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KAYBIGAS AND TILOS

After 10 years of regular sorties in the wild, I finally realised what was wrong with my photos. The lens was almost always shooting downward.

To be fair it is the natural position on a trail going up a mountain. The ground in front of you is at a higher level than your footholds, so unless you make an effort to tilt the camera upwards, you get to shoot the tree trunks and the protruding tree roots, instead of the leaves. Add the fact that I am taller than most Filipinos by at least half a foot, so the angle becomes even more acute. It seems counter-intuitive, but I tend to shoot more frames while labouring uphill than when when I'm on my way down, when my sole purpose in life is to get ahead of the long queues for the showers. It is not much of a problem on open trails because I tend to crop most of the sky anyway unless there are interesting forms on the horizon, but canopies are another thing. I am always envious of trail shots with lots of high ceilings, where the hiker looks as if he or she is walking down the aisle of a Catholic cathedral. Theoretically it would be easy enough to kneel or squat to change the angle, but try doing that while in the company of strong, young climbers. Composing on the run with a pack load is an effort in itself, but breaking off your stride is a surefire recipe you'd get left behind. It was no different at my last sortie, a rosary trail of Kaybigas and Tilos, low peaks above Lobo and the coastline of eastern Batangas.



A sleepy town near the Quezon boundary, the atis (sweetsop) capital of the Philippines hosts some of the lesser known destinations not yet riddled with climbing tourists armed with selfie sticks. There is not much to see below 400 masl unless you looked back at one of a few clearings and ridgetops for a view of the Verde Passage, the busy sealane between Luzon and Mindoro. The tropical lowland forest has been stripped off and replaced with ipil-ipil, a Central American legume tree whose leaves the locals use to feed their cattle and the fast-growing trunks they burn into commercial charcoal. The rest of the trail to the summits features ridges carpeted with low-slung lowland forest trees, rocky outcrops, and -- in between bare faces of cogongrass and tall reeds -- perennially damp gullies where trees get to grow taller and where mosquitoes thrive, attacking the exposed limbs of those who chose to brave the razor-sharp blades of grass with cropped trek pants or running shorts. There were roped sections as well as steep sections of rock rising 10 feet or more that are approached with worryingly thin and rickety wooden ladders and that had some of our trainees calling out to God for salvation and assistance. Both are dry mountains, which meant I had to haul a 13-plus-kilo backpack loaded with more than seven kilos of trail and camp water, containers included.



I have recently committed to shoot photos in full manual mode only, both for body and lens, to force myself to learn, which makes camera work even more complicated on the trail. It is not light either. The setup adds more than a kilo to my pack load. To keep the pack weight under control I ditched all thermal insulation -- jackets and bivy bags -- save for an ultralight raincoat.



Our camp site was a wide expanse of reeds on a minor Kaybigas peak, perfect for a large party and Alman's drone camera. Just flatten the reeds, lay your groundsheet and start pegging your tents; no need for earth pads. Sharon's Mabalasik group was even bolder, going without tents and sleeping out underneath three large kitchen tarps. To the south and west were Isla Verde, the Verde passage, and the outline of the Batangas Bay coastline, but there was no breeze to ease the mugginess. The faster members of our group got there around after only five hours. I could not keep up, so I and two others elected to take long stops and short naps on the trail as a respite from the ferocious midday sun and arrived at the camp in mid-afternoon, which had us cooking dinner before 5pm, and in which my only contribution was to lend a stool. I brought along a tabletop tripod to shoot a red sunset and a Milky Way rising above my Tarptent at midnight, but all we got were clouds, thunderstorms and showers. It's a hit or miss thing, these climbs.



The following day many of the team had run out of trail water by the time they reached the Mount Tilos summit, around 655masl on my uncalibrated Suunto. We rued our decision to use a litre each to bathe behind the reeds near the camp site the previous afternoon. The rolling descent turned out to be tougher than expected, mostly due to long bottlenecks at technical rock sections and steep drops. I doled out my last half-litre to desperate friends, gratefully accepted a little volume of rainwater collected by Volt the previous night, but ended up without any myself for the last hour of the descent, which took me five hours to complete. I remember consuming more than two litres of Royal Tru-Orange at the first backyard grocer before heading for the pickup point on the highway.

