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The Philippine’s River Too Wild

Updated on October 9, 2019

Adrenalin River Rush in Mindanao

Another crazy adventure has begun in some remote corner of the world, and I am squished smack in the middle of it!

We’re sitting in an inflatable kayak, comfortable for three passengers – but definitely not for four.

Our first stretch of whitewater rapids on the Cagayan River is only seconds away.

Aside from myself and Ling Yai, (the founder of John Gray's Sea Canoe), are three young Filipino mountaineers sitting in the bright yellow sea canoe, which will soon be a "yellow submarine."

There is no turning back. We’re committed to the canoe, like fish in a sardine can.

I turn on Ling Yai's waterproof video camera and begin documenting our adventure/insanity.

Ling Yai is sitting at the back steering us hard left, and than right.

In my viewfinder, nothing is focusing. A moment later and without warning; the world suddenly flips.


I am under the kayak for three long seconds, before gulping air again. Above water, I bounce off one boulder and then another, totally at the mercy of the untamed river. Fortunately, I am not a complete novice and had rafted enough in years past to know white water rafting rule number one: When you fall out of your kayak, or raft; keep your feet pointed downstream.

Whitewater kayaking in the Cagayan River

Located about an hour’s drive from the city of Cagayan de Oro, the stunning Cagayan river is one of the most scenic rivers imaginable, bisecting the town and winding through endless miles of lush tropical rainforests, towering limestone cliffs and charming river side dwellings. In the rainy season, from June to December, the river’s rapids are quite suitable for inexperienced paddlers, however, our trip was during the dry season when the river level can be dangerously low.

Ling Yai and I had just arrived in Mindanao on the previous night, following a week long sea canoeing expedition in the island province of Palawan.

We were in Mindanao to find worthy sea canoeing routes and had no intention of doing any white water canoeing, but when our three Filipino companions had suggested the “easy” river trip, we had naively agreed. For us, the river trip would make an interesting side adventure. For the enthusiastic Filipinos, running the river was a dream come true.

In recent years, the Cagayan River has become known as the Philippine’s best whitewater destination. Conversely, back when we made our exploration trip in 1996, there were no commercial outfitters running the river, and the remote area was virtually unknown as a tourist destination.


No Escape

Thus, that was how I was now bouncing along in the rushing rapids, shocked and awed by our first flip.

Somehow I manage to reach the shore. My Filipino compatriots are all smiles crawling alongside of me onto the nearest rocky river bank. I can’t stop shivering, more from fear, than from cold. It was obvious that our friend’s definition of “easy," differed vastly from our own.

Ling Yai is the only one left in the canoe, paddling toward us.

We have no helmets, or life jackets, and debate on whether this spur of the moment trip should continue. Remember, this was suppose to be a calm glide down lazy stretches of water - not a River Wild episode, for which we were truly unprepared.

I look downstream and see our next set of loud rumbling rapids. For a few moments, I contemplate making my escape, but the only way out is to hike by myself through the overgrown and wild jungle.

In the background of my thoughts, I can hear Ling Yai briefing us about the true dangers of our river trip. All too soon, we are back in the foaming, rolling river; and the knot in my stomach returns.

“Paddle left! Ling Yai shouts, as we head straight toward a soaring cliff face.

We scrape by the cliff with only inches to spare and then spin 360-degrees. I brace myself for another flip, but our crew is obviously now more in sync. To add to the challenge of our adventure, we are maneuvering an ocean kayak that is not even designed for whitewater rafting.

We brave a few more rapids, enjoying the thrills and our improving river rafting skills. Hours have past since we entered the river and my shivering continues, more from cold now, than from fear. I ask Ling Yai if I can leave the team and hike the rest of the way out. He ventures that it is probably "OK," and leaves the choice up to me.

I agree to meet my soaked companions later at a steel bridge around two river bends. I had never been in this area before, so all I knew was what Ling Yai told me: steel bridge.

Up ahead of me is a small dirt trail leading to a few thatched houses, each with a pig underneath. The villagers look surprised to see me. A young boy shouts, “Hi Joe!”

Male or female, if you’re a foreigner in the Philippines, your name must be Joe.

A Bridge Over Cagayan Waters

Finally after nearly getting stuck in a jungle of thorn trees, I manage to reach a road and hail down a big truck. My comfy seat is in the back, on top of a gigantic pile of coconuts.

I have a video camera, no money, no pants and am wearing a wet t-shirt and bikini bottoms. Crazy!

About five minutes pass and the truck arrives at a steel bridge. I have a slight moment of panic wondering if I am indeed even at the right bridge? I thank the truck driver, hop out and wait on the bridge. A few eternal minutes later, I see the sea canoe turning around a river bend below me.

Back safely on shore and reunited, we have one last mission; getting back to the city.

We sit on the side of the road and wait for a jeepney, the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines. An hour passes and not one jeepney appears. By sunset it looks as if we are destined to spend the night by the remote river, without any provisions. Finally a large truck appears and we happily climb onto the back, sharing our ride with local villagers, dogs, chickens, and overflowing baskets of fish.

We try to give the driver money to pay for our ride, but to my utter surprise, he waves our money away.

I have often found that the poorest people in the world, are usually the most generous.

Would I recommend going to Mindanao for an adventure now? Yes, and no.

Southern Mindanao is extremely dangerous. Northern Mindanao was where a few doctors from Doctors without Borders died a few years ago, when a bomb blew up the restaurant where they were eating. I can't find the article that I read about this, but here is what google came up instead, that is worth a read:

A little knowledge, can be dangerous, but that is what makes life worth living. Never let fear prevent you from great adventures. However, fear can also save you. There are times in life, when we need to be careful, and whether you are running a river, or crossing a street, live life to the fullest, but always remember to look both directions. Some countries drive on the left, others on the right.

It matters.

Have fun, stress less and "See you on the Water." Ling Yai's famous greeting.


River Wild Expeditions

  • Kaga
  • Rafting Adventure Philippines
  • The Red Raft

Getting to Cagayan de Oro, the “City of Golden Friendship”

Cagayan de Oro is located along the northern coastline of Mindanao Island, in the southern part of the Philippines. From Manila’s international airport, take a 20 minute taxi ride to the domestic airport.

  • Philippine Airlines runs daily flights to Lumbia Airport, also known as Cagayan de Oro Airport.
  • Air Philippines (or “Scare Philippines” as my friend once referred to this airline) offers the same route.
  • Zest Airways offers budget rates.

Getting Around

Within the city it is easy to catch a bus, jeepney, taxi, multi-cab or the motorela (the Philippine’s version of a Thai tuk-tuk).

  • White and yellow metered taxis and car rentals are also available. A bit of warning: DO NOT agree to a flat-rate taxi fare unless you want to pay triple the meter rate. Only agree on meter only fares except for an airport or late-night pick up.
  • Motorellas are a slower mode of transport, but it doesn’t take long to fill with passengers. They travel set routes, or custom routes for a negotiated price.
  • Jeepneys are perfectly safe during the day and cost only a tenth of a taxi ride. It is advisable not to use them at night.

Recommended Adventures Around the Philippines


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