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.