BANAHAW TAKES A BOW

MANILA,
April 5, 2004 (STAR) By Lynette Lee Corporal - I am not a mountaineer; neither am I a devout pilgrim. Yet, a few weeks ago, I found myself heeding Mt. Banahaw’s call. Little did I know that it was to be my last glimpse of its peak (or peaks for there are three)...at least for the next five years, that is.

Last Sunday, we got word that the Protected Area Management Board has started placing barbed wires in some parts of Banahaw leading to the mount’s three peaks – Banahaw de Tayabas, Banahaw de Dolores and Banahaw de Lucban (believed to be the "youngest geologic formation" among the three). News reports have come out about the PAMB’s Resolution No. 001-2004, which prevents pilgrims, mountaineers, picnickers and the like from going up the peak in an effort to rehabilitate the highly polluted mountain. Pilgrims, who annually flock to Banahaw especially during the Holy Week, will only be allowed to go as far as Sta. Lucia, which is at the foot of the mountain, or maybe Kapatagan, about 4,000 feet above sea level. Areas like Suplina, Kuweba ng Diyos Ama and Dungaw are now off limits. But knowing the Pinoy’s palusot syndrome, we won’t be surprised if the mountain remains to be a dumping ground in the years to come by people whose offerings to the sacred mountain come in the form of trash...tons of trash. Prayers and sacrifices? Communing with nature? Watdat?

To be honest, it’s a struggle to write about this sacred mountain. Words aren’t enough to describe the experiences our group had trekking this holy ground. It’s like climbing all over again. Only this time, instead of traversing difficult paths, I’ve to wade through tons of, not trash, but data (or memories if you will) and reliving every single emotion as well as recalling the sights and sounds of the whole journey. I guess this is what Banahaw – or any mountain for that matter – does to anyone who dares to scale it. You are humbled and forced to shed all those labels you thought defined you as an individual. No more masks, no more pretensions. It’s just between you and the mountain. You end up as a human being seeking perhaps unconsciously to meet nature in its rawest form. In return, the mountain brings out the best and worst in you, and lets you know who you really are and who you can be. As one of our companions, Josel Gaston (who is a veteran climber), shared, "Peak experiences are manifested desires of the soul... desires that would eventually make you realize who you really are."

Our climb began one sunny Wednesday morning with a hefty Mediterranean-inspired breakfast (the fried rice infused with spices promptly awakened our sleepy tastebuds) courtesy of Kinabuhayan Cafe’s Jay Herrera in Dolores, Quezon. This was where we slept the night before in a hut a claustrophobic would truly love. Open on two sides, the hut is a breezy abode also equipped with a bathroom (with hot water to boot) that has no roof so you can take a bath under the sun, moon and stars. We were lulled to sleep by a cacophony of night sounds – the flapping wings of a bat, the cooing of a pet pigeon, the steady drone of crickets, the eerie "tu-ko" chant of a gecko as well as the electric hum of a ceiling fan and the symphony of snores around. The incessant crowing of roosters and cheerful chirping of birds were what woke us up the following morning. No honking horns, no blaring TV sets tuned in to Magandang Umaga, Bayan or Unang Hirit, no screeching alarm clocks for a change.

A brief visit to a still closed church at dawn and a short trip down Sta. Lucia for a refreshing dip and a cleansing ritual of sorts where you also pray for a safe trek up the mountain preceded the actual climb. The 270 or so steps that we – Ross Harper-Alonso, Guillermo Misa, Miguel Zulueta, Kinabuhayan Cafe’s Winston Baltasar, Josel and I – had to negotiate going to the river of Sta. Lucia also became a warm-up of sorts for our still sleeping muscles. A cursory glance along the trail going towards the river revealed shampoo and conditioner sachets partly hidden in rock crevices, a tiny bar of soap and gin bottle caps piled up on one side, empty biscuit packets thrown near the water’s edge. Nothing much has changed since three years ago when, on a healing pilgrimage for a bad back, I went to Sta. Lucia and other holy sites in the mountain. My back’s okay now but the mountain obviously is not.

