A Brief Look into Philpan Resort

Philpan Resort does not have the sandy beach one would expect for a vacation in the Philippines. However, what attracts visitors to this place is its diving experience.

Situated in the municipality of Mabini, Batangas province, Philpan Resort can be reached around three hours of driving from the country’s capital Manila. It is found in the southwestern corner of Luzon Island. Just off the place of interest lies the body of water known as the Isla Verde Passage. Separating Luzon from the nearby island of Mindoro, this strait boasts a treasure of marine life. In fact, Isla Verde Passage has been renowned as the richest area in the world in terms of marine biodiversity. This means having the most number of sea life per specie, not having the most quantity. That is why it is called biodiversity. Fauna that can be found here include starfish, clams, eels, and even sea turtles, along with a huge variety of tropical fish.

DSCN0528A downward sloping lane from the main road leads visitors to Philpan Resort. At the end lay a parking area. Beyond it lay a rocky beach and the azure sea. The entrance fee amounts to 100 Philippine pesos (Php). Visitors can also rent a cottage, which consists of a roof, table, and benches, for Php 500. The price climbs to Php 1,000 if visitors want to stay the night in that cottage. Reserving a feel-at-home room for an overnight stay costs at least Php 2,000 for two people. As for Philpan Resort’s main attraction, diving can be enjoyed for a price of Php 2,500. Divers can also visit farther spots by motorboat but the rate also goes higher. From the resort, tourists can also head to other places such as Carmico Beach and Sombrero Island by boat with their respective fees. Simply talk to boat operators and resort staff about pricing. Philpan Resort also has a Facebook® page for inquiries. Prospective visitors may look into blogs or ask friends who have been to the tourist attraction.

Yes, Philpan Resort has rocks instead of sand but the clearness of its water quality amazes visitors in fair weather conditions. At the shallows, one can see rocks of all shapes and sizes. When dipping, moving around can be described as more of trudging than walking due to the uneven surface. Still, some prefer it to have their feet sink in sand. A mini pier resists the waves and all the beating from the volatile sea. A roofed raft made of bamboo floats nearby, dangling steadfastly from the pier through a durable rope. Swimmers climb and cling to the raft for relaxation, chatter, and respite from the noontime sun.

The seabed off the resort plunges dramatically, explaining why the place has become a diving spot. Fish and other marine life seek the deep water and the flow of nutrients. Prey in turn sustain the predators. Eels, perhaps even the dreaded moray eel, hide in the cracks on the underwater rock formations. Shellfish filter food from the water as they sit idle. Schools of colorful fish add life to a seemingly dull blue world. A lucky snorkeler or diver may even spot a swordfish or a sea turtle.

DSCN0533Philpan Resort also features amazingly clean shower rooms and restrooms. The cemented walls, tiles, and well-maintained plumbing make one feel as if relieving oneself or taking a bath in his or her very own home. Visitors can use these for free once they have paid the entrance fee.

 

Most visitors to this resort in Batangas also have hiked or will hike the nearby Mt Gulugod Baboy. This mountain offers relatively easy trekking without the steep slopes and choked trails.

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The Hike that Lasted Only Ten Minutes

The idea of a ten-minute hike would sound strange, even absurd. Yet it happened literally in one of my trips.

Listen to my story and find out how it came that way.

Weeks before the event, I had been notified of an outdoor excursion with a particular set of friends. I met them on my second climb at Mt Marami nearly one year ago. On Facebook® we went by the group chat name of Team 28. Aside from hiking, these fellows also loved running, cycling, swimming, and plain sightseeing. We would stay overnight on a beach or at a campsite at a mountain according to them. I felt uncomfortable. I just came back from a long absence from trekking. My focus was on day hikes. I was simply not yet in the mood for bringing my tent and portable cooking set. Yet most members of the Facebook® group would come for the anniversary event. Deep inside me, I could not refuse. It would be a reunion. They proved friendly, supportive, and sincere in the months since I got acquainted with them. Such kind of people would not always come easy in life.

Through social media we agreed to climb Mt Gulugod Baboy in the province of Batangas. The name translates as ‘spine of pig’ in the Tagalog language, which is the locals’ mother tongue. Situated two to three hours of driving south from Manila in light to moderate traffic, Mt Gulugod Baboy stands within the municipality of Mabini, Batangas. Last April, the town became the epicenter of a series of magnitude 5 earthquakes. The peak has an altitude of 525 meters above sea level. A trail difficulty of 2/9 makes Mt Gulugod Baboy a recommended place to begin enthusiasm into mountain climbing or just enjoy the weekend with friends.

In the night of June 17, 2017, I arrived haughtily at Team 28’s meeting place in Alabang, Muntinlupa City – the National Capital Region’s gateway to the provinces of Laguna and Batangas. There were too few buses. I stood nearly an hour just to get a ride. Yet it did not matter now. At first, I looked for them in a convenience store. They were not there. Then Christian “Xtian” Villanueva appeared and told me to join them. With him was Cecille “Cess” Olivarez, who introduced me to their group in the first place, and Sherwin “She” Lomibao. They had two companions – Rey Ar Roderos and Ry Aguilar. Later on, Abigail “Abby” Asuncion showed out of nowhere and joined us. Our transport would arrive late. The van and its driver got caught in traffic. We stood and sat on the sidewalk as pedestrians passed by, our bags grouped together like a cache of supplies for an expedition. While catching up with stories, our fellow Leslie “Les” Litong came. Time passed merrily. Our van came past 8 PM and we did not notice it.

Heading south to the town of Santa Rosa, Laguna, we would pick up more companions. This other group composed of John Vincent “JanBi” Chua, Jepoy “Jep” Dichoso, Marie “Chacha” Fetalino, Hency Joyce Gamara, and Aldous “Doy” Moncada. It was a brief pickup. Our van sped off, leaving behind the distant glimmering lights of the Enchanted Kingdom theme park. I tried to doze off but without success.

Our vehicle flew like a swift on the highways of Batangas province. We passed by both completely dark pastureland and lit 24-hour food establishments. People would be sleeping soundly in their beds. We at Team 28 stayed awake on the van’s seats.

A statue of Apolinario Mabini, one of the heroes of the Philippine War of Independence against Spanish colonization, marked the town that bore his last name. We seemed lost. The 24-hour convenience store seemed elusive. Our driver even brought us to a pier unwillingly. He turned back. All we wanted was tube ice. Eventually, our trekking party found our way to a 7-Eleven® after making turns on the concrete lanes. About ten minutes passed before our road trip resumed.

Later on, a sign informed us that we already arrived at the vicinity of Mt Gulugod Baboy. I could hear the van’s tires struggling with the uphill drive. We leaned back to our seats. Cess was aroused from sleep. Jepoy remained silent. Xtian kept on talking. Somehow, he seemed to initiate humor more than Sherwin as far as I remembered. Riding shotgun, Hency and Janbi looked for the registration center for our climb. This idiom actually originated from the American West during the latter half of the 19th century AD. It was a time when a stagecoach driver’s companion had to brandish the said firearm to fend off both outlaws and hostile tribal folk. Despite the Philippines going through a war on drugs at the present, crime was far from a threat for us at Team 28. In fact, the smell of cow manure bothered us more. Then we braced for possibly seeing supernatural beings, even for just a split-second, in the dark of the night.

We could not find the registration center. The van continued its ascent on a twisting cemented road lined by silent groves of trees and equally quiet houses. Then it became apparent that we unintentionally drove to the summit. It was possible at Mt Gulugod Baboy, unlike at most mountains in the Philippines. Now our group would register at the top, or at least near it.

My fellow passengers and I mistook a man for a ghost. In reality, I seemed more of a specter than that person due to my nocturnal working shift. The road trip ended past 11 PM at the parking area near the summit. We bailed out. The air felt hotter than I expected. I should have left my jacket. It only added to my backpack’s weight. The mostly yellow lights of urban settlement lay towards the horizon. They outshone the stars overhead. I went to Mt Gulugod Baboy to escape from city life, which was now reminded to me by that distant artificial lighting. Our group stopped by a shack that also served as both a registration center and store. We settled transport and entrance fees, checked our belongings, and rested a bit. Then we began walking with headlamps and flashlight to look for a campsite.

The ten-minute hike began as most of my long walks in the outdoors would. We walked single file. Those in the rear carried our food stuffs, potable water in plastic containers, tents, and the rest of our camping essentials. Still, our group packed lightly compared to a few overnight treks I did. We only wanted to get together, chat, and enjoy food and drink in the cool air under the stars. Yet it was surprisingly warmer than expected. Our feet followed the dirt trail. Then my sole of my right shoe sank a bit into the ground. My companions began to complain about the mud. Abby told Chacha to step on the grass instead. Getting one’s foot wear muddy would be normal in outdoor excursions on a rainy day on a forest trail. There was not even a drizzle. Open terrain surrounded us too.

In the very dim light of midnight, I could see a hill ahead of us. To my right lay a steep yet grassy ravine. Beams of light shone on all directions. It was as if a rescue party was searching for a missing hiker. In this circumstance, we looked for a suitable spot to pitch tents and lay down food for a small feast. We marched towards the summit. Someone shone a light on where it should be. The summit appeared near but for my legs it felt like kilometers away. Walking in near-total darkness did not make it easier.

Eventually, our party decided not to push towards the summit itself. We all wanted to settle down and get on with it. We searched rather frantically. There was a nice grassy spot wide enough for all of our tents. Then we got discouraged. I would like to use the euphemism ‘cow pie’ for excrement that was littered all over the place. The round pieces of scat seemed as biological land mines that brought nuisance and smelly soles. We kept on walking. Another group of mostly male campers chatted and listened to music from their electronic devices. Our group greeted them, passed by, and sort of envied their camping spot.

We all agreed to spend the night on a grassy spot below a hill after minutes of wandering. Corn husks were piled nearby. Cow pies showed up but not densely, allowing us to pitch our tents relatively  close to one another. I helped Aldous, Hency, and  Janbi set up theirs. Cess, Jepoy, and Leslie had their own. Rey ar, Ry, and Xtian’s tent looked rather too small, allowing two people instead of three regardless of physique. Abby, Chacha, and Sherwin offered me hospitality in theirs after a polite request. According to She, six individuals could fit within it.

Xtian took out a large piece of synthetic material called a ‘trapal’ in the local vernacular. Its waterproof quality made it useful and  versatile for wet weather conditions. He placed it on the dewy grass. Then we laid out bit by bit the food we brought. My companions packed a variety of home-cooked dishes in durable plastic box containers. Our companions from Santa Rosa, Laguna brought grilled slices of chicken and pork packed separately. Boiled white rice came in plenty. Of course, we had potable water too and plastic disposable cups as containers.

DSCN0490Our nighttime picnic got intruded by a few dogs. They simply stood a few meters from us. Yet a canine would sometimes approach silently like a predator stalking its prey before pouncing. Then one would appear right behind my back. They surrounded us, cloaked by nocturnal darkness until either one of my fellows or I shone a flashlight on them. It felt like having dinner in the middle of the African savanna or the mixed woodland and grassland wilderness of North America. The dogs’ occasional barking pierced the festive ambience and might have instilled a bit of fear in our hearts. Thankfully, the dogs did not behave aggressively. They simply waited in all patience to be handed scraps of food. Yet later on, they also carried away a plastic bag or two of our leftovers. We wished that our trekking party would not be blamed on the following morning for a mess consisting of wrappers and chicken bones.

Hency then brought out tiny tubular plastic packets filled with semi-liquid chocolate. There were marshmallows too. She also had those brown Graham crackers often piled into layers with a mix of canned condensed milk and all-purpose cream in between. This in turn would be refrigerated until the sweet dairy mix softens the crackers into a home-made cake. DSCN0492Tonight, we would have hard Graham crackers instead. Hency taught us a sort of dessert recipe for camping outdoors. Janbi’s crude and portable stove cast a flame. We stuck those marshmallows at the end of wooden kebab sticks and toasted the squishy treat. Yet there was more. We snapped those Graham crackers into smaller pieces, making a crunching sound. Then I spread that semi-liquid chocolate like Nutella® on a piece of sliced bread. The marshmallow was sandwiched in between.  The combination of soft and hard texture characterized this ingenious treat.

DSCN0496Time passed by. The soup-like sky cleared for a while before concealing the stars again. I could feel droplets of water falling on my hair. Xtian, Rey Ar, and Ry hung another large ‘trapal’ over our picnic setup with ropes fastened to the four corners then tied to branches and tents. Rain would not dampen the mood of our merriment. We then huddled together closely.

We at Team 28 shared stories and inquired about our companions’ upcoming trips. We also teased one another and even those not present. Xtian took care of the liquor mix. He passed it among us. I declined politely, settling on cheese-flavored popcorn and boiled peanuts instead. The snacking, sipping, and chatting went on until we retired into our tents one by one at around 3 AM. I lay down at one side just next to a wall of waterproof fabric, shut my eyes, and drifted into the unconscious.

 

The weather in the morning could only be described as surreal. Cloud cover cast soft lighting but did not accumulate much to foreshadow a rainy day. The sky had pastel hues of violet, blue, pink, and white. It felt like waking up only to find myself still in a dream. Sunrise revealed how breath-taking the surrounding landscape was. Beyond the rolling hills was the sea sharing the same color with the hazy sky. Tall grass surrounded us everywhere, broken by groves of hardwood or coconut trees along with open meadows. Groups of tents seemed as individual villages in a world that was Mt Gulugod Baboy.

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DSCN0501A single file of hikers ascended on a trail to my left. Then I saw someone familiar. I jogged to meet up with him. By both predetermination and chance, it was Brian Estares. We met each other last year during a hike at Mt Marami in Cavite province. In fact, he invited me to an excursion at Mt Gulugod Baboy with another group. I told him that Team 28 and I would be at the same place and the same time by coincidence. Brian held a branch he used as a hiking stick. We had a brief chat. He said they would also swim at the beach after running on this trail. My friend wanted to be a triathlete. After that, Brian was off with his fellows.

Past 7 AM, we had a light breakfast of whatever snack we could grab. Xtian boiled some water and mixed it with instant coffee powder in light blue sachets. With a dipper made of heat-resistant plastic, Hency shared it among us in our respective containers as if in a soup kitchen. I sipped that coffee from a tumbler distributed freely in my office, complete with the company logo. My stomach grew warmer. That heat radiated all over my body

The air turned hotter as our surroundings became brighter. It was time to pack up. We at Team 28 set up a tripod and took group photos. Their companionship had the same temperature as the caffeinated beverage I drank earlier. I felt a sense of belonging. They expressed genuine concern during hard times. We helped one another. My friends at Team 28 would find a way to socialize through an outdoor activity. They joked and laughed. It seemed my troubles disappeared and replaced by pure bliss. Yet this moment would end soon.

