Thursday, 2 March 2017

Mt Pulag National Park

The wonders of Mount Pulag National Park February 2017

Travelling the ‘Mountain Trail’ in the last half-century, I would have gone past Mount Pulag a hundred times or more. And on 99 times out of that 100 trips, the mountain would have been shrouded in cloud or mist, or drenched by rain.

Mount Pulag is the third highest mountain in the Philippines, next to Mt Apo and Mt Dulang-dulang in Mindanao. Due to its accessibility and fairly easy trails, it has become a popular destination for mountaineers, hikers and tourists. This has put me off climbing the mountain for years.

But a couple of times early this year, Mount Pulag was actually cloud-free and its bald peak quite clear from the Halsema Highway in Atok 15 kilometers away. I thought this was a good time (off-peak for Mt Pulag) as any to hike up its summit. Pulag (from pul-ag meaning bald) at 2926m elevation, is the highest peak of the Cordillera mountain range in Luzon.

Early one morning on a sunny day in February, after a two-hour ride from Baguio, I found myself in Ambangeg in Bokod (gateway to Pulag). It was mid-morning by the time I had done an orientation at the DENR office. All I needed to do, prior to ascending the peak of Pulag, was to get myself to Babadak ranger station and register for entry to Mount Pulag National Park. Babalak in Kabayan, is up on the high slopes of Pulag, 10km from Ambangeg, and higher in elevation by more than 1000m.
There was the option to travel by motorbike (as a pillion passenger), between Ambangeg and Babadak which is about a 35-to-40-minute ride. I looked at my kit. Aside from the clothes I had on, there was only a small overnight bag. And I had plenty of time to while away, so I chose to hike.
I thought I might as well take in some of the incomparable scenery going up the lower slopes of Pulag. But with every step going up the hill, my pace gradually got slower and my pack heavier, and I regretted not going on a motorbike for transport. Still it was a most enjoyable walk with the midday sun playing hide and seek behind the clouds. I paused every now and then to take photos, especially of the magnificent rugged mountain landforms, or to rest for a bit of food and water.

A gap in the pine trees lining the winding road, opens out to the Atok range and Mt Timbak.

Mt Timbac and the steep road going down to Kabayan in the deep valley below.

In the east is the cloud covered Ambaguio-Kayapa range between Pulag and Ugo.
'Ahh give me a break,' I muttered. 'I want to see Purgatory.'

Young schoolgirls take a break from their lunch break and break into smiles,
a welcome break for a hiker’s broken plodding.

Looking up the hill towards Babadak.

Young Babalak boys at play.

Vegetable farms are a feature of the mountainsides.

I plodded on past farms and terraced fields. Oftentimes I just had to stop simply to gaze at the magnificent views all around. No sir, I wasn’t resting.
I looked back down to Ambangeg and Ambuklao, and beyond to Baguio in the cloudy far horizon.

The mountains changed their cloudy garb every few minutes.
It's more captivating than a ms universe beauty contest.

After almost 2.5 hours of hiking I finally arrived in Babadak, elevation 2,450m.

From the heights of Babalak, Atok and Mt Timbak are much closer than from the Ambangeg trail.

I registered at the ranger’s office. 

Before nightfall I ambled around the town and took some more photos looking towards Sayangan and Ambuklao, and in all other directions.

In the gloom I also aimed my camera towards Baguio.
The rooftops of Bekkel are still shiny in the foreground.

As clouds rolled in with the dusk on the south, I witnessed the birth of a rainbow right over town.

It was getting dark and soon enough, as it must, night fell.

The major trails that lead up to the summit, commence from or near the mountain towns of Bokod, Kabayan, Buguias, Tinoc and Kayapa. The towns, villages and sitios situated in the surrounding foothills are settled mainly by the Ibaloi, Kalanguya, Kankanai and Ifugao ethnic groups. Mount Pulag - ‘playground of the gods’- is sacred to these indigenous peoples.
The main trail to Pulag from Babadak/Babalak (Ibaloi/Kalanguya), is a fairly easy ascent for those in good health and fitness. The peak is around 7.5km distant (with 500m of climbing) on the Grassland Trail from the Ranger’s Station. Hiking guides allow up to five hours for the climb to the summit although experienced and stronger hikers take as little as two hours or less. Hiking groups usually start from 1:00am to catch the sunrise at the summit.
On this trip, I was hoping for clear weather and to witness sunrise on Mount Pulag. The next morning proved very favourable and my hopes were answered.

I gazed in awe at the horizon
at the sight of the sun a-risin’

The views in the first hour or so after sunrise are simply awesome.
Earlier in the day, I woke to the first crow of roosters two hours before the break of dawn.

After nearly two hours of steady hiking, Rita (my guide) and I arrived at the summit.
We got there with plenty of time before the Pulag meridian moved further around to greet the sun.
I ‘chilled’ for a bit, then I got to behold sunrise from Mount Pulag.

I can post a thousand photos and write a thousand words, but they won’t do justice to the magnificence of what the eyes can see from the top of Mount Pulag.
What glorious scenes mine eyes behold!What wonders burst upon my view!

I guess you just had to be there.

The descent back, with lots of sight-seeing and spots for picture-taking, takes between two-to-four hours of easy strolling.

Heavy foot traffic has caused scarring on the beautiful but fragile grassy slopes of Pulag.
But it’s still best to keep to the formed trails. 
A way to help protect the grassland and forest vegetation and to prevent erosion is to lobby government for better trails and maintenance. There are now so many examples of mountain trails from all over the world to learn from. Paved paths, stepping stones, raised mesh walkways, sediment barriers, rainwater drainage, streams/waterways & wet soil crossings solutions; any of these and more should be considered where appropriate. After all, where do all the fees and funding go? I pondered that myself. I was caught in the moment, thinking: 'this is rock and roll.'

Once upon a mid-hike early/ while I plodded, weak and weary
Over many a damp and oldshoes sodden on forgotten stone
my toe rock-stubbed, nearly tripping, suddenly got a-rolling.

'Eyes on the trail’ said Rita. 'A wandering eye can cause a fall,
and a mossy stone can make you roll. '

I looked at my muddy and heavy worn-out boots. Lucky they’re steel capped.
And although I meant to say ‘ouch’, I blurted: ‘Yes ma’am, please wait up’.
'Rather, please wait down there,' I pleaded. 'I'm rollin'.
'And I'm hungry and my lunch is waitin,' said Rita. 'You keep to the trail.'

The sights were stunning and more eye-catching than any trail or highway that a rolling stone can get lost on.

So I’ll leave you with the pictures.
They paint their thousand words, and then weave the words into their stories,
in a far better way than I or anyone can ever write.
But you will never never know
if you never never go...

Now that young lady, if I can only catch up to her… I did ask at the ranger station for a strong guide, but I wasn’t expecting a champion trail runner. Rita runs trail races for fun, and she routinely gets on the podium. 
But now we’re out of time for more stories… And I’ve ran out of breath. ‘Hey, wait for me!'

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