Last June 20 (yes, you read that right :D), I got the chance to return to Palawan, 4 months after our epic Mantalingajan climb. This time, it was to join another leg of IREACH, the brainchild of one sir Erwin Claver which, like HLGG, aims to provide help to distant communities while coupling it with their love for mountaineering. I last joined their endeavour during a 3-day excursion in 2011 where we climbed Mt. Tabayoc and also conducted an outreach program in Tawangan Elementary School.
For this leg, IREACH aimed to provide school supplies and conduct workshop activities for the children of Iwahig Elementary School located inside Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm which was, at the same time, situated around the base of Mt. Thumbpeak.
Our guide for the whole climb was Jasper Camacho, a locally-based mountaineer who was also Tin’s friend and contact during her own Thumbpeak climb about a year before. We didn’t get to meet him when we set out for Mantalingajan because he was too busy training to be a full-fledged wilderness rescuer back then. 😀 When I arrived in Puerto the first night (the participants arrived via different flights), we immediately got acquainted with Japong as well as catch up with sir Mayo (the one who graciously hosted us during our Manta climb) during an evening that I dare not describe for fear of being …well, let’s just leave it at that. Hahaha
Reaching Out on Higher Ground – Iwahig Elementary School
In any case, after a night I’ll always remember but would rather forget :D, we set out for Iwahig from Puerto Princesa city proper. It was constantly raining during the morning (and throughout the evening at that) that Japong feared that we might not be able to push through with the climb if the water levels of the river rise. The rain abated somewhat when we arrived at the school and everybody began their respective duties. Some were assigned to handle the supplies, others were preparing the stuff that they would need for the various workshops while I began helping with prepping the food that we were going to feed the kids. One thing I liked about IREACH was that their outreach activities were always holistic. They really try to provide, not only school supplies, but also engage in activities that would be beneficial for the kids to grow as students as well as functioning members of their communities. I’m guessing that it was a nightmare to plan logistically but hey, they manage to pull it off so kudos! By the way, IREACH is constantly reaching out to different communities to help so any donation at any time is much appreciated. You could contact Sir Erwin Claver via his Facebook site or just send me a direct message, I’d be happy to relay your intentions.
Well anyway, while we were busy shredding chicken pieces and boiling macaroni, Des, Wei and sir Sherwin were busy reading out stories to the kids. I would like to say that only the kids were rapt with attention but given the way Des was hounding people about what to read next, it was safe to say that she was excited as well. Haha Well in any case, we decided to officially hold the program at one o’clock so most of the kids were sent home to have lunch, which was what we did as well.
Come 1 o’clock, we were officially welcomed into the school by the administration. Since it was a small school, we found out that the classes of different grade levels were held simultaneously in one room and was taught by one teacher. They usually just alternated between lessons and grade levels. There were only 3 functioning classrooms so they really had to make do. It was really a clear indication of the circumstances that our local school teachers had to endure in order to provide the education that our youth desperately need.
The different grades were then ushered into different rooms and activities after the initial assembly. The youngest of the lot were handled by some of our co-volunteers and were told children stories. The more intermediate ones were taught some basic tree planting while some enjoyed a brief time playing sports. Those in grades 3 and 4 on the other hand were ushered into a different room and were made to engage in an art workshop led by Wei. Since the preparations of the food were already finished, I opted to help focus with the arts and crafts group along with my sister and mam Becca.
It was actually a given since most of stuff that were used for the arts and crafts came from me anyway. 😀 See, while we were preparing the stuff that we were going to need, Wei asked if we could donate some old shirts that we could use so that the kids would have something to be creative with. And since I had no shortage of shirts that I rarely wear anyway, I decided that being turned into a hand-made bag was as good a fate as any for my shirts. But of course, I still felt a pang every time I see the students ruthlessly go through my shirts with scissors but eh, c’est la vie 😀
I spent most of the afternoon helping out the kids who were actually quite enthusiastic about the whole workshop. They were eager listeners and they even displayed a healthy sense of competitiveness (bragging about who made the better shirts…) about their outputs. On my end, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience as well. Talking and laughing with the kids gave me a selfish sense of gratification that what we were doing, however small, was the right thing. And it helped a lot that the kids made it easy to enjoy the whole endeavour in the first place. I even ended up giving my teardrop necklace to my smart, witty and quite talkative ‘teammate’- Bajo (who was actually Japong’s godson hahaha) after our art class was over! 🙂
It started raining while we were doing the art workshop so most of the programs were concluded inside the classrooms. The distribution of school kits as well as the feeding were done per room as well. Since we were due to still climb Mt. Thumbpeak that day, we didn’t take too long in giving out the kits and handing out the snacks. By 3 in the afternoon, we were already cleaning up and sending the kids on their way home amidst the still-falling rain.
