February 26, 2013
From the Rama hotel, just south of Botolan, Luzon, Philippines, I arranged a ride to Mt Tapulao. A Filipino named Rick drove me about an hour and a half to a small resettlement village of Dampay which is the common starting point. Armed with two cheese sandwiches, a liter of water and ineffective sunscreen I set off for the day. The trail was a rocky road most of the way and tire tracks showed that some high-clearance 4x4s make the bouncy trek. After 10 minutes I was sweating buckets on the steep trail. The climb over the orange ground was steady and strenuous, especially in the heat and humidity. Admittedly, I might not have been in the best shape since the only exercise I’ve gotten this past week is walking from the pool or beach to the upstairs restaurant at our hotel.
An hour and a half of walking took me to a small and refreshing spring flowing from a black pipe. Just above was a shack made of bamboo and an old tarp. One hour later, after passing through some rain forest, the landscape opened and revealed a pine forest. It was like being back home. About then I met four local men who were picking “golden cactus,” which is a soft velvety moss that grows around something that looks like a fern. They spoke very little English, probably about as much as I do Tagalong (the Filipino language.) Nevertheless they were friendly and I am guessing that their everyday job is to climb the mountain and pick the cactus. What the commodity is used for remains a mystery to me.
Eventually I came to a point where my dirt track began heading down the other side of the mountain. Instead of going down, I took a side trail continuing up through open grasses. When I reached a large flat area, next to a large fallen pine tree, I spotted a trail heading into some “real” rainforest. I was a little jittery about walking into a dense and dark rainforest on my own, but once I got going I really enjoyed it. The continual sound of birds, insects and other hidden critters is what I liked the most and much different from the forests that I’m used to.
I walked on the dark and cool trail until 1 PM and then headed back. Mt Tapulao (High Peak) is around 7,000 feet in elevation and I’m guessing that I started my trek from maybe 1,000 or 2,000 feet above sea level so there was no way I was going to summit in the four hours I was allowed. The walk back was pleasant and uneventful. I ran into the cactus pickers again while they were on a smoke break.
I made it back to the village just after 4 to meet Rick. He was there, along with his son, but just barely. The Nissan 4×4 was parked inches from the edge of a rocky cliff. From what I understood his parking brake failed and the truck nearly went flying over the embankment, getting the undercarriage stuck on some large rocks is the only thing that prevented it. I swear the entire village tried to help us get the truck unstuck. The first attempt was with a winch and a rope tied to a fan palm. It worked, but then we all learned that the regular brakes didn’t work either because the freed truck then started rolling forward with a wide-eyed Rick inside. This time it got stuck a foot before the cliff, but with one wheel dangling above an open stone and concrete culvert. Then came the rice truck. In this village there were only motorbikes and trikes and no other cars or trucks that could be used to pull our truck out, but there was one big truck that was used for moving large bags of rice. We had to pay about 500 pesos for the use of this vehicle and it easily pulled out the wedged truck.
Even though our truck was free, it still had no breaks and we needed to get it down a steep and twisty mountain road. A metal bar was used to span the gap between the two vehicles so that the rice truck, in the lead, could slowly inch us down the mountain. The bar took about two seconds to bend in half, followed by our truck crashing into the rice truck’s bumper, smashing the front right headlight and nearly tearing off the bumper. But this method still worked and when our truck was on level ground the sun had set and local villagers were beginning to head down to the stream with towels for their nightly bathing. After lots of “thanks yous” the three of us finally drove back to the Rama in first, second, and occasionally third gear.
I was told more than once to be on the lookout for leeches falling from trees, but I found none. The only blood I shed during the day was on a sharp plant, but it was no more than a long paper cut. Once I got back to the Rama I learned that there are King Cobras on Luzon. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I left because I have this thing about large poisonous snakes.
Because this is my last Philippines entry I am obliged to write about the hospitality we received from the kind people in this country. The Filipinos we had the pleasure of meeting were quick with a smile and and made us feel exceedingly welcome. And if you are one with reservations about traveling abroad because of the language barrier then look no further because nearly everyone understands and speaks English.