Sometimes, the best laid plans are not meant to be realized exactly how you envisioned them. That’s certainly how it was during my last climb up the slopes of Palawan’s second highest peak. It was my third time in Palawan (this year alone) and this time, I, along with Tin and Des, were trying our luck with Mt. Victoria in Narra (now that Thumbpeak and Manta were already under our proverbial belts). It was supposed to be a duo of Victoria and St. Paul peaks but a systemic viral infection made short work of that dream. A few days before the climb, Tin and I were each having our respective fevers and coughing bouts. We decided that it would be foolish to continue with the climb in that state so we decided to cancel it altogether. We did, however, still decided to fly to Palawan and just recuperate there. I mean, the plane tickets would just go to waste and besides, it would be so much better to relax and recover our strengths on Palawan’s sandy beaches and pristine waters instead of a two-storey concrete house inside a Caloocan subdivision. I’m just saying 😀
We flew to Palawan with no clear intention of what to do. We decided to just wing it once we got there but fate clearly had other plans. Barely half an hour passed after we landed in Palawan, it was quickly decided that we should just reverse the itinerary and forgo St. Paul completely. The Mt. Victoria climb was therefore postponed by 2 days, which would allow enough time for us to recover (or so we thought…). It was decided that to help our recuperation, we would put the ‘sidetrip’ part of the climb first and hit the beach of Marta Fe the following day.
It was the pure definition of impulse decision. While we were excited to still be able to climb, all in all, we were ill prepared. I managed to bring my hammock and tarp but decided to forgo some stuff in the apparel department. I didn’t bring my trekking shoes or my arm covers, which if Manta was any indication, was a bad thing indeed. Tin and Des didn’t even bring their tents and we completely left our cooksets and other paraphernalia. Sirs Japong and Mayo were quick to remind us that we could still manage the climb given that we were already successful during our Manta traverse. They ended up lending us their stuff to use for the climb. At that point, I think they were just saying anything just to get us to push through. Hahaha
We literally spent the first day resting after we landed. By the time we woke up, it was already dark and sir Mayo, our gracious host, was already arriving to fix us dinner. Japong, as well as a couple of other locally-based mountaineers joined us for drinks later to what would eventually culminate into an epic BIG night. That’s all I’m going to say about that matter. At least on this post haha
By the following day, it was decided that we were going to Nagtabon Beach instead of Marta Fe as it was nearer to the city proper but was also as beautiful. So we spent the morning buying foodstuff for the picnic as well as do some personal errands (including a pending blood analysis to assure some relatives that I was indeed, starting to feel better). I also managed to finish some work that was intent on catching up with me during my vacation time. In any case, we prepared as much as we could but it was already evening when Japong came to get us due to some errands that he also had to do during the day. We decided to stop by San Jose terminal to have dinner first so that we won’t get cranky waiting for food once we arrive at Nagtabon.
Nagtabon beach was at most 1 ½ hour away from the city. However, the road going to the beach was so rough and uneven, it was a wonder Pong’s SUV managed to ply through it in one piece. He informed us that because of the road condition, only locals frequent the place and it was basically unknown to the numerous tourists that flock to Puerto Princesa. Patrons on motorbikes were the usual lot at Nagtabon Beach as it was clearly way easier to go there using a motorbike than a car.
It was about 9 in the evening when we finally arrived at the resort. At that moment, there were no other beach goers so we had the whole place to ourselves. Even by the light of the moon, it was clear that the place was indeed amazing. Much like how we were when we first saw Marta Fe, we ended up running around the beach like little kids on sugar highs, not quite believing our good luck of getting to experience yet another awesome place.
We had a feast of shrimp, fish and crabs (a feast for those who were actually able to ingest seafood without breaking out in hives…) along with bottles of my favourite gin. Yes, they were kind enough to go along with my request for our booze of the night. I was starting to feel well enough to drink although in hindsight, – given how I was basically puking on the trail back from Victoria – I don’t think it was that good of an idea.
I woke up feeling a bit dizzy from last night’s shenanigans but thankfully, the view on Nagtabon beach was enough to provide the much needed remedy. It really was idyllic – clear blue waters and just gorgeous white sand. Of course, Marta Fe still tops Nagtabon since it had the extra factor of isolation but that was not to say that Nagtabon Beach was disappointing in any way. If the plans to fix the roads fall through, I’m sure Nagtabon Beach would be very popular among the tourists as well. At the moment, it already had built cottages and basic amenities aimed to provide comfort to any tourist that would visit its shores.