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Cess: “I’ll help you later, right now I’ve got an important text.”            

Once the tents, ‘trapal’, and the rest of everything had been packed, our group began the ten-minute return hike to our van. The starkly brown trail snaked its way through the damp green grass. Aldous carried stuff like a porter. With a light heart I walked and appreciated the scenery. Then we passed by the ravine again. Tall grass concealed the edge. It seemed harmless to the eyes until one would trip and fall down a 60-degree slope. Minutes passed by without anyone noticing. Our chatter was minimal. Then our party arrived at the shack where a few vehicles, including our van, were parked.

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From left: Cess, Abby, She, Chacha, Aldous, Janbi, Hency, The Blogger, Jepoy, Ry, Rey Ar, Xtian, Les

A discussion ensued. We would either walk all the way down Mt Gulugod Baboy and make this an authentic trek or simply ride the van for our descent. A guide told us that if we went on foot our group would show up farther than our intended destination that was Philpan Beach Resort. In the end, we hopped into our transport, sat down, and later navigated the winding downhill road.

That was how the ten-minute hike happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

One year has passed since I met the Hayok Hiking Club. Then they invited me to climb Mt Daguldol. I told them I was interested weeks before the scheduled excursion on June 4, 2016.

Located in the town of San Juan, Batangas, Mt Daguldol offers a mountaineering experience suitable for beginners in this outdoor activity. It has a trail difficulty of 3/9. Mt Daguldol stands 672 meters above sea level. According to my fellows in the group, the hike up and down the mountain can be completed in under half a day.

At first, I thought the name Hayok sounded like the Tagalog transliteration of the English word ‘hike.’ During one of my office breaks, a colleague told me that the word ‘hayok’ actually meant excited. (I confirmed this later during the trek.) I met the Hayok trekkers in May 2016 when I decided to join their climb at Mt Marami. It was a bit challenging because I did not know any one of them personally at that time. I simply coordinated with Darenn, who organized the hike. Nevertheless, the long walk at Mt Marami turned out fine when it came to socialization. A number of my companions became acquaintances and friends. One of them was Mark, who was also going to Mt Daguldol.

The Cubao Farmer’s Market branch of the Jollibee fast food chain served as our venue for rendezvous. Located in Quezon City, which is within Metro Manila, it gained a reputation as the hikers’ capital of Luzon, if not the whole Philippines. People of various ages with backpacks, dressed in quick-dry shirts and leggings, filled the place during Friday and Saturday nights. I arrived there at 10 PM the evening before the day of our event. I did not expect the traffic to be amazingly light. Sitting beside a vacant table, a few seemingly hikers approached the adjacent table. The girl next to me turned out to be a hiker too. With no shyness towards strangers, I introduced myself and joined in. This was where I met Nicole, her cousin Ro-Anne, and Mhelbyn. I also got to know Ren, who organized their trip to Mt Ulap. She had been doing this job for some time.  I told the group that I had been there before. Time passed as Ren’s party left for Benguet province as I waited for my respective companions to arrive.

Seats and tables were kept away as floors shone from a layer of soap. It was well past 11 PM when my companions came one by one. First was Noel, who went by the nickname of “EngNR,” then followed by Joy and Cheekay. Later on, Darenn arrived. He still organized the Mt Daguldol hike and Mark assisted him. We caught up on each other’s lives. Still, minutes passed tediously for the Hayok participants to be completed. Mark came and this time he was accompanied by Mikay, his girlfriend. I did not recognize Ceejay until I recalled he was also part of last year’s excursion at Mt Marami. Another trekker who joined went by the name of Cheska. After eating one choco mallow pie in a rather messy fashion, I slumped to my backpack atop a table and fell asleep. Next thing that happened was I woke up after Darenn told us to go to our van. This was where Aldrin, Cath, Cy, Dolphy, Jason, Levine, and Robert showed up. I thought Cath and his boyfriend Jason were from another group until it proved otherwise. Then we rode in the van. We had a fellow who came in late but managed to catch up. A moment later, Dianne hopped in and sat beside Cath. Sitting between Darenn and Levine at the back of the van, I closed my eyes and let fatigue do its work.

It was 3 AM of the following day when I got aroused. Our van stopped by at a 24-hour McDonald’s branch. I had no idea where we were. Upon buying a cheeseburger and apple pie, the cashier answered that this was Rosario, Batangas. Then I had a chat with the subgroup of Aldrin, Cy, Dolphy, and Robert. Then I had a conversation too with Dianne. Across the road stood a church with blue lights turned on, placed to form a gigantic cross. Darkness still had its grip throughout the land. At least fifteen minutes passed before we continued to our destination.

Headlamps got strapped on foreheads and flashlights were held as the Hayok hikers got off the van. It was 4:20 AM. We strolled towards the registration area. Handheld lighting devices lit our way as we followed the cemented road. I could describe it as simply convenient. Usually, our treks began on dirt and even mud. The road seemed never-ending. Even a convoy of three vans passed by us. I could hear complaints delivered humorously. Our group kept on walking. The first light of dawn peeked from our left. Slowly, pitch-black darkness faded away until there was no need for our headlamps and flashlights. When hikers converge at a summit at this time of the day, there would often be a so-called ‘sea of clouds’ to see and appreciate. Yet here I commented to Dianne that there was an actual sea. Beyond the coastline, saltwater stretched towards the horizon. Somehow, the scenery took the hikers’ breath away. A few resorts lined the concrete road. With Dianne beside me, we quickened our pace and then approached our guide who went by the name of Zakarias. A man into his senior years, his trekking shoes caught my attention. His fitness and endurance seemed to defy his age.

DSCN0356The Hayok members regrouped at a shack. Beside it was a restroom that was essentially an outdoor toilet, only having walls of cement instead of wood. Two men oversaw the shack this morning. They sold us a cup of hot instant coffee for Php 10. We gave our backs respite as our backpacks lay on top of benches. According to several of my companions, Mark had his first taste of climbing here at Mt Daguldol. No wonder it was called a homecoming. Hayok had been famous for funny and pun-filled titles of events. This one had something about moving on, which I was trying to do. Then Mark got agitated. He lost his collection of bag tags. Each one had the same size and composition of an identification card for school or work. However, it had a picture of a place that Mark visited. In other words, he lost memories. Mark might have dropped that bundle back when it was still dark. He would not be appeased with letting go of them. Fortunately, it was just a prank. Jason handed the bag tags to Mark. Our day just had a lighthearted start.

Zakarias veered off the concrete road when we came upon a newly-constructed bridge. It was just stark gray. After we posed for a group picture as my request, the guide led us to a dirt path that disappeared into dense vegetation.

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From left: Levine, Dolphy, Aldrin, Cheekay, Jason, Joy, Noel, Cy, Mark, Robert, Mikay, Chesca, Dianne, Darenn, Cath, The Blogger, CJ  

It seemed that I simply went out of home straight to a hike at a mountain. I wore shorts and a T-shirt like I would do on a weekend day of rest. Then I also wore a pair of yellow flip flops instead of my hiking shoes. Sandals that were designed for the outdoors would have been better. Yet my stubbornness, curiosity, and a tight budget made me wear those flip flops. I hoped and prayed for sunny weather. My footwear would likely slip than grip on wet rocky ground during a rain. At least it was easier to wash off mud.

The trail proved to be rock-strewn. My slippers’ rather vulnerable soles struck hard surfaces rather than dig slightly into soil. Our stroll came to a point that the path ascended continuously in a zigzag fashion. It took my breath away early in the day. Worries aside, my body was just adjusting to the rigors of this tiring yet self-fulfilling activity.

A makeshift hut greeted us upon a curve in the uphill path. A few large rocks stood by it, serving as seats other than the wooden benches of this seemingly bus stop in the woods. Our hiking party stopped and rested a bit. Sweat oozed from my face. I wiped it readily with my white face towel. I made sure that I would always carry this or a handkerchief during treks. The hot and humid climate evaporated much water from my body. As I sat down with Cath, Dianne, and Jason, the azure sea glimmered far beyond this hut and the trees. The view drained our fatigue just as the long walk did to our energy. This time, I also did not carry my personal frustration and worries with me. This day would be all about enjoyment and socialization.

DSCN0374We followed the dry, rocky trail until it was broken by a creek. The water trickled more than flowed. All it took was a leap to get to the other side. In our front stood a wooden shed with a bench. Another bamboo bench nearby gave respite to tired legs. Our group paused for another break. We were not in a hurry and it was supposed to be a leisurely hike. I checked the time. My mobile phone showed 6 AM. Walking a bit further, the barking of dogs shattered the tranquility. Yet our time for rest already lacked silence thanks to our chatter. A few domesticated canines kept barking at us but stood their ground. Their handler hushed them as she kept on sweeping her immediate surroundings. Then the dogs behaved accordingly. There was nothing to fear or worried about.  My fellow hikers also had a conversation with the locals in that hamlet or small village. Coconut trees stood proudly ahead of us. Someone among us mistook a jackfruit for a coconut. We simply laughed it off as a joke and went our way. As I had one last glance of the place, my eyes caught a woman, likely in her thirties, doing laundry on the creek.

In fact, the worsening heat bothered me more than barking dogs. It was another day in June when the sun rose earlier than it would in December. At 6 AM during the twelfth month of the Gregorian calendar, the sky would only have an orange glow on the horizon. A cold breeze would also blow on my face. Yet this was June. The sun already appeared and would resume its journey towards the west. Everything was well-lit except for the forest and its shadows. The heat made me sweat profusely. It felt like being put inside a microwave oven. Our continuous walking, added with talking and laughing, increased our body temperature further.

DSCN0378The Hayok hikers conquered what seemed a hill where we came upon three white goats at the top. A dog did not greet us as amiably. It proved to be more stubborn than the ones before but was calmed later on. A rooster moved around, pecking the ground for bits of what it could eat. We also would like to eat halo-halo, a Filipino dessert made of shaved ice, canned milk, and various sweet toppings. None sold it at this village for the moment. However, Zakarias said there would be another stall ahead that sold coconut juice. Beyond a rustic-looking house with a patio, a makeshift wooden fence lined the dirt path. Only our voices could be heard in this Sunday morning so we toned it down. A humble chapel stood nearby what looked like a basketball court.

Beyond this small settlement, the trail descended steeply around patches of ground for growing vegetables. They had conspicuously black soil. I thought a part of my yellow flip-flops would snap from the hard surfaces I stepped on. From time to time I would chat with Dianne, along with Cath and Jason. The bellowing of either a cow or a carabao resounded through the air and the dense vegetation. A few among us imitated its sound in reply. Just before we reached another stopover, there was a hole on the ground to our left. It looked like an entrance to a network of underground tunnels. According to our guide, it was used to burn wood into charcoal. This explained the soot and scorched appearance.

DSCN0383Zakarias led us to another shelter next to a house with unpainted hollow cement blocks and wood planks for walls. Two huge boulders, standing at shoulder-height, seemed a meteorite housed by this shed. A man placed a coconut atop a smaller rock beside the two. With his bolo knife (some people would call it as a machete), he hacked away effortlessly the coconut’s exterior that was as tough and also quite slippery to the touch. A hole with white flesh appeared. Juice dripped from it. How to drink this seemingly miraculous beverage without a straw became a challenge. I also tasted what I could describe as newly-varnished wood. Nevertheless, this drink came not only with energizing nutrients but also with coconut flesh with its firm texture. This whole package came at a price of just Php 20. Even the dogs, a cat, and a few chickens feasted on coconut flesh. In a way, they were healthier than most domesticated animals.

Darenn began chatting with the man who hacked the coconuts for us. A resident of Mt Daguldol, he went by the nickname of Onad. We from the Hayok Hiking Club learned that Onad also served chicken tinola to visitors to this mountain. The main ingredient for tinola would be chayote, which looked like a hybrid between a pear and a squash. Originally from Mexico, Spanish conquest and the Galleon Trade centuries ago brought this fruit (technically) across the Pacific Ocean here in the Philippines. Other ingredients included sliced ginger, some salt and pepper, water for broth, chili pepper leaves for that extra flavor, and the meat itself. What made Onad’s tinola special was its ‘native’ chicken in comparison to its counterpart raised speedily in poultry farms. ‘Native’ chicken supposedly tasted more delicious. Darenn and Onad made an agreement. The latter would prepare tinola for us when we return on our way from the summit. In turn, Darenn would collect money from our hiking group’s members to pay for our lunch. It was not a problem.

Following ample rest with a refreshing drink, we continued our trek past 7 AM. At first, it seemed a routine stroll on a rural path in one of the country’s far-flung provinces. Then the trail went uphill and grew steep. The exposed skin of my feet bumped hard into the rocky ground surface. I felt a bit of aching but there was not cut or even a bruise so far. Still, I did not regret wearing flip-flops that day.

A massive boulder on the trail’s left served as a landmark for the Mt Daguldol hike. Leaves grew sparsely on the giant gray ball carved over time by the elements. Moss appeared where sunlight did not shone fully. Our trekking party came upon a similar boulder up ahead. This one was rougher and higher. Robert climbed on top of it and posed for adventurous photos. We all took a break by sitting down or standing. The sun rose even higher on a clear sky. Fortunately, tall leafy trees instead of just tall grass surrounded us. Darenn asked me about my blue camera. I told him it was waterproof so I could take photos for the blog during rainy weather. Then I stood next to Dianne. There was sudden and stinging pain on my feet. I just stepped into a line of ants. In fact, there were ants everywhere since the hike began. The pain was gone in a moment after I changed position. We resumed the long walk after ten minutes.

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What a fine sunny morning to do some hiking…

DSCN0396From time to time, we stopped for momentary breaks. I have never joined a climb without resting from the jump-off point to the summit. Yet I felt an unusual strength within me that urged to go on. There was no time for stopping – only advancing forward. It sounded like the infamous Order 227 of Joseph Stalin back in the Second World War. “Not a step back!, ” it commanded. It applied to life in general. There were some things that once done or committed, there was no turning back – not even a single step.

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This is a millipede. A centipede has antennae and looks more intimidating. Still, it was big.