Climbing Pico de Pulgar (Mt. Thumbpeak) – 1,296+ MASL
It was already about 4 in the afternoon when we finally started our hike from Balsahan onto the rivers of Thumbpeak. Together with Japong, our guides B1 (Kuya Bert) and B2 (Bito) met us along the trail and off we went. The first part of Mt. Thumbpeak mainly composed of flatlands and numerous watercrossings. Thankfully, even though it was raining all afternoon and even all day the day before, the river currents were entirely manageable and still quite benign. Since we started late in the afternoon, the plan was to make camp depending on where we were when the light waned and just make up for the lost time during the summit assault the next day. After about an hour and a half of trekking and about 5 or 6 river crossings later, we made camp.
It was my second climb in Palawan but it was my first time camping beside a river. It was an experience all on its own I tell you. You could clearly see fireflies playing in the distance, which according to Japong was an indication that the ecosystem was still very much thriving. It was also the first time that I got to climb with Palawan-based mountaineers and witness their famous penchant for tent-less camping. They really rarely use tents but opt for hammocks instead. Which is actually quite practical if you’re used to Palawan mountains. There really is a rarity of spacious ‘campsites’ the likes of Benguet or Laguna mountains so it’s not a good idea to use tents.
And so there we were, bonding over one bottle of Tanduay while anticipating what the hike would be like the next day. Before we knew it, it was time to turn in and get ready for the summit assault tomorrow. We left the next day at about half past 6 and resumed the remaining river crossings before the assault to the peak. Like the previous day, the river crossings were quite benign but in no way, disappointing. The clean and clear waters were really quite…magical, for a lack of a less hyperbolic term. Palawan was always hailed as the last frontier in Philippine mountaineering and just like how it was in Mantalingajan, it was easy to see why it was so in Thumbpeak.
I was the assigned sweeper for the last group so I was always trailing behind. For the most part of the trek, I ended up trading stories with Bito who Japong calls B2 (in reference to kuya Bert who he calls B1 hahaha). He was quick to point out interesting flora and fauna that the slopes of Mt. Thumbpeak boasted. While we were still near the river, we encountered wild monkeys that try as I might, I couldn’t get a picture of. Bito and I would stop every few or so meters, with him signalling like a soldier on a black ops mission, so that I could get a clear shot of the monkeys swinging from tree to tree. And try as I might, I could never get a clear shot. We just laughingly gave up after a while and just enjoyed the fact that every few minutes or so, the trees would rustle in the distance and we would see monkeys crossing its branches. Actually, all the excitement somehow overshadowed the realization that for the first time in my life, I just saw monkeys. In the wild. That hit me afterwards. Hahaha
Besides wild monkeys, the flora on Mt. Tumbpeak was also worth getting excited about. Rare endemic orchids, pitcher plants, moss that look like they were painted on tree trunks, resin from towering Almasiga and a variety of wild mushrooms were among those that littered the trail. Like its brethren mountains Manta, Victoria and others, Thumbpeak was also frequented by botanists and zoologists who are eager to document and catalog the endemic flora and fauna in the area. Japong actually pointed out 2 new species of orchids that some researchers were able to identify just last year. Forgive me for the lack on any actual credible botanical information, I still call yellow orchids dancing ladies. All I know was that for the common man, those small orchids would probably not command attention but apparently, scientists were willing to spend 3 hours just examining and taking pictures of it. Haha
There were also varieties of pitcher plants which were more abundant once we gained higher elevations (almost at the summit). Most of them were of the hanging type unlike those that grew on the ground like those in Paray Paray campsite in Manta.
Thumbpeak also possessed variation when it came to trail class. Beginning from river crossings, the trail would move on to a very lush and mossy forest line and would continue to do so until it reached the final summit assault. Before the assault, you would pass by the Hunter’s Rock, a huge rock jutting outwards which forms a small cave underneath, perfect for camping…just with the risk of the rock unceremoniously crushing you to death. Just kidding (slightly). As we got closer to the summit, the vegetation became much denser and the trail angle much steeper. You would have to haul yourself on rocks and tree roots until you finally emerge to a rocky yet overgrown summit trail. It was similar to the Tuka Pungdan trail in Mantalingajan, albeit much shorter. Overall though, the trail was not extraordinarily tough but certainly miles ahead in terms of difficulty compared to the usual mainland Luzon summit destinations. Atop the summit of Thumbpeak, you could see a 360 view of the Puerto Princesa landscape, if the clouds were actually kind enough to let us see it.
As I said, it was my second peak in Palawan and like the first time, a clear view from the summit was once again denied from me. I was beginning to think that maybe I was the one cursed when it came to summit clearing, something that Japong was too quick to agree with. At least it wasn’t raining though, that was an improvement from our Manta climb. And even though we did not get to see the western side, the clouds parted enough to give us a partial clearing while we were there. And boy was it more than enough! Maybe I would get to see the whole view when I return. Hehe
It was almost 3 when we began our descent. We were a fairly large group and some of us were inexperienced with mountain climbing so progress was admittedly slow. It was dark when we finally reached the campsite and Japong and our guides went back to make sure that those trailing us got back safely. Thankfully, with the masterful guiding of Kuya Bert and Japong, none of the group got into any more mishaps except for a very late arrival. I honestly did not worry as much because I knew they would be in more than capable hands. We may kid him a lot for this, but it didn’t hurt that Japong was a top-notch search and rescuer. The guy’s even an instructor now haha One thing though, it was clear that Palawan mountains did not get their reputations without basis. Thumbpeak proved to be a very challenging peak indeed and by Palawan’s standards, it’s their easiest mountain by far. I could attest to how difficult the other peaks were so caution and sufficient preparation are always advised whenever you’re scaling Palawan’s peaks.