We took our time basking in the sun and dipping in the ocean and in no time, it was already noon. We had to go back to the city and start planning for the actual climb which we were going to do the following day. The relaxation part was over, now the challenge was going to start.
We stayed back at Japong’s place in Iwahig the night before so we just caught a south bound bus from Puerto Princesa at about half past six in the morning. 2 hours later, we alighted at Naic where we were met by our guide, Kuya Julius. There was also a rented tricycle which would take us to the actual jumpoff which was still about 45 minutes away from the hi-way. We stopped by Sir Bodji’s house (the mountaineer who actually established the Mt. Victoria trails) in order to borrow some stuff as well as stop by the military outpost at the bottom of the mountain in order to register. After that, we travelled for quite some time over clay roads until we arrived at the jumpoff at about 11 in the morning.
The sun was scorching but we were still eager to get the climb started. At the jumpoff, we met the chief of the Tagbanua tribe (the main residents of the area) who was carrying a huge empty drum on his back that easily put all of our backpacks to shame. I think he was going to fill it with water. I don’t know how he would manage that but according to Kuya Julius, that was just routine from him. I swear I could comfortably fit inside the drum he was carrying and he was probably more than 80 years old. Amazing.
11:00 – Start hike
The first part of the trail would have us cross the great Buhawi river a couple of times before actually assaulting the mountain itself. From the jumpoff, we had to traipse through a bamboo forest until we arrived at the first river crossing. This took about an hour and since it was already late when we started, we decided to have lunch after the first couple crossings and just push through all afternoon. Our target for the day was the campsite with the second to the last water source, just below ‘Camp Seminar’, which we estimated we could reach at a little after 5 PM given our current pace.
12:00 – Lunch
After munching our packed lunch and listening to Kuya Julius’s unceasing jokes, we resumed our trek at about 12:20. We had to trek parallel with the river for the most part and cross it on numerous occasions. There were hardly any assaults but the river crossings probably amounted to more than ten. Much of the trail was similar to that of Mt. Thumbpeak but I gotta say that Buhawi river was more uhhm ‘majestic’.
For the next four hours, we were treated to its rushing sounds and immaculately clean waters. I swear, in parts where it was deep enough, you could actually see the river floor. The currents, especially at the earlier parts, were quite manageable but they became quite dangerous to cross as we got deeper and deeper into the forest. Some parts were just knee high but others had us wading in waters that reached up to our waist. Good thing that we had both Kuya Julius and Japong with us. Kuya Julius was assisting Tin and me since we were at the lead while Des was being swept by Japong. I must say that in some instances, there were times when I would lose my balance a little bit and my heart would jump to my throat because of fear. I was honestly thinking how it was going to be like if it ever rained and the currents would become stronger. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have because we got to find out how exactly during our descent.
It was about half past 3 when Japong said that we reached the final major crossing and since there was a section of the river where it was deep enough, we decided to take a much needed dip. If you saw how pristine the waters were, you’d think that it was really a crime not to. So we decided have a little fun at the river, never minding that I only brought one change of clothes. I thought I’d just wear the same thing for the next two days, I’m sure my coclimbers wouldn’t mind. Nobody mind those things on major hikes hahaha
After being thoroughly refreshed, we decided to continue with the remaining 1 ½ hour hike left up to our targeted campsite. But again, fate had other plans. We weren’t that far from the last crossing when Des developed cramps so we decided that it was better to camp nearby instead of pushing for the intended campsite. We didn’t want to exacerbate the situation and since we were a small group, it was easier to find an emergency camp. We decided to camp on the other side of the river, just where the waters flows to a mini falls, at about 4 in the afternoon. We figured that all of the assault be left for tomorrow when everybody would be in much better conditions.
