My hike at Mt Talamitam on March 11, 2018 could be said as one of my best hikes ever. Given its proximity to my hometown, travel came with relative comfort. Walking on its trail felt less strenuous compared to many mountains in this rugged archipelago. It was also as if my prayer for an amiable weather got answered. Furthermore, I spent the day not with a group but with just one amazing person.
About nine months, enough for an infant to be delivered, passed since I last climbed Mt Talamitam. A friend named Amena Mae invited me with her companions “Chinee,” “Ge-ge,” and JP. That hike served as a comeback following ample time away from the mountains. Honestly, it went well but not too much. In November 2017, I went to Mt Nagpatong in Rizal Province, invited again by a fellow trekking enthusiast. Then another span of time passed without hiking, opting to stay at home instead to watch movies online or sleep my troubles away.
In March 2018, I met Kristine “Kris” Camama. We both hailed from Cavite, living in cities adjacent to one another. The two of us shared common values and interests, hiking among them. I asked her if she wanted to hike Mt Talamitam. Kris agreed.
Darkness still cloaked the land at nearly 4 AM. Kristine and I first glanced at each other inside a 7-Eleven® convenient store along a highway. While she was clad in a red cotton jacket, I wore a bright orange long-sleeved quick-dry suit. It was the closest I could come up with blaze overalls for visibility. Kris and I brought ample beverages, snacks, and our lunch crammed in medium-sized backpacks. As soon as we met up, a bus passed minutes later that took us to the jump-off point. Sitting side by side, Kris and I chatted about random things. Both time and the bus flew like a swallow darting in mid-air. Homes and restaurants slid past the window. It was not my first hike without a guide but it would be with a sole companion. With optimism, I hoped every moment would be worth it.
At around 5:30 AM, the bus dropped us at Kilometer 68. The exactly same houses from last year’s climb still stood there. Back then, our group arrived at 12 AM, when nocturnal darkness and slumber kept people within homes or tents. We waited four hours in relative solitude to begin hiking. Today, fellow trekkers were already lining up to register. Kris wrote her name along mine. Then I signed. The two of us agreed to start walking when enough of the bluish light of dawn illuminated our way. We sat on a shed constructed of bamboo, tarpaulin posters hanging beside us. Kris shared a bit of sunblock lotion. She asked why I did not use it much. I replied with an inherent (or socially constructed) nature of males to be more rugged and grimy than our female counterparts. I maintained good hygiene but not too much.
As time passed, Kris recognized a fellow named Greg. It was her fourth time today at Mt Talamitam after all. I also recalled him. The three of us wished glad tidings to one another as Kris and I departed for the summit.
The tranquility of a typical Sunday morning marked our stroll. Kristine and I went past a noisy group of hikers numbering about ten people. My companion shared how she left her pair of shoes in a motor tricycle. I recounted to her how the sole of my shoe broke off on the trail during my first Mt Purgatory traverse. Those footwear could have been repaired but I forgot them in the jeepney.
Suddenly, two dogs from behind us came running and barking. No one ran. Kris and I both knew that taking flight would arouse their instinct to chase. The canines stopped and kept on barking. We stood our ground. Then a man driving a motorcycle with a sidecar came out of nowhere. Rather than stay on foot and be left at the mercy of those aggressive dogs, I asked the guy if Kris and I could hitch a ride. At least he could accompany us too. The man agreed. The three-wheeled vehicle sped off on a bumpy downhill road but the dogs ran beside us. Our driver said that he owned those canines and was on the way to the river. Regret seeped into my blood until it circulated my entire body. Kris and I held on tight as the sidecar behaved like an amusement park ride. Now the dogs were less scary for her. A few minutes passed. The still anonymous but helpful fellow dropped us at the river crossing. At least no one got bitten by his pets.
The familiar bamboo bridge emerged into view. Kris and I would be hiking without a guide and the trails forked to both left and right. We stepped on rocks to cross a creek, resting for five minutes beside the meek body of water. Kris recalled that she was advised to keep on going right. At this point we did.
