We woke up early to prepare for the day, munching on fried galunggong and resigning ourselves to the fact that we were actually going to do this. We were probably too excited for our own good because we were all packed and ready to go even before Binoy and Tay Dinio joined us. We even called them to make sure that they won’t be the ones who were late! We were sticklers for schedules back then (some, a little more than others…) since we were quite eager to start. So, come seven in the morning, off we went to officially start the great Mantalingajan traverse.
Our schedule for the day was to hit the Kabugan campsite. Sir Mayo told us that it was important to reach this first campsite since it had a stable water source. Camping before it would be possible but it may result to stretching our itinerary. Camping after it would not be ideal as well since there would not be a water source until we reach Paray-Paray (supposedly), which was still at least half a day of trekking away from Kabugan. He also told us that if we were successful in hitting Kabugan, it could serve as a good gauge on how we’ll handle the rest of the traverse. Various climbs in the past were unable to reach Kabugan during the first day due to different circumstances so it really was a challenge. Needless to say though, all three of us were determined, if not confident, to reach Kabugan. Or at least get as close to it as possible. We were prepared although I must say that our guides did not share our confidence. It might have been because they were still unaware on how we conduct ourselves on the trail or they were banking on the history of past climbs so all they ever gave us was a non-committal, “Tingnan natin kung kakayanin” with a smile every time we ask them if reaching Kabugan was possible. 😀
In any case, we started the traverse in an optimistic mood and the weather, for that time, gladly joined our enthusiasm. It became clear right away though that Manta’s reputation wasn’t just for show and that its trails were really challenging right from the get go. After passing the slash and burn farmland of the Pala’wan tribe in Balin-Balin, we soon reached the forest line that characterized most of the trail during the first day. Looking back, this was definitely the easiest day among the four that we spent climbing Manta. But that’s not to say that the trail wasn’t challenging at all because it definitely was. There were paths that were severely hindered by fallen trees that you’d have to maneuver yourself around them or else find yourself walking on forest logs instead of soil. It also wasn’t characterized by steadily increasing elevation either. Sometimes, you would find yourself descending via steep terrains onto dry riverbeds then assaulting once more once you get to the bottom.
It was really exhausting although we adjusted quite quickly, regulating our pace effectively as we went along. All throughout the trek, it became a de facto practice to take a break after an hour of trekking. It didn’t matter if we were the fastest or the slowest among the trekkers that have graced Mantalingajan, just as long as we do it continuously. As most mountaineers would agree, taking breaks too often may tire you even more in the long run and we knew that what we had ahead of us was a ‘long run’…a definitely long run.
Besides keeping our pace in check, we also took the opportunity to get to know Tay Dinio and Binoy. We would be spending the next few days with them after all. Tay Dinio turned out to be the coffee-addicted heavy smoker who was quick to tell stories of past climbs and climbers all while carrying a huge backpack and of course, puffing a smoke. He is Binoy’s uncle.
Binoy, on the other hand, was a very courteous (never mind that he was older than us) Muslim who kept calling us ‘kuya’ and ‘ate’ and spoke with an amusing rising intonation when telling stories. We got to know more about them as well as all the other times that they’ve climbed Manta, sharing interesting anecdotes about mountaineers that we personally know or even just by reputation. They were easy to talk to and fun to be around with which was a good thing. Fred, for the most part, monopolized Tay Dinio’s stories since they were tailing the group while Tin and I got Binoy to teach us some Pala’wan phrases while he joined us at the lead. Especially during the early parts of the trek where we still encountered Pala’wan families, we took it upon ourselves to learn some simple conversational Pala’wan words and phrases just to show respect to those who made Manta their home. Here were some phrases that they taught us as well as some words that we thought would be useful to know during the climb:
Manunga masubo – good morning
Manunga na apon – good afternoon
Manunga gabii – good evening
Dimuyong tanan – to everyone
Mangaan – to eat
Matikas – fast (as in trekking)
Malambat – slow
Malama – tired
Pasungaw – to rest…see a pattern on what we thought would be helpful to know? 🙂
Dongkay lat laumbos – it means that we’re going on ahead. It’s something we said to those that we meet when we take our leave. Same as the way Tagalogs say, “Mauna na po kami.”
Besides giving us a crash course in basic Pala’wan, we also found out that it was Binoy’s birthday. Yes, we had the unintentional audacity to take a person celebrating his 30th birthday for a 4-day gruelling hike up and down Mt. Mantalingajan. 😀 We would forever chide him with that fact and a promise that we’ll celebrate once we have safely descended from the climb. Being as modest as he was, he told us that he didn’t mind at all and was even grateful for the opportunity to earn and help his own family.
Anyway, after 2 ½ hours of trekking, we arrived at our first landmark: Bulldog’s house at Magtangob. We met Bulldog himself although we never got to find out why he was named so. 🙂 He also kindly sold us some bananas that he harvested for a meager 20 pesos. And they weren’t some substandard variant of bananas either, they were huge ripe ones, the kind that you don’t see in public markets or even malls. When he told us how much it was, I had this look of disbelief that Binoy caught, which he basically used to tease me with at every opportunity he got. In the end, Bulldog even decided to just give us the rest of the bananas he had so that we could have something to eat on the trail for free. We really felt like he was getting the short end of the stick so we decided to give him some of the rice we had (remember we had plenty? haha) as a sort of barter trade.