EYEWITNESS

The girl in the sky-blue hoody and rainbow hoops pyjamas clutched a pencil and tried to write her name on a piece of paper. She looked stumped by the effort; then suddenly, seemingly without any provocation, the five-year-old started bawling.
As journos covering the Marawi war, we sometimes found ourselves shut out from the frontline, turned away by the many checkpoints crawling with police and military units who were ready and willing to use their guns. On my first day police let loose volleys with their rifles to reel back in a convoy of rescuers who had driven through a checkpoint. So we had to figure out other ways of reporting the developing story: like heading the other way, to areas where you cannot hear the explosions but see their impact first-hand.



"She doesn't talk. She is easily startled by sounds she mistakes for gunfire. At night she cries," said Sairah Pangcoga, mother of another five-year-old who wore yellow Hello Kitty pyjamas. It was the first day of the schoolyear at the Pantar Central Elementary School, but for the displaced children of Marawi, some of them having walked eight hours across the provincial boundary to reach Pantar, their classroom was an outdoor stage without tables and chairs, sat on the floor covered by mats and tarpaulin. After the flag-raising, the substitute teachers handed out pencils and bond paper to the 238 kids, with instructions to draw what they had just gone through.



The frontline was very much in the minds of the children displaced by the conflict. You cannot possibly begin to imagine what must be going on in their heads as they try to process and understand the life-changing disruption inflicted on their being. The last war in Marawi was in 1972, when their own parents weren't even born yet.
"At times like these, you need to engage them in activities that would help them forget their traumatic experience," said Salima Gubut, a local education department official. "At the same time, you need adults to explain and help them make sense of what had happened. Otherwise they would be haunted by it through adulthood."
As a rule children don't lie; they have no political agenda, and the drawings coaxed from them were haunting in their simplicity. The first thing that takes shape is a house, apart from their parents and playmates the one constant in their brief existence. Some drew an entire neighbourhood, with stick peoples walking away from them. One drew a burning house. They drew helicopters overhead, and ogres blocking the way of the stick people. There was gunfire, rendered as diagonal lines coming down from the aircraft and the ground, whizzing atop the heads of the stick people.
An eyewitness account! Hundreds of them! This was the view of the frontlines that was being withheld from us by the checkpoints. But taking notes was difficult because my eyeglasses had fogged over.
Ganito kasi yun. So nag-embed ka sa tropa sa Marawi, kasa-kasama ka kahit saan sila pumunta. Sa trabaho kasi ng mga yan tsong, either side, parating nakaabang ang kamatayan. Pero properly trained ang mga yan. Ikaw ba can you say the same? But presumably me helmet at flak vest ka naman, at sinusuot mo naman. At na-brief ka naman siguro kung ano-ano ang mga dapat at kailangan mong gawin para di madisgrasya.
So eto na. Mahilig tayong lahat mag-selfie e. Kasi nga embed, so sikat. The update to end all updates. Ayun tayo e. Pero sana naman wag ka sa gitna ng kalsada manguha ng selfie. Kasi di naman namimili ang bala e. So hug the wall ka din pag me time. Iwasan ang line of sight ng sniper. Dun ka sa gilid, sa lilim, at kung tatawid ka ng kalsada, tumakbo ka naman, wag yung parang nag-malling ka lang. Yuko saka sprint, para lumiit ang target at di abutan ng bala. Hindi yun over ha, life and death situation yun. Like yung pagsama mo nga din sa tropa.


Metal coffins of dead soldiers are offloaded from a military transport plane and into a truck at Laguindingan airport, north of Marawi

Tas eto na. Pinabayaan ka na ngang mag-selfie. Pero kelangan ba talagang mag-Facebook Live ka? Na naka-background ang ginagawa nilang combat operation? Ikayayaman mo ba ang mag-ATM? Juicekolord! Di ba pwedeng saka mo na lang i-upload pag wala na sila dun?
Ganito kasi yun. Yung mga kalaban ng mga yan social media-savvy. Mahilig ding mag-Facebook. Tas mga homeboys sila, so pag me makita lang na karatula, landmark, at kung ano, alam na nila kung saan yun. E kung i-Facebook Live or ATM mo ang mga tropa habang sumusugod o kumukubli, e di parang sinabihan mo na din yung kalaban kung saan at paano sila tirahin? Para ka na ding nagbigay ng grid coordinates para patamaan sila ng mortar round o para mahanap sila ng sniper. Gets mo? Alam mo ba kung ano sabihin ng coordinates?