Nothing but wild greenery surrounded the trail. My hiking partner and I strolled casually yet the feeling of being lost crept into my mind. Only our voices pierced the silence. Even the signs of other hikers disappeared. It was stark desolation. The dirt path went uphill until it led us to two rustic huts. We could ask for directions but no one was present, let alone awake. Then a white dog barked at us furiously. Kris and I turned back only to find a barking brown dog blocking our way. My heartbeat raced. Adrenaline rushed. A sense of fear got replaced by a readiness to slam my backpack and kick these animals, hence a fight or flight situation. Kris kept reminding me not to look at their eyes, as if they never existed at all. We trod amid the alarming noise until the defensive canines were gone. Silence filled the trail again. I had been coping with a phobia of dogs since I got chased by one at age eight. It was worse before. The sight of virtually every canine terrified me. Then I lost fear with mild-tempered dogs, such as those wandering the streets and not lunging at passers-by. Still, the phobia was rooted from the incurable rabies virus. I did not mind getting bitten by these four-legged results of humans breeding wolves artificially had they not carried the disease. Yet today, I conquered a significant part of my phobia.
Back at the bamboo bridge, the large group that Kris and I bypassed earlier just crossed it and followed the trail we should have taken. My partner and I tagged along. We chatted with a guide named Greg, who stayed at the group’s rear as the ‘sweeper.’ This time, I recognized the way. Trees grew abundantly around the ascending path that stole our breath due to fatigue. My heartbeat, and Kristine’s as well, were already racing since encountering dogs twice.
A black cow showed up just meters from the trail, multiple tree trunks serving as obstacles between us and the beast. It was not a carabao. It was literally a bovine with fur having the color of charcoal. I recalled strongly my second Mt Purgatory traverse when my companion named “Len” referred a carabao to as a ‘black cow.’ Back here at Mt Talamitam, I took a snapshot and would send it to “Len” later, assuring this animal was not as mythological as a dragon or a griffon.
Calm mixed with happiness when Mt Talamitam’s famous open areas greeted us. We left the trees for seemingly hectares of grass constantly trimmed by grazing cattle. With livestock came innumerable pieces of manure on the ground, obviously. Kris and I both agreed that they were not that bad. ‘Cow pie’ lacked a powerful stench and it came solely from grass. It was not that bad.
Kris and I sat beside one another on a hillside. On our front lay a sight made more majestic by the surreal lighting of the slowly rising sun. Beyond this spot was woodland, then more grazing land. Houses and villages dotted the green landscape. On the horizon stood Mt Batulao. I took a picture of the scenery as Kris looked how it was done. At this moment, I taught her the ‘rule of thirds’ in photography and the visual arts. Kris took her mobile phone out for a snapshot and applied this rule. My shoulder and cheek touched hers and vice versa. We sat down together on the grass for minutes, as if we had our own world away from our fellow hikers. It was an indescribable feeling.
A makeshift food stand served as our next resting point. A man and a woman, likely a married couple but I did not bother to ask, oversaw the place. They sold hard-boiled eggs, boiled plantains (called saba bananas in the Philippines), meat skewered in wooden sticks as kebab to be grilled, and mabolo fruits. Also known as velvet apples, these would not appear frequently in wet markets in my hometown. Curiosity got the better of me. A small white dog appeared to share my inquisitiveness. Unlike its fellows that Kris and I came upon earlier, this one did not bark at people threateningly. It stayed quiet as if one could call it his or her own pet. Then two men, riding on carabaos and accompanied by a pack of equally friendly dogs, arrived at the scene. It happened when Kris and I were leaving towards the summit. This group of animals and men eventually caught up with us. A thin little brown dog jumped at me playfully. I felt a complete absence of fear and confidence that this creature would not do any harm. I jokingly complained that dogs were chasing me but asked why women would not.