DSCN0398We came to a point where the trail zigzagged evidently up the mountain. To our left lay a vast expanse of the sea. It might look endless but it was just a channel between Batangas province and Mindoro Island, called the Verde Island Passage. White fluffy clouds floated above the horizontal line where water met air. I was so glad we hiked Mt Daguldol. It was just beside the sea. The scenery took all that fatigue and replaced it with indescribable joy. Yet to the right still lay a trail to follow until the summit, accompanied by the heat and humidity, branches that cut skin, and a host of critters. Getting separated from the main group worried me more. In fact, it already happened. It came to a point that Cath, Dianne, Jason, Noel, and I found ourselves isolated. Chesca, Darenn, and Levine were even further behind. Our smaller group simply followed the trail. Then we heard one of our fellows yelling that we should turn right. If there was a fork in the path, we had not reached it yet. Our leg muscles got strained bit by bit in every step of our uphill advance. The trail twisted left and right. Then we came upon a point where the path ahead diverged into two directions. That was when we took right. I also lost sight of our companions. They disappeared up ahead, concealed by a wall of countless leaves held together by twigs and branches. All I could also see to my left was a rocky slope of ground carpeted by multicolored leaf litter. Then I blew my neon blue whistle in the form of a carabiner, which looked like a metal hoop that could be fastened to rings and also part of a safety harness. The sound echoed all around us. Then I heard yelling. All that the five of us needed to do was follow the main group. Later on, the trail forked into two again where sunlight turned the vegetation more yellow than green. Dianne, Cath, and I followed the path going to the right.

Our smaller group kept on going. Towering trees offered that shade I grew fond of when walking in the woods. Then there was a commotion. A lizard gripped the tree trunkDSCN0403 motionlessly. It looked far from the house geckos that scurried on the walls of bedrooms and kitchens. We were truly in the wilderness after all. The reptile aroused our curiosity further. It resembled a chameleon. I even hoped it was a gliding lizard, also known as a flying dragon. Members of the genus Draco could not fly like bats do. Instead, they leaped from trees and glided with their wing-like skin membrane on their torso. Such a lizard did not breath fire. Yet the appearance could at least inspire the myth of dragons despite the tiny size. Still, it would look ferocious had it been the size of a monitor lizard, locally known as bayawak. Imagine a reptile the size of an average domesticated dog darting through air above one’s head.

Atop the ascending and winding section of trail lay another shed. We stopped over and had a rest. I chatted with Mark breifly, then left him and Mikay in the company of each other. He was certainly enjoying his situation at the present. Mikay interacted with her fellow hikers cheerfully and was fond of taking photos and videos.

DSCN0408The dirt trail led us to a spot with a boulder lying on the ground, surrounded by a sea of broad-leaved bushes, ferns, and grass. In front of us stood coconut trees instead of their wild tropical hardwood counterparts. Near this point, the trail forked into two paths. The one going left would bring us to the campsite. We took the one to the right, which would finally get us to the summit. Zakarias said we could reach it in ten minutes. Frankly, I was too accustomed and tired of hearing these ten-minute time intervals to the summit whereas they actually took twice or even thrice as long. Still, Zakarias might be right.

Dianne was my hiking buddy for this excursion but she decided to rest for a while at that boulder. I went up ahead. Leading the way behind Zakarias were Cath, Jason, and I. Just below the summit as our guide noted, jungle plants engulfed us literally. A certain spot smelled strongly of aroma from herbs that resembled oregano but I could not identify. Sooner, there was a point where a misstep would cause an unfortunate hiker to slip and plunge down a ravine. I took caution.

DSCN0410Then the way ahead sloped drastically that it felt more like climbing a ladder than merely walking. Tree roots became handle bars. Mountaineers in the Philippines would call it an ‘assault.’ This kind of trail drained the energy and enthusiasm from hikers. Some people would be panting and cursing simultaneously. Strangely, I had a burst of energy I could not explain easily. Perhaps it was the immense desire to finally reach the summit. Perhaps it was also the lack of worries and frustrations, only pure bliss under the fine weather. I simply told Cath and Jason that I was pushing forward because I did not feel tired. I moved like lightning. “Not a step back.” The sentence, or more of a rallying cry, echoed inside my head.

A break in tree cover revealed a crystal blue sky. Before me lay a surface of just bare rock. It resembled the summit of Mt Manalmon, located in Bulacan province north of Manila. To my left, hills and the shadows of sailing clouds overhead cast small waves on a green-colored sea of plant life. On the other side was an actual blue sea. I could not wait to dip into it at the beach after a sweaty hike. Cath and Jason went to this rock formation’s highest point. After a brief chat with Zakarias, I followed the two. A nearly-vertical deep gap separated two platforms of rock. We stretched our legs as if doing a split to get to the other side. More of our companions streamed to this spot. I simply basked in awe of the landscape and seascape that surrounded us at all sides. If I was not mistaken, I could see Mt Banahaw from here.

Just as I was in the mood for more snapshots, my camera exhausted its battery. My gadget called a power bank remained at home this time. I would bring it during overnight excursions but this one only lasted at least half a day. To make matters worse, my mobile phone was also running low. I grabbed the opportunity to ask Darenn to take photos of me for a profile picture in Facebook®. To return the favor, I used his mobile phone for eye-stunning pictures of him and the landscape. My mobile phone’s battery level fell 10 percent. I shut the device down. Now I resorted to absorbing scenes into my memories. I had a few photos from this spot. The nearly 360-degree view came with a price. We were exposed to the unrelenting heat of the sun. It was nearly 9 AM. I had a cap. Dianne asked me if I could lend her my umbrella for a while. It was not a problem at all. She had relatively fair complexion. Yet despite the full force of sunshine, a gentle and soothing wind blew every now and then. The Hayok hikers took photos and videos while chatting joyfully. Darenn contemplated about the existence of worm holes and teleportation. I was okay with this kind of topic, especially if it stimulates thinking.

This climb at Mt Daguldol was one of my few excursions where I felt pure bliss. Even my profile picture showed it. The happiness I felt could not be expressed in words. I thanked Darenn and Mark for this event and reuniting with the Hayok Hiking Club again. It really pays to let go of troubles and just live in the moment.

According to Zakarias, the rock formation was not the summit itself but a vantage point. The actual summit lacked views that were also hindered by vegetation. It did not matter. We hiked not for accomplishment but for leisure. What was important was we all enjoyed the company of each other amid the raw beauty of nature. Yet we would not stay here forever. Our hiking party departed after about 30 minutes of lingering in that spot that could be easily mistaken as the summit. Such was life. Things would be not as they seem. After all, servings of chicken tinola also waited for us.

I decided to fill the role of a sweeper during the descent. This time, I stayed in the rear instead of advancing in the vanguard. Darenn volunteered as a sweeper as the event’s organizer. As usual, going downhill proved more difficult for me than the ascent. My legs bore the weight of my whole body in every step. I also wore flip-flops instead of my hiking shoes with soles that ensured grip. A slower pace prevented me from slipping. Yet one of my feet bent from time to time following a misstep. It was not painful though.

Noel limped due to a cramp in his hip. Chesca also noted that both of her legs were aching. I accompanied her. Darenn stayed with Noel behind us. Chesca and I kept on moving until we lost sight and sound of our two companions. All of a sudden, the surroundings grew dreary from the shade and shadows complemented by the ordeals of our fellows. We seemed isolated from the rest of humanity. It would be advisable to always have a companion rather than hike alone. If anything unfortunate happens, there would be someone to help.

Chesca and I found our way back to the shed before the trail would twist downward in a sort of labyrinth. She sat under the roof while on my part a springy bamboo pole supported the weight of my gradually fatigued body. It felt like sitting on a seesaw. Another group of hikers accompanied us. They were on the way either to the campsite or the viewing point, stopping over for some rest. They played a bit of music with a mobile phone. They mostly talked about romantic stuff and hobbies. I munched on chili-flavored green peas. Chesca simply took the time to relax speechlessly. Then she also asked what might have happened to Darenn and Noel. Minutes passed and they were still not in sight. Something caught my eye. I stared upward. A crow flew against a gloomy gray sky as a background. In my imagination, I could hear waves crashing violently to the shore below this mountain. Crows, waves, and lightning appeared in my mind. I wished that it would not rain.

About twenty minutes passed when we saw Darenn and Noel walking toward us. The latter now held a branch as long as half of his body. It served as his hiking staff and eased the aching of his hip. The two rested a bit. When we were all ready, our descent resumed.

The five of us, including Zakarias, followed our footsteps up Mt Daguldol. Going down took less time. We had a significantly faster pace. Chesca noted this before. However, the skin of my feet bumped hard on rocks littering the ground. I thought I would have cuts that bled. My toenails might have cracked slightly right. I wore flip flops and knew the consequences. I had to accept them. My eyes veered away from the ground. Later, I would just find out what happened to my feet. What mattered now was reaching Onad’s place for lunch.

At 10 AM, the Hayok trekkers were sitting and dining on sumptuous tinola. The broth cooked with native chicken did not look oily. Chili leaves made the dish more appetizing. A hungry hiker would not care about taste but Onad’s chicken tinola would make him or her pause and appreciate. The extra food we bought before the hike were also laid on the table. Rice was wrapped in paper as a ball. There were other chicken and pork dishes. Jason sliced what was usually called in the Philippines as an ‘Indian mango.’ It was eaten unripe and best served with salt or shrimp paste known as bagoong or alamang. Some among our companions took a nap. The rest sat on wooden benches while eating, talking, or simply staring at the surroundings in relaxation. Meanwhile, the dogs bullied the lone cat for scraps that fell from the table. Mikay held the feline and cuddled it. Mark did the same. The flimsy-looking roof gave shade and coolness from the searing heat of approaching noontime. It was tempting to stay here a little longer but we had to go on. At 11:30 AM, our party left Onad’s place with gratitude and goodwill.

We walked in single file. Aldrin, Cy, Dolphy, and Robert moved ahead of me. Dianne was behind me. There was some distance between us and the rest of the group. Then we found ourselves at the chapel again with two paths to choose. One went straight ahead while the other curved to the left. Our party preferred the easier choice. In the end, no matter what we picked we would arrive at the same spot. Our mouths were mostly shut. Only the music from a Bluetooth® speaker broke the silence. The birds and critters seemed dead in the heat of noon. The smell of drying vegetation hang in the air. Once more, Dianne borrowed my folding umbrella.

Soon, the Hayok hikers regrouped at the first rest station that overlooked the forest and the sea. Cath, Dianne, Jason, and I sat on grayish boulders beside the hut. Our fellows rested their feet on a bamboo floor. Our discussion began with a trip to Vietnam that expanded into the Vietnam War, the Russia-Philippines military deal, calibers of assault rifle ammunition, and the video game Counter Strike. We felt nostalgia from back in high school.

Dianne had my umbrella throughout the last leg of our group’s journey. We talked about gadgets, careers, and the love of going outdoors. I did not feel singed by the sun despite the time of day. A cool yet slightly salty breeze always blew from the nearby sea. The path ahead zigzagged downward. It looked familiar. We were almost at the jump-off point. Dianne joked that we could simply slide down a slope and land at the cemented road in no time. Of course, that would injure us. Our party simply followed the trail for a few minutes until we reached the newly-constructed bridge. Darenn already contacted our driver, who was presently out of sight. Dianne, Mark, Mikay, and I strolled a little further and then sat down on the roadside. We seemed as wandering homeless folk. Then the four of us headed to the shack where I drank coffee this morning.

Our hike at Mt Dagulgol concluded with glasses of potable water and cola, made cold with ice. There were servings of unripe mango and preserved tamarind. The mountain’s trail difficulty would be friendly for beginners in hiking. Only half a day would be consumed while some treks would last the entire day. I had another look at my feet. Fortunately, they did not sustain cuts, even a bruise. My extremities only ached from tiredness. Then we all looked forward to a dip in the nearby beach of Barangay Hugom.

A Comeback and More at Talamitam

“Kilometer 83. Those who are descending at Kilometer 83,” the bus conductor said. I was already awake, lying on my back on the bus seat designed for two persons side by side. No one was beside me anymore. Earlier, I took the opportunity and made a bed of my own. When we arrived at our destination, I roused my companion behind me by tapping his knee. Then we sprang back to life, grabbed our backpacks, and got out of the bus. Darkness engulfed us except for the electric lamps on tall posts and silent homes. I could sense some excitement within me. Four months passed since my most recent trek.

With an elevation of 630 meters above sea level, Mt Talamitam is recommended for people hiking for the first time or for those seeking a more relaxed weekend adventure. It has a trail difficulty of just 3/9. The mountain is situated within the boundaries of the town of Nasugbu, in the province of Batangas. This makes Talamitam popular as a getaway that is relatively near the capital city of Manila. Nearby it stands Mt Apayang, having a similar altitude and trail difficulty too. These two mountains can be hiked in only half a day.

My excursion at Mt Talamitam can be described as something new for me in a way. When I went trekking, it involved a crowd of around ten or even more than twenty people. All I did was go to the group’s rendezvous location, sit in the air-conditioned van, and let the driver take us to our destination. This time, we traveled as a team of only five people. It was supposed to be six. Amena Mae Macabago invited me to what she called a ‘do-it-yourself’ hike. She already hiked Mt Talamitam back in March. Two of her classmates from college, Gel Anne Marie “Ge-ge” Atienza and Criselda “Chinee” Carmona, already agreed to participate. They graduated from the University of Santo Tomas (UST). Hailing from the University of the Philippines (UP), I also wondered how my interaction with the three will end up. So far, my relations with UST alumni has been mostly amiable. Also joining was John Paul “JP” Nepumuceno, who hailed from Mapua University (also Mapua Institute of Technology). This was his very first hike too. Instead of having organized transportation, the five of us would travel to Nasugbu by ourselves. That was what we did. We left the terminal of DLTBCo bus company in Buendia, Pasay city in the Metro Manila area past 10 PM. The trip costed Php 139 per individual, given the distance between Pasay and Nasugbu. The bus would also pass through my home province of Cavite.

Supposed to arrive at 2:30 AM, the bus dropped our group on the jump-off point at 12:30 AM. Amena told us that the climb would only begin at 4 AM. She contacted our guide through mobile phone but there was no reply. We still had about four hours of time to kill. Amid the darkness, a fluorescent lamp illuminated a patio that seemed a dining area. We placed our bags on one table and sat around the other. The five of us snacked on fries we bought from a fast food chain, along with cheese puffs. We shared bits of pieces of our lives. Emotions in our conversation rose and fell like the seashore tide.

I joined this hike to escape the pollution and squalor of Metro Manila but my workplace followed me here. Nearly two months ago, I started my employment in the business process outsourcing industry. Amena reminded me of my colleague and seatmate in the training phase, who went by the name of Maejille. They had the same voice; however, they did not look alike much except for physique. Another colleague of mine named Jaquelyn also had an identical voice and some facial features with Ge-ge. Regarding JP, my colleague who resembled him the most was Jose. No wonder I made the comparison because I sat close to those three during training.

Hours passed with little notice. The surroundings consisting of humble houses and shops beside the highway remained lifeless except for the occasional crowing of roosters and barking of dogs. It was not that silent at all. Buses and trucks raged through the concrete surface with a boom. JP commented that despite our voices getting louder, residents had been used to the constant noise that they could keep on dozing off.