16:00 – Emergency camp by Buhawi river
Another Palawan climb, another by the river campsite. As it was in Thumbpeak, fireflies were abundant around the area that we decided to pitch camp in. I also got the chance to setup camp the Palawan way – with just a tarp and a hammock. Des and Tin used the tent they borrowed from Japong because Tin was convinced that she would not be able to sleep if she just used a hammock. I must say, it took some getting used to but I did find the experience quite enjoyable. I was comfortable during the first night and not to mention, it also enabled me to pack light. Although, I mostly slept with the whole hammock zipped up because I had nightmares of snakes slithering on the ropes that held my hammock up. I was also paranoid about watching where I step because I was sure that every time I get out of the hammock, a snake would be waiting by my feet. Thankfully, all of my fears were unfounded during the climb despite the fact that they kept on talking about it during dinner. Haha
The good thing about camping by the river was that there was no shortage of water. Especially since we were having sinigang for dinner – care of our master chef Japong. He carried all of our foodstuff with him inside his 8000000 litre bag. Seriously, that guy was carrying a figurative aparador like it was nothing. Oh well to each his own I guess hehe
By 6:30, dinner was already ready. We also threw in our ever-trusty fried ‘lamayo’ (a local delicacy of fish marinated in seasoned vinegar) as well as some fish tocino that we found at the market. Tomorrow was going to be a long day and the hearty meal surely helped build our energy for that. The next day was reserved solely for the summit assault then descending back to the campsite. If we managed to get back earlier, we had the option of moving our campsite near the jumpoff but if not, it was ok too since we were just 5 hours away from the jumpoff anyway.
06:00 – Wake-up call/Summit Assault
Day broke, we had breakfast and soon, we were starting our trek up to the summit of Mt. Victoria. I was excited to get it under way but I also felt something was wrong. When I woke, I felt a fever coming on so I decided to take paracetamol to help with the uneasiness a bit. I ended up drinking paracetamol every four hours along the trail, which was non-sense since I just end up tiring myself anyway – I know. But the fever and dizziness were persistent so that’s what I decided to do. Being in constant motion and the adrenaline certainly helped because it was only during moments of pause that I would feel the discomfort sinking in. In any case, I wasn’t going to let that stop me so despite how I was feeling, I was ready to reach Mt. Victoria’s peak.
This time, Kuya Julius and I were at the lead pack, Tin was in the middle and Des was once again accompanied by Japong. It helped that Kuya Julius was lively and talkative because it made me forget how I was feeling during the trek. We talked about how Mt. Victoria was a frequent research spot of botanists from all over the world because of its rich flora and how he guided most of them. We also talked about memories of the harshness of Mt. Mantalingajan -which he also had the chance to traverse- and how he would never climb it again. He admitted that it really was one of the longest and hardest mountains that he has climbed and he got no argument from me.
07:00 – Camp Seminar
After an hour of continuous assault, we finally reached camp seminar. They named the clearing so because of the makeshift shelters that were once established as a base camp for botanists documenting the plant life of Mt. Victoria. They figured it turned into a pseudo seminar hall with all the scientists, hence the name. Kuya Julius said that most of the scientists would spend hours setting up tripods and taking pictures of different plant life in Mt. Victoria, big or small, and it would take them days before they were satisfied. I’m no biologist but I could understand their fascination seeing as Palawan is a biodiversity haven.
Mt. Victoria’s flora was really quite something to behold. Like with Manta, we were ever on the lookout for pitcher plants and soon enough, we were seeing dozens and dozens of them strewn everywhere, even if we were still hours from the peak. We figured that Victoria was more diverse in terms of pitcher plant population and we did hear that some of the pitcher plants near the summit were as big as our arms. We’d soon find out how true that was.
Just at the base of camp seminar was our initially targeted campsite which was characterized by a flowing stream. This was the last relatively large flowing water source before the summit and according to Kuya Julius, temperature also drops to very low degrees in that area at night.
08:20 – Wild boar playground
After an hour and a half of steady assault through mossy forests, we arrived at a clearing which Kuya Julius claimed was a frequent playground of wild boars in Mt. Victoria. This was why it was not a recommended campsite despite being spacious since it was quite dangerous at night. You could still camp if you wanted to, there was enough space, but you’d have to sleep at your own risk.
09:20 – Camp 2
After yet another hour of traipsing through steep mossy trails, we finally reached Camp 2. This was the final camp before the summit of Mt. Victoria, which was only an hour away. There was a mini water fall that served as a water source and there were makeshift benches built in the area as well. We decided to replenish our trail water here before moving on to the final assault towards the summit.
From Camp 2, the trails became much steeper and much lusher with trees and moss that you’d constantly find yourself impeded. There were also sections when you actually had to scale cliff walls since there was no other way. After about half an hour, we broke through the forest line and ended up on the ridge of Mt. Victoria. From here on out, it was very much like the summit of Mt. Mantalingajan. Instead of towering mossy trees, we had to traverse through thorny plants that grew up as high as our knees and climb on rocks with skin-piercing edges. Good thing we remembered to don gloves this time. Although, since I only brought one pair of trekking pants and totally left my arm warmers in Manila, my legs and my arms still received the brunt of the scratches. At least my hands were spared though, clap clap for me.