Sniper's line of sight; little or no protective gear. See where the soldiers are, by way of comparison

Saka hindi lang ang mga sundalo ang pinapahamak mo pag ganun. Pati mga ibang media na din saka sarili mo. It’s the equivalent of calling in an air strike on yourself. Naisip mo ba yun? Unless pakawala ka ng kabila.
Yung mga tropa naman di ka pinipilit na kumampi sa kanila. Ayaw nga nilang sumama ka kung tutuusin kasi pabigat ka na aalalayan pa nila. Gusto lang naman nila patas ang laban, yung meron silang chance at completing their mission and getting back home alive. Ang babata kaya ng mga yan. At kakarampot ang sweldo nila. Sa mga squatter area nakatira karamihan sa mga yan if you don't know. I'm sure kung meron lang better opportunities or kasing yaman ng mga parents mo ang mga magulang nila, baka di rin sila magsunsundalo.
Umayos tayo tol.

SHELL-SHOCKED IN MARAWI

First, your throat dries up. You gulp and expel air by the boatloads as your heart races to pump more blood to your muscles. Your senses all become more acute and you are primed to fight or flee as a rocket is fired from a helicopter pod, tearing the air like paper in a distinct whump that sucks out all oxygen on its way to... to whom it may concern. But your hands are all over the place; you’re unable to focus the lens on the tiny thing that it had come from, dangling like a crib toy a mere few hundred metres above you.


Too scared to frame it

I had never been that close to combat in my entire life -- I'm not that crazy to volunteer for these assignments -- but I'm pretty sure storied Marawi is as bad a place for those as any. Now I understand what people mean when they say (artillery or mortar) shell shock. A rocket or two -- the military spokesman would not give me the specs -- hitting a target has the same effect. Ditto seeing policemen dive for cover as they draw sniper fire. At least I had the wits to get out of the way as an armoured troop transport barrelled through. That left me no time to ask myself why the stray chicken down the road chose to cross at the same instant, a tiny blur that escaped within an inch of its life from the tank's huge tyres.
Bad and absurd things happen in war, turning the world on its head, that journalists get special instruction on how to comport themselves in order to have a chance at surviving them, charitably called hostile environment training: Things such as how to extricate yourself from a minefield, how to drop and roll to survive a mortar attack, how to dress for it (Flak vests are not a fashion accessory! You don't remove your helmet to show your newly done hair on camera), how not to drive into an ambush, why you have to sprint across an open road, and a long list of other bad situations. Extricating to report the news is the only objective. So much so that ordinary things become bizarre, such as when I discovered I had accidentally recorded on video an unseen coppersmith barbet, one of the Philippines' more colourful birds, launching into its signature "pok-pok-pok" call, like a smith pounding heated metal into shape, amid the firefight. The scrawny chickens of Marawi, scrabbing for food among the uncollected garbage, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem happening all around them after their owners fled, also stood out and actually found themselves in one of my stories. Come to think of it, what could be more normal in a Philippine setting than free-range chickens -- or feral dogs -- by the roadside? The latter have a special place of honour as mascots -- Azkals -- in our national football team (France already have the cockerel.)


Sarimanok crossing

It is too depressing to go into the origins of this conflict, and I won’t discuss the cultural factors that encouraged it to metastasise into a full-blown shooting war. Many of my colleagues have been here for a week to witness the gratuitous violence anyway, so that chance to end it swiftly has probably gone out the window. The Red Cross head honcho gave 50 clinically white body bags to the cadaver collection teams today.
However I quietly cheered for the locals when the government announced the scheduled visit of a prominent national politician. Viewed from the prism of the normal news cycle, it could only mean one thing: that we are finally nearing the end of this battle, if not the war.
A deadly skirmish or stand-off with national or international ramifications draws journalists like flies or carrion fowl to rotting carcass. Usually, the first images you see on your television screen are the anguished and suffering peoples displaced by the conflict, whose lives will never be the same. Maybe their houses had burned down or been burgled. I saw many homes or shops looted judging from the broken locks, front doors pried open -- one by way of gunfire apparently, and another via a car jack and hammer.
The next television images are of more fighting, which in turn draws more combatants, as well as more journalists. Then as one side gains ground the focus shifts to the collection of the dead, the rescue of those trapped in battle, the parading of those captured, and finally, when it’s safe to show up and the gore and rubble, the booby traps and the rotting corpses had all been removed (save for a few TV props), the visit of politicians for the obligatory flag-raising


War's a bitch

as well as to claim the spoils. By that time the world press would have lost interest and turned its head to another war, another conflict, hopefully elsewhere.
Except the displaced will not get back their homes and their looted possessions. Their relatives will still be dead, and the survivors will still be poorer than church mice.