DSCN0257Past 3 AM, the lights on a nearby house went on. We had a look. The place came with restrooms where hikers can not only relieve themselves but also take a shower. A man greeted us. (Later in the day I learned that his name is Paul.) According to him, he already noticed us earlier but thought we were guides. Amena asked about the guide she contacted. The fellow’s wife got involved in a road accident, explaining why he was unavailable. Another guide was summoned. Then the five of us finally settled in a shack on their place. We registered for the hike, writing our names on a particular big blue notebook just as I did in previous treks. Amena, JP, and I sipped hot instant coffee on ceramic mugs. Ge-ge did not drink this beverage due to hyperacidity. A large brown dog lay down the ground peacefully near a tortoiseshell cat that was also relaxing. The two pets did not mind each other. This broke the stereotypical hatred between cats and dogs.

Roused from sleep, another man named Greg came to meet us. Later on, our guide arrived, introducing himself as Francis. Sitting on benches, the five of us lingered in that shack before our hike commenced at 4:05 AM.

Flashlights lit our way. More houses lined the cemented road we followed. Despite the artificial lighting on residences, darkness still cloaked much of the surroundings. We chatted about what to expect at Mt Talamitam, adding stories from our previous excursions. Soon, awakened dogs barked at us. At least they only barked. Then we reached a well-constructed building that looked like a resort. Beneath it flowed a river, which we crossed via a bridge of concrete and steel.

Once the cement we stepped on turned into soil with bits of leaf litter, the hike truly began. We came upon another bridge. This time, it was made of bamboo poles. I hoped these poles were tough enough to support our weight so we would not plunge down the river. There was nothing to see below but the color black. Yet the sound of water flowing in a current became part of this spot’s ambience. While we were making our way across the bridge, the bamboo railings shook suddenly. I stopped and stood motionless. I let Francis, Ge-ge, and Chinee get to the other side first. Calm overcame all nervousness. All it needed was steady but careful footing. While I was in the middle, Amena told me to wait for her and JP. Everyone got past the makeshift bridge without a problem.

The five of us imagined hiking on a relatively even trail, surrounded by an expanse of short grass instead of the tall cogon variety. Expectation did not match reality. Trees surrounded us but gave ample room. It was more of an open woodland than a jungle. The trail went uphill. Every step seemed to take our breath away. It had been four months since I last went hiking. However, going to the office five days a week involved long walks and the stairs of an pedestrian overpass. Every day of work was like a trek in itself. Aside from the sloped terrain, the humidity also made us less at ease. Sweat oozed from our skin even though the sun had not risen yet. The five of us chatted about our previous hikes. My ears picked up a mention of Mt Manalmon in Rizal. In my mind I could hear the song “If I Had a Heart” by Karin Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray) as I remembered what happened on the early morning of June 10, 2016.

DSCN0266I felt slight but sudden pain on my nape. Then I wiped that part of the back of my neck. My hand smelled funny. Some kind of insect bit me. At that moment, Chinee panted in a quick rhythm and stopped walking. To describe it in one sentence, she was ill enough to necessitate medical attention. Amena came to her aid. We checked if we brought ointment. Chinee sipped some water. Francis, our guide, volunteered to carry her backpack until she would get better. Then I also lost my handkerchief along that trail. Sweat moistened my face, hair, and even my glasses. The lower front part of my gray T-shirt turned into a towel.

At 5 AM, the trees disappeared and our hiking party arrived at a grassy hill. We took a five-minute break under the faint light of a crescent moon. Gray clouds formed on the black sky. At a distance lay a town with specks of white light from lamp posts and within houses. This densely populated settlement was surrounded by fields, hills, and forested areas. Francis plucked a leaf from a guava tree, rubbed it with his fingers, and told Chinee to inhale its scent. Our weary companion appeared to improve in condition as she sat and chatted. Voices broke the silence of the outdoors.

Minutes passed speedily as the black sky turned into blue with a wash of orange and red towards the east. Amena intended for us to reach what she called a ‘fake summit’ in time for sunrise. Still, that spot here in Mt Talamitam was not yet in sight. Our pace slowed down but it did not matter. Chinee needed momentary rests and her health was our priority. She had no desire to head back to the jump off point and end this hike for good. She wanted to keep going. After all, Chinee breathed lightly now and walked with a smile.

Amena, Chinee, and Ge-ge talked about not only their respective careers but also romantic relationships amid a wide open landscape that resembled the summit of Mt Ulap. JP and I kept silent mostly. Then I decided to have a one-on-one chat with Francis.DSCN0275 At that time, I was torn apart within myself. Francis listened as I vented out my frustration mixed with a bit of confusion. He gave some advice in reply. It should have been that day in the weekend when I would breathe in fresh air, trod on grass instead of concrete, and feel nothing but bliss. Yet I could not help being vulnerable to personal problems that seem to have no solution at all.

Eventually, our trekking party came upon rocks piled carefully on top of one another. Several of those small pillars remained standing no matter how distorted they looked. Forgetting to admire who set them up, I took out my camera as the scenery had a surreal lighting from fog and the sun rising slowly. Chinee and Ge-ge used their phones for snapshots. We also asked Francis to take group photos. The time was 5:45 AM. Later on, a fellow rode on a horse and another on a carabao, or tamed water buffalo, reminiscent of the cowboys of the Wild West. I took their pictures in awe. Amena was in search of the ‘fake summit,’ also asking Francis about its exact location. Nearby what could be called an artwork of rocks stood a makeshift shelter constructed with bamboo, tree branches, split logs, and roofing in the form of a durable translucent plastic sheet. We sat down for some rest. My frustration faded away as sunshine brought a sense of optimism. Chinee was feeling well again too. Dizziness and panting came and went like a brief drizzle on a sunny day. Hopefully, it would not rain today despite an overcast gray sky. Maybe it was just fog that would subside. The cool air brought relief as I was not complaining about sweat and humidity anymore.

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From left: The Blogger, JP, Amena, Ge-ge, and Chinee

A few brightly colored tents stood out of the monotonous landscape of green and brown. They lay about fifty meters from the spot marked by piled rocks. Our hike ensured. Upon arriving at the campsite, greetings were exchanged. The other group spent the night on this nearly treeless tract of land. There was minimal conversation. The five of us got too distracted by the sunrise, fog, and notable people in our respective lives – whether they were present here or not. Amena then confirmed that this spot was the ‘fake summit’ she was talking about.

It was already past 6 AM. Francis assured us that we were close to the summit. Amena agreed. Between us and our destination lay an ascending trail cut through tall grass. It still looked easy compared to my previous treks characterized by mud, thorny branches, and soil that crumbled with just one step. This would be a walk in the park. In the middle of it, I saw nothing except tall grass, more of that grass up ahead, and my hiking buddies. Then another one of those makeshift bamboo shacks appeared. There was no hurry to reach the summit. According to Amena, the entire hike would be done in under half a day. Francis caught a cicada. He made it hum but handled it carefully. Amazingly, the winged insect never flew away. It accompanied him like a pet. Chinee and Ge-ge wished humorously that people would stay in our respective lives just as that cicada did. All of us had been making double-messaged remarks hinting to romantic relationships since the hike started. Then Francis notified us of an approaching man on horseback. The tandem of human and beast appeared majestically among the tall grass. Yet there was a stare of sorrow and sympathy in the horse’s eyes.We could notice the equine sweating profusely as it carried its rider. With the sun rising steadily, I took out my cap from my backpack and wore it just as Chinee and Ge-ge already did. Amena had a sort of bandanna instead. JP was fine without headgear. The five of us, along with Francis, continued our way through the tall grass until we arrived at the summit at 6:45 AM.

Francis chatted with a fellow preparing some stuff in a smaller shack. This man sold halo-halo, an iconic Filipino dessert of shredded ice, canned milk, and an assortment of sweet beans and agar jelly. Surprisingly, it was too early in the day to indulge in this frozen treat usually eaten during sweltering afternoons.

Amena mentioned a large rock she climbed on to while posing pictures at the summit. I was staring at it unmistakably. It also served as a vantage point. Confidence in being surefooted made me hurry and stand atop that rock. I could hear my companions telling me to be careful. Then I requested Francis to take photos. Too much excitement caused me to forget that light gray fog shrouded the view.  We wanted more than this. The five of us desired to see more of the landscape out to the horizon. We waited. Aside from halo-halo, the  vendor at the shack also sold hard-boiled eggs for Php 10 each.  I bought one. My breakfast only consisted of a handful of fries and corn puffs, along with one mug of coffee. The egg came with a pinch of salt too, like the smaller hard-boiled quail eggs peddled to bus passengers. My concern now was how to dispose bits of shells. I also shared a local brand of chocolate having high cocoa content and wrapped in foil. Being straightforward and honest, I told my companions that I was feeling left out in conversation. They advised me to just speak and join in. Just do not be shy, they added. That was what I did.

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As we wait for the fog to disappear…
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…we bought halo-halo and hard-boiled eggs from this guy

I have been told that patience was not only a virtue but also an asset. Seconds turned into minutes as we stayed on the summit. Amena insisted that we could stay here even until 9 AM. Then it would be a relatively short walk to Mt Apayang. More hikers came to the summit in batches. One of these groups was all-male. What used to be moderate conversation and the occasional laughter turned into noisy chatter. It was not a bad thing. The summit went from dreary to lively.

Leaving the company of my hiking buddies for a while, I could not resist meeting strangers and getting to know them. Three of them – two man and a woman – got my attention. In fact, they passed by earlier and I mistook the woman for an acquaintance back in high school.  The trio introduced themselves as Timmy Ferrer, Don Deo Alegre, and CJ Narvaez. Having a masculine-sounding nickname, it could be that Timmy’s actual name was Fatima. I took a snapshot of them. As CJ sat near the ledge and sought time for himself, I chatted with Deo and Timmy. The former had climbed several mountains while this was the first time for the latter.

“Why did you want to climb mountains too?” I told Timmy. “What made you do it?”

Timmy got caught by surprise. She could not answer immediately. Then something came to her mind. “For the experience,” Timmy said. “I just want to know how it feels.”

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From left: CJ, Timmy, and Deo

People have said reward comes to those who are patient. For all of us at the summit, it did. The fog opened up and then retreated into thin air. Much of the landscape below us was revealed. Grassy fields and patches of woodland stretched as far as the eye can see. Four months felt like years since I was exhilarated by the raw verdant beauty of nature. At first, I had thoughts of hiking to meet more people, expand my circle of acquaintances, and perhaps develop into more than that. Then I also loved trekking just to immerse in the great outdoors. It transformed me from an urban automaton into an independent spirit of the wilderness. I saw Chinee posing for a picture. Then I asked Amena to take photos of me with nearby Mt Apayang on the background. The five of us posed together. While Francis still had that cicada with him, I spotted upon a walking stick insect on CJ’s shirt. Then I told him calmly about it. After plucking the walking stick off his garment, I released this marvel of evolution among the tall grass. Then the five of us bade the summit farewell at 7:50 AM. Just as our party followed a descending trail, I said goodbye to CJ, Deo, and Timmy.

If there was one thing constant during this excursion, it would be Francis complimenting Ge-ge’s physical attractiveness. Honestly, I agreed with him. Yet the standards of beauty would vary from one person to another. Inner beauty would be more important too.

DSCN0336This time, the tall grass grew much closer to the trail. Our hike turned from leisurely to rather upsetting. We could not avoid pushing those leaf blades away with our arms. Contact with tall grass felt more of a nudge at first. As we progressed, my forearms felt a sting. Their skin turned reddish and I could see what could be described as lashes from a very thin whip. I poured rubbing alcohol on my hands and then wiped it on my arms. There should have been pain but somehow I did not feel it. Perhaps I got so used to pain that my senses have been numbed. As we kept on going, I held my backpack like a shield against more grass that sliced like a narrow sword, such as a rapier. I looked at my arms again and there was rashes and swelling. I prayed that I would not contract an allergic reaction today.

Adding to the discomforts experienced by our hiking party was the intense heat of a newly risen sun. Despite lots of fog earlier, today would be sunny with a relatively clear sky. Perspiration drained water from our bodies bit by bit, sapping our energy too in the process. Amena had already warned us even before the trek about the lack of tree cover.

One of Francis’s acquaintances, perhaps even his friend, was peddling popsicle ice cream on the trail. We let him advance. Then he disappeared as if through teleportation. Ge-ge noted how this fellow moved rapidly through the tall grass and uneven dirt surface.

Our groups arrived at the summit of Mt Apayang at 8:20 AM. A few enormous rocks, which also served as a platform, marked the spot. Here it felt cooler compared to the uphill trail thanks to a breeze. Exposed to the wind the summit may be, it also bore the brunt of sunshine especially on a clear day like this. Francis led us to another one of those makeshift shelters. At that moment, we would rather sit under the shade than take snapshots regardless of the vast and scenic expanse of land surrounding us.

The popsicle peddler guy joined us as we escaped the undiscriminating heat of the sun. We sat on bamboo benches, rested our backpacks, and wiped the sweat off our faces. Chinee dozed off. I would likely have difficulty falling asleep in her sitting position, except if I drained the last bit of energy I had and my body was in shutdown. We let her be. Amena and JP sat together chatting about the latter’s unusually affordable price of wet wipes he bought at a convenience store. Ge-ge decided to buy a coconut milk-flavored popsicle. JP and Amena followed. I could remember the former choosing one covered in rice flakes locally known as pinipig. Having Php 10 to spare, I bought one too. The frozen treat remained intact as I ate it like a lollipop before biting pieces of it. My taste buds indulged in the coconut milk flavor.

DSCN0343A moment later, I left the company of my hiking buddies to get photos from Mt Apayang’s summit. Popsicle Man was there, along with another fellow. This place offered a better vantage point than the summit of Mt Talamitam. Popsicle Man pointed his arm towards the adjacent province of Cavite. There I saw Mt Pico de Loro on the horizon. Even more amazingly, he mentioned Mt Marami too, which I climbed already twice. Then Popsicle Man told me to face right. Situated where the earth met the sky was Mt Makiling. Further to the right stood Mt Maculot and Mt Batulao. I had not been yet to the latter, which appeared as a craggy and untamed peak for me. Yet hikers and holidaymakers flocked to this mountain for its beauty. Mt Gulugod Baboy, named because it supposedly looked like a pig’s spine, could also be seen here. Other than mountains, the coastlines of Batangas and Cavite provinces were visible too as blue contrasted with green. Popsicle Man said he could spot the province of Bataan too across the entrance of Manila Bay. Soon, Amena showed up and took pictures of her own. The rest of the group joined in. Everyone smiled, laughed, and joked. We left this summit before 9 AM.