Kris held my left arm. We walked side by side on this windswept patch of land. During my previous Mt Talamitam hike, my face seeped with sweat past 7 AM. Now it felt like trudging through a blizzard without the snow. At least Kris and I sort of got our wish for a clear but relatively cool weather fulfilled. It seemed a paradise on Earth. The sun shone with a light that did not glare and a warmth that did not sear. The constant wind kept us from perspiring. Yet Kris shivered, her body less tolerant of cold compared to mine. She wrapped her shawl tighter around her upper body. Meanwhile, I embraced the icy wind, hoping it would prevent me from contracting another bout of allergy. Yet there was a summer afternoon’s warmth in Kristine’s companionship. Additionally, this place seemed more of an otherworldly paradise with its lack of wild-looking trees. Short grasses stretched around us for kilometers. It was that place and moment I would prefer to stay eternal. I hoped time would freeze for the two of us. However, this meant breaking the law of physics. The best I could do was treasure every second as Kris and I approached the summit.
Another vendor stand served as a resting place. This one peddled coconut juice. Kris and I sat down on a bench, made up of pieces of bamboo toughened by age and the elements, to relax. Then we took a selfie. Kristine and I had been taking pictures of us together since sitting in the bus. Later on, we would have a selfie after the hike and compare it with one before walking, when we looked fresh. At the same time, trekkers nearby had begun dismantling their tents as their overnight stay came to a close. As these fellows packed their belongings, Kris and I went our way.
Just in front of a grove of trees lay a lush field where three carabaos stood lazily. A few hikers followed the curved unpaved path that led up the mountain. I discussed with Kris where should we head as the trail split in two. We went down a low slope near a larger makeshift structure with sturdy poles, a roof, and benches. Everything was normal until one of the carabaos blocked our path. Rather than risk getting gored by an unpredictable beast, Kris and I veered off the trail and found our way round. Purple flowers grew on the grasses we disturbed and trod. I injected humor by pretending as a host of a nature documentary, uttering sentences in fluent English. We were chased by African wild dogs and now buffaloes surrounded us in the heart of the savanna. Kristine could not help but laugh. It felt natural rather than another scheme to impress her. One of my traits involved putting witty humor when the opportunity came. As I presented my mock documentary I thought of David Attenborough and Steve Irwin. I even remembered the Nickelodeon cartoon series The Wild Thornberrys, which I watched often as a kid. I would be Nigel and Kris would be Marianne. My hiking partner even suggested recording this moment on video. We made it past one carabao but a bull with its apparently bigger horns stood nearby. Kristine and I just walked calmly past it.
The topic shifted from nature documentaries to wilderness survival shows. Kris and I both watched Man Versus Wild, starring Bear Grylls and aired on Discovery Channel. We recalled scenes such as making shelter out of branches, eating snakes, and of course drinking piss.
An enormous hill, with the summit of Mt Talamitam atop, loomed before us. Our uphill ordeal began. The ascent drained ample amounts of energy and oxygen from our bodies. I felt a strain in my legs and saw it more apparently in Kristine. Her latest climb dated back to October of the previous year. Our faces and arms brushed against tall grass. It was exactly like my first Mt Talamitam hike except for a few differences. While I bathed in sweat before, this time the dim sky and the wind gave me the feeling of standing in front of an electric fan turned on with maximum power. Instead of a short-sleeved gray T-shirt, I wore a long-sleeved orange outfit that protected my arms from grass blades. Kris and I took five-minutes breaks rather than a fifteen-minute rest. Furthermore, there were no horses and their riders today. My companion and I caught up with that large group of fellow trekkers. They stopped from time to time for chatting, laughing, and taking photos. Greg still accompanied them. Kristine and I pushed onward until a small vending stand marked the summit itself.
People of various ages, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds nearly filled an uneven space about as large as a basketball court. They already occupied the best spots for viewing the surroundings. It did not matter. Kris and I had been here before. Photos of the breath-taking landscape could be forgone. We put our backpacks on the ground, sat next to each other fondly, and shared personal stories. Bit by bit, more of our lives and character were revealed to one another. Our heartfelt conversation lasted at least twenty minutes. Then we decided to take a few snapshots of our own. Kris and I waited for our turn as three girls, most likely still studying in college, sought out perfect angles and facial expressions. Then Kristine and I did it relatively quickly.
