River wild

Gai Olivares goes on a three-hour rafting adventure along the winding Davao River, fighting her way through 24 challenging rapids

Tamugan river is the starting point of Davao's three-hour rafting adventure. Photo by Juan Caguicla

It’s 9am and I’m sitting in the Davao Wildwater Adventure office curiously located at the Crocodile Park. No, the locals don’t feed you to the crocodiles if you fall into the raging wildwater although crocodiles are known to inhabit Davao River. Jackie, wife of Crocodile Park and Wildwater business owner Sonny Dizon, and her friends are going rafting today and I’m joining them.

Our river guides clown around as they load the rafts onto the truck. Some of them are mountaineers; others are divers. All the guides have had medical training and specialize in swift water rescue. And all are Red Cross trained, which is surely reassuring.

I get into the truck with the guides while the others get into private cars. We barrel through Davao, singing along to a mix of 90s grunge and Bob Marley tunes, making a quick stop at a roadside eatery to pick up packed lunch boxes for our trip. An hour later, we pull into Tamugan. 

We pass by kids swimming and women laundering their clothes. Photo by Juan Caguicla

Tamugan is the starting point of a three-hour rafting adventure along the winding Davao River, taking you through 24 challenging rapids – that churning whitewater produced by water rushing over boulders and rocks – that end in Barangay Lacson in Calinan District. It can get pretty hairy. Rivers are classified on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being the gnarliest. Today, the river is rather low and is a nice, pleasant class 2, perfect for beginners.

On average, Davao River is a class three river. Sometimes, it goes up to 3+ but never goes beyond that. Three plus usually occurs from June to August when rainfall raises water levels, making for tougher rapids. 

Three tributary rivers end in Davao River: the Tamungkan River located at the foothills of Mt. Apo, the highest mountain peak in the country, the Siao River located in the mountainous area of Marilog, and Suwawan in Bukidnon, which starts as a small creek that gets bigger and bigger. 

If you do want to go class four plus, you’re better off heading to Chico River in Tuguegarao, Ilocos, which has more tributary rivers and can give you that hell-raising class four plus rafting experience.

But classes aside, Davao is no small challenge, especially for an amateur like me. Wilbert, one of our guides, points out huge boulders jutting out of the river’s edge. He says from August to December, when the river is almost but not quite a class four, the boulders are submerged in the roiling waters and there is an 80 per cent chance of capsizing. The more adventurous can also try cliffside rappelling, which practically means rappelling down a cliffside.

Beautiful still waters in some parts gave us a chance to enjoy a tranquil paddle. Photo by Juan Caguicla

Before getting on the raft, our guide tells us to don helmets and lifejackets. It’s not a wimpy thing to do. During a wildwater rafting trip in Laos, my girlfriends objected to using the lifejackets, saying they were strong swimmers. The guides and I insisted. Their kayaks later capsized, sweeping them downstream. The lifejackets saved their lives.

Before today’s actual rafting, we had to undergo some training. The first lesson was on what to take to the site and what the trek was like. Then there’s the safety briefing on how to put on your rafting gear, how to use the paddle, commands to follow and the strokes to use.

Next phase is the safety drill on the rafting site. This involves jumping into calm flat waters and learning how to drift and how to rescue someone who’s fallen into the water.

Taking the rough after the smooth. Photo by Juan Caguicla

With all the pre-rafting lessons learned, then it’s on to the rafts. The guide tells us to listen to the commands being barked out and to work as a team. Jackie’s rafting group included a fashion designer and a newspaper columnist. They sit at the front of the raft and when we are told to paddle, they lead the group into a tribal-like chant. “Oogh, oogh, ” we grunted as we dip our paddles into the river. As we plunge into the rapids, Wilbert shouts “Paddle hard!” and the grunts quickly give way to high-pitched screams as we roll and tumble into the boulders, collapsing into fits of laughter and high-fives as the river spits our raft onto calmer waters.