THE MANGYAN AND THE TAMARAW

A rusted iron foot bridge hangs across the Lumintao River, where the Mindoro roads end and the single-track trails begin. Last time I was here was about 10 years ago to join the annual headcount of the iconic but critically endangered dwarf forest buffalo called the tamaraw in their last redoubt at the Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park.


A Mangyan kaingin farm overlooking Mount Magawang, home of the critically endangered tamaraw

The span is likewise a metaphorical drawbridge separating the rest of the world from the nomadic forest people called the Mangyan, the indigenous loincloth-wearing peoples who owned the island before waves of migration of Tagalogs from across the Verde Passage in Batangas to Ilocanos from as far away as as Bani, Pangasinan and Batac, Ilocos Norte pushed them from the flat, rich and low-lying coastal plains to the fastness of the mountain interior. Poypoy, the Mangyan village of Calintaan town on the island’s southwest coast, is now a mainly Ilocano area and the Mangyan are penned in, between the river and the tamaraws, in a ramshackle settlement of palm-frond huts called Tamisan. That was where we delivered notebooks, pad paper, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, ballpens, and homemade teddy bears to more than a hundred Mangyan kids before hiking up to the ranger station used by government rangers in patrolling the park, protecting the poor mammals from rich poachers armed with high-calibre hunting rifles as well as poor slash-and-burn farmers laying waste to the bovine habitats. From there it is a 4.5-hour assault to Iglit, one of the major peaks, or the nearby peak of Magawang, where I first caught sight of tamaraws in 2007. Both trails are under the scorching sun, which reached 38 Celsius that day.


Mangyan men rest beneath a tree on the trail to Mount Iglit

I joined this hike after a month-long bout with pneumonia and had very low expectations. I immediately ruled out a summit push, so my first target was to reach the intermediate camp site before nightfall and photograph tamaraws the next morning, something I was not equipped for during my first visit. However there was just no time to do that on an overnight climb for somebody who had had no proper training for more than five weeks, so I had to settle for less, which was to photograph the endemic species of parrots, doves, pigeons, hornbills and other forest birds now facing extirpation due to the rapidly changing landscape. To do that I had to carry an extra six kilos of birdwatching equipment including a camera, binoculars and tripod behind my back. To stay within reasonable pack weight of about 13 kilos I had to chuck off most of my camp clothes and sleeping gear and make do with rudimentary food while sharing a tent instead of bringing one.


Photo courtesy of Jomari Molejon, AMCI

I did manage to keep pace in the first 3.5 hours until I was hit by thigh and calf cramps as expected at the last river crossing, with a kilometre's worth of hike still to go, the first part of it all uphill. From that time on it was a painful crawl, which took another two hours. I was forced to surrender my pack to Onie the bird guide over the last 800 metres or so. The alternative was to force our sweeper team to trek with me far into the night. I remember hiking this trail at night with a huge 24-kilo load the first time. It was a cakewalk, but I was much stronger then. About half the team left for the summit assault at 4 the following morning, while I cooked my breakfast at a leisurely pace before heading off to a minor peak to bird with Onie. I was back at camp before the first of the climb team returned.


Onie the bird guide/ranger with a giant elephant-foot yam flower

I asked the Tamisan school principal what options there were for the Mangyan children after grade school. He said there were a few who had since gone on to college, but many never manage to get past the imaginary drawbridge across the Lumintao. That leaves the expanding Mangyan population to slash and burn their way to more of the finite lowland forests below the grassland peaks to eke out a living planting yams, taro, avocado, jackfruit, bananas, and upland rice. It is not a sustainable proposition, and the result has been carnage. All the forest canopy from Tamisan to the ranger station is basically gone. We passed a still smouldering patch just before the ranger station at dusk, and there were signs of fresh burning of grassland during our descent. The remaining birdlife is concentrated on the steep gorges above the river floor where it is impossible to plant anything without risking a landslide. Of course this does not mean these areas are safe from burning. "We try to dissuade them from continuing their nomadic lifestyle and to burn only in one place," said the lead guide, also a ranger. But in truth the rangers are virtually powerless to enforce the law.