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You could see Mt Marami at the center and far to the left is Mt Pico de Loro
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At the horizon towards the left lies Mt Makiling and at the far right is Mt Maculot

Our trekking party followed the same trail that led us up Mt Apayang. That meant getting a bit lacerated by the tall grass again. The rash on my arms did not subside. I simply told my companions that I have more sensitive skin than the average person. On a more positive note, we were going downhill. It simply felt like flying. In no time, our group reached the spot where the trail forked towards the summit of Mt Talamitam and another down to the jump-off point. Francis stressed that we would take the latter. He also had a chat through his mobile phone from time to time. Our guide would attend a baptismal ceremony later in the day.

This was one of my hike where my feet had a mind of their own. Perhaps I wanted to complete this hike sooner, have a shower, and ride a bus towards home. Another explanation I could offer about my quick pace was the relative ease of the trail.

Beyond the stretch of tall grass lay a wooded part of the trail. It reminded me of Mt Makiling, this time without the moss and the tiny leeches. I told Amena about this. Hardwood trees provided the dappled shade we needed. Vegetation grew apart more than close to each other. My nose picked up the scent of dried leaf litter decaying for days. At one point however, the ground on our right plunged immediately into a ravine. I moved carefully. To my comfort, this one-day hike required less acrobatic movement.

Eventually, we emerged from tree cover to make our way through a mass of tall grass again. Then the grasses parted. I was literally silent but my mind screamed in awe. Before me lay a scenery that could have its picture taken and printed on the paper label wrapped on a can of corned beef. A pastureland stretched for hectares.

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This scenery before me is one reason why this hike at Mt Talamitam is worth it

The wide open spaces of grazed grass appealed to my eyes. It had something to do with hardwired collective consciousness. When prehistoric humans mostly hunted and gathered for food while trying to survive in the wilderness, large predators such as big cats could be spotted easily in a terrain like this. This could explain why a walk in the woods, even through tall grass, would trigger discomfort and a sensation of fear. In turn, people learned to be more alert of their surroundings to detect such predators even if hidden among foliage. This would be another explanation why one could also see eyes and a mouth when looking at the hood of an automobile or an electrical socket. Being able to spot a face sooner meant higher chances of survival.

It was late morning and noon might come without a notice. Despite the complete lack of shade, the heat felt mild instead of sweltering. After all, the time was not around 12 or 1 PM. Chinee and I accompanied Francis. The other three lagged slightly as JP had a problem with the open zipper of his backpack and one of his items falling off. We waited. After regrouping, the six of us were off.

A cow stood near our path. I kept distance. No matter how tame it looked, the bovine still weighed hundreds of kilograms and could easily injure me severely with a charge or a kick.DSCN0350 Good thing it only stared at me and did not care. Later on, it was a bull instead of a cow. The horns might be short but still formidable. I walked calmly and did not look the beast in the eye. Again, the domesticated animal simply stood while swatting its tail. It was not about fear of cattle. I would be more than willing to put my hand on one if I raised and herded them.

Our group kept on strolling in the middle of pastureland. Our topics of conversation included humidity, barometric pressure, television series, and subject matter leaning towards the personal. I also had a chat with Francis about learning to speak English better and my recent job in the call center industry.

At 10:18 AM, we stopped by at a shack to buy and drink coconut juice in plastic cups. The refreshing beverage came with coconut meat too. It remained cold thanks to ice that froze in transparent plastic bags the size of two fists next to each other. Of course, that piece of ice was plunged and now floating in a large container that looked like a gas lamp. After drinking our fill, we added the number of stacked empty yet dripping cups. It was one way the vendor could tally her sales for the day. The coconut juice relieved my thirst but I still had those rashes on my forearms. I thought they were subsiding. Ge-ge disagreed with me.

The trek resumed through another patch of woodland. Our descent involved zigzagging paths, tree roots, and loose soil. At times I leaped instead of walked. My T-shirt smelled strongly of sweat. Perspiration also moistened my hair and made my face sticky to the touch. My 1.5 liter bottle of distilled water was nearly empty. Still, my legs did not ache although I could fell dull pain in my toes as I kept myself upright on our downhill course.

DSCN0351A river appeared to our left. I approached it for a closer look. The still greenish water reflected whatever close to its surface. It mostly had rock for a bank, like a tiny and freshwater cousin of the white chalk cliffs on the coast of Dover, England. Francis and I followed the river. Then I saw the bridge we crossed before the break of dawn. Further down the river, people of various ages took a dip and bathed. Many among them wore casual clothing instead of swimwear, with males only having to just take their top off. Our hiking party gathered at a shack that sold snacks, refreshments, and even liquor. It was 10:45 AM. We had two options. First, we would continue heading down, take the easy path, but pay Php 10 per head as an entrance fee. The second option involved tracing our footsteps back to cross the river for free. However, our return to the jump-off point would take longer. We chose the second option.

In fact, we did not have to wade across the river. Going back for about a hundred meters, Francis guided us down a series of steps and through a point in the river that could be crossed by simply stepping on rocks. My socks did not even get wet.

Finally, our party got back to the village at the jump-off point even before 12 PM. At least a cemented road lay before us except for a bit that was damaged and unpaved. At first, we kept considerable distance from one another. Then Chinee, Ge-ge, and I grouped and left Amena and JP to have time with one another. I had a chat with Ge-ge about planned hikes in the future. We all kept on walking until the houses where we hung out after arrival turned into edible item shops and dining establishments. After a short rest that came with a pitcher of cool refreshing water thanks to Paul, we took a bath and had lunch. Then we were homeward bound by noon.

The excursion at Mt Talamitam helped me get back to one of my fond interests. However, I had to admit that social interaction with my companions was not good enough. It was on my part. Somehow I must remind myself to leave my worries and frustration behind when I go hiking again.

 

A Legendary Trek

Mt Makiling has been known as a place where leeches thrived. Yet there are challenges worse than these blood-sucking worms for someone venturing into this mountain.

Located in Laguna province, which is immediately south of the Philippines’s capital Metro Manila, Mt Makiling also borders the adjacent province of Batangas. Its official summit that goes by the name of Peak 2 lies at an altitude of 1,090 meters above sea level. The mountain’s jagged appearance explains the multiple numbers for the peaks. When seen wholly from a distance, Mt Makiling appears as a reclining woman as if sleeping. One can make out the long hair, face, bosom, and bent legs. Legend has it that a supernatural being known in the country as a diwata guards the place and her name is Maria Makiling. She has been the subject of folklore and superstition, told in various versions. What can trekkers assure is Mt Makiling’s trail difficulty at 5/9.

While chatting with Elena ‘Len’ Ibana on social media, she invited me to an event where hikers would traverse Mt Makiling from Santo Tomas, Batangas to Los Baños, Laguna. Len and I met in a fishing trip within Valenzuela city proper. The excursion involved my newfound friends at the time. Then a thought hit me. I spent my college years at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). My alma mater lay at the foothills of Mt Makiling yet I did not climb up to its peak. The farthest I went was the Mud Springs as part of a team building activity of a college organization I had been part of. The attraction with boiling mud and steam could be reached in just two hours of walking at most. Now I was given an opportunity not only to get to the top of Mt Makiling but also to do more than that. At first I only expressed interest. Then I finally decided to join the trek. Furthermore, I managed to invite John Brian Estares and Xander Lopez, two of my friends. With firm hope, everyone would get along well. Then we also coordinated with the outdoor adventure group named Team Hero.

It was nearly 3 AM on January 8, 2017. Xander and I both hailed from Cavite province so we traveled together to Team Hero’s rendezvous location. Fellow hikers filled the fast food establishment near the Farmers Market in Quezon City. I felt a sense of camaraderie in the air. Our companions began to arrive. Complete strangers became acquainted with one another. Brian was already there. Our meeting turned into a sort of reunion. Len followed. She and I caught up with each other. I had not seen her in person in five months. Later on, the four of us bonded in a way that I could say “so far, so good.” We left for Batangas past 4 AM in two vans.

Sleep eluded me. It was not the chatting or the shaking from the vehicle’s movement that kept me awake. I closed my eyes and leaned back on my seat. Nothing worked. Still, I managed to catch a nap but doubted if it would keep me energized for what my fellow trekkers considered a major climb.

The two vans passed through an opened chain-link gate under an arch that seemed a giant water pipe. They stopped and we as passengers got out. My cheeks and bare arms felt the chill in the air. Yet it was not as cold as my morning in Baguio nearly a week ago. The sky looked more gray than blue, literally blanketed by stratus clouds. Flowers grew abundantly just outside the roofed basketball court. They were a welcoming sight. Later on, the vegetation would be wild and perhaps even intimidating. Brian, Len, Xander, and I asked fellow trekkers to take our group photo. We also tried stretching, thanks to Brian, to condition our muscles. A fellow named Errald, who had been working at a firm that designs yachts and performing well as a fitness runner, chatted with us.

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From left: The Blogger, Brian, Xander, Len

Our bag tags were distributed, courtesy of Team Hero. Organizers asked members for their nicknames. Mine was Marvin Ironheart, a reference to Björn Ironside. According to Old Norse sagas, Björn was one of the sons of the legendary leader Ragnar Lothbrok. After his father was executed by an Anglo-Saxon king, he and his brothers assembled a huge army and they all sailed across the North Sea for revenge. Björn also achieved fame for raids in the Mediterranean, especially at a settlement in Italy he thought was Rome. Now he had been one of the major characters in the television series Vikings. In the show, Björn got the nickname Ironside as he was reputedly gifted with invulnerability from bladed weapons. The same could be said to my heart, metaphorically. It could withstand (hopefully) unrequited affection and unworthy women, which cause emotional wounds as if my torso was struck by a sword or an axe.

Soon, one of the organizers named Mark Kenneth Hatuina briefed us about the hike. Then we all headed back into the vans. I thought we would begin walking from this location. It was not the start-off point here in Santo Tomas. The guides for our trek rode with us. One of them was Lando. A man probably in his fifties and wearing a basketball jersey, he sat beside me. Another guide named Jomar clung at where the door was, which was slid back. He did not mind. There was no more space inside. Lando and I chatted briefly about visitors to Mt Makiling and the trail.

Eventually, our transport reached the end of a gravel road. The way ahead sloped upward. It was cemented. The organizers told everyone to bail out. Thus, our traverse of Mt Makiling started. I could not help but quote Lao Tzu. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Len chuckled. Xander nodded. Excitement could be seen plainly in Brian’s face. As with many hikes, the first steps came with a feeling that the excursion would be easy.

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I wonder if we will still be smiling when this hike is over

The concrete beneath our feet disappeared, giving way into firm grayish ground. We arrived shortly at a field. To our left lay huge pipes that seemed a monstrous yellow serpent. At our front, a gigantic green lady on a massive scale was in deep slumber. Forests covered the entirety of Mt Makiling. We would hike deep into that mountain and emerge at the opposite side. My lips gave a smile from eagerness but then pouted from anxiety. I wondered if we could reach Los Baños before nightfall.

Cultivated flora still surrounded the trail. Banana trees grew in groves. Tiny plants, perhaps saplings, stood out from cupfuls of soil held by black plastic bags. They were arranged in a bed.

dscn0176Brian, Len, Xander, and I kept on walking. Our surroundings grew increasingly shady. Sunlight was more dappled than direct. Vines appeared out of nowhere. Traces of human habitation disappeared. The four of us just entered this piece of wilderness in the middle of heavily-populated Southern Luzon. Len wished she had a hiking staff. Branches littered our way but none so far could be turned into one. They all forked out like a deer’s antlers. Brian and I tried to break off a straight piece but it did not detach completely. Len found one lying on the ground by chance eventually. Now she had her improvised trekking pole. Following the trail at this point became less of a stroll. We ascended gradually. Then there was a part where we stepped on rocks clumped together. The surface seemed to give way upon putting my weight on it. I imagined it collapsing. Then I would plunge into a deep and dark ravine. Otherwise, I would roll down the slope, perhaps hit a tree trunk, and injure myself seriously. I moved as quickly as I could while crouching. One of the organizers named Ferdie told me to be careful. Good thing we all made it through without mishap. Brian and Len were getting along well. Xander talked to Errald. My companions could socialize easily in most circumstances. At the same time, Xander also recorded videos and took photos for his own blog.

Orange or yellow placards could be seen up on tree trunks or boughs. They marked the stations that indicated progress in hiking. So far, we had passed by four stations out of a total of sixty. The first half involved the ascent to the summit while the latter half was for our descent. I summoned every bit of patience and optimism I had. Just going from one station to another took at least ten minutes of walking uphill. Fatigue then announced its presence as I caught breaths and yearned to rest. The sun rose higher too. Sweating made me somewhat thirsty.

We arrived at what could be described as a campsite. The smell of burning wood entered my nostrils as I came closer to the embers instead of flames. Smoke dissipated as it rose towards the forest canopy. Makeshift tents were constructed from tarpaulin, bamboo, and plywood. A bamboo pole served as a bench. Len sat on it. Brian, Xander, and I chose to stand or crouch as that piece of bamboo would fail in supporting the weight of the four of us. We had some rest. Refreshing potable water from the springs of Mt Makiling gushed from a flexible black pipe. Then it plunged into a bed of dark rocks, casting droplets endlessly. It was like a drinking fountain in the middle of nowhere. Some of our companions filled plastic bottles and other water containers of small to medium size. Minutes passed before we resumed the trek. Len found a bamboo stick, picked it up, and used it as a sturdier trekking staff.

dscn0184A stream greeted us shortly. Running along its course were two synthetic black pipes that could be mistaken as pythons at a distance. One of them probably brought water to the campsite we stopped by earlier. A pool collected water, which overflowed down to a series of miniature cascades carved by nature. Just going to the bank involved a steep descent with little to hold on to. This stream forked beneath the pool, resulting in a patch of rocky and grassy ground that seemed a stopover in our crossing. My three friends were already on the other side. I went across. My footing on wet stones was firm. I made it halfway. All I needed were a few steps. Water seeped into my shoes. My socks got wet too. I did not mind it and kept on going.

Two of our companions named Grace and Olive shared our pace. Apparently, Olive wore a veil called a hijab. It was the garment called the niqab that concealed the entire head except for a pair of eyes. The hijab exposed the cheeks and chin. Keeping a woman’s hair, neck, and chest hidden served as its purpose. Olive practiced the Islamic faith. She was a convert too as people born from parents who were both Muslim tended to have Arabic-sounding names.

The hike felt more like climbing up a set of stairs. I began to ran out of breath. My legs did not hurt much yet but walking continuously made them sore. I clasped tree trunks and rocks to avoid slipping. It facilitated my movement too. Judging from previous treks, I would breathe effortlessly and endure tiredness a few hours later. My body was simply conditioning itself.

Densely clustered leaves cleared away. We were bathed in sunlight. A breeze gave some relief from the humidity. A boulder peered from the bushes. Just behind it was a ravine. This spot provided a scenic view of the surrounding landscape. Beyond the verdant forests of Mt Makiling’s foothills, hectares of farmland stretched towards the silvery horizon. Villages stood out from the dark and light shades of green. At least human settlement and its amenities were still within sight. Yet to our left lay a rugged mountain slope and its wild jungles. Our hiking party was not even halfway to the summit yet. My friends and I stopped for a while to take snapshots.