The adjacent Mt Apayang lay patiently in wait for us. Another trail passed through a spot with grass cut down by machetes as if harvested. The place accommodated a few tents to pitch. Then the path twisted and turned as it ran downhill. Kristine and I did not have to endure mud this time but the loose sandy soil challenged our balance. We took careful steps. Then the ground grew even. We knew it would then be uphill all the way. Bushes and tall grass cloaked steep surfaces where one would roll down painfully or worse after slipping off the trail. I advanced past Kris at this point so I stayed behind her instead for us to match our pacing. We did not talk much. Personal connection could still be formed through silence. I told Kris that the distance from Mt Talamitam’s summit to that of Mt Apayang could be covered in fifteen minutes. I proved to be mistaken. When it appeared that we reached our destination, another hill strewn with rocks and wild foliage showed up. The ordeal lasted about thirty minutes.
A group of hikers lingered at the summit of Mt Apayang. They were about to leave. I wondered if the shack here still stood. It did, to my relief. Kris and I would have our lunch here instead of down there at the jump-off point, vulnerable to the lack of space from crowds along with cats and dogs begging for scraps. Our itinerary went smoothly so far. Fermin, the same popsicle ice cream peddler I met last year, was also present. This moment turned into a reunion. He then showed Kris which mountains could be seen at the horizon. She might have climbed Mt Talamitam four times already but this was her first experience of Mt Apayang. Again, Kristine and I laid down our backpacks and had another time-stopping chat, sharing more aspects of our personality. We took selfies of us beside one another, looking adorable as if people thought of us as a couple. I felt comfortable with her as if she was a loved one from another life. Kris noted that our faces looked alike. I agreed. She joked that we could be long-lost siblings. Then we laughed heartily. The two of us had more snapshots on a rock near the edge at one corner of the summit. Another group consisting of three men and a woman greeted us.
The time for lunch came. Kris brought two pieces of the so-called ‘Uncle John’s’ fried chicken she bought from a convenience store, along with two balls of moist rice. I packed rice in a tough plastic container. My meal came in the form of canned tuna caldereta, consisting of tomato sauce, peas, and tiny potato cubes. Kristine and I shared food as if it was a picnic. Instead of sitting on a picnic cloth on the grass, we sat on a bench constructed of cut bamboo pieces. The roofing seemed flimsy but it already withstood typhoons. That group of four climbers also sought shelter and dined with Kris and I. Amiable and somewhat humorous conversation improved the mood for lunch. We ate until we finished meals completely. Pieces of trash would be disposed later.
Kristine and I became the only people staying at Mt Apayang after our acquaintances left. They would head for a dip in the river near the village on the jump-off point. A guide advised them not to take a seemingly mysterious trail, which was closed to the public for reasons we did not know. Kris took a nap, lying her back on the bench. She asked me to wake her up after ten minutes. My hiking partner shivered, her shawl functioning as a blanket too. The sky grew gray as clouds gathered suddenly. The lighting went dim. The air temperature dropped down, making me restless. Ten minutes were up. Concerned with getting caught under the rain as the only two people at Mt Apayang, Kristine and I hurried down the mountain.
Descending at Mt Apayang took only about half the time as making our way up. As with many climbs I had been, something more than gravity dragged us down with ease. Perhaps it was the desire to rest continuously and take a shower. It might be our side trip in Tagaytay city. Here, it was simply to escape a downpour. Kris and I were exposed to harsh elements and lacked rain gear. Yet the weather disagreed. Past 10 AM, the nearly midday sun scorched us with intensified rays, scattered while unseen. My skin and clothes felt hot. I panted. Meanwhile, Kris walked quickly ahead of me. Our recent meal gave her a driving energy. She teased me jokingly to chase her. I found her a woman to share plenty of laughs with. Our conversation also grew gradually from minimal to ample. It gave life to an otherwise silent mountain devoid of any human being. I felt humbled once realizing that Kris and I were virtually alone, surrounded at all sides by raw nature. Soon, we reached the lowest point between Mt Apayang and Mt Talamitam.