A Mindoro racquet-tail parrot, found only in Mindoro and no place else on earth

What do all of these things mean for the tamaraw? Onie said the last count last month yielded only 401, less than the previous year and basically just a heartbeat away from extinction. Most of us were bitten by sand mites, but all made it back safely to Poypoy for a nice bed and shower by sundown. Things are a lot less certain on the other side of the suspension bridge. It's a sad story all throughout for the buffalos and their spiritual brethren the Mangyan who, it must be noted, are not averse to hunting and eating the buffalos themselves.

DUCKS, DEATH AND A DAM REBORN


The aerial hunt unfolded just metres above us in the middle of San Roque, the world's 12th largest dam. Our aluminium skiff had flushed more than a thousand Philippine ducks from the surface, but a pair surprisingly headed straight at us, buzzing our heads. That was when we noticed that the trailing bird was not a wild duck. Its wings were tucked in the classic stoop, the grim reaper dive position assumed by peregrine falcons as, like living, breathing missiles they chase, bludgeon and pluck from out of the sky their stunned prey.


A peregrine falcon, perched atop a power pylon in Los Banos. Photo illustration only

Our jaws had been on the deck as we came upon the single largest flock of Philippine ducks ever recorded this decade that I did not have the presence of mind to capture the aerial dogfight. The team's remit was to conduct a bird survey, manually count all the avian species taking flight over the 200-metre deep giant water pond, swimming in its waters or sitting on its trees and other flora that had sprouted over the past two decades since the mega-structure was carved from the southern wall of the Cordillera mountain range between Pangasinan and Benguet in the late 1990s.


Bee-eaters nest on the dried-out bank near the Itogon, Benguet tail of the San Roque dam

For a raptor, the collective name for a group of birds with hooked beaks and huge, sharp talons used to kill and disembowel prey, be they mice, snakes or other birds, the peregrine falcon does not look much. The wings are long thin and rather flat, and in terms of long-distance flight they do not hold a candle to the ducks who cross vast seas to winter in more balmy climes like the cousins of the Philippine ducks, who do not migrate. However in a stoop falcons have been clocked at nearly 390 kilometres an hour, making them the fastest living animals on the planet. It was my first ever experience to witness a falcon hunt which, despite ending in failure for the raptor, left me in awe. For starters, our 20-inch long wild duck is probably as heavy as the female falcon, the larger of the species that fly to the Philippines in the winter after breeding and nesting on cliff faces in southern Japan and Taiwan. One reckons they must have strong wings and grip to be able to lift meat as heavy as themselves up to the treetops. The other question in my mind was, would it not be easier to target sitting ducks, that is ducks stationary and afloat on the water? Maybe unlike ducks they cannot risk having their wings getting wet.


All wild ducks are called "papa" by Ilocanos

Of course you have to be rooting for the prey in this case, especially as it is the Philippine duck, a vanishing Filipino species of which there are only about 10,000 left in the wild. Like all Ilocanos, the people around the dam call the Philippine duck, and all other wild ducks the “papa”. The main identifying feature is the black eye strip on an orange head and neck, but it really stands out in flight under the sun, even when it is taking flight for dear life, because of its speculum, a part of its wing feathers that turn bottle green to royal purple and other colours, depending on the angle of the sunshine.



The presence at the dam of this large flock, for a species found only in the Philippines and which has been decimated by sport hunting -- as well as the increasing presence of its non-human predators here -- are a measure of success by the energy and utilities companies involved in the vast project, to restore the ecology of what had essentially been a mountain-edge ecosystem that had been gouged and flattened and stripped of its green cover to build a mammoth receptacle for generating electricity as well as irrigating farmlands of the Central Luzon region. I was basically a makeweight as Gina, Jon and Jops, stalwarts of the country’s Wild Bird Club, did most of the heavy lifting. Over two days, we counted about 40 or so species, including Philippine ducks and migrant tufted ducks in and below the dam, as well as ospreys, Philippine serpent eagles, Brahminy kites, falcons as well as white-throated kingfishers and blue-throated bee-eaters above the water. We got to explore the tail of the dam, where water pours down from the Cordillera mountains via the Agno River and where bee-eaters dug holes to build nests on the exposed river banks. If I were to do an honest-to-goodness Cordillera backpacking traverse, I would have to find the trailhead around here.



