I thought that weekend camping trip would be cancelled due to monsoon rains driven by atmospheric low pressure and a tropical depression. By Friday, the skies cleared up. Saturday came with a rather hot noon with the sun shining brightly. Yet by 3 AM on the following day, a downpour made us scurry into tents at our camp at the summit.
Located just north of Metro Manila, Mt Balagbag offers a weekend getaway that can be reached from Quezon City in more than one hour, even faster if not for the traffic. It rises 770 meters above sea level. Mt Daraitan (which I climbed before this one) has just the same altitude but the trail there slopes steeply in zigzag fashion, the rock surfaces and jungle bringing further challenge. Mt Balagbag has a friendlier terrain to navigate. Its trail difficulty rests at 3/9. Hiking here has been considered a minor climb.
A girl wearing eyeglasses and clad in a yellow shirt waited beside me at the entrance to the Jollibee® fastfood branch at Farmer’s Market, Quezon City. It was situated conveniently just beside the renowned Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). She looked familiar. I stood there waiting for Elena “Len” Ibana. She invited me to an overnight camping at Mt Balagbag. It also just happened that it was exactly one year since I met her at a fishing trip in Valenzuela City. She arrived just three minutes before 2 PM. I failed to notice Lawrence “Angel” Fetalvero, one of our companions in the trek. Later on, Cassandra “Cas” Gubatan and Juno Nario came. Meeting Cas made me recall how I met Ren Emradura, who organized my most recent trip to Mt Daraitan and invited me there. Cas and Ren shared a hairstyle and wore black when I first got to know them at almost the same spot inside that Jollibee® outlet. I had finished lunch. Cas, Juno, and Len dined as we compared our backpacks. I brought the one I used for overnight treks. It accompanied me at Mt Amuyao and the Purgatory traverse. Len tried to lift jeeringly with one hand. She could not. Juno commented that it was for a five-day hike. Cas bought Lawrence a new backpack. It was past 3 PM when we left for Mt Balagbag.
Some of my trips to a climb’s jump-off point, such as this one, involved riding a bus or jeepney rather than renting a van for a more convenient travel. The five of us then climbed on board a bus at Cubao, Quezon City with the destination called Tungko. At first, we had no seats. We stood up as chatting kept us relieved. One by one, our fellow passengers got off until we all had a seat. I shut my eyes and napped. Upon waking up, the bus had reached SM Fairview, a relatively large shopping mall. I stayed awake. Moderate to heavy traffic consumed time as our bus moved towards our destination. Distance was huge too. My mobile phone showed that it was 5 PM. Later on, vehicles of all sorts piled up in a line amid a scenery of rolling plains and wind turbines at the horizon. Passengers complained about the traffic, remarking about a car crash. Len asked us to just walk all the way. I could not answer. I had never been to this place before. The bus inched, halted, and inched again until we got out of the traffic jam. Our group dropped by near another SM shopping mall.
A short walk brought us to a local Jollibee® branch to rendezvous with two more companions. Aileen “Jessy” Epiz and CJ dela Rosa waited for us outside. We all sat down, had some rest, and filled our conversations with laughter. CJ remained to join his respective fellows. The rest of us rode a jeepney at a rustic place called Licao-Licao Terminal. It sounded like the Tagalog word ‘ligaw,’ which meant either ‘being lost’ or ‘courtship’ depending which syllable had the stress.
The sky had an orange glow as our public transport vehicle followed the lonely cemented rode under a sunset. We wished that we had arrived earlier, getting up the summit to witness this daily spectacle of nature. Time was not in our hands. Angel had the cheer, and audacity, to speak to our fellow passengers jokingly. He seemed fitting as a speaker or host to bring life to a formal event. Girls who were likely college students surrounded him to the left and right. Eventually, the surroundings went dim. Our driver turned the incandescent lights on. The black of night engulfed us as we got off the jeepney at a village. We bought cooked white rice in plastic bags, emptied our bladders, and began the hike. Another group of trekkers walked with us.
