Thursday, 1 July 2010

A mountain trek

At the height of the political campaign for the May 2010 elections, no corner of the Philippines was spared a visit by hopeful candidates looking for votes. Even the village of Mainit had its normally quiet and sleepy summer days disturbed by daily visits from jeeploads of campaigners parroting well-rehearsed lines about the supposed virtues of their candidates and promising good times for all if elected.
I can only take so much of this nonsense, and i regularly take walks and hikes around the hills and mountains surrounding my highland home to get away from the intrusion into my planned quiet holiday.
One day in mid-April I packed two water bottles and a bit of lunch (three pieces of camote) and hied off to the mountains. I intended to do a loop up and around the main ricefields of Mainit and back via Guina-ang. A good 4- or 5-hour, at most a 6-hour trek (for a resident of flatland Oz). Pretty straightforward or so i thought.
The day looked to be sunny and warm so i dug out and tied a leather slouch hat to my backpack for when the sun rose high in the sky. Waking late on the day, I started just before 9:00 am, to the mountains, commencing from the upper part of the village. A few hundred meters on and the trail suddenly steepens as I climb up the ridges next to the ricefields of Pinger. Along the trail I come across some makeshift barriers to keep cattle from entering and roaming the village. These barriers are made from tree branches and saplings and constructed in A-shaped cross-sections and stabilised with horizontal braces doubling as rungs to allow human access.

Above the Pinger ricefields are patches of pine trees providing opportune shady resting spots for feeble hikers like me. I paused to catch my breath and to take in some of the views of the village through the trees.

A spot right above the topmost part of the fields and just below the final ascent to Mt Amongao, provides spectacular views of Mainit and the road snaking out to Guina-ang and beyond to the peaks of Mt Kalawitan in the far distance.

As i was about to climb the final ascent to Mt Amongao, i reached for my hat behind my backpack as the sun is now starting to get warm. The hat was not there. oh i thought. drats. I considered my options and decided that rain or shine I will need my slouch hat or any other hat. If the weather remains sunny I’ll get sunburned and flameable, and if rainy I’ll be spurned and miserable. So I backtracked slowly for about 300 or 400 metres back downhill looking for my hat. I found it slouching at the A-framed barrier.
So having ‘warmed up’ for my hike to the mountains, i recommenced my journey. I reached Mt Amongao after a good half-hour of slow constant steep climbing.
From atop Mt Amongao the peaks of the high mountains of Sagada and Besao on the south, are now visible. Facing northwards in the mid-morning one can gaze for hours at the main ricefields of Mainit. From the heights of Tuvo around to the steep fields of Chakkang near Guina-ang, the wonders of the stonewalled rice terraces never cease to amaze.

North to Sadanga, oh north the rush is on. The northerly direction from Mainit goes towards Sadanga and beyond to Kalinga. But well before these places lies a vast forest wilderness blanketing the steep rugged and inaccessible sometimes inhospitable mountains. So onward on my journey i plod along.
Before the next mountain range is a watering hole i know well. From this spring comes the sweetest purest springwater i have known.
After a long slaking drink and topping up my water bottles i get back on the trail. I come next to the pine forests of Poklis where often in my youth i would visit to cut some firewood (often means twice a year or so he he). The tall pines are still there but now a modern adversary - more powerful and destructive than the bolo (machete) or the axe - the chainsaw had wreaked havoc amongst their midst. The mature pines have all gone, felled for timber. As if the sight of burning destruction wasn’t bad enough, now this. And with the heart getting heavier, as if on cue I pass by a few abandoned logging camps.
I continue on my odyssey. Occassionally looking back i saw that the top of the hill feeding the watering hole where I had just been was not spared by fire. It’s no surprise then that that waterhole was only trickle fed.

Oh woe to firebugs! I throw a curse knowing it may well fall on someone near and dear to my family. Even so...
Slowly and gradually the peaks come closer, and the air purer and thinner. And still the signs of human activity are all about. Way out of place here just below the peaks on a thin and treacherous spur line, i come across a barbed wire fence! I have not come this far before ever, but this was something else i did not expect to see here deep in the mountains.
After a couple of hours of hiking up the slopes, through the whispering pines and the omnipresent smoke, I pause on top of a knoll. This appears to be the penultimate peak before the summit of the still distant highest mountain in the northerly direction. I don’t know it yet but this impression will recur a few more times during the hike.
I enjoy a piece of camote, some satisfying sips nay gulps of sweet mountainwater, and big gratifying breathers while the whispering pines play their serenade in concert with the breeze.
The views are awesome. I tell you, dears, that if eyes were made for viewing, Then the majesty of the mountains is its own excuse for hiking. (I think Ralph Waldo Emerson put it better in "The Rhodora"). A poet these mountains will make of me yet (not). I thought it was wine that did the trick...

To the east, all of the western side of Guina-ang is now in sight. Farther in the distance also the upper and lower hamlets of the village of Dalican. And in the far horizon is the cloud-kissed peak of Mt Kalawitan in Sabangan.
To the south also the high mountains of the Applai towns between Banga-an in Sagada to Pide in Besao. They poke their peaks to say ‘inmali ka?’ in our mountain tongue (this is g’day in oz).
I attempted long range pictures of this incomparable panorama, but the dense pines here exact their 'tong' (toll) and teasingly block off every good angle for photos.

I settled for a one-minute 360 degree video around the mountaintop.
It was getting on towards noon, but i wasn’t feeling hot at all up there in the aerie heights of my journey. The pines kept me shaded from the heat of sol as i now tread carefully in the trails less travelled. The stench of smoke gets stronger and suddenly i find myself in the wake of a forest fire. I estimate the main fire to have burnt here about two days previously. Still the embers smoulder, the smokes linger, the grounds warmer and this traveller’s collar hotter! Ropeable is a term i hear often. Now i know what it means.

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