Friday, July 25, 2014

Hiking matters #414: The trek to Nagsasa Cove via Mt. Cinco Picos and Mt. Dayungan in Zambales

SUBIC, ZAMBALES - The Zambales Coastal Mountains and Coves in Subic and San Antonio, Zambales deserve more attention, beyond the popular Anawangin Cove and its emerging counterparts Silanguin and Nagsasa Coves. A series of interconnected trails make for endless possibilities in the area, allowing hikers to customise their itineraries - from short, two-hour treks to multi-day, multi-mountain adventures - else, extended dayhikes.
In 2011, I had the privilege of experiencing these trails by doing Mt. Balingkilat and Cinco Picos in one weekend, traversing the latter towards Silanguin Cove (see Hiking matters #145-147). Because the mountains are exposed to the sun and are notoriously exhausting due to the heat, we nighttrekked and dimtrekked both mountains, but still found the sun-kissed descent to Silanguin Cove very taxing.
In Hiking matters #147, I wrote: "Tommy, our 15-year old guide, spoke enthusiastically about a possible Mt. Dayungan Traverse to Nagsasa Cove, which would parallel the Balingkilat-Anawangin and Cinco-Picos-Silanguin." Today, I met Tommy again - he has grown - and finally managed to do exactly his recommendation, this time with his uncle Joseph, who served as our guide. Joining me were Coby Sarreal, Pam Aquino, Jenny Aggangan, Elijah dela Calzada, Osep Reyes, Dandan Real, and Cynthia Sy (the lady wearing green) - one of the most prolific hikers in the country, having climbed Halcon 18 times, and other major peaks with similar, mind-boggling frequency. 
The initial part of the trail is actually exactly same trail leading to the Cinco Picos campsite, so it is like hiking Cinco Picos. In fact, this hike virtually includes the entire Cinco Picos hike - save for the traverse to Silanguin Cove and the peaks that are still inaccessible. Ten minutes before reaching the campsite, we made a right and northward turn towards Mt. Dayungan.

It was a pleasant walk; the slopes are gentle throughout and the green grasslands were a welcome view. Actually, this chacterterizes the hike throughout the trek. Save for the river crossing at the onset, and the forested approach to Nagsasa Cove - plus another stream towards the end - it was mostly grassland.
We raised the possibility of going up to the peak of Mt. Dayungan, but our guide vetoed it, citing the poor visibility and the uncertainty of sea conditions in the afternoon. Lending additional excitement to the hike is the need to take a boat to San Antonio - but of course, this step makes the hike all the more contingent on the weather.

As we descended to Nagsasa Cove, I realised that hiking in the Zambales Coves area can be perilous during the rainy season - but with caution - i.e. avoiding the mountain when there's a storm and listening to the assessment of your guide - it can also be very rewarding, having none of the heat that bedevils a regular hike up any of the mountains there. 
Nagsasa Cove came into view as we lost altitude, but I can imagine that it would have been better glimpsed from the peaks of Dayungan - and, as I can remember - at the summit of Balingkilat. When the sight of Nagsasa ends, the woodlands - and the menace of the mosquitoes -  begins, followed by a couple of streams that you have to cross.

By 1300H, we had reached the greyish sands of Nagsasa. Not knowing how the weather will turn, and still having to take a boat to Pundaquit, I didn't insist on hiking up the hill called Mt. Nagsasa - which would have offered a nice view of the cove. But, as I always tell myself, one can always hope for a next time.