The ascent going towards our first goal – Tatlong Tangke – was smooth enough as we passed through a clearing of fallen golden leaves courtesy of the towering trees above. This paved the way to a trail which had the group walking past more trees, tall grasses and wild shrubs. With still a very friendly trail, everyone found the time to stop and appreciate the sights – the 1,470-meter Mt. Cristobal in the distance, wild berries (they’re edible but tasteless) and flowers, giant ferns, thick forest cover, glimpses of cave entrances, langka trees heavy with fruits, sayote patches, and as expected, bits and pieces of Jelly Ace plastic cups, crackers packets, Juicy Fruit foils, cigarette butts. It’s sad considering that Mounts Banahaw and Cristobal were declared "a forest reserve by the Americans in 1921," a National Park during President Manuel L. Quezon’s time through Proclamation No. 1716, according to www.banahaw.com.

We were made aware that Banahaw is a moderate to difficult trek and this didn’t really sink in until after we left Tatlong Tangke to go to our first camp at Kapatagan. While the trek up Tatlong Tangke had us negotiating slopes ranging from 25 to 35 degrees, the climb to Kapatagan was worse with a 45- to 70-degree incline. From an all-soil terrain, the path slowly became rocky, then "rooty" – that is, we were now treading on natural steps made by huge tree roots. It’s quite amazing how our guides, Ka Jun Panaclay and Roger as well as Banahaw’s resident guide dog and mascot Blackjack, made mincemeat of the tricky trail.

By sundown, the group had set up tents in Kapatagan, which according to Ka Jun is where the so-called Dose Pares, the protectors and caretakers of the mountain, would meet. Devotees believe in these elders, said to be giants and would congregate in a clearing not unlike that scene in LOTR’s Two Towers where Treebeard gathered the Ents to decide on their participation in the brewing war in Middle Earth. Had we seen these giants, we would’ve felt like hobbits in their presence.

Famished and tired, everyone tried to get some shuteye amidst the biting cold (it must have gone down to 14 degrees or lower that night), the spooky stories and experiences (two of our companions swore they saw an old man sitting by the fire as if conversing with Ka Jun and Roger when they were the only ones there) and an eerie sound of a man heaving a big sigh which I distinctly heard as coming behind the huge trees while the rest of the group ate supper at the other end of the campsite.

By the way, do be careful what you utter in Banahaw for it might just come true one way or another. While in Sta. Lucia, I silently prayed that my back be protected from injury as I don’t cherish having one more disc removed. During final preparation minutes before the trek, there was a sudden exchange of backpacks with my bag ending up on Winston’s back (he offered to switch backpacks) and I carrying Ka Jun’s, which is back-friendly as far as I am concerned. Also, a very innocent query on whether we’d be able to see fireflies was granted when the supposedly three- to four-hour trek down the peak uncannily stretched to an 11-hour trek (but which actually felt like just a few hours). We were only expecting to see a tree or two lit up like a Christmas tree by nature’s lamplighters but the spirits of Banahaw probably had other ideas. As soon as the sun set, and along with it our flashlight batteries, hundreds of fireflies as if on cue emerged and gave us a spectacular light show amidst the mist-filled forest. Like tiny fairies, they played hide and seek among the trees. Twinkling fairy lights also lined and crisscrossed our path. It was eerie yet so breathtaking that we all stopped in our tracks and admired the magical sight that extended far into the distance. The whole forest was bathed by the fireflies’ soft glow that it was easy to lose track of time. Answered prayers? I’d like to think so.

Thursday morning was the day of the assault (I don’t understand why mountaineers call climbing a peak an "assault"; it sounds so violent and it’s like abusing Mother Nature. Guys, can we think of a less antagonistic word?). It was supposed to be a two-hour trek at least from Kapatagan up to Unang Dungaw. And the trail leading up? Ruthless. A major workout. The steps are irregular and placed so high up that we had to clamber up on all fours at times and grab at exposed tree roots and branches to get up another step. Fallen logs would block the path and we either had to go under or over to get across. But, here’s the beauty of all this: When you need a foothold or a handhold, Gaia is there ready to pull you up via a protruding root, branch or trunk and all you have to do is to reach out. It’s as if she has anticipated your need and is promptly there where you want her exactly. There was a slight drizzle but the huge canopies provided a much-needed shelter. The soil was slippery but the roots stopped you from slipping. A perfect example of man and nature’s perfect co-existence.