It is an amazing thing how the country's top polluters also have the best programmes for safeguarding the Philippine environment. Outside of the power plant complexes, including at coal-fired generating plants where they live around expended ash ponds, Philippine ducks have been extirpated in many other habitats due to relentless and illegal poaching. The San Roque Dam's administrators told us their ambition is to eventually transform the 1,250 square-kilometre drainage area into a habitat for transplanting Philippine eagles from a captive breeding facility outside Davao city. But the reforestation is now only on its first phase. While ipil-ipil grows fast and provides some cover, it is a poor platform on which to build the food chain for the giant apex predator, which would likely starve to death. The next stage is to replace the cover with a dipterocarp forest, the Philippine eagle's natural habitat.


Wild Bird Club of the Philippines member Jops Josef behind the San Roque Dam spillway


The aerial hunt unfolded just metres above us in the middle of San Roque, the world's 12th largest dam. Our aluminium skiff had flushed more than a thousand Philippine ducks from the surface, but a pair surprisingly headed straight at us, buzzing our heads. That was when we noticed that the trailing bird was not a wild duck. Its wings were tucked in the classic stoop, the grim reaper dive position assumed by peregrine falcons as, like living, breathing missiles they chase, bludgeon and pluck from out of the sky their stunned prey.


A peregrine falcon, perched atop a power pylon in Los Banos. Photo illustration only

Our jaws had been on the deck as we came upon the single largest flock of Philippine ducks ever recorded this decade that I did not have the presence of mind to capture the aerial dogfight. The team's remit was to conduct a bird survey, manually count all the avian species taking flight over the 200-metre deep giant water pond, swimming in its waters or sitting on its trees and other flora that had sprouted over the past two decades since the mega-structure was carved from the southern wall of the Cordillera mountain range between Pangasinan and Benguet in the late 1990s.


Bee-eaters nest on the dried-out bank near the Itogon, Benguet tail of the San Roque dam

For a raptor, the collective name for a group of birds with hooked beaks and huge, sharp talons used to kill and disembowel prey, be they mice, snakes or other birds, the peregrine falcon does not look much. The wings are long thin and rather flat, and in terms of long-distance flight they do not hold a candle to the ducks who cross vast seas to winter in more balmy climes like the cousins of the Philippine ducks, who do not migrate. However in a stoop falcons have been clocked at nearly 390 kilometres an hour, making them the fastest living animals on the planet. It was my first ever experience to witness a falcon hunt which, despite ending in failure for the raptor, left me in awe. For starters, our 20-inch long wild duck is probably as heavy as the female falcon, the larger of the species that fly to the Philippines in the winter after breeding and nesting on cliff faces in southern Japan and Taiwan. One reckons they must have strong wings and grip to be able to lift meat as heavy as themselves up to the treetops. The other question in my mind was, would it not be easier to target sitting ducks, that is ducks stationary and afloat on the water? Maybe unlike ducks they cannot risk having their wings getting wet.


All wild ducks are called "papa" by Ilocanos

Of course you have to be rooting for the prey in this case, especially as it is the Philippine duck, a vanishing Filipino species of which there are only about 10,000 left in the wild. Like all Ilocanos, the people around the dam call the Philippine duck, and all other wild ducks the “papa”. The main identifying feature is the black eye strip on an orange head and neck, but it really stands out in flight under the sun, even when it is taking flight for dear life, because of its speculum, a part of its wing feathers that turn bottle green to royal purple and other colours, depending on the angle of the sunshine.



The presence at the dam of this large flock, for a species found only in the Philippines and which has been decimated by sport hunting -- as well as the increasing presence of its non-human predators here -- are a measure of success by the energy and utilities companies involved in the vast project, to restore the ecology of what had essentially been a mountain-edge ecosystem that had been gouged and flattened and stripped of its green cover to build a mammoth receptacle for generating electricity as well as irrigating farmlands of the Central Luzon region. I was basically a makeweight as Gina, Jon and Jops, stalwarts of the country’s Wild Bird Club, did most of the heavy lifting. Over two days, we counted about 40 or so species, including Philippine ducks and migrant tufted ducks in and below the dam, as well as ospreys, Philippine serpent eagles, Brahminy kites, falcons as well as white-throated kingfishers and blue-throated bee-eaters above the water. We got to explore the tail of the dam, where water pours down from the Cordillera mountains via the Agno River and where bee-eaters dug holes to build nests on the exposed river banks. If I were to do an honest-to-goodness Cordillera backpacking traverse, I would have to find the trailhead around here.