The path to the summit was also, literally, littered with huge pitcher plants. And I do mean huge. Some were indeed as long as my arm! They were literally everywhere that you’d have to mind where you step because you might end up stomping on one. I joked that about 10 minutes into the trail, the pitcher plants already lost their appeal due to their unexpected ubiquity. Every time I thought I saw the biggest one there was, a turn round the corner would quickly prove me wrong. Aside from pitcher plants, there were also sundews of all sizes. While we saw a couple along the summit of Manta, the sundews on Mt. Victoria were numerous. And they grew in clumps too! It was absolutely breath-taking! You honestly wouldn’t give much thought to the fact that the assault was physically taxing and quite dangerous too (stepping on sharp rocks all throughout…) because of the constant beauty that surrounded you.
11:00 – Mt. Victoria Summit
It was 11 in the morning when we finally reached the summit. As with all of my Palawan climbs, the summit barely offered any clearing at all. Which, of course, gave renewed vigour to the belief that we were cursed. Haha But whatever the conditions may be, we were still proud to have summited yet another Palawan gem. But the challenge was not over yet. A shift in the clouds revealed that from the main summit of Mt. Victoria, there was still another peak to be climbed called ‘The Teeth’. They called it so because from a distance, the summit of Mt. Victoria and the Teeth looked like canines when viewed side by side. The trail leading to the Teeth was so precarious and dangerous that it was only recently that climbers were successfully able to traverse it. From the summit, it really looked like there was no humane way to get across but needless to say, we were excited for the challenge.
So we had lunch on the cloudy summit and prepared ourselves quite a bit before attempting the crossing. When we arrived at the summit, the sun’s heat was thankfully lessened by the clouds but by the time we decided to head to the teeth, a light drizzle has fallen that we decided to don our rain gear in anticipation. Annoyingly, the rain quickly stopped the moment we began our trek to the teeth. But before we did so, we quickly offered our customary prayer against cancer atop Mt. Victoria.
13:00 – Arriving at the “Teeth”
This was definitely the most difficult and most dangerous part of the whole trek. The path looked daunting from the summit and was proven upon closer inspection. There were no firm footholds anywhere. We had to skip from rock to rocks, test our weight on bonsai branches and scale 90 degree boulders. From the summit, you’d think it was easy and near – I remembered sir Mayo comparing it to Pico de Loro (uhhm in no freakin way!) – but it took us almost an hour to reach the other peak.
Kuya Julius and I were once again at the lead pack and the moment we set foot on the summit, his first comment was to note the absence of the huge boulder that once marked that summit. We quickly found the rock in question looking like it was cleanly hewn in half. He surmised that a lightning must have hit and smashed the boulder because Mt. Victoria was also home to countless lightning strikes. He told me all this while we were nonchalantly sitting on the rock that the lightning destroyed. Well, they did say that lightning never strikes the same place twice. I wonder if that still worked after a margin of a few months though?
Things got more ominous when rain started to fall as we were waiting for the others at the Teeth. Unlike before, this one did not stop and was clearly going to continue for hours. So we did not stay long at the Teeth and decided to hurry back down before the rains get worse. And boy did it get worse.
We didn’t throw caution to the wind but we did cross much more quickly than before, not minding the minor scratches and bruises from sharp rock and thorny bushes. By then, the rain was flowing heavily that you could see waterfalls forming on the sides of Mt. Victoria, gushing water when before there was none at all. It also didn’t help that every few minutes, lightning would strike followed by a thunderous roar that we had to stay low and crouch among the bushes in order to reduce our surface areas. Japong would later inform us that he had to actually drag Des along the trail in order to hurry.
Once we arrived back at the summit, Kuya Julius and I crouched below the bushes while waiting for the others to catch up. We didn’t have to wait long because they were quickly on our heels – I guess a scary weather phenomenon was a good pace motivator as any. We continued our quick descent back to the forest line since most of the summit trails were still open. We felt relatively safer once we hit the refuge of the mossy forests because at least we were clear of the lightning strikes. I stowed my camera away by this time because it was figuratively raining cats and dogs already.