Another trail led to an alternative way to our jump-off. We agreed to trace our way from where we came. It would lead us back at Mt Talamitam’s summit. It might not be the easier way but it was surer. Additionally, Kristine and I would come upon fellow hikers to be far from isolation and subsequent peril. (Later on, a guide advised us to head back and follow that ‘shortcut’ but we insisted otherwise.)
Kris and I kept strolling. Then we returned to that inclined part of this trail with little to hold on to. I crouched to distribute body weight more evenly and avoid slipping. Kristine thought deeply of the verb for leaning forward. It was crouched, she recalled. Her eyes lit up like those of Archimedes when he uttered “eureka.” After that, our ascent felt effortless as if a mere minute passed before we approached the summit. Two Caucasian-looking women were hiking towards Mt Apayang. I initiated a casual conversation. They parted from us as soon as we met them. Kris and I muttered that they spoke in a ‘British’ accent. ‘English’ would be the more accurate term. Still, I could not distinguish whether it was Northern, Southern, or from the Midlands.
We found ourselves back at Mt Talamitam’s summit with no time to stay. Kris and I simply did not want to. We walked onward. Descent now went slower for us as the likelihood of slipping increased. Careful footing was the key to staying uninjured.
Soon, the wide expanse of the eye-pleasing pastureland lay before us. Kristine and I took additional pictures with it on the background. Suddenly, droplets of water fell from the sky. The two of us faced impending rain. Yet miraculously it did not progress into a downpour, not even a drizzle. As tall grass gave way to its way shorter counterpart, the sun unleashed its full force again. We were glad for bringing a cap. That of Kristine was plain green with a short brim. Mine bore a woodland pattern similar to those worn by hunters in North America.
The excursion became leisurely once more as a relaxing stroll. Kris wrapped her arm around one of mine. We talked about a wide range of topics — romantic relationships, work, and even television shows. The two of us exchanged greetings with fellow hikers still ascending to the summit. Despite the absence of trees, the wind kept the surrounding temperature mild and tolerable. Yet walking all morning was taking its toll. Kris and I rested at the coconut juice stand, helping ourselves with a cup of that drink maintained cold by ice. After bidding farewell to the kind vendors, Kristine and I continued on our way. At one instance, we ran past other hikers while holding hands and laughing. She was enjoyable to be with and I hoped she felt the same with me.
Shadows littered the ground as trees popped up everywhere. This walk in the woods should take up less time compared to those of my previous treks where forests covered the entire mountain. Trails forked to both left and right, arousing concern for getting lost. The guide seemed to disappear. At this point of the hike, Kristine and I talked about action-packed movies. We recalled those where a sole protagonist or a small group got chased by hundreds of enemies. Kristine and I, along with fellow trekkers, found ourselves strolling on a cemented path slowly worn down by cracks and algae. It led us to a familiar river. We had reached the village. Kris and I stuck to the gray river bank, skipped on some rocks on a crossing just a few meters wide, and ascended on to the road.
A concrete bridge lined with metal railings marked the boundary between the comfort of human habitation and the uncertainty of the outdoors. Kris and I crossed it while accompanied by a big group of hikers. We let them pass as the two of us had some respite and drank beverages.
When our walk resumed, I just realized this time with Kristine at Mt Talamitam was coming to an end. It was a bliss too magnanimous to describe. Like all things good it would find its limit at some time and in one way. Amid the houses and the people, our surroundings grew quiet. Kris and I absorbed every second of our companionship. We kept it deeply in our memories and hearts.
The highway appeared and along with it came Francis. He served as my guide during that previous trek here. I contacted him days ago. Earlier today, he called me through mobile phone more than once, repeatedly asking where was I and how I fared. We caught up on stories after I finished taking a bath and Kris took her turn. While resting before a shower, Kristine and I had a selfie which surprisingly showed how fresh we looked despite walking for hours. At 1:30 PM, the two of us rode a bus for beef marrow soup or bulalo at Tagaytay city.
Kristine and I before (left) and after (right) the hike
I considered my second hike at Mt Talamitam to be one of my most memorable treks ever. Not a bit of bitterness and regret bothered me. I did not contract an allergic reaction this time. This was the first time I met Kristine in person and would be looking forward for more travels with her in the future.