It is an amazing thing how the country's top polluters also have the best programmes for safeguarding the Philippine environment. Outside of the power plant complexes, including at coal-fired generating plants where they live around expended ash ponds, Philippine ducks have been extirpated in many other habitats due to relentless and illegal poaching. The San Roque Dam's administrators told us their ambition is to eventually transform the 1,250 square-kilometre drainage area into a habitat for transplanting Philippine eagles from a captive breeding facility outside Davao city. But the reforestation is now only on its first phase. While ipil-ipil grows fast and provides some cover, it is a poor platform on which to build the food chain for the giant apex predator, which would likely starve to death. The next stage is to replace the cover with a dipterocarp forest, the Philippine eagle's natural habitat.


Wild Bird Club of the Philippines member Jops Josef behind the San Roque Dam spillway

CINCO PICOS

Below the dwarf trees of the Cinco Picos camp site the vast sloping grassland sweeps down in full golden splendour. From the right the thin green line of the river funnels toward the centre , intersecting with myriad water-etched dark furrows running down diagonally from the left. The lines then merge with the trail as they squeeze into a gap between two peaks that open down onto the cove, its placid waters trapped in place by Silanguin island that shimmers in the mid-morning heat. In the wet season everything is green, but when we were there last weekend everything else was dry and yellow, bar the blackened Rounded Peak slope on the right, which had been incinerated by seasonal burning. Keep your eyes peeled, close down the aperture of your widest lens and dial down to the lowest ISO possible at walking speed because what lies just ahead is a a fleeting window to one of the most spectacular views in Philippine backpacking.


The best angle is to the left, just before the trail plunges abruptly

Of course I was on dismal f/4 after taking pictures of a flower at the camp site, and the angle was too steep to frame those in front of me including their legs (Try squatting while descending, five hours into a traverse day hike, and you would know what I mean). By the time I got it right the angle was gone. I hate posed photos so I did not ask them to stay put or come back to re-enact the scene for me. Still, this account would be my cheat sheet if ever I get the chance to hike this trail again.
The stretch between Cinco Picos and the scrubland just before the Silanguin Cove was the highlight reel of my most recent hike, a traverse of the southern tip of the Zambales mountain range from Subic to San Antonio. Over the past 10 years I had done combinations of Cinco Picos, Pundaquit, Balingkilat and Nagsasa, traversing toward Anawangin and Nagsasa Cove, but this was my first visit to Silanguin. The party of 15 left the Cawag settle



ment with two teenage guides in ink-black before 5 am, and we were blessed with wind and light clouds during the eight-hour trek, avoiding most of the heat until the final three hours of the descent.



Keeping up with the team is a struggle these days, and this time it was no different and not surprising. Many of these guys go on long-distance trail runs on the weekends that they do not climb, while I, though no choice of mine, get to watch birds. I handicapped myself further here by hauling a full pack, including more than four litres of trail water. Many of my colleagues put on trail-run regulation hydration vests, while shipping their camp gear by boat directly to Puerto Silanguin. But I needed to give my new 45-litre backpack a runout, and this was my only sure climb in the immediate horizon. I also shipped my tarp, poles, most of the pots, hammock, and some food and fuel directly to the cove, but that left me with 9.3 kilos still. The long shortcut up the thickets above the Agusuhin River (also known as Quinabucsan), the last water source, almost killed me, but I managed to hang until we hit the high grassland toward the saddle between Cinco Picos and Rounded Peak. We reached the camp site on the other side before 9 am, and the trail runners amongst us ran up to the summit in 18 minutes flat after a leisurely breakfast, while the rest of us took naps.
The Cawag trail sits on the left bank of the Basilio river toward the general direction of Rounded Peak, which sported a soft pink halo of a cloud at daybreak. Large patches of the trail were blighted by


Singed landscape east of Mount Balingkilat (Pointed Peak, top left)

arson, the blackened stumps of reeds and shrubs sketching charcoal art on my light-coloured trek pants and the sharp smell of burnt grass assaulting my senses. The sight of the few thin trees that had been singed was particularly distressing, though I have noticed other hikers who have previously used this trail posting photos on social media of their leaves that had been cooked red on the branches, because they looked, well, colourful. Green leaves shooting out of the burnt clumps of weed tried to hide the devastation, though not quite succeeding at it.