Plunging into the rapids and paddling hard. Photo by Rhonson Ng

The whole course traverses some 13km of the Davao River. Aside from a few rough patches, the rafting was quite gentle, allowing me to observe the idyllic rural scenes along the riverbanks. There are children cartwheeling into the water, women laundering clothes, and men fishing along the river’s edge. We pass sheer rock faces and then lush foliage. We hear birdcalls and monkey hoots. Coconut palms wave as we drift past. An overall pleasant day.

We finally managed to break into smiles as we reach relatively calmer waters. Photo by Juan Caguicla

Our raft did not flip over or hit a large boulder as seen in some safety videos. We did not encounter a nerve-wracking four-feet drop before hitting water. No crocodiles either. No, nothing quite adventurous like that at all although some rafting groups have had the luck of experiencing such pulsating adventures.

Perhaps we were guided along gentler paths for beginners. Veterans get the wilder routes. Still, at the end of the day, we are flushed with laughter, adventure, and the wild beauty of the Davao River.

Essentials

Whitewater rafting packages are at P1,700 (about US$36) per person, minimum of five per trip. A raft can fit up to eight to 10 people and the company can take on as many as 70 rafters in one run. Fee includes the shuttle from the Crocodile Park to the rafting area and back, packed lunch and bottled water, use of gear and equipment, guide services, a souvenir shirt and a disc of photos and videos from the trip.

Davao Wildwater Adventure; Tel: +632 221 7823, +63920 954 6898; Email: davaowildwater@yahoo.com

How to get there

AirAsia, Cebu Pacific Air, and Philippine Airlines fly from Manila to Davao daily. From the airport, the Crocodile Farm is about 20 minutes away by taxi.

Where to stay

Pearl Farm Beach Resort is located in a more peaceful side of Samal Island in Davao. This 14-hectare property that’s formerly an actual pearl farm has 73 air-conditioned guestrooms with varying room types, but each having its own balcony, and toilet and bath with hot and cold shower and hair dryer. It’s also got added amenities like cable TV telephone, coffee/ tea maker, in room safe and mini bar. Activities offered here include fly boarding, jet skiing, kayaking, and scuba diving. Rates from P8,647 a night. 

Pearl Farm Beach Resort, Bo. Adecor, Kaputian district, Samal, Davao; Tel: +6382 235 1234 or +632 854 7892 (Manila sales office)

Marco Polo Davao is smack in the heart of the city, some 20 minutes away from Davao International Airport. Right across is the famous Aldevinco Center selling various Muslim and Muslim-inspired items. Apart from the fact that it has three bars and restaurants, fresh seafood places are a stone’s throw away. Rooms are exquisitely furnished and come with air-conditioning system, cable TV, mini bar, private toilet and bath with hot and cold shower and telephone. Rates from P4,479 a night.

Marco Polo Davao, CM Recto st., Davao city; Tel: +6382 221 0888

Apo View is a mid-range accommodation situated at the heart of the city. It features a deluxe room, family room, executive suite and presidential suite. It’s only about 20 minutes away for the airport and has a swimming pool, concessionaire’s area with shops, its own bar and restaurant, and various function rooms. Rates from P5,843 per night.

Apo View Hotel, J. Camus Street, Davao City; Tel: 082/ 227 5088 or 221 6430 to 40

Casa de Habana offers budget friendly, accommodation. It features single, double, deluxe and executive rooms with amenities like air-conditioner, private toilet and bath with hot and cold running water and cable TV. Rates are from P750 per night.

Casa de Habana, Rizal St, Poblacion District, Davao City; Tel: +6382 227 0965

Camp Sabros located at the base of Mt. Apo in Davao features two cottages that can accommodate groups of various sizes, from a group of four to eight. The camp also has a glass house, where two levels can be rented separately. There’s no air-conditioning system here since the climate is naturally cool. Zip line adventure is the main attraction offered here. Rates from P2,500 per night.

Camp Sabros, Sitio Baras, Brgy. Kapatagan, Digos City, Davao Del Sur; Tel: +6382 284 0579 or +639088933498; Email: inquiry@campsabros.com

Our thanks go to Davao Wildwater Adventure president and owner Sonny Dizon and operations manager and co-founder Atoy Abogado for hosting the InFlight team.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller June-July 2008. Updated September 2015