work, no matter their age. It takes them a lot of time to plant crops, maintain the fields, harvest, prepare the kamoteng kahoy, and cook for their large family.

The older children take care of the younger children and everyone stays busy. If the family is able to make a little money, Tumihay and his wife will hike into town to buy necessary goods such as salt, oil, and sometimes, if they are lucky, fresh fish.

Below you see two of Tumihay’s daughters heading up the river bed to a trail that will lead them to a small clearing to harvest kamoteng kahoy. Afterwards Tumihay’s eldest daughter sorts through their harvested kamoteng kahoy while her daughter sits nearby eating fresh sugar cane.

While we were there Ernisa, Tumihay’s wife, cooked their version of pancakes, a sweet treat prepared from crushed rice, sugar and oil. Ernisa spent all morning crushing the rice into a fine power and most of the afternoon cooking the fried cakes. I must say it tasted very good and she was able to sell all of them to neighboring families.

Something I was looking forward to on our last night was seeing how Tumihay hunted for bats. After seeing the unique contraption his daughter made to harvest the flying mammals I was thinking that this could be a great activity to photograph.

Unfortunately, Tumihay asked me to stay back because he said the trail was dangerous and we would have to walk back down in the dark. Instead, I followed Tumihay and his wife for a short while into the forest before they went ahead up the mountain. They returned after the hunt about an hour later, with four bats in the trap, and all still alive. 

Tumihay’s children enjoyed playing with whatever insects or critters made their way into their home. During our stay we saw the children tie up locusts, chase praying mantis, and as you can see below they even had some fun playing with the live bats before they were cooked.

It was a poignant reminder to me that children really are a product of their environment. For Tau’t Bato youngsters their deep connection to the forest and its animals begins when they are small.

Next Ernisa took the bats and started to prepare everything the family needed to cook them. Below, you can see her cooking the freshly-caught bat over an open fire. After the bat is lightly charred over the fire, it is then cut up and fried in oil.

Ernisa kindly gave me a small piece to try, but I had to politely decline as the only thought going through my head was, ‘bats carry rabies, right?’

In hindsight, I should have tried it.

Life in the valley is simple from our perspective, but the Tau’t Baut have everything they need. Food to eat, a roof over their head and their families. We certainly felt the close family bonds and love during our stay there, although it did take a little time for the children to warm up to us. They were incredibly shy, but some of the most beautiful children I have come across. I could have photographed Tumihay’s children all day long.

There are certainly similarities between the Tau’t Bato and other groups we have visited as part of the Katutubong Filipino Project — arranged marriages being one of them. Like in Bukidnon, there is a dowry of sorts that is given to the women’s family in order to marry. Ultimately, because the women are in a sense ‘bought’ by the man, they are generally the ones who will carry the heavy loads when hiking.

Couples are arranged at a young age, although as I mentioned earlier no one in the valley knows their age as they do not keep track. I asked Tumihay — who you can see below taking a rest while out hunting birds in the forest — how old he was when he was married. He pointed to one of his daughters, who looked around 10 years old, and told me that thought he had been about that age.

As the Katutubong Filipino Project moves ahead — and you can learn more about the project below — we are honored to meet people like Tumihay and his family. It is a great privilege to be able to share life with these remarkable people, even if just for a short period of time. It is my hope that in the end we may be able to bring together key people we meet along the way to gather and meet each other.

KATUTUBONG FILIPINO PROJECT

This story is part of the Katutubong Filipino Project, an initiative I founded along with my wife Nahoma, to bring about awareness of the Philippine archipelago’s indigenous peoples by visually documenting their slowly disappearing and changing cultural heritages.