As in previous hikes in the area, we stopped by Subic for dinner, and then headed back to Manila. Thanks to everyone who joined me in this trek! It proved to be a refreshing break from my work in Palawan.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hiking matters #413: Mount Victoria in Narra, Palawan Part 2 - To the summit and back

PUERTO PRINCESA - Continued from Hiking matters #412: After a cold and restful night at the High Camp of Mount Victoria, we woke up early to do the assault up the summit. It was cloudy, but as our guide Julius says, you can never tell the weather at the top, until you're at the top.
As we emerged from the forest to reach the rocky slopes, we were greeted by a Palawan striped babbler (Zosterornis hypogrammicus), and I was blessed to have seen this bird in its two habitats: Mantalingajan and Victoria - in a matter of days. The babblers are unafraid of human beings, probably having never been exposed to those who do them harm. Hopefully, this bird sanctuary stays the same.
Past the forest, we were back in familiar ground: ultramafic rocks, the same ones you would see in Mantalingajan, Thumbpeak, and even Mt. Beaufort. The trail required some scrambling, but freed of our heavy packs it did not present any bigchallenge. Writing this post, I have to admit that I am mixing up memories of Mantalingajan and Victoria, as their summit assaults look similar, especially in the greyish weather we had to content ourselves with on both occasions. 
Still, there was a bit of a cleaning when we were going up, and even at the summit we were able to behold the 'Tooth' - the other peak of Mt. Victoria which can be sidetripped by alloting an extra 3-4 hours return. 
And even without the clearing, the sight of the unique flora, not least of which is the endemic pitcher plant found only in the range - Nepenthes attenboroughii (see the left and center images in the collage) as well as the Palawan-endemic Nepenthes philippinensis (right).
We were back to the High Camp, and from there began the descent back to the river, and then to Narra, and finally to Puerto Princesa. But with Mount Victoria vast and full of promise, not least of which is Sultan Peak as well as the countless waterfalls, I will surely be back. Meanwhile it is time to celebrate what has been an action-packed week with the back-to-back hikes of Palawan's two highest mountains, Mantalingajan and Victoria!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hiking matters #412: Mount Victoria in Narra, Palawan Part 1 - To the high camp

At the beginning of the trail with the twin summits at the far right
PUERTO PRINCESA - After traversing Mt. Mantalingajan, the highest mountain in Palawan (see Hiking matters #408-411), and going on a pitstop at Puerto Princesa, my hiking buddy Coby Sarreal and I proceeded to the municipality of Narra to climb Mt. Victoria - also known as the Victoria Peaks - the second highest mountain in the island. Joining us was young Palaweño hiker Brenton Tan. Arriving mid-afternoon, we didn’t miss the opportunity to visit the Estrella Falls, whose clear and cold waters turned out to be a great refreshment.

The next day we were welcomed by Jehson Cervancia, longtime Mt. Victoria advocate with whom I have corresponded in the past. He endorsed us to Kuya Julius who would be our guide for what is usually a three-day hike that would take us to the summit of Mt. Victoria and back.
Estrella Falls, an excellent sidetrip before the Mt. Victoria hike!
We rented a tricycle to Brgy. Princess Urduja - a thirty-minute ride away from the town proper - and started the hike at around 0700H. The weather was not promising to begin with: forecasts were dire and it had rained heavily the previous night, so we expected to get wet as soon as start. We were pleasantly surprised, thus, to see the two-pronged summit of Mt. Victoria ahead of us - among the many peaks in the Mount Victoria Range.

From the onset, the trail environs were impressive. A prairie-like grassland comes first - reminiscent of the trails of Mt. Kilimanjaro - with unique plants and shrubs, including pitcher plants - and butterflies and stick insects hovering. Every forest has its music - of birds, rivers, insects, winds - and that of Victoria is animated, suggesting that it is full of life. Indeed Mt. Victoria's biodiversity attracts scientists from all over the world.
Crossing the Buhawi River
Then, the thirteen crossings of Buhawi River - that limpid stream where we did some unplanned swimming, enthralled by the waters. The traditional way to do the trek is to begin with flip-flops or sandals, then don the hiking shoes after the half-day crossing is done. We did just that, but while that approach was rewarding while crossing the rivers, I found it challenging to trek the slippery, oftentimes overgrown trails along the river with slippers.