I bring up the rear. Photo courtesy of Monina Eugenio/AMCI

The pack, a Kalais by Elemental Horizons, fit like a glove on my back. Having used a zipper-less, pocket-less rucksack for most of the past four years, the kangaroo pouch and and large water pockets outside were a luxury, and the wide, form-hugging hipbelt was a good innovation. The 70D green nylon on the less sensitive sections was shocking in its thinness, but as it was mostly an open trail there were no thorns to tear into it. The camp site sand was soft enough that I found no need to use my improvised earth pad. Ironically, I found out much later that I had actually packed two earth pads, along with, for some reason, the brow pole of my other shelter.

HERCULES ON A PHILIPPINE MOUNTAINTOP

If there's a prominent rock or outcrop on or near a Philippine mountaintop, chances are people in tights or muddy cargo pants are standing on it, drawing an imaginary bow like Hercules shooting the man-eating birds of Greek mythology.
Popularised in more recent vintage by Usain Bolt to celebrate his world record-breaking sprints, the pose is a global symbol of youth, strength and virility and for the recent visitors to our mountains, signifies conquest: I am Hercules the demigod. I have reached the top, conquered my fears and limitations to finish difficult labours, and there are no bounds to what I can achieve.



That there have been more and more of these photos on social media is testament to the astonishing popularity of hiking in the Philippines. It's the new badminton, one could say, harking back to the times not long ago when long distance running became the in thing to do instead of smashing shuttlecocks for the freshly empowered new members of the labour force looking for an outlet to spend their time, energy and disposable income. Now, it is no longer enough for runners to pound the city streets on weekends. They are venturing to places where the asphalt ends and eventually end up on mountain trailheads.
The country's changing demographics are helping to usher in this hiking revolution. The country is at a stage where the working-age segment of the population outnumbers the non-working dependents. This equates to increased spending power -- be it for badminton racquets, running shoes and garments, or tents, backpacks and camp stoves. The median Filipino age is 24.4 years. There is a lot of pent up hormones and testosterone in there.



Still, leisure costs money. It used to be that the average Filipino's definition of a vacation is to crash a relative's or friend's home and let the sucker spend for their stay, but with the existential yearning for peace and quiet away from the workplace, as well as the search for a standout activity -- such as standing on a ledge beside a cliff -- mean that is no longer sufficient, at least for the younger, more active and more adventurous set.
Hiking, or backpacking for people who prefer to spend more time up there in the mountains, seems tailor-made for these. One does not need $1,000 mountain bikes or expensive scuba gear to enjoy the activity. One only needs a pair of trekking shoes worth a few bucks used, and bus fare to get to the trailhead. There are no uniforms to spend for, no balls nor racquets. Tents and other camp gear are optional because the emphasis is on speed and bang for the buck. A destination has to be reached within a day -- preferably half a day so that the gang can go on a sidetrip like the beach or some obscure waterfall, and still be home for dinner. There is a sufficient suggestion and thrill of potential danger, without actually having to hang on a rock face by one’s fingertips like freestyle wall climbing, to make it interesting.
The power of the Internet means easier access to the range of destinations available. The country has hundreds of mountains, one only basically has to learn how to get to the trailhead. For a fee, trips, guides, and vehicles can be arranged on social media so it is now entirely possible to be climbing with -- or even sharing a tent tonight with -- somebody you have never previously met. Still, budget constraints remain and so there is a bias for the near mountains: near Manila, like the Rockies of Mount Maculot where, for a minimum effort, people can take selfies of themselves at sunrise with a stunning backdrop of Taal lake; or near Baguio, where hundreds of people queue up on weekends to have their pictures taken on the modest Gungal rock of the Ampucao-Santa Fe ridge, which the newbies conveniently call "Mount Ulap".



This accessibility though is sometimes its own worst enemy, when training is eschewed in the rush for instant gratification on the part of the hikers, and tour organisers and other components of the new backpacking economy's value chain chase profits at the expense of safety. To put it succintly, backpacking is the deadliest outdoor activity in the Philippines, with at least 39 recorded fatalities since the 1970s. More than half were claimed by flash floods. No other sport or outdoor pursuit comes close -- not skydiving or BASE jumping, not canoeing, not running or cycling, and certainly not badminton.
I have been privileged to have been part of this hiking boom, and though I was late into the game, I have managed to witness its liftoff from about 11 years ago, the year Filipinos reached the top of