It was almost midnight when the group was finally complete and since it was too late to begin breaking camp and heading to the jumpoff (as initially planned if we managed to descend earlier), we decided to spend the night and just resume the remaining 1 ½ trek the next day.
The beach that must not be named – well okay, Marta Fe.
After the climb, most of the IREACH participants went to have their customary Underground River tour. I didn’t (along with my HLGG buddies) because even though it was my second time in Puerto Princesa (in the same year), I still haven’t had the urge to check out the touted Underground River yet. I always just find myself scaling a mountain whenever I’m in Palawan. This time around, Japong along with sir Jay, invited us to go to Sabang as well and visit the beach that Tin could not stop talking about – Marta Fe.
It was a private beach which meant no pretentious tourists, no entrance fees, no overpriced stores but also no cottages or any form of amenities. It was basically just a slice of very white coast that opened up to ungodly clean waters. People throw out the phrase ‘a piece of paradise’ a lot but for me, this was it. It really the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to.
Oh well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Haha We stopped by San Jose Terminal to buy food supplies that we’d be bringing to our overnight trip in Marta Fe. We bought crabs, cucumbers, liempo, okra…well you get the picture. Oh and booze! Haha We then went to Sabang to meet up with Kuya Rah-Pabilog-Sanga (Kuya Roy!), who was basically the caretaker of that little stretch of heaven and the resident guide when you want to go extreme caving in Mt. St. Paul (we’re listing that mountain for another time hahaha). After a very scenic ride along Puerto Princesa’s landscape, we arrived in Sabang at about half past 4. We had to wait for one of our coclimbers who joined the underground river tour though before heading to the beach so it was almost dark when we set off in our little boat en route to Marta Fe.
As luck would have it, our boat’s propeller would inevitably breakdown in the middle of our trip so our progress became so much slower. Another thing that Japong was quick to attribute to my ‘curse’ hahaha We didn’t get stranded or anything but for the last part of the boat ride, it really felt like we were barely moving. But all the apprehension was quickly erased once we docked on the beach and was greeted with a pristine silhouette of Marta Fe under the bright moonlight. The moon was so bright that lamps were honestly unnecessary. We still had no idea how the beach would look like in the light of day but gorammit, it was already breath-taking in the dark.
And so we set about preparing our would-be feast while we drank and laughed the night away. It really was a perfect night to cap a great weekend. It was a night of great fun with great friends that you couldn’t ask for more. I actually ended up just sleeping on the beach because aside from the fact that my head was already buzzing and that it was easier to just lay there, you really can’t go wrong with sleeping under the stars on a night like that.
Fred had to leave early the next day because he had an earlier flight to catch so he didn’t get to see the awesomeness of the beach in daylight. Maybe next time buddy hahaha But most of us (including my sister who chose to just book another flight just to be able to enjoy the beach more haha) got to lounge about the beach for half a day before heading back to the city. I decided to walk the length of the beach when I woke up and climbed the cliffs that bordered the area which afforded views like this:
Saying that Marta Fe was beautiful may start sounding old, but I can’t help it, it really was. There was not a trash in sight, the sand was whiter than those boasted by Boracay and the water was so clean you could see your toes. We literally did nothing but swim, eat what leftovers we had the previous night, swim again and eat some more coconuts until noon, which was when we broke camp and headed back for Sabang.
Since it was dark when we came to Marta Fe, we were astonished anew about what the surrounding mountainside looked like during daylight. There were actually a ton of waterfalls that led to the sea that could be seen on the boatride back. Seeing them actually gave me further motivation to explore more and more of Palawan’s mountains in the future. It really makes you excited to go back.
Before heading back to Puerto Princesa proper, we had a final stop to have lunch at Viet Ville, which was the original settlement of the Vietnamese refugees that sought asylum in Puerto Princesa. Nowadays, only a couple of families remained there while the rest have already set out to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In any case, there was still a restaurant that specialized in Vietnamese cuisine which was similarly named so we had lunch there before going straight to the airport and flying back to Manila.
It was an unforgettable experience, not just because of the place but also because of the people. Many thanks to Japong and Mayo and all those in Palawan who made our stay memorable. People often said that we had to be wary because we may catch what they call Palawan comeback-comeback syndrome and you know what? They’re absolutely right! There really is no reason not to. 😀
(By the time I wrote this, I have actually just gone back from a Mt. Victoria climb so there’s your proof right there. Hahaha)