Brian, Len, Xander, and I got separated from the rest of Team Hero. This should not be a problem as long as we followed a trail of bare dirt and saw markers along the way. Still, trekkers at Mt Makiling must inhibit recklessness and replace it with utmost care. There had been multiple reports of people getting lost here. After all, the mountain was enchanted according to folklore. Yet a mix of eagerness and oblivion overcame Brian and Len as they kept on going ahead. Both hailed from the Bicol region, explaining why they bonded easily. I would feel the same way for someone from the Ilonggo ethnic group of western Visayas. This background came from my mother although I was not fluent with the Hiligaynon language. This sort of affinity gave Filipinos a degree of diversity but inhibited us from a deeper feeling of unity as one country. Meanwhile, Xander lagged a bit. I could match the two’s pace but he would be left alone. Good thing I brought the orange whistle that I received as a gift during the History Channel convention back in August. The four of us still could see one another.

Just as we caught up with four of our companions, the thing that we wanted to avoid much did too. Len was yelling inarticulately but we knew it meant trouble. Those guys ahead proved themselves right about what started appearing at this point. A leech crawled on Len’s leggings. It was not big and fat like Hirudo medicinalis – the medicinal leech; rather, it belonged to the genus Haemadipsa. It appeared tubular instead of flattened and much thinner too. I already had an encounter with one back in college during that team building activity. Yet it was only now that I saw it up close. A single rub of the index finger on the thumb and the leech got flung away. I could pick it off with my fingers but then I would become the invertebrate’s next victim. One of our fellows shared a bit of insect repellent lotion, which I rubbed on my arms exposed by a short-sleeved shirt. I doubted this would work against leeches. He and another guy took protection to the next level by wearing half face masks, sunglasses, and arm sleeves. In comparison, I simply tucked my pants into my black socks. They had their share of leech encounters too. Then those four moved quickly until they disappeared from sight.

The trail went up and down roughly. Soon, we came upon a gap among exposed tree roots and moss-covered boulders. We could only descend by holding on to a tough blue rope. I hated this kind of moment during treks. Progress relied on gripping the rope firmly as my feet pressed firmly against any surface they could touch. Fortunately for us, this one was relatively uncomplicated and already over after several seconds.

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Len feeling the struggle while holding the rope

Earlier, the organizers said we would have lunch at Station 15. Brian, Len, Xander, and I arrived at the spot. A forest clearing lay before us. Vines embraced the tree trunks. Fallen leaves accumulated on the ground, creating a brown carpet. They awaited a slow decay to be part of the soil under another layer of leaf litter. Like the leaves, people had been coming to this place, stopping briefly before going away. The fellows we caught up with previously now confirmed that we would eat our lunch here. We all had some rest yet remained standing.

dscn0217Leeches appeared on my companions’ clothing again from out of nowhere. One even made its way on Brian’s two-liter bottle of electrolyte-rich beverage. Someone from the other group placed a leech just below the fingernail on his thumb. Then he demonstrated how it sucked blood. Leeches produced their anesthetic naturally, making the process painless. Their tiny size meant that only a millimeter or so of blood will be lost. These worm-like creatures were more of a nuisance than a threat.

More of our fellows in Team Hero came as the four of us took photos, chatted, and laughed. They began to bring out food too. I had tuna in a small easy-to-open can but without boiled rice – the staple of Filipino food. In other words, I had protein without carbohydrates. Rice could be bought as takeout from small eateries called a karinderya in the Philippines. There was none around the start-off point. If there was, it likely had not opened yet. Brian, Len, and Xander managed to buy burgers at a 24-hour fast food establishment. The four of us ate together in silence as if overwhelmed by anger. This situation when dining together was known locally as galit-galit. Our fellows had a heavier and more sumptuous packed lunch with boiled white rice. Meanwhile, the forest canopy had a paler shade of green due to mist. There was a drizzle. Later on, a party of our companions began leaving to continue the trek. The four of us decided unanimously to join them. We stayed about 45 minutes at Station 15 and left at past 11 PM. Xander played his wireless and portable Bluetooth® speaker, then attached it to Brian’s backpack. Music of various genres accompanied us in the hike.

At first, it seemed a relaxing stroll. Then walking became increasingly difficult when the trail sloped as we went uphill. Then a log blocked our path. The tree trunk fell in a way that it was suspended in mid-air. We overcame this obstacle by climbing over or crouching under the log.

dscn0224Our movement grew sluggish. It came to a stop. Then I realized why. A female hiker gripped a blue nylon rope as she planned a way of climbing atop a rock face. I could not help but mutter complaint. Brian, Len, Xander, and I inched closer to another challenging part of the Mt Makiling traverse. The fellow ahead of me had his turn. He placed his left foot on a piece of wood stuck firmly into rock. It did not work. Either the wood was slippery or his foot was too large. That guy clad in black stepped on the rock surface instead. He exerted much energy as to not slip. In less than a minute, he got past the rock face but still held the rope. I exhaled. Our fellow advanced further until I could tug the rope safely. If I did it sooner and proceeded to climb, the rope could snap. It would be an ugly and painful consequence for us. I was a bit baffled. My foot slipped as it touched bare rock despite the bumps and grooves of my trekking shoes’ soles. There was no spot to step on. Then I thought of that piece of wood supporting my leg. I grasped the rope even tighter. My left foot rested on what was once a tree trunk, cut and processed before exposed to the elements in this uninhabited place to slowly deteriorate. It actually worked. After that, it felt like I could just jump over the rock face. Then I made my way through a slope littered with dried grass and leaves. My hands clung to the rope as if my life depended on it. Brian was next. He began tugging the rope. Lando, our guide, asked him to refrain from climbing until the fellow at my front reached the end of the ordeal. One by one, the four of us made it without much hassle.

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For Lando, the Mt Makiling traverse is just another usual routine 

Fellow trekkers at my front gathered together. It was not surprising. To my dismay, there was another rope and this time the rock face was higher and nearly vertical. I noticed immediately that a bit of rope was tied into a loop as if a noose. It actually seemed more of a stirrup in horseback riding. My foot would fit in it.

A few minutes passed before I faced the ordeal. Len requested that I carry her bamboo walking staff so she could grip the rope with ease. Meanwhile, I would simply rest and look after that stick after accomplishing the challenge. Lando sat atop the rock face. He instructed me what to do step by step. At first, I handed the improvised trekking staff to him so my hands would be free. Lando could not reach it. He told me to toss it to him. I did. He did not catch it. The bamboo stick slipped down but my reflexes sprang into action to catch it. Otherwise, it could have plunged down and perhaps impaled Len in a worst case scenario. Still, she could avoid it. I moved closer towards Lando. Panic crept into me as I lost footing. I put all of my energy in holding on to the rope. There was nothing to do but keep on trying until I got it right. I moved two or three steps upward before extending my arm as far as I can to pass the hiking staff to Lando. He could grab it this time. Climbing that rock face also went smoothly after freeing my hands. In one move I bounded towards my left and grabbed a branch. Then I crawled before standing beside Lando with a loud exhale and a wide smile.

Participants of the Team Hero hike gathered at the edge of a ravine. Far below us lay a dense jungle of broad-leaved trees. It was simply a piece of unspoiled nature. Four equally verdant peaks secluded the forest from human enroachment. Nothing could be seen under the tree canopy. It seemed a perfect sanctuary for deer, wild pigs, monkeys and perhaps enchanted beings of folklore. The gray cloudy sky gave the forest a dark character, intensified by mist over the peaks. The blowing of the wind became an unwelcoming ambience to my ears. Yet the landscape suited as a background for our snapshots. We posed with care to avoid slipping. Falling off the edge and into the trees below would mean certain demise. It would be difficult to recover the remains too.

I thought our ordeal with ropes and rock surfaces was over. I was wrong. The four of us stared in disbelief after a harrowing uphill climb. The brown rock surface did not appear intimidating. Yet upon a closer look it was rather slippery due to the drizzle. Xander went first. I took photos of him climbing over the rock face. He made it without intense effort. As I found out personally during my turn, I could also grip branches and thin tree trunks along the way. Xander in turn took snapshots of me as I ‘struggled’ to reach the top. Brian was next, followed by Len. We had pictures of our ascent. Brian posed with a salute as if he did not break a sweat.

dscn0231Our group of four hikers managed to fit in a patch of ground just above our latest obstacle. We had a view in the opposite direction of the dense forest and peaks we saw earlier. The landscape was absolutely different. Woodland retreated to the foothills of Mt Makiling as it was replaced by an environment defined by the product and skill of human hands. What used to be totally green now had patches of brown, blue, and red. I could not determine those big white structures at our right, just off the center. One looked like a colossal domino tile without any black dot and a black line too. It aroused my curiosity as I wondered about its purpose. A road, or more like a highway, stood out as a slanting line at our left. Amazingly, white smoke billowed from what I guessed was a geothermal power station. Laguna de Bay lay on the horizon. It was a huge lake, not a bay as the name supposedly suggested. In fact, it was identified with the municipality of Bay in Laguna province. According to legend, the town had been connected with Maria Makiling as its name sounded like babae (pronounced baBA-E), the Tagalog word for woman. Furthermore, Laguna de Bay could be simply translated from Spanish as ‘lake of Bay.’ This whole landscape lay under a dreary gray blanket of cloud.

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Look, flowers! I will appreciate it if some botanist identifies them 

dscn0235My fingers got smeared by mud slightly as we struggled up a sloping section of the trail. Branches and roots became nature’s handle bars. Psychological stress from the slope, gloomy weather, and remoteness of our location added to the weariness. Then we arrived at a spot overgrown with cogon grass. The place bore a resemblance to the summit of Mt Purgatory in Benguet province, although at a smaller scale. Len also recalled its similarity to what she had been to at Mt Pulag. I had not climbed it yet. Yet the two mountains were relatively near to one another. We followed Lando and kept on moving. As grass gave way to trees, leaves blocked the sky and shadows engulfed our surroundings.

I had not encountered a leech attached to my clothing yet until this part of the traverse. Perhaps the insect repellent lotion did work. There were two of them on my pants. I struck them with the back of my hand. They fell off, probably hurt but still alive. Killing them would be unnecessary. Brian, Len, Xander, and I then inspected one another for leeches on our bags and clothing. We found a few. Brian plucked a leaf and with it scraped one off a fabric surface. Len even had her flowing long hair, dyed brown with a tinge of orange, checked but fortunately there was none.

We felt frustrated eventually. Leeches were the least of our problems. The trail should lead us to the summit but we were going downhill instead of uphill. Confusion shook the recesses of my mind. It did not make sense. The four of us made our way through the woods on our own, relying on a path dirt transformed into mud by the moist air. I scanned for footprints too. Our companions simply disappeared. An end to the hike eluded us. It seemed we were walking among creepy vine-covered trees for eternity. The jungle swallowed us and I summoned all hope it would spit us out soon. Large tree roots extended at chest height, appearing as a limbo bar. Of course, we would not do the limbo dance that originated from the Caribbean. I crouched, went under, and moved as if a mole in its underground tunnel. The roots snagged my backpack a bit. Some tree trunks were also bristling literally with thorns as tiny as the graphite tip of a pencil. Additionally, our group also could not see those station placards anymore. This scene went on for minutes that turned into hours.

Len also complained about soreness in the legs that hindered her pace. I could describe it as a déjà vu moment for me. It happened before at my Mt Ulap traverse. Yet we did not have balm this time. The hiking stick helped Len greatly.

Later on, the four of us ascended continuously. For certain, we were getting near the summit. Two of our fellows in Team Hero, Amena and Nico, accompanied us at this point.

A muddy patch of ground lay ahead. Our shoes could sink slightly in the deluge, making them even dirtier. I tiptoed on the trail’s edge. Then I sighed with regret. We just realized there was another narrower path, concealed by undergrowth and the gnarled roots of a tree. Just shortly ahead, light shone brightly from a gap among the arboreal foliage. Several men from another trekking party stood as a line. We greeted them. They in turn greeted us back. Someone among them told us that we had reached the summit. It was past 2 PM.

According to Len, the summit of Peak 2 did not have scenic views. She was right. Walls of vegetation surrounded a small open area. I could not see anything beyond them. Cloudy weather cast a cold grayish haze, adding to the disappointment. Simply speaking, the best views from Mt Makiling could be found not at the summit but along the way. A yellow placard indicated that the summit had been designated as Station 30. Someone thought about Rodrigo Duterte, the current president of the Philippines, who went by the nickname of Du30. Then we posed for a picture, doing Duterte’s signature clenched fist. Behind us was a shredded piece of tarpaulin with a logo of the University of the Philippines torn apart. This broke my heart. Brian, Len, Xander, and I went busy with snapshots. Most of Team Hero regrouped at the summit. I took a group photo. We lingered for about 15 minutes before descending. Then those fellows who fell in line had their own moment at the summit.

Our companions went ahead. The four of us, along with Amena and Nico, were the last to go. We all had a brief chat while keeping to the sides of another patch of muddy ground. Yet the two quickened their pace, eventually disappearing from our sight. At least Ferdie stayed with us.

dscn0245We could not even believe how speedy our descent was, despite seemingly left behind. I only needed to jump down while grasping a branch, tree trunk, or rock. The trail was not that steep too. It even allowed us to stroll with leisure sometimes. Still, towering trees closed in on us. Footprints formed in the mud, cast by our fellows who went ahead. At times, we had to choose between having our shoes’ soles caked with a layer of mud or slipping after putting a foot on moistened rock. Otherwise, the trail was strewn with dead leaves, decaying wood, moss, and even mushrooms. Our group tried to diminish our sighs, grunts, and complaints by injecting humor into our conversation. Brian was the most talkative among us in a positive way. The downhill hike had an uncanny similarity to what I experienced at my Mt Purgatory traverse. As remnants of sunlight that pierced the forest canopy faded, we hoped to reach the University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Forestry campus before nightfall.

Upon arriving at Station 18, the four of us took a break. It had this number for trekkers with their jump-off point at Los Baños instead of Santo Tomas. Two female hikers who traveled separately from us sat on a log. Xander shared crackers while for Len it was a variety of nuts. Brian ate the last of the three burgers he purchased before daybreak. I drank more of the same electrolyte-rich beverage that Brian also brought along. Xander asked me how I reflected on my self during this trek. I replied to him that friendships mattered much and I looked forward to the next chapter of my life. Yet I grimaced for the things I would have to lose in exchange. Then I thanked the three for this memorable adventure. We just realized that Ferdie was gone. The four of us would end this journey on our own.