We finished the crossing by 1100H, and had early lunch by the 'Huling Sapa' - the last stream. From that point, it was a forested ascent, a bit steep but happily straightforward - a welcome break from the ups and downs of Mt. Mantalingajan. The trails, too, were surprisingly well established. While we were hiking, we spotted a Palawan blue flycatcher - with its pretty orange neck - perched in one of the trees.
More river trails with the lush jungle up ahead
We arrived at the High Camp - which is around 1400 MASL - at 1500H. The Palawan style of camping is just using a mix of tarpaulins and hammocks - and at the High Camp this approach is understandable, considering that there are no really flat areas, and we had to pitch our tent on a sloped surface.

We still couldn’t believe our good fortune - it didn’t rain the whole day, even as Narra and Puerto Princesa both experienced heavy rains. That night, we prayed that the next day would be as fortuitous. Continued in Hiking matters #413. 
At the High Camp, around 1400 MASL
Hiking matters #412: To the high camp
Hiking matters #413:To the summit and back

Monday, June 23, 2014

Hiking matters #411: Mt. Mantalingajan Traverse Day 4: Crossing the mountain range to Brgy. Malis, Brooke’s Point

The view of Magringgit Peak is a visual souvenir of a challenging day
PUERTO PRINCESA - Continued from Hiking matters #410: After another restful night in Paray-Paray campsite, the time came for us to traverse to Brgy. Malis in Brooke's Point - touted as the most challenging portion of the hike. Since the traverse didn't exist yet when I did Mantalingajan in 2008, I was very excited to try this trail for the first time. As it turns out, my excitement was warranted, for it was truly an exhilarating trail!

It would be a mistake to think of the traverse to Brooke’s Point as a mere ‘descent’, as it is full of ups and downs, with several peaks to be negotiated - so I would characterise it more as a crossing through a good section of the Mantalingajan Range. It is like the traverse from Dulang-Dulang to Kitanglad - but it is longer, and with narrower, more precarious - and indeed fragile trails.

The initial descent, from Paray-Paray to Lapong Campsite, is quite steep, walking through sharp, at times slippery rocks, similar to those at the summit, but this time enmeshed in forest. It is difficult to find trails of that demand this level of sustained agility: Talomo-Apo comes to mind, and Pantingan-Tarak, but coming at the final day of the hike, this leg of the Mantalingajan is a thriller indeed.

From Lapong campsite, a series of peaks have to be negotiated. The hike through (and not up) Magringgit Peak is just the first in the series, and it is notable for its fragile violaceaous rocky trails. The trail literally collapses off your feet, requiring brisk, surefooted steps - else, grasping some grass.

When one writes about an adventure, it is easy to understate its difficulty, while on the other hand there is always the temptation to exaggerate. Hence, I think it would suffice to say that it was really a long and challenging day: to reach Lapong Campsite took us four hours; we were at Magringgit at high noon, and more peaks came, with names like Karim and Kawang-Kawang - the later one a nice viewpoint. The trails were relentless.

By 1500H, we reached the village of Pirataw, which signalled that the end is near - but still with several hundred meters to descend! Here, the weather improved considerably, and we could see Sulu Sea in front of us, as well as the coastline of Brooke's Point and Bataraza: it felt more and more like Sembrano and then Tagapo, as the labyrinthine trails of the mountain proper gave way to more familiar grassy slopes, and bamboo- and coconut-strewn woodland.

Finally, just before 1800H, after almost 11 hours of trekking, we reached the National Highway in Brgy. Malis, south of Brooke’s Point town proper. Fed up with waiting for vans or buses to Puerto Princesa, we instead stayed in the house of one of the villagers, a chicken was hastily prepared for a celebratory feast. The next day, I woke up early to catch the first trip back to Puerto Princesa. The Mantalingajan Range on my left remained until it receded in Española, giving way to Mount Victoria in Narra - the mountain that we would climb next (see Hiking matters #412-413)!

Farewell, Mantalingajan! Six years ago, leaving Rizal for Puerto Princesa, I had no idea that I would one day be coming back, and today is no different. As the van from Brooke's Point headed north I kept looking at the peaks to the west: Maruyog, Gantung, and many others, nameless but no less beautiful.

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