Reaching Unang Dungaw, 6,000 feet above sea level, was such an emotional experience and I wouldn’t even attempt to describe the feeling for it’s deeply personal. Suffice it to say that the view from up there was awe-inspiring and fantastic. Humbling as well. Now I understand why some people describe climbing a mountain a natural high. Well, apart from the lack of oxygen after all those huffing and puffing, you do feel lightheaded in a good way, your heart wanting to do that Balki-Larry bit of Dance of Joy.

Though it was noontime, the crater 900 meters down was covered with clouds. It is said that the crater used to be a lake until Banahaw’s 1730 eruption which tore open the southern rim and let the water out. Local folks also call the mountain Vulcan de Aqua owing to its numerous springs. Unfortunately, due to lack of time and supplies, we didn’t go to Ikalawang Dungaw (accessible via ropes along an almost vertical wall) and Ikatlong Dungaw.

As if to remind us that the peak was still sacred ground, we were met by the sight of a large white cross and rocks where names and prayers were written. Rosaries were left on the rocks at the base of the cross as offerings. But the specter of human irresponsibility continued to make its presence felt. Mineral water plastic containers ranging from the smallest to the biggest (as much as six liters) defaced the holy ground. Some were stacked under rocks, hidden from view. Not surprisingly, we saw huge rats scurrying around and scavenging among the trash.

By 2 p.m., everybody was ready to leave. In fact, two of our companions left ahead to prepare the campsite at Kuweba ng Diyos Ama. To everybody’s dismay, the trail leading to the campsite was littered with still more trash – sardine and corned beef cans, plastic bottles and candy wrappers. Ka Jun, who has been living in Banahaw for the last 34 years, says there had been instances when they would find pornographic magazines apparently left by trekkers. A clean-up by the PAL Mountaineers in the last four months yielded 126 trashbags. When Ka Jun personally picks up trash along the trail for two days, he would bring down 15 sacks or more of trash of mostly camping gas and plastic candle wrappers, which point to pilgrims and mountaineers alike as the culprits. Every Holy Week alone, an average of 500,000 people trek up the mountain. One could just imagine the trash these throng leave behind making the mountain a huge dumping ground.

One particular polluted area is the Pinagluhuran where the trees and their roots grow in such a way that they seem to kneel on the ground. "They’re probably on their knees storming the heavens to stop these people from polluting the place," quipped a friend when told about our trek.

Even the Kuweba ng Diyos Ama wasn’t spared from man’s destruction. Two concrete structures were built in this secluded area which we reached by going down two almost vertical rock wall via ropes looked. It’s not a pretty sight.

More garbage greeted us the following morning, one piled near a small bridge at the mouth of the cave and another, a huge mound at the back of the toilet.

Further down the trail on the way back to Brgy. Kinabuhayan, eroded soil, dry riverbeds and water pipes will make nature lovers shake their heads in frustration. Graceful as Banahaw’s beauty is, it will soon lose its charm if these destruction remain unabated.

With weakened knees and tired bodies, we made our way down the trail grateful for the safe trip. The memory of the fireflies and the succeeding strange and scary events – sightings of enchanted lighted structures, a man (or woman?) in the shadows looking at us as we rested in the middle of our unplanned night trek, losing my foothold and almost falling 20 feet on rocky ground, followed immediately by a vision by my two companions of a group of people in black and white robes dancing and carrying a body covered in white cloth towards the cave – will definitely stay with us for a long time.

As Ross exclaimed upon learning about the ban, our group was lucky to have been invited by Banahaw not only to experience its wonders but also to witness its abuse and neglect, before it closes its doors to us mortals. And we’re only too glad to have heeded its last call.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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