Just minutes ago, the full moon shone gloriously as a small white circle on the inky black heavens. Then clouds cloaked it ominously. Our voices echoed with tension as we remarked about it. I was rather unprepared to get caught under a downpour. Len shone her powerful flashlight on the way ahead as cement turned into dirt and mud. Mine did not give out light as brightly. I tripped into a puddle. Angel and I then followed her footsteps, literally. The three of us recounted tales from previous treks. Lawrence and Len described the trail at Mt Tapulao in Zambales province. Len could not forget how the rocks absorbed heat and then radiated it back to the already searing air. She could have felt like grilled in a barbecue. Walking in the darkness, this scene resembled uncannily the Mt Makiling traverse where Len and I, including our friends Brian and Xander, got caught by nighttime on a road like this. Back at Mt Balagbag, chatter from not only us but also the other hiking party broke the silence, replied with the distant barking of domestic dogs. A kitten’s eyes shone suddenly, distracting me. It then disappeared into the grass. Len thought I was hallucinating. I chuckled and did not mind. The air was hot. Humidity caused me to sweat much. In my mind I pointed out the cloud cover. Aileen, Cas, and Juno went ahead and disappeared from sight. Then the road turned into cement as the white wall of an elementary school lay to our left. The three of us caught up with our companions at the village hall nearby.
A moment after we registered for our overnight stay, my friend Dhon Develos arrived riding on a tricycle or what could be called a motor-powered pedicab. CJ came with him along with a bunch of our fellows. The group consisted of men except for one woman who went by the name of Jenelyn Francisco. Aileen and Cas remarked that she shared the name with an actress from the GMA-7 television network. Our trekking group was called Star Magic, after the sort of guild of actors and actresses in the rival ABS-CBN TV network. Aileen was Jessy Mendiola, Cas was Maja Salvador, Juno was John Lloyd Cruz, Lawrence was Angel Locsin, and Len was Anne Curtis. Later on, I found out that Dhon was Aljur Albrenica. I still had to come up of who would I be as an ABS-CBN actor. My friend Ren told me I resembled Rico Yan, who was already deceased. Once everyone had signed up and paid the entrance fee, the nocturnal hike commenced.
Shortly afterward, a pack of dogs stood on our way. Angel, Anne, and I were at the front of our now bigger party. The three of us approached the canines. One of the dogs barked as they all stared at us. It felt like we were encroaching their territory. As we walked by, another dog growled menacingly. One walked toward us as if to lunge and attack. Fear crept up my spine. It was the rabies virus, not the bite itself, that worried me. I always told people that dogs were like venomous snakes. Fortunately, no one got bitten at that time. The hounds knew better to keep distance. Still, that moment had the sensation of encountering a pack of wolves in the middle of the night. It made me recall the movie The Grey starring Liam Neeson. Angel lightened the mood by stating the dogs were his kin and he would shape shift later.
It became apparent that Aileen, Cas, CJ, Dhon, and Juno were gone. Either they went far ahead of us or got left behind by using the restroom when we began walking. I suggested we rest a bit for them to catch up in case of the second possibility. Then we came upon a lit house that also sold snacks, beverages, and other stuff we could thank the Divine Providence for. Len asked a boy if he saw three people who passed by earlier. The boy said yes. However, Len expressed concern for the dirt road forked into two at this point. I assured her that common sense would lead them to the ascending path.
The uphill stretch of road sapped our strength. I could not think of anything but darkness, sweat, and fatigue. Our companions brought an incredibly bright lamp that gave us a patch of sunshine where everything was near-black. As our hike progressed, I chatted with them. I got to know Aldrin, Clarence, and Jasper. Jenelyn walked with us. Jasper held what looked like a sack of rice with other edible provisions for the night. I asked Aldrin if we had been together on a hike before at Mt Daguldol. He said no. Aldrin had a namesake during that climb back in June.
Mist shrouded our surroundings past a gate and a hut. We could not see beyond ten meters. Wisps of whitish smoke swirled in the air when shone by our lamp. The air grew cold. I was not sweating anymore. Lawrence and Len recalled a movie with that same frightening fog. I mentioned The Mist. Then it came to our minds. Silent Hill. The film adaptation of the the video game went on-screen back in 2006, followed by a sequel six years later. It was the mist upon entering the town called Silent Hill. Then the fog gobbled Lawrence up as he moved ahead of us. Len decided to stay in the rear. I chatted with Jasper. We advanced through the chilly mist like a party of trekkers climbing up a mountain in the Himalayas during a blizzard. We could also have been members of an expedition trudging the remote icy wasteland of the Arctic. Then a yellow excavator vehicle appeared out of nowhere, lying still by the road. It seemed a gigantic long-necked monster summoned by this fog, its sharp teeth giving a menacing look. This time, Silent Hill turned into Transformers. Yet the place only echoed with our voices. If we were not there it would have been incredibly quiet. Perhaps Silent Hill was fitting after all.