At around 4 PM, the light turned more yellow than gray as the weather had enough of its bad mood. We were having a walk in the woods during a mellow afternoon. Trees lost their frightening appearance in exchange to a friendly one. Undergrowth crept back from the trail. Birds warbled and sang. Xander’s wireless speaker emitted a tune that made me imagine the four of us wandering in an elven forest. All that was missing were graceful yet reclusive anthromorphic beings with pointed ears. As it was a fantasy setting, the four of us would be adventurers too. Len would be the healer. Xander would be an archer with his bow and sharp eyesight. Brian would utilize his fitness as a knight. I would rather be a berserker unleashing fury that was sparked by difficulties in life. For me now, going on hikes was better than playing video games.

I shared to my three friends how wild pigs could be dangerous. When cornered, they may charge and injure people seriously with lower canine teeth that grew into tusks. At least we did not encounter a wild pig or even a snake. Leeches were the closest to wildlife we could come upon. They still stuck to our bodies despite our group approaching the end of the hike. We kept on removing them in response.

Fears of getting lost did creep into our minds. The trail went on infinitely no matter how it lost the slopes and mud for a flat dirt path. The next curve revealed nothing but trees and more of them. There were tales of campers at Mt Makiling who, after packing up, keep finding themselves back at the starting point regardless where and how far they walked. It seemed they could not escape the mountain. Legend had it that Maria Makiling caused them to be disoriented and lost until they cleaned up garbage at their campsite. Only when it was accomplished that these campers made it out of the wilderness. I did not recall the four of us littering during the trek. We should not worry.

The four of us chatted about a variety of topics. Len described her home province of Camarines Norte. Brian talked about swimming and especially running. Xander shared a bit of his life but he seemed mostly quiet. This time, I became rather talkative. Our conversation also involved societal issues, indie films, religion, and the intricacies of romantic relationships.

At Station 13, a brook ran its course. Water flowed parallel to the path we would follow. This meant we were heading to a lower elevation. I assured my friends about this, speaking with the tone of wilderness survival experts who appear in television. We were going the right way. Earlier, we passed by a number of banana trees. Seeing crops instead of wild flora indicated human presence. Then I heard the faint roar of a motor tricycle’s engine. The sound echoed through the forest around us. Len said she did not hear it. I strongly believed it was a motor tricycle but we saw only thick trunks and foliage. Later on past the brook, someone covered the top of a pole with an empty cement sack. I smiled. It was clear enough as further proof.

Brian, Len, Xander, and I spotted a red object in the distance. We approached it noisily due to joy and relief. It felt like returning to civilization after wandering aimlessly in the wild outdoors. People stood on a gray surface. I could make out vendors on a concrete road. Upon a closer look, those ‘vendors’ turned out to be a group of men and their motorcycles.

Agila Base simply featured a rural version of a convenience store and a sort of a transportation hub with motorbikes. It also served as the starting point in the final leg of our journey. A couple approaching their senior years maintained a shack. They sold instant noodles in plastic cups, crackers with chocolate or butter filling, and several brands of soft drink. Bunches of ripe pale yellow bananas lay on what looked like a makeshift hybrid of a store counter and table. I bought one for potassium intake. It tasted delightfully sweeter than the bananas sold at my hometown. After remarking about it, the woman told me that bananas here were ripened on the tree before harvested. Their counterparts sold in wet markets went through the other way around. Len even bought a whole bunch of 15 bananas for Php 45. As the woman assured, a piece was sold for three pesos. In comparison, buying just one banana at an urban karinderya could cost Php 10. Our fellows sat on a bench close by, eating whichever food item they each preferred. Stomachs were filled as energy was replenished. Then they decided to ride all the way to the College of Forestry on those motorcycles functioning as taxis, known locally as a habal-habal. Brian, Len, Xander, and I discussed whether to do the same. We all agreed to just walk instead.

It was nearly 5:30 PM when we left Agila Base and began the stroll with enthusiasm. After all, we followed a relatively wide dirt road instead of a trail choked by trees and undergrowth. The four of us cheered after seeing that one of two lanes had been cemented. We walked on top of it. Then our happiness turned into dismay as the section of a concrete road ended. It did not go all the way. We related it to the breakup in romantic relationships, then laughed. At least the surface was not muddy.

Daylight faded as the sky turned blue, then becoming indigo. The leaves and branches appeared black. Birds and critters went noisy as they tend to be at dusk. It was apparent that nighttime would catch up with us. I suggested to my friends that we move briskly.

dscn0253Here in the Philippines, the sun would set thirty minutes to one hour earlier in January than in June. We were at the mercy of nocturnal darkness. Good thing we brought flashlights and headlamps as the traverse was supposed to start at 4 AM, more than an hour from the break of dawn. My headlamp gave a weak light. The battery was nearly exhausted of stored energy. We all relied on Len’s flashlight, which was fully charged too. It illuminated everything within a radius of several meters until distance made the white light fade into obscurity.

Fortunately, the road was cemented once again. After minutes of walking, it still was and it would likely be until we descend to my alma mater. The authorities did put efforts into infrastructure. Back on my college days, this part was not layered with concrete yet. Then the four of us passed by the shack that sold coconut juice to my college organization mates and I during that team building hike in 2013. It was still there, only closed for the night. Brian, Len, and Xander asked me how many minutes it would take before we reached the end. I made rough estimates. Years had passed since then and experiences in the corporate world had made my memory even blurrier.

The night came with possible threats too. UPLB had seen its share of crimes, a few involving the loss of life. I contacted one of the Team Hero organizers. There was no reply. I hoped that they would notice our absence, notify the university’s police personnel, and have a multicab vehicle drive up this road. The driver would bump into us and then give Brian, Len, Xander, and I a lift so we could reunite with our companions. It did not happen. Two fellows also ran down the concrete road in near-total darkness as part of their training. Brian chatted with them enthusiastically before the pair left us.

I told the three we would arrive at the meet-up location after ten minutes. This span of time passed and yet we were still walking briskly on an unlit road. I forgot totally this place despite being here before. Our legs ached and we all yearned for a bath to get rid of the sweat and mud. We wanted to ride in the van, stop over for dinner, and head home. It was past 6:30 PM when we saw red-tinged light from distant lamp posts. We were probably too tired to yell cheerfully.

At a facility in UPLB’s College of Forestry, hikers could take a shower and relieve themselves for a fee. Brian, Len, Xander, and I fell in line with our fellows from Team Hero. A leech was creeping on Len’s stuff. It was ‘taken care of’ easily. This was our last encounter with those bloodsucking worms. We washed up, rinsed our footwear too, kept our dirty clothing in plastic bags, and wore a new set of garments. Fulfilling his duty as an organizer, Mark shouted at us to hurry up.

Our entire hiking party filled the two vans so we could begin the homeward trip. Then we made our way through the streets, buildings, and grass-covered spaces of UPLB. This was where I studied and graduated but tiredness kept me from appreciating my return here. The van I rode on sped past the grounds of the College of Economics and Management, which was shrouded by darkness and devoid of students. As we left the university’s main gate, I remembered strolling along Lopez Avenue back then. Shops and establishments that lined it had come and gone but the illuminated signs endured. Later, we had dinner at a food chain famous for grilled chicken and unlimited rice.

People who intend to hike at Mt Makiling would need a mix of courage and caution. They should be concerned with slippery surfaces, rock-climbing with ropes, ravines, and the likelihood of getting lost more than leeches. Yet Brian, Len, Xander, and I made it through the trek along with the rest of Team Hero. The four of us nicknamed ourselves as the Fantastic Four from Marvel Comics. We also proclaimed among ourselves that our journey – especially at the part where we hurried down the mostly cemented road just after nightfall – was worthy of legend.

A Foggy Day at Mt Maculot

Here is another rule when hiking up a mountain: Do not always expect great views at the summit. The organizers of my Mt Maculot trek set the date on October 15, 2016. Days before the climb, Typhoon Sarika, named Karen in the Philippines, approached the country. It had not made landfall yet but brought rainy weather as well. I was even unsure whether our planned hike would proceed. On October 14, it did not rain and the wind did not pick up speed. We would do the day-hike.

Situated in the municipality of Cuenca, Batangas, Mt Maculot has been a magnet for people who want to climb mountains south of Manila. It stands at 930 meters above sea level. Trail difficulty is 4/9 at most.

After the Valenzuela fishing trip and the Mt Purgatory traverse, I would be on a trip again with Christian “Xtian” Villanueva. He organized the trip along with Jhazz de Guzman and CJ. Two vans had been rented for the hike. We numbered a total of 30 participants. I already met Alvin, Xtian’s younger brother, and Rhea Juranes through common friends in social media. Some of our companions would be trekking at a mountain for the first time.

It took us more than three hours to reach Cuenca from our rendezvous location in Taguig city. We navigated roads along residential areas before taking to a highway. Then we followed the South Luzon Expressway. I fell asleep during the road trip. When I woke up, we were already in Cuenca, Batangas.

Some of my companions bought breakfast and supplies as well at a major convenience store franchise in the municipality. Then our journey to the base of Mt Maculot resumed. The surroundings grew greener. The houses became fewer. Later on, a large tarpaulin sign greeted mountaineers with a welcome. Our hiking party stopped by a building to pay the entrance fee.

20161015_064631Eventually, we arrived at a compound with its chain-link fence covered by many tarpaulin signs. The drivers parked our vans at an adjacent parking lot with a grassy surface. The first thing I did was to relieve myself. I would rather do it with a proper toilet than out there at the mountain. Emptying my bladder costed five Philippine pesos. There were multiple comfort rooms lined one after another. They had cemented walls, tiled floors, porcelain toilets, water-filled buckets that came with a plastic dipper, and nails hammered as ‘pegs’ for hanging towels and clothes. At least taking a bath after the trek would not be a problem anymore. In fact, it would be convenient as several hikers could do it at one time.

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With trekking sticks and high spirits, we posed for a group picture before making our first steps 

The outdoor adventure began at 7:05 AM after a briefing by the guides and a short group prayer. We walked under a gloomy sky and the shade of seemingly ghostly trees. The wind made the leaves rustle. Our hiking party followed a stretch of concrete road lightheartedly. Most among us had hiking sticks made from branches with their outer layer completely removed in an artistic fashion. Each one costed ten Philippine pesos. Then the cemented path gave way to a bumpy dirt road. I looked down and saw miniature20161015_071534 gullies and ridges. My walking staff created a hole as it pierced the soil. I pressed on alongside Alvin, Rhea, and their friend named Aya Canilao. Aya and Rhea began to complain about the trail jokingly. Meanwhile, Xtian served as our ‘sweeper’ at the rear. He made sure no one would be left behind.

I asked a guide how Mt Maculot got its name. He said the mountain used to be called Mt Makulog, which is Tagalog for ‘thunderous.’ The spelling changed over the years. (Later in the trek, another guide also mentioned that the Feast of Saint Joseph came with peals of thunder, according to local elders.)

Foliage surrounded us from the left and the right. Then the surroundings grew brighter at a spot devoid of trees along the trail. Behind a foreground of coconut trees lay a lake. Its tranquil water appeared gray under a sky that signaled the advent of rain. We walked further and came upon an eye-catching rock formation on our right. It was decorated naturally with vines and moss. A sign lying on the ground gave more information.

Minutes passed as the trail sloped increasingly. A bed of flat and smooth rock gave us a bit of respite. Some even posted for photos on top of it. Then the dirt trail led us higher up Mt Maculot. It reminded me of my Mt Amuyao hike due to the tiresome uphill hike and branches lying on our path as makeshift steps.

Eventually, we arrived at the first of the twelve resting stations before reaching that famous part of the mountain called the ‘Rockies.’ This one had a stall constructed from bamboo poles and a large piece of heavy synthetic material colored blue and orange. A lady clad in a black outfit sold coconut juice with shredded coconut meat for ten Philippine pesos per cup. Some of our companions gulped the refreshing beverage before we all resumed the trek.

The path to the summit became steeper. It had truly become what we called an ‘assault,’ or an uphill part of the trail that would exhaust one’s energy. We began to inhale and exhale deeply with panting. Alvin and Aya had moved to the vanguard of our trekking party. Rhea was my hiking buddy that day. We shared the struggle of our fellows who coped with Mt Maculot’s challenge by making humorous statements. A good laugh staved off weariness and kept our spirits relatively high.

20161015_074300A dog with blotched brown and black fur, named Tiger, accompanied our group. It smelled as if it was not bathed for several months. Yet it did not have the slightest tendency to bark or growl at people. The canine simply walked with us with bare paws instead of trekking shoes and sandals. I became rather amiable with Tiger despite my preference to cats.

The third station came with a shack that sold boiled plantains (known locally as saging na saba), pork dumplings dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and calamondin squeeze, bread, and an assortment of beverages. According to a woman there aged in her fifties, the other vendors did not set up business due to the approaching typhoon and the subsequent lack of visitors. We also took some rest, shared trail food, and drank the water we brought.

Our legs felt the strain from the ascent. On the other hand, I had more trouble with the excessive sweating of my forehead. My eyeglasses got blurry not only from droplets of perspiration but also from the humidity. The trail was not as difficult as a few from my previous excursions. It was not raining yet.20161015_080347 Most of the rocks that lay on the trail were not slippery. Soil did not collapse from the weight of our footsteps. Our voices interrupted the forest’s silence, broken occasionally by the melodic song of birds and hum of critters. At a rough and rock-strewn part of the trail, a millipede crawled slowly and we could have touched it. It was like a hundred times bigger than the specimens that appeared in my family home’s bathroom. Rhea said she would rather lose her footing than handle the many-legged creature unwittingly. My hiking companions kept on making references about setbacks in romance, known as a hugot. Our hike turned into a cycle of arduous walking and momentary resting.

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Eventually, the shadowy trees turned into lush grass. The dirt path ahead zigzagged. We held on to a durable black rope, which remained tough despite exposure to sun and rain. The trail did not have rocks and tree roots. We could follow it with ease. Of course, the rope was necessary as dirt would turn into slippery mud during a downpour. There was virtually nothing to grip except this rope. We amused ourselves by chatting and laughing before reaching another rest station.

The next two stations were only several minutes apart from each other. They also looked similarly as structures made of bamboo and a bit of other materials. If it was not foggy that day, both would offer a breath-taking view of verdant mountains and an azure lake. Yet the mist concealed most of our surroundings. The air grew cooler. At least it was not as humid now than before.

Later at another station during a break, Tiger was panting heavily. We had to give it something to drink. I took out my 1.5 liter bottle of water bought at a grocery. A part of me believed that kindness to animals would have its divine rewards, especially forgiveness of sins. Now we needed a sort of container. I could not just pour it on the ground only to have the friendly canine lick some mud. My eyes scanned the immediate surroundings. There were fresh leaves, fallen leaves, and a piece of tarpaulin. Then one of our hiking companions brought out a small transparent plastic bag. He shaped it into a bowl as I filled it partly with water. Tiger approached eagerly and lapped its share of refreshing drink. We were all smiling and our voices echoed with gladness.

