It looked as if clouds engulfed a section of the road about 50 meters from where I was standing. The jeepney did not go further, transporting our group of hikers to where a trail through three of the lakes in Kabayan, Benguet started. High up at the Cordilleras, mists appeared even during noontime and pine trees, instead of acacias, stood along roads.
Viewing the lakes was part of an excursion to climb Mt Tabayoc, the second-highest mountain in Luzon after the famous Mt Pulag. Nil and Carla Medrano facilitated the trek, along with its itinerary. Joseph and his girlfriend Emae were back since we went to Mt Daraitan. Jan, Gigi, and now her nephew Ram participated too. I also got to know three more companions named Anna Lou, Vergel, and Melvin. Kenneth, Kaye, and Benjie had to forego this climb for another in Zambales. After all, traveling long distances for outdoor adventures could cost a few thousands of pesos. More of a luxury, it suited people with the means to spare cash and, more importantly, time.
A woman approaching her senior years accompanied us as our guide. She belonged to the Kalanguya ethnic group. Facing the mist on our front, the terrain to our left went uphill. It seemed that trees typically found in a cloud forest covered every square meter of the dark green slope. Then we took the trail that became stairs of stone. At least 15 minutes passed before we reached our first destination.
Lake Ambulalacao became visible when the trail descended sharply. All we could do was jump down. Then I saw everything at the bottom of the still waters near the banks. It was unbelievable that a lake as crystal clear as this existed. Yet it was real. Mist sailed far out on the lake, blurring our view from time to time. On the other side lay two hills densely covered with broad-leaved trees adapted to the cold of high altitudes. I caught sight of a ripple. Small fish darted back and forth in the shallow water as algae grew under them. According to the guide, Lake Ambulalacao could serve as a reservoir for a supply of drinking water. We spent less than 10 minutes observing it before making our way through mud and enter the cloud forest.
The surroundings had a faded color comparable to editing a photo in a desktop computer and reducing its brightness. Moss clung on tree trunks as mist hovered on the forest canopy above us. Roots intertwined with the undergrowth in a complex design that seemingly forbid us from veering off the trail. Later, we came upon a shadowy pit that accumulated dead leaves. Our guide told us it was used by hunters to trap prey like deer or wild pig. It reminded me of an entrance to a tunnel network used by insurgents. We continued our way. Then the trail got more rugged as I grasped trunks and jumped over fallen branches.
I gave a sigh when I saw an opening among the trees. Strange bushes reminiscent of plants in the DreamWorks computer-animated movie Madagascar greeted us. It seemed an anonymous person tended a garden in the middle of nowhere. The guide pointed at an actual bonsai growing nearby. Carla showed it to Nil too with exhilaration. Then we kept on trekking through the cloud forest with tangled branches and plenty of ferns.
Arriving at a Filipino counterpart of an alpine meadow, members of our hiking party gasped and cheered in awe. Rocks and berry bushes were scattered on the pale brown grass. The guide said some berries are edible while others are poisonous. My T-shirt on top of a sweater kept me warm against a constantly blowing wind that stirred fog in the distance. Our group had some rest, took photos, and admired the scenery but we must press forward.
More trees surrounded us and then the lighting changed. Everything appeared to be covered in fine gray ash, like in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. Then I realized we were literally walking in the mist. Beyond a silhouette of scattered trees lay nothing but bluish gray fog. The guide remarked that it was the next lake itself.
Lake Letepngepos revealed itself below a slope, viewed through a gap among branches having leaves of various shapes. Mist concealed the water’s surface. The bank nearest to our group could not be accessed as the terrain was too steep and also blocked by a mass of undergrowth and fallen branches. Our Kalanguya guide led us to the other side through a rather challenging trail along this body of water that played with the spooky realm of my imagination. Then a tree trunk rose from the muddy ground, extending well above the water several meters from the bank of Lake Letepngepos. Daring the hesitant part of ourselves, some of us climbed on it and posed for photos while minimizing movements to avoid falling off. Jan and Nil got too playful and the trunk shook a bit. Our guide warned us to be more careful.
In fact, it was I who ended up in a mishap. Too excited to take a closer look at the lake, I walked hurriedly to the water’s edge until both my shoes sank in mud. My feet simply submerged up to well above my ankle. There was a loud slosh followed by shrieking when my companions saw what happened. It looked like stepping on quicksand. There was no danger, only soil that turned into liquid after being soaked in water on a piece of land that possibly did not receive sunshine. I even managed to smile and assure them it was nothing. Yet now I had to deal with heavier shoes, wet socks, and pants that already got slightly dirty before I even climbed Mt. Tabayoc.
Taking photos of Lake Letepngepos in that afternoon was all about timing. The water’s surface was clear of mist and after ten seconds it was hidden again by a bluish gray gaseous entity. According to indigenous tradition as told by the guide, mountain spirits guarded the lake and would only reveal its waters to people with whom they are pleased. Leaving another group of trekkers who yelled and even recorded videos, we followed the trail towards the third lake.
Lake Incolos seemed non-existent. Nobody among our group, except our guide, saw it. She pointed at a stretch of open ground and stressed to us that it was the lake. Then I realized it was a peat bog. Moss grew abundantly on it, resembling patches of short grass. The guide cautioned us to stand on solid ground, walk slowly, and do not press on if we feel our feet bouncing after a step. I hated making the same mistake again as it could end up worse in this terrain. Venturing out on the middle of the quagmire would mean certain demise. Nobody would dare rescue someone whose waist was already swallowed by the mud and still sinking. Under an overcast sky and a misty background, the bog looked like the Arctic tundra during the summer.
Our guide shared the legend of Lake Incolos. A hunter brought down a deer and was washing its entrails on the lake when a beast rose from the water. He in turn killed it with a spear. The blood and whatever remained of the creature turned into the bog we avoided that day. Standing on a grassy spot by the lake’s edge, we took a group picture before continuing our hike.
Before returning to the road where we started, our trekking party passed by the foothills of Mt Pulag. Fog surrounded this uneven stretch of land characterized by grass and dark gray rocks. Here at the highlands of Benguet, it felt like visiting another country.