Our group caught up with Aileen, Cas, CJ, Dhon, and Juno at an outpost. In fact, Len called Aileen earlier through mobile phone. The latter said she and her companions have already reached the summit. They did not and waited for us. It was too dark and I was quite tired to notice details of this building. I sat down with a parched throat, relieving it with sips of water and two tiny cups of jelly. We spent about ten minutes taking a break, chatting and laughing, before our ascent all the way to the summit.
We retraced the unpaved road a little bit then followed an alternative route at where it forked. Stones and pebbles littered the surface. The low air temperature also kept the ground firmly solid. Nevertheless, I stepped into something wet. It was more than just a puddle. Frigid water ran its course as a very small brook, trickling more than flowing. My shoe and sock got wet but not soaked. I did not mind. Amid the darkness our handheld lighting devices revealed that the area lacked trees completely. We hiked through a prairie – or more like a savanna. Dhon and I shared stories and caught up with one another. A full year had passed since we were together in an excursion. He missed the overnight getaway at Mt Gulugod Baboy with our mutual friends as he was at another relatively distant location at that time. Dhon carried a bag of provisions on his shoulder. My large backpack felt a bit lighter but it still strained my back. My fellows seemed as silhouettes, faces obscured by shadow rather than the darkness itself. I could not recognize who I was walking with. Thirty minutes passed since we left the outpost. Then I heard yelling while leading the way of our party. We had arrived at the summit. Two of our companions named Christian “Chan” Ararao and Jhay greeted us.
Going a little further, our hiking party walked back and forth on a grassy patch of land to determine whether it would be suitable as our campsite. A pile of rubbish lay near to a circle of ash and soot, which indicated the remnants of a campfire. Then we all agreed to pitch our tents at this spot. We helped one another. Bendable metal sticks propped up synthetic material that served as miniature temporary houses, gathered together as a festive village.
Once our camp was set up, we began preparing our dinner. Our menu included sliced salted duck eggs with chopped tomatoes and onion, sliced green mangoes, a bottle of shrimp paste, grilled chicken, and chicken adobo cooked by Cas. We cut black plastic trash bags in a way to become an improvised picnic cloth. Meanwhile, Clarence brought out a portable outdoor stove with a can of butane as source of fuel. Later on, he sautéed hot dogs with diced onions and chili, along with ketchup. My companions also brought out both hard and soft liquor. We laid the food on our improvised plastic ‘picnic cloth’ with boiled white rice in the middle. Then we dug in. Our group did not gobble food like a pack of wolves or hyenas. We ate with our hands but in an orderly and noble fashion. For me, it was one of the best meals I had while outdoors.
Later on, our hiking party played a game as we sat down in a circle. Someone would give a category of what to enumerate. For example, that person would say brand of clothing or color, then we would cite anything legitimate under that category without repeating what was already mentioned. It became a matter of general knowledge and a good ear. The game was mind-stimulating and fun at the same time. I knew my friend Dhon. He liked such intellectual stuff.
While in the middle of our game, bright and hazy lights shone without warning. Microscopic water droplets suspended in fog refracted the light, casting what appeared to be an aurora borealis. Aileen and Lawrence specifically remarked about it. Our imagination played with robots in Transformers again, along with other aliens (The Autobots and Decepticons were not of this world after all). The open ground at Mt Balagbag’s summit seemed ideal for an alien abduction. It turned out the distracting lights came from the headlamps of an off-road truck. The extra large wheels made it appear even more massive and imposing. The groan of engines came with the spine-chilling bark of a dog. From how the sound echoed we knew it was large and had pedigree. (On the following morning we saw with our own eyes it was a German Shepherd). I compared it to the dire wolves from the television series Game of Thrones, which was airing in its newest season. Then our fellow campers settled down and lit a campfire that turned into a bonfire like one for signalling rescuers. The whitish glare now had an orange glow. The smell of burning wood entered our nostrils. Regardless, our time for leisure went on. We teased one another playfully. Chatter and laughter kept the summit alive no matter how far we were from a bustling town.