But the forest offered other challenges. Remembered how we scaled vertical rock cliffs on the way up? Well, now they’ve become full-fledged waterfalls. Oh yes, we had no choice but to descend through slippery rocks while a rushing torrent was slamming our backsides. We laughed about it afterwards but gosh darn’it that was scary as hell haha Kuya Julius let me go on ahead since the trail was still straightforward until camp 2 while he made sure that the others were okay. I also didn’t want to clutter the thin trail so I decided to wait for them back in Camp 2.
18:00 – Back at Campsite
Our descent back to the campsite was hampered by the mud and the continuous rain that it was almost dark by the time we got back. By then, the rains have let up but I found out that I forgot to pack my malong away when we left camp and so as a result, it was drenched. And to make matters worse, my condition did not improve. Once we were back at the camp, my fever kicked into high gear that I was honestly delusional during most of the night. Japong kindly lent me a sleeping bag he brought with him so I was at least dry throughout the night. And while they were downing Tanduay and getting inebriated, I was routinely downing paracetamol and just coyly smiling from my hammock every time they loudly tell a joke. Clearly not the socials I had in mind but what could I do? Hahaha
07:00 – Break camp and descent
We woke up to a much clearer day and decided to take our time breaking camp since we had the whole day to make the 5 hour trek back to the jumpoff. By this time, I was honestly still not feeling better but at least it was already the last day. And I thought the surprises were already over. But as fate must, she decided to be fickle.
We left at about half past 7 and commenced crossing Buhawi river again. During this time, there were instances where I’d let them get on ahead so that I could lean on the trail and puke my heart out because I was all dizzy and short of breath. This would happen every 15 minutes or so that after about 2 hours of trekking, they kindly suggested that we rest because clearly, I could use it. So while they were preparing for an early lunch, I was lying down on whatever flat surface I could find and making sure that I had my scheduled paracetamol intake.
Then it started to rain. Very hard. We had no choice but to wait it out from where we set up a temporary camp. By then, we still had a couple more river crossings to go and we feared that the constant rain would strengthen the river currents and make the water levels rise. But since we could not resume trekking, we stayed quite a bit at that river camp which gave me enough time to rest and for them to…well…kill time. Hahaha It was almost past 2 when Japong decided that we could not wait much longer lest the river rose more so we decided to push through.
And so began the most terrifying river crossing of my life. Hahaha Forgive the hyperbole, it really felt that way. Maybe given the fact that I could barely maintain my balance outside water, it was really scary trying to cross a raging river while carrying a backpack. There were moments I was sure I was going to be swept away but somehow we all managed to cross through. My rain cover was swept away though – an incident involving a heroic/idiotic attempt from Kuya Julius to save it which led to him and Tin being outbalanced while the river battered them. Oh what fun times. The river was wild that day. The river was wild. Hahaha
So after that crazy battle with the Buhawi river and a couple more pukes to get out of the way, we finally hit the red clay going to the jumpoff at about half past 3. From there on out, the trail was much more benign since we were passing by community roads now. We had to trek for an hour still since we were going to be picked up at a different point than where we were let off. But at least the roads were flat and this time, the worse was really over.
16:30 – Back at the Jumpoff
We updated our families that we have successfully and safely, all challenges notwithstanding, completed the climb. We headed back to Narra proper to have Chaolong for dinner then boarded an aircon bus while all smelling like we haven’t had a proper bath in days (which of course we haven’t haha). We had to wait for the 9 o’clock trip to Puerto Princesa so it was already midnight when we arrived back at Iwahig. Finally, a proper bed! I guess that’s all my fever was waiting for – a proper rest – because the following morning, I was feeling a whole lot better. But I guess I have to expect that from now on, any Palawan climb that I go to would have to be eventful. It just has to be and there’s no use being surprised. Hahaha
Many many thanks to Kuya Julius for guiding us along Mt. Victoria’s slopes. Mt. Victoria will forever be memorable not just for our apparent feud with mother nature but for the crazy company that he provided. Hehe To sir Mayo and Tita Norma for once again, graciously hosting us during our stay in Puerto Princesa. They’re probably the kindest people I know. To all the Palawan mountaineers who made our stay in the island lead to one big night after another. To Des and Tin for one hell of an adventure. And of course, to sir Japong ‘Cutie Fatootskie’ Camacho for well, everything really. We bothered him for seven days but he made us feel welcome during every second of it! 😀