Our hiking party kept on walking uphill until we arrived at the so-called ‘7-Eleven.’ At a glance it did look like a convenience store. Four bamboo tables had been set up all over the place, sheltered from the elements under thick roofing supported by an intricate arrangement of rafters and sturdy bamboo posts. The few vendors sold a wide variety of edible items. There were canned sardines, hard-boiled eggs, easy-to-cook pancit canton noodles in packs, nuts in foil packs, instant coffee in sachets, and bottled beverages. The organizers decided we would have lunch there after visiting the ‘Rockies’ first.20161015_090931

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To our left, the dirt path led us into a meadow with tall grass. Vegetation had been slashed and trampled beside the trail, making this spot more spacious. The foggy background had us posing for photos. It felt like venturing into uncertainty. The scenery relieved my eyes yet cast doubt in my mind simultaneously.

We followed the trail and came upon a plaque on the grassy ground. There was a large rock near the edge of a ravine. Beyond lay an elevated landmark, green with foliage but had some gray too from bare rock faces. It was the ‘Rockies.’ I associated this term to the Rocky Mountains of North America. Aya and Rhea asked me to take snapshots of them as they stood on top of the nearby rock.

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Rhea (left) and Aya (right) having their photo taken at a moment when there was less mist 

The way ahead descended into a grove of trees. Our surroundings turned shady. Heavy rope on posts had been laid beside the trail again. I gripped the knotty material tightly as if my life depended on it. My hands worked harder than my feet. Rhea and I managed to have a humorous conversation in the process. This part of the trail also felt like rappelling. Once I turned to my back, held on to the rope, and bounded down the sloped path. The only challenge was how to prevent the hiking staff from slipping from my grasp.

20161015_092040Eventually, I arrived at to the starting point of the ascend up the Rockies. One of the guides said we could leave those artisan trekking sticks as we would not need it for the climb. We did so. Up ahead were fellow hikers mustering both physical and emotional strength to reach the top. We all seemed a line of ants on a rocky anthill. Those before us made their way through boulders. It would be my turn very soon. Short and hardy plants also grew around us, making the most of limited nutrients the soil offered. Our party advanced rather slowly. I stood beside my hiking buddy, staring at a whitish sky and nothing else. The foggy weather ruined my hopes of experiencing Mt Maculot like my former office colleague next to my desk back then. Despite our gloomy environment, we remained cheerful by chatting and taking group photos.

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The struggle is real, again… this time up the ‘Rockies’ of Mt Maculot

As my fingers exerted pressure and stuck to bare rock, I recalled my fairly recent excursion at Mt Pamitinan. Getting past this stretch of trail towards the Rockies required much less effort compared to that outdoor adventure in Rizal province. A guide wearing a neon green outfit directed us where to place our feet at a point where one could not walk but only climb. We made gradual progress in our way to the top. Another hiking party had begun to descend from the Rockies. It was our group’s turn now.

20161015_093610A few trees and some bushes grew sparsely atop this scenic part of Mt Maculot. We arrived at the Rockies at 9:45 AM. My companions were still enthusiastic with taking snapshots despite the complete lack of view. Beyond the edge lay only a dreary and grayish mist. It reminded me of the time I climbed Mt Tabayoc only to find the same foggy scene. At least there were no frigid gusty winds this time. A bird much larger than a sparrow, perhaps the size of a quail, flew and darted just above our heads. It would be amazingly calm here if not for the non-stop chatter of hikers, including me. We had ample time to stay at the Rockies, even wait for the skies to clear.

I heard joyous shouting. The mist faded to reveal a blurry view of an enormous body of water, contrasted by what looked like a ridge or an island. Cameras and mobile phones were in action. Several seconds passed and the fog engulfed what could be seen of the surrounding landscape. I complained about it. Our voices came with a tone of disappointment.

Eventually, the air became clear enough to show what I thought was the sea off the coast of Batangas province. A guide named Ariel told me it was actually Taal Lake. The land beyond the gray stretch of water appeared blue instead of green. While most among our hiking party gathered at a vantage point indicated by the guides, I went to the other edge of the Rockies along with Alvin, Aya, Rhea, and a fellow named Justine dela Cruz. A narrow trail led us through bushes that grew low due to constant exposure to wind, cold, and rain. Then they gave way to lush grass strewn with brown rocks. I could see a large island and two smaller ones to its right. We began posing for pictures with those islands on the backdrop. I also asked our companion named Grace to take a few pictures that included me. However, the wind picked up speed and concealed our view with the stubborn mist from time to time. We could not do anything but accept the circumstances. It was not for us to control the weather.

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The Blogger admiring the view despite being limited. He is also looking forward to the future

We stayed on top of the Rockies for at least 30 minutes. In the end, we only had a glimpse instead of a scenic view of Taal Lake due to the fog. Our trekking party then descended through the same rocky and steep way. We jumped down a point that we climbed before with bare hands (except for Aya who brought gloves) and footwear. I looked for our hiking sticks but they were simply out of sight. I wondered if they were brought to the ‘7-Eleven’ resting station. We held on to that black rope along the trail again. Rhea and I had a funny conversation and we were joined by a guide who introduced himself as JR. We complimented his sense of humor.

Back at ‘7-Eleven,’ my walking staff was simply gone. Yet my other companions held theirs while sitting around a table. Rhea told me to let it go. She lost hers too. I did not blame anyone. Some things would go missing for a good reason. Perhaps that stick might hinder me later.

20161015_111342Our party of around 30 people assembled for lunch. We ate separately as two groups. I brought out deep-fried slices of eggplant. Rhea sliced a few tomatoes. I cut two of those purple-dyed salted eggs in half and scooped out the solidified white and yolk. Egg and tomatoes were mixed into a Filipino dish seen commonly. Our fellows shared adobo, which was meat cooked in soy sauce and vinegar, canned food, and more rice. Cocoa-based chocolates in foil wrappers were shared, along with chocolate-covered marshmallows. I had a full belly. It was one of the best lunch breaks in my treks so far.

Noon approached but there was no sweltering heat due to an overcast sky. We had our backpacks again. Our hiking party followed a trail20161015_112059 opposite to the way towards the Rockies. Tall grass grew around the path but it did not choke us. This area was relatively open. Yet I was sure it would not be like this all the way to the summit. A forested mountaintop stood proudly to our right. It was the summit of Mt Maculot.

20161015_113043Alvin and Rhea were my hiking buddies during the ascent. Soon the grass transformed into leafy bushes and ferns. Hardwood trees stretched towards a gray sky. The surroundings grew dimmer. There was undergrowth everywhere. We entered a literal jungle. Plants seemed to be breathing as if they were sentient. My eyeglasses got cloudy from the humidity. The dirt trail felt soft under my shoes. It still looked more of a path within a public park or a botanical garden.

The way ahead became steeper and our legs bore the brunt of the hike. Rhea panted as she mentioned her sore feet. She chose to wear sandals instead of shoes in anticipation of rainy weather. It was more difficult to deal with wet shoes. Rhea also stopped moving from time to time to recuperate. She had not done nature walks for weeks. Yet she looked forward to climb Mt Daraitan in Rizal province. Alvin and I had been there before. We discouraged Rhea jokingly because the trail up that mountain would be several times worse than this. The three of us pressed on. Rhea loved outdoor adventures. I believed her body would be more accustomed to the rigors of trekking if she hiked more often.

Minutes passed endlessly and the summit was still out of sight. Our guides said it would be reached from ‘7-Eleven’ within 45 minutes to one hour. Of course, those guys moved much faster and more agile than the average hiker.

To make matters worse, parts of the trail consisted of slippery mud. I was grateful there were branches, tree trunks, and even exposed roots to hold on to. The humid air turned misty. We were hiking south of Manila but at that time the surroundings resembled a mossy forest in the Cordillera mountain range up north. Air temperature seemed to drop too. However, my forehead and scalp were sweating profusely. The warmth of the forest mixed with the cold of the fog, turning the soil moist.

At 12:15 PM, the three of us finally arrived at the summit after an arduous walk. Trees did not grow closely together, giving way into a clearing. Bluish gray fog hid the landscape below and around us like it did atop the Rockies. It was even worse here. I could say there was nearly zero visibility. A chilly wind slapped my face. Some of our female companions had their hair blown into disorder. The cold felt soothing though. Chatter filled the air.

Our companions posed for photos beside a decorative sign that indicated the summit of Mt Maculot. Two wooden posts held it upright. Previous visitors wrote graffiti with ball-point pen and hand. At least those unwanted marks did not ruin the sign. We posed by batches and I waited for my turn. Rhea asked me to take several snapshots of her and I did. She returned the favor later. All of us there took more photos, chatted, sat down, and had fun. The rest of our companion came gradually in small groups. Our hiking party assembled at the summit for an epic group picture featuring our logo on a piece of tarpaulin. Tiger the dog joined us as well.

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It was too foggy at the summit. Yet we still reached it without mishap and with smiling faces. 

There was a trail other than the one we took to reach the summit. We followed it on our way down. Our descent began at around 1 PM. At first, this path seemed amiable. The ground was dry instead of muddy. We all looked forward to get out of this mountain sooner and have a bath. Our group’s pace was quicker than before. Then we entered the jungle again and difficulties began to show up.

I failed to notice a better trail to my left. It felt like walking into a dead end. I was forced to crouch down, move slowly down a slope of moist soil, and take hold of roots of a plant I did not know. Thorns like countless miniature needles covered a tree trunk that I nearly touched. Alvin did so. He complained about pain on his palms. Then he asked for water to wash the dirt off his hands and examine the extent of injury. Alvin plucked those thorns off one by one. The two of us nearly slipped at that spot too. A fellow hiker named Reechee Torlao passed by nimbly. She seemed at home in this forested and uneven terrain.

20161015_125230Our march down Mt Maculot came to a halt. Our hiking party ended up as a long line of people who chatted and played music from mobile phones as we waited tediously. Alvin, Rhea, and I were closer to the rear and we could not see what was going on. Leaves and branches closed in on us everywhere.

Eventually, I saw what delayed our downhill trek. The way ahead was too steep that walking through it was simply impossible. We had to grip an even thicker and tougher rope than the one near the Rockies. It seemed close to an actual rappelling experience. Only one person could do it at a time. Then my turn came. I turned to my back, held the rope very tight, and moved carefully to avoid slipping. Amazingly, I felt more excited than nervous. With enough distance between me and Alvin, I called on him to begin making his way down. He said I should go a little further as he might slide down and we would bump into each other violently. I heeded his advice and everything went well. A guide also helped me by telling what to hold and where to place my foot. I gripped branches and a bamboo too. As I progressed through this challenging part of the traverse, the ground grew less steep. Pressure mounted in my legs as I did everything to secure my footing. When I reached the end of this ordeal, those hiking companions ahead of me were already gone.

I sighed with relief when following the trail required less physical effort. Trees grew densely all around us. Only little of the sky could be seen. The melodious song of an unseen bird could be heard. I found myself at the forefront of our smaller trekking party. Going ahead of my companions, I turned into a pathfinder. I could have been donning a safari outfit, hacking a way through dense foliage with the help of a bolo knife. Plants did not grow that thick though. Left alone momentarily, my thoughts wandered into uncertainties with interpersonal relationships and the future.

Time went by. There was no end in sight. We caught up with our fellows because they stopped as a long line again.

It was more daunting than the section we rappelled down before. This one also involved rappelling. However, we would descend one by one through a nearly vertical rock formation rather than a sloping dirt path. It also took us more time to overcome. Alvin went in before Rhea and I followed her. Justine was behind me. Standing on a ledge, I held on to a log that not only acted as something for trekkers to grip but also secured the rope for rappelling. One of the guides asked me to support that log. There was a slight possibility it might get dislodged. Then it would come crashing down on guides and hikers. My companions and I would also be stuck on the trail if there was no way to go around the rock formation.

I watched Rhea as she rappelled down with the assistance of guides. The rope could not handle the weight of two people descending at the same time. I waited a little longer. Then a guide finally told me it was my turn. I gripped the heavy rope, rotated, and faced a smooth rock surface. Carefully, I wedged my right and left foot successively into slits or cracks as the guide instructed. My hands slid until they touched a knot on the rope. Again I moved my legs, secured my footing, and grabbed another knot. Eventually, my feet left the vertical surface and landed on rock with a slope of 45 degrees. I could find my way down without further assistance. Another guide said I could stop following their tips and improvise with movement. I nodded my head. The challenge ended when I jumped and my feet landed on soil, rather than continue walking on rock and risk slipping. Then I thanked the guide before looking for Alvin and Rhea.

20161015_133837I stumbled upon Rhea following a short walk from the rock formation. Alvin was nearby. We waited for Aya. She came a few minutes later. The four of us continued the trek downhill. Tall trees made the place spookier in the fading light. It was past 2 PM and the sky remained gray. Sweat dripped on my face. The humid air blurred my eyeglasses again. Then we found an abandoned hiking staff. Alvin, Rhea, and I did not want it but Aya did. Now she had two trekking sticks for each hand. Aya wore gloves too. She pressed on happily. Rocks, roots, and more dirt lay on the trail. There was no end to it and we began complaining. Our destination was a grotto and it was still out of sight. The four of us kept on walking but only more trees greeted us. They seemed sinister in the dim surroundings.

Woodland gave way into a grassy clearing. We could see fencing and what looked like a wooden resting station with benches and a roof. Joy and eagerness resonated from our voices.

The trail led us up a hill. It was almost treeless. Cogon grass covered the landmark completely and danced with the breeze. I had a sensation of heading towards an otherworldly place. The difficulties in descending from Mt Maculot were virtually gone. This place could serve as an epitome of calm and relaxation, despite the rainy weather.

Atop the hill lay the grotto. It featured statues of Our Lady of Lourdes housed inside a decorative structure made of rock. Two huge Latin crosses stood on the left and right and they were painted white. The religious icons commemorated the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, France in 1858. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church 75 years later. Regardless of beliefs, the place also brought spiritual calm as it offered a view of a town surrounded by mountains and forests. Closeness to nature could do wonders to not only the physical body but also the inner self as well.

We followed a cemented path and passed by a few designated stations in the form of simple concrete sculptures. Then it became dirt again. I could not help but frown. My legs yearned for a break. My body looked forward to a bath with cool water. Still, this day hike did not cause total exhaustion. It ended with a ten-minute tricycle ride back to our starting point.

The traverse through Mt Maculot and a visit to its Rockies came with disappointment as fog obscured our view. Nevertheless, the trekking experience and the companionship of hiking buddies were more than memorable. I looked forward to more outdoor adventures and better things to come.