Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Mt. Halcon, Mindoro, 1994

Mt. Halcon in Mindoro island, is famous for its being far and various terrains that challenges those who want long walks, see really big trees, and those who want to experience and pass the "limatic boulevard". I think the summit of the mountain is the boundary between Oriental Mindoro and Occidental Mindoro provinces. The former faces Batangas province while the latter faces northern Palawan province. In between the two is a small island hosting beautiful coral reefs famous among divers, called Apo Reef.

The jump-off point to start the trek to Mt. Halcon is the municipality of Baco, Oriental Mindoro. From Manila, we took a bus to Batangas City; took the boat to Calapan, the provincial capital. Then we rented a jeepney to Baco, to a barangay largely inhabited by Mangyans, one of the known tribal minorities or indigenous people (IP) in the Philippines. Our group was composed of Gene Penas, Peachy Dumlao, Toto Gestuveo, Doming and myself. We were all working in the House of Representatives then, except Doming but his wife was working there. Gene acted as our team leader.

Day 1 was a loooonngg day. We left our houses 2am, caught the 3am bus at Pasay City, caught the 6am boat at Batangas City, had our breakfast at past 8am in Calapan. By the time we started the climb (after getting 2 Mangyan guides) at around 9.30am, we were already tired and sleepy. To worsen things, it was a cloudless morning and the sun was very unforgiving that day! The lower part of the climb was in an area that was cleared of trees by the settlers, the Mangyans themselves, and converted to subsistence agricultural crops. The lack of trees and their comforting shades exposed us to late morning hot sun. Toto was the first to slow down, stopping and resting more often and drinking more water. Our guides told us that we will walk 2 days up, and another 2 days down. Hence, we need to walk faster if want to rest and sleep earlier.

Our 2 Mangyan guides were really "sons of the earth" literally. Not scorning them, but they really smelled something from the earth, my nostril was really assaulted(!) Also, they never wore any shoes or slippers, they walked barefooted, and they walked much faster and with ease than us who were wearing thick hiking shoes. To mitigate the situation, I tried to walk at least 3 to 4 meters away from any of them, but the smell was there. Later on in the day, my nostril got used to the odor and I stopped complaining by myself.

After our early lunch break and brief noon-time sleep, everybody recovered and resumed the climb faster. By then, we were also walking in thick forest cover. We passed by a river and its water is so clean and so cold. We were tempted to put down our heavy backpacks and dip in its refreshing water for a few minutes. But losing momentum and courting sickness by dipping our sweating bodies in cold waters are risks that we can't afford, so we just filled our drinking water bottle, washed our faces, and resumed walking.

By mid-afternoon walk, we noticed that the "limatic", those small and thin worms that reside in the mountains and suck blood, were getting plentier. When hungry, they are as thin as broomstick (made of coconut leaves); after sucking blood, they expand to a little bit smaller than a cigarette butt! And there are thousands of them all around. The forest is a cool place; when there are people or animals passing by, them warm-blooded creatures, the limatic sense and notice this, they get ready to jump to the passing warm-blooded guys. So you see them sticking to your arms, or legs, or even your face, trying to stick their sticky and pointed mouth to your skin so they can suck blood. You remove them by physically pulling them out from your skin, or whisk them several drops of rubbing alcohol, they'd fall off voluntarily.

By late afternoon, we were near or already in the peak of the first mountain. Tired and hungry, we looked for a relatively flat and open space to pitch 3 tents (2 for us, 1 for our guides). We found a good place, beside a big and tall almaciga tree. This tree has various industrial uses, aside from wood and lumber production; one such industrial use, I heard, is extraction of resin and other raw materials for plastic. The circumference (measurement of a circle) of the almaciga tree near us was equivalent to around 2-3 people holding hands together in a circle!

After pitching our tents and unloading our things, changing shorts and shirts, removed our shoes and socks, it was only then that I realized the damaged caused by the limatic in my body: two of them were curled up between my fingers in my right foot, seemingly full, contented and sleeping! Their sudden thickness should correspond to the amount of blood they have sucked in my foot. Another limatic was more malicious: it stuck in my right butt and sucked from there, causing some blood to spill in my brief and short. They all never lasted a minute longer after I found them. I crushed them to pieces by smashing them between 2 stones; the remains I threw into a flaming stove we lighted in cooking our dinner.

Actually, almost all 5 of us were bitten by the limatic that day. Our Mangyan guides were laughing at us why we seemed to be so paranoid with those pesky little leech. And one thing I noticed: not one of our 2 guides complained to have been bitten by those leeches! Maybe because they got used to those pests that they can easily remove them from their skin, or maybe because they have thicker feet and sun-baked skin that the limatic don't find them too yummy to suck blood.

After dinner, we lighted a very small bonfire as we -- Toto, Gene, Doming, myself and our 2 guides -- were huddled in a circle and drinking a few glasses of gilbey's gin (Gene's favorite!), gave us warmth and light for the evening. Peachy was too tired and slept early. The chirping insects and some night birds were our "stereo" that night when we went to sleep.

Day 2, we woke up early, cooked and ate breakfast early, packed our things and resumed the trek by 7am. This time, we'll go down a bit of the first mountain, to climb the second mountain which is our destination -- Mt. Halcon. Around 9am, we met a group of about 5 men, also Mangyans but from a different group or tribe. They were thin but muscular, 3 were wearing G-strings while 2 were wearing shorts. We greeted them "magandang umaga po" (good morning), they never nodded nor smiled, just no reaction while standing still and allowing us to pass. Their hair were not as kinky as our Mangyan guides from Baco. And their faces were a bit oblong. Later when we were far, our Mangyan guides told us that such group is from a different tribe of Mangyans, they reside in the middle of the mountain, have a different language and they do not speak or understand Tagalog. I figured that perhaps explained why they never responded to us when we greeted them.

I can't remember now if it was before or after lunch when we finally reached the summit of Mt. Halcon. Another achievement of setting foot on Mindoro island's highest mountain and one of the farthest mountains to climb in the Philippines! At the top of this mountain, you see mostly mountain ranges nearby, small dots of human settlements in the plains below, and the vast sea further beyond. The cool and refreshing air, plus the sense of achievement of having reached this high and far mountain, easily erased the pains and hardships that we experienced over the last 2 days. We had fun chatting and exchanging jokes at the summit. Later in the day, we walked down a bit lower to pitch our tents again in a relatively flat and open area. The same thing we did the previous night: cook, dinner, drink a little bit; and ngooorrrkkkk-weeezzzz later.

Day 3, we wanted to be back in Calapan by evening of same day, so we resolved to start the walk early and walk faster. After breakfast, we were descending as if we had a patient to bring to a hospital that day. The climb back to the first mountain naturally slowed us down. After which, it was a walk-jog pace. It helped that we have lighter baggage now after we have consumed most of our drinks and food over the last 2 days.

Back to the "limatic boulevards". Those portions, I think in both the 2nd mountain (Mt. Halcon) and the 1st mountain, where limatic density is high. This time we tricked them by walking much faster. Just as they were preparing to jump to us from the leaves and branches of trees and small plants, the last of us (the "tail") has already whizzed past them. I remember in those "boulevards", for about 30-45 minutes, the longest rest stop we could take to drink water was around 5-15 seconds only!

I think we made it to Calapan in 1 day. We were able to catch the late afternoon boat trip to Batangas City. After a brief dinner in Batangas, we boarded the bus to Manila. We reached home late in the evening. The following day, we saw each other again in our respective offices in Congress. Our other mountaineering friends who failed to join us in that climb were literally "salivating" with awe and envy with the kind of stories and experience that we told them. Hehehe.

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