As per our pre-discussed IT, we were supposed to reach Magtangob at 11 in the morning and have our lunch there. Since we arrived there 1 ½ hours early, we took it as a good sign so we just rested a bit then decided to have lunch a little farther along the trail instead. We resumed walking at around 9:45 and continued with the trail until we reached the area of Magamot at 11. Magamot was called as such because the area was full of roots which meant “gamot” in the Pala’wan language. We prepared and ate our fried galunggong (there were still a lot left…) and salted egg/tomato lunch here as well as take a long rest before resuming our journey to Kabugan. Around this time, Tay Dinio was saying, “Matikas kanyo” which made us feel confident that perhaps we’ll be able to pull it off after all.
After Magamot, it was another 2 hours of trekking through steep, slippery yet somewhat dry riverbeds until we reached the campsite of Baluin. Baluin also had a water source so we replenished our water bottles there before carrying on with the trek. By this point (around 2 in the afternoon), Binoy and Tay Dinio were already confident that we would reach Kabugan with plenty of light left if we just kept up with how we were pacing ourselves on the trail.
En route to Kabugan, we passed by another slash and burn farmland that was newly planted with rice so we had to be careful about where we were stepping (lest we crush those little stalks). As a result of the burning, there were lots of logs and tree branches that were strewn all over the path, making it necessary for us to go around them and difficultly navigate through them. Binoy said that during the previous climbs, the trail on that area was quite manageable so we came up with the conclusion that Manta had it in for us by deciding to make the trail more difficult or as Tin put it: we were cursed. Going with the surprise that was waiting for us at Paray-Paray the next day, I would say that we were right on both accounts. 😉
In fact, that’s not the only thing that changed the trail condition on some parts that made the climb more difficult during the first day (or until the fourth day really…). Some months ago, a freak weather storm hit Mt. Mantalingajan which resulted in a flashflood that the villagers were not ready for. Admittedly, even they felt no warning because moments before it rained, Binoy claimed that they were enjoying a weather as hot as any. As a result, some of the areas were eroded which obliterated some of the trail entirely. Even worse, some of the land that the locals were using for farming got destroyed as well. He even said that some of the animals they were raising in the lowlands became casualties because of the resulting flood. They were just thankful that the rains and wind didn’t get stronger than what they were or they feared that there might have been human casualties as well.
We finally reached Kabugan at around 4 in the afternoon so we gave ourselves a figurative pat in the back for successfully following our itinerary with plenty of time to spare (we were initially targeting to reach it by 6 in the evening). We settled in and pitched our tents as well as set up a cooking station while Tay Dinio and Binoy went to fetch some water from the source down in the village next to the campsite. While there, we met Binoy’s cousin who was living there as a teacher in a school for the tribe of Tau’t Bato. We also saw a few kids lounging about but they were too shy to come to us so we just waved and smiled at them from afar.
Sadly though, only a few families were left in the community in Kabugan nowadays. Our guides said that before, there was a whole community of Tau’t Bato living in Kabugan. However, during a rather unfortunate climb which involved more than 60 people camping in Kabugan, the villagers got spooked so they decided to move farther into the woodlands to avoid further contact. Binoy said that the tribespeople were overwhelmed and offended even, when some of the ‘mountaineers’ used their makeshift church as shelter during the night without asking permission. I guess they were used to seeing a party of at most 9 or 10 hikers but a whole troop of 60+ individuals was too much for them which was why Kabugan was now almost deserted. It’s sad really how their actions had severe consequences especially given the fact that they only spent a night. It kind of made me feel ashamed (and I know Fred and Tin shared the same sentiment) to associate myself as a mountaineer when cultural insensitivities like that have resulted because of our ‘hobby’ or ‘sport’ or whatever you want to call it. It really ate at me to tell the truth and it figuratively broke my heart. Again, I’m not being a melodramatic, it was just hard seeing the results with your own eyes. And I have a degree in Anthropology (no, that wasn’t meant to sound obnoxious and pretentious…) so I am quite familiar with the cultural effects of different things when it comes to indigenous tribes. I hope that more ‘mountaineers’ get to realize what an important lesson it was but sadly, not all of ‘us’ apparently do.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, we still resolved to not let anything mar our expectations and appreciation for Mt. Mantalingajan. So, we enjoyed our first night in Kabugan. We updated our friends and loved ones that we were still safe and that we completed our target above expectations (cellular signal was present at the campsites). Fred cooked an awesome chicken tinola for us (or maybe we were just hungry and when in the mountains, every edible thing tastes awesome anyway), we traded stories over a campfire that Tay Dinio and Binoy got going and before long, we were turning in for the night. We were feeling a little proud of ourselves but still highly anticipating and excited on what the next day would bring.