It all started oddly enough, wedged in a bus at midnight, caught in the middle of an absurd pile of provincial traffic. I stared blankly out the window, as I had done, for what seemed like hours without end, looking out at multi-colored flowers of "gunpowder" exploding in the sky. I had been sitting in the same spine crunching position for over two hours, my pack resting precariously on my lap - threatening to topple over at each lunging motion of the otherwise stationary bus. The entire length and breadth of the provincial highway ahead remained completely at a stand still, all because it was "fiesta" somewhere up ahead! The few hundred people crammed into a whole assortment of immobilized vehicles had been reduced to scowling degenerates, fighting amongst themselves over each increment of pavement gained. Ironically, that grief was perpetrated by all the goodwill overflowing up ahead!
I was on the road since much earlier that evening, headed up to Mt. Makiling in Los Baņos, Laguna. Los Baņos is a town with a name that could be translated simplistically to "the baths". What's more, Los Baņos is just next door to the Historic town of Calamba - need I say it? The birthplace of Jose Rizal, the national hero! But Los Baņos itself must have been the site of many a colonial ruckus, amid shouts of a lascivious, exotic sounding swearing, interspersed with a lot of "patron-saint-name-calling" from the crowds in attendance. But of course there was a war then. Everybody went around with a veneer of foreboding angst on their faces and tidy white "kamisatsinas" on their backs. Los Baņos is a much cheerier place today, and a lot more fashionable for sure! With the countless hot spring baths, water slides, and private pools lined up end-to-end, it's one great big recreational facility! Then, of course, there's the looming figure of Mt. Makiling against the sky, like a matronly mother with her hands on her hips, glowering, wondering what we've done with her "petchay" garden.
After being freeze-dried in the bus for the past few hours, it was a welcome break to be finally on foot again. Walking across the dark campus of the University of the Philippines, in search of someone who might know the way to the trailhead. But everybody I had encountered thus far had all their attention tied up in more, ahhm, "pressing matters". So I went blindly up one dismal street after the other, before I finally stumbled upon the College of Forestry at one in the morning. A friend of mine, who by the way, was trekking with me on this particular trip, woke up a security guard and somehow rustled up directions on how we could get to the campsite. Off we went into the darkness, literally, because none between us had the brains to pack batteries for the headlamps. We had to content ourselves with the flickering illumination that our "near death" double A's could muster. The faint light that our lamps produced was no brighter than the sun, if we were on Pluto, hiding in a tent, on the dark side of the planet!
We stumbled in the darkness like merry madmen for a while, going off-trail a little bit at the switchback sections of the trail. A little further along the way, we came upon a noisy jeepload of climbers, with an equally lurid sounding scooter bringing up the rear of their happy little caravan. The trail was rough, and their jeep surged up and down the many craters and ruts that marred the road. It was a kind of slow, two-step dance for the jeep as it lost and gained footing repeatedly on the unstable ground. We ran alongside the slow moving motorcade, thankful for the light from the headlights. Soon, they had to stop again as the scooter finally quit! It was as if somebody had died on the roadside, we all stood there staring at the mechanical corpse of the once agile motorcycle. They decided that it was best to load the thing on to the jeep and continue on foot the rest of the way. They started unpacking their load hesitantly, each one grabbing a pack of assorted supplies and then, they pulled out a dog! It was dark, so I couldn't see very well, but the shiny black coat and the deadly stare told me not to mess around with the doberman.
I have a "thing" for dobermans ever since my grandfather was attacked by one of his own dogs. Then again, my grandfather has the tenderness of a drill sergeant when it comes to pets, farm animals, and livestock. The dog I met on Mt. Makiling was named "Diether"; and his human companion happened to own the jeep, so he got preferential treatment and got to snag a place on the lurching vehicle. The rest of us had to "bipedal" our way up the last kilometer to the campsite.
We were supposed to rendezvous with the climbers from the Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines (MFPI), but we couldn't find their camp. The inauspicious beginnings of our hike obliterated all our desire to go bushwacking in the countryside looking for our friends. However worried I was that Reggie Pablo, current MFPI president, probably waited for us "until the cows came home". Had we been able to hook up with them earlier, as in, during the daytime, we were supposed to go clear up trails and clean up human detritus in celebration of "Trail Maintenance Week". The only maintenance I got to take care of at two in the morning was to clean out my packed food. It was mostly hard, cold bread and chicken cream soup! I decided to go to sleep immediately after the food ran out, crawling under an ethnic blanket for protection, shielded from a variety of insects that rained down at every gust of wind that passed.
It felt like I had only closed my eyes for an instant, and then the next moment the sky was a deep cerulean blue above me. I knew we had to get up at 5 AM if we stood a chance of getting to the MFPI campsite and getting back down to meet up with our pick-up vehicle for another climb, on another mountain, later that same day. We hurriedly packed our gear while we watched "Diether the Dog" in amusement - as he demonstrated his version of facial hygiene on his sleeping human companions. We were off before we could mumble "jumping jack flash", launching up the trail in search for our misplaced engagement. We were still about a good hour away from the MFPI campsite when we had to turn around and race back to town to meet our next appointment. On the walk down, we were passed by the jeep from the night before and were lucky enough to be invited to ride the rest of the way. Among the passengers was the drowsy "Diether the Dog" who had a dreamy look in his eyes as he hung his head on a rail, imagining dog biscuits and soft blankets in a warm corner somewhere.
We barely managed to get to our pick-up point on time, though only by the skin of our teeth! The shiny, black Vitara looked like a raging rodeo bull, sitting on the roadside, getting ready to maul us for keeping it waiting. Well, this raging bull had an air-conditioner from the Arctic and a suspension system that could drive through hell! We made up for lost time by speeding through terrain that had even the carabaos looking for a way around. Los Baņos was now several hours behind us, on our way to Lipa City in Batangas, where we could hopefully find directions for Mt. Malipuņo.
The road to Malipuņo is relatively easy to find. That is, until you get to the off-road section, then the trail suddenly branches off into all directions like a drunk who can't find his way home. We spent a good hour just going back and forth in the muddy trails, it was so confusing that even the locals couldn't seem to agree which place was where or how to get there! We followed the meandering road network to a place where it suddenly dropped off into a small river gully, by then we had finally arrived at the trailhead in Talisay, Silangan. The trail to the mountain begins by following the barbed wire fence along the stream, up to an exposed ridge and finally, under a high-voltage electrical tower. It's very easy to get lost without a guide because of all the logging trails, hunting trails, plantation trails, and every kind of footpath known to man! We hiked for about an hour past the tower until we got to the business section of the climb. The trail continued over another ridge, but the actual summit trail is to the left, at the junction before the water source. The way to the summit is overgrown with vegetation and looks as if it's been a while since anybody climbed the area. Our guide, Aries, was flinging baby snakes off the steep trail at every switchback and rocky outcrop. It took us nearly an hour to get to the summit clearing because of all the hard labor it required just to clear a path. I retreated to the balcony viewpoint while waiting for the others, somnolent from the long "climbing weekend" and the zephyr wind brushing the summit in the late afternoon light. I looked down on Manabu and it seemed like no more than an arm's length in distance and yet, as I watched the festivities unfold on the barren campsite below me, it seemed more than a world away!