Suddenly, an overweight orange tabby cat crept its way into our campsite. It was familiar to our fellows. People named the feline Garfield. It began eating our leftover food without our consent. Eventually, CJ had to lift up Garfield away from our camp. He sustained a few light scratches in the process.
It was 3 AM when our socialization event ended. Members of our trekking group entered the tents like farm workers retiring for the night. Then a drizzle came. Light rain escalated into a downpour. At this time, I took shelter in a tent with Chan, Juno, and Len. When the rain subsided, I went back to my own tent. The interior got only a bit wet. I unfurled my sleeping bag and slept on a dry but cold surface. Dozing off lasted only less than two hours, aroused once by the voices of passing campers from a group different from one with the off-road truck.
Gray haze shrouded the distant surroundings in the morning. Time passed and yet the mist would not let up. It lingered all over us with a chill that made my fellows wear jackets or shawls. I kept to my shirt made of material that dried easily. My body not only tolerated the low air temperature but also loved it too. Yet my torso shivered and my teeth chattered slightly. I just woke up. Had it been a sunny dawn, a scenic landscape with sailing clouds and dancing fog would greet us. It was not one of those days.
Mud stuck to our shoes and slippers despite the grass cover. This same mud tainted our tents. Everything literally was moist from condensation.
We walked around, trying to feel warmer in earnest. Some of us, including me, took group photos. Clarence heated water in a steel pot with a handle. The portable stove roared like a fire-breathing dragon at first before emitting only tiny flames. Then we could not boil the water anymore. The can of butane was fully expended. Two loaves of bread and uncooked luncheon meat in a can sustained us. We stood around the fire and food as a group, shivering with mud on our footwear and tents. We looked like refugees. The armed conflict at Marawi city in Mindanao, which began in late May, had been ongoing still. Some of the actual refugees from there were faring worse than our trekking party. Instant coffee powder got poured into the pot of heated water. It might not have boiled but hot enough to warm our bellies. Cas poured coffee into cups as we fell in line. I brought a steel and plastic tumbler distributed within my office for the employees. Two scoops of the invigorating drink with a dipper were enough. Now I really felt like a refugee. Past 7 AM, tents got dismantled and folded up. Litter were picked up and useful stuff were packed up. Only backpacks and a trash bag remained. The fog did not subside. It even brought drizzle that threatened us with heavy rain and soaked clothes. Len wore her yellow plastic poncho. I did not bring one. Most among us did not mind getting wet. Fortunately, water from the sky remained as widely scattered droplets as we commenced the hike down Mt Balagbag. Our hiking party would be heading to a waterfall. I wondered if bathing in a frigid current under a bleak sky would “kill” and “resurrect” me again like at Mt Manalmon.
Another path led us downhill. Dhon suggested we follow this route instead of going back the same way we took last night. It sloped drastically just off the summit. I avoided stepping on the slippery mud, keeping on the grass at the path’s sides. Slipping could not be avoided. I sprinted down while leaping like a hare. Dhon and I led the way. Our companions’ distressed voices faded as we walked farther.
The trail branched into two. The left path would lead us to the cross, Dhon said. It did. Before us stood two immense wooden crosses. This place could have been visited by the faithful of Christianity during the Holy Week. A bleak landscape of gray and green, comprised of the mist and grass, surrounded the crosses. I had the sensation of paying respects to the fallen of hostilities in this seemingly war memorial. The sun refused to shine. The cold prevented me from sweating. Then we regrouped to pose for photos. Aldrin, Dhon, Jen, and I decided to go ahead of them.
The four of us passed by a group of campers with a lone dog walking back and forth near them, like a jackal waiting for a flock of rowdy vultures to finish off a carcass. We greeted the trekkers and they did too in reply. Jenelyn wore slippers, which lacked the grip on our muddy and slippery trail. Dhon and I followed this path through grass, moss, and some rock outcrops with fog limiting our visibility. It felt like hiking in the Scottish Highlands. All that lacked was the familiar sound of bagpipes, carried by the breeze. Then Aldrin and Jen disappeared from view. The two shouted at us to press on as they would catch up. Wooden signs fashioned as the letter X stood silently like crosses where criminals were hung. That moment in our descent lacked cheer but not depressing at all. Dhon and I seemed lost in the wilderness. Then we all regrouped at a grassy spot with a boulder. A short walk from here brought us to the dirt road once again.
About thirty meters off the road to our right, an outdoor latrine offered relief to full bladders. From a distance it looked messy as if not cleaned for a year. Only approaching it would reveal if it smelled worse, or not as bad as we thought. I walked with Aileen, Cas, Chan, Dhon, Juno, Lawrence, and Len. Still to our right, a horse stared at us while standing idly. It appeared taller than most that I had seen before. The equine was at home in this patch of grassland in our archipelago of forested mountains. I imagined myself riding one like a nomadic horseman. A bit later, a rock formation reminded me of the Stonehenge in England. Our group of merry trekkers climbed atop and posed for photos. After that, ten minutes passed as we kept on walking and then reached the outpost.
Another hiking party gathered around the wooden table. I recognized them. Yesterday, I approached them at the fast food establishment in Quezon City thinking they were my companions when Len had not arrived yet. I was wrong. By sheer coincidence they also happened to be bound for Mt Balagbag today. So, I had a brief chat with two or three among them, introduced myself as a blogger, and took a snapshot. They seemed to be a group of friends rather than an official hiking group.
At the point where the path forked, the rock face by the road crumbled likely due to the extremes of chilly rain and scorching sunshine. It resembled the scene of a recent landslide. During my Purgatory traverse our group passed by one with more soil and less rock, fortunately. The sky cleared a bit. It was not raining anymore. Yet the gray haze still concealed most of the landscape like the fog of war in a real time strategy video game. The air remained cold. We climbed atop a rock formation, posing for photos to share through social media later. Flying insects swarmed around us, biting exposed skin and leaving reddish rashes. Instead of mosquitoes, they turned out to be lightly-built beetles. We stood casually, then posed as ninjas.
Time spent at and around the outpost lasted at least twenty minutes before our downhill hike resumed. Eventually, we found our way back at the excavator again. The nocturnal darkness and fog were gone. Even the distant mist began retreating to the unknown place where it came from. Houses, trees, grazing land, and hills showed up. The surroundings turned much friendlier than they were last night. Cyclists also headed up Mt Balagbag, exchanging greeting and best wishes with us. I chatted with Aileen, Cas, and CJ. Dhon and Len went far ahead.
Soon, we walked past a gate. At this point I strolled alongside Jhay and we got to know one another. We talked about hiking, occupation, and hobbies. Meek homes lined the roads. Hens clucked, roosters strutted, and dogs lay motionless. The sun shone brighter. It was 9 AM. This sort of rural community at Mt Balagbag simmered in the tranquility of a typical Sunday morning. A local man played on his portable stereo the songs from decades ago. Mud and puddles still lay on the unpaved road despite the heat of daytime. My forehead grew hot and turned moist with sweat. I needed an electric fan.
Later on, we came upon another large party of seemingly college or perhaps high school students, and a few adults, carrying saplings for a tree-planting activity. Someone wore a T-shirt that bore the words DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES. The continuous stream of visitors could provide a mountain’s local community with extra income. However, the downside would be its natural environment deteriorating slowly. Tree-planting activities assured sustainability and preservation of this country’s priceless treasures. If anyone would ask my companions during hikes, the most pressing issue came in the form of waste disposal. Sometimes foil wrappers, plastic bottles, and trash bags littered the trail. No one would sweep them away. They made the place unappealing to hikers. No one knows exactly how long would a piece of trash linger on forested trails. Perhaps it would not decompose after all.
Our hiking party regrouped at the barangay hall. Then we marched anew towards the water falls. That span of time strolling by the elementary school and more homes could be described as mediocre but for one exception. A purely black rooster charged at Dhon suddenly. Dhon yelled in surprise but not in a way that he was panicking. The rooster, more shocked by our companion, fled away on its two scaly legs. We all laughed. Eventually, we arrived at a house that served as the entry point towards what people called the Otso-Otso Falls. According to a senior-aged resident there, the body of water assumed the shape of the number eight, which was ocho in Spanish and transliterated in Filipino languages as otso. I could not imagine how what he said looked like.
A descending narrow trail led us down to Otso-Otso Falls. We walked in single file. I felt uncomfortably hot. Less than one-fourth of my beverage supply per bottle remained. Noontime came closer by every minute. Surrounding vegetation exhaled seemingly as if animate, turning the air warmer. At one point the trail had a slope between 45 and 60 degrees. Then it turned left where trees clustered densely. The path grew muddy. We walked slower to avoid slipping as we were also going down. Then the sound of rushing water reached my ears. Air temperature changed from hot to cool in an instant. Our group skipped onto rocks rising from what appeared as a creek to cross to the other side. Then we put our stuff down and began bathing at Otso-Otso Falls.
Essentially, Otso-Otso Falls consisted of a waterfall and two pools that lent the place its name. From its source, small to medium sized rocks slowed the current for a smoother flow. A large elongated rock just beside the higher pool could serve as a bench for bathers to sit on. Water then rushed at the side as it should behave when pushed into a narrow gap. This pool was one and a half meters deep (four to five feet in the English or Imperial system). We stayed at this spot as another group of holiday goers swam and bathed at the bigger lower pool. Up here, water accumulated as if in a basin or tub before plunging down a sheer vertical rock face. The actual falls stood about ten meters. Cas, Dhon, and Lawrence jumped in. The water was five meters deep, enough to catch a person unharmed. Beyond the waterfalls’ base lay the larger pool. After wading, one would feel on his or her soles the bumps of the bed’s scattered rocks . I preferred the smooth tiles of the swimming pool. Here at Otso-Otso Falls, at least the pristine water was naturally cold and smelled of mixed soil, rock, and leaf instead of chlorine. Our party stayed at least 30 minutes at this natural wonder. We plunged, swam, waded, talked, and laughed. Then it was time to head back up.
Len trailed behind me in our single file line. I told her that going down was more difficult than going up due to one’s weight bearing down on his or her legs, along with the increased chances of slipping. Len argued it was the other way round. Yet she proved right. The uphill walk made me pant and complain of the heat. At first, Len lagged behind. Then I looked back and she was just right behind me with a smile despite the ordeal. It was a stress-free day after all. Still, the entire walk from the falls to that house by the main road took about ten minutes, even less.
I sat down with Aileen, Cas, Dhon, and Lawrence. We waited for one of those motor tricycles to pass by so we could hail it like a taxi. Not one arrived. Then the five of us decided to walk all the way. We had been through here last night. Now I could see my surroundings clearly as crystal. At first, we followed the lonely dirt road on a seemingly untamed place with its trees, rock faces, bushes, and vines. Aileen and Cas chatted about the Disney movies Frozen and Moana. We also talked about show business along with recent experiences.
Dhon and I then found ourselves way ahead, leaving the three behind. We had a conversation until arriving at the jump-off point where CJ, Juno, and Len waited for us. We bathed with soap and shampoo, donned fresh clothes, and sat down before our entire hiking party regrouped and rode a jeepney back to Tungko. The noontime heat penetrated the vehicle’s interior. It seemed we bathed twice for nothing. Rashes appeared on my forearms. It could be one of those allergic reactions again. My companions noticed it. Len knew about my sensitive skin by backing my tale. In one of my previous treks, a fellow advised me to gulp down soft drinks. Sugar would alleviate the allergy. The jeepney brought us away from Mt Balagbag. Then one of the passengers also brought her sacks of merchandise, filling the entire interior. Such was life in a nearly rural area with limited means of mass public transportation. Later on, we arrived near a highway intersection and enjoyed a lunch of grilled chicken with unlimited servings of boiled white rice.
The excursion at Mt Balagbag did more than just enabled me to see Dhon and Len again in person. I had more acquaintances with whom I also felt a sense of belonging. Hopefully, I would hike with them again sometime in the future. I also chose to be the actor Derek Ramsey as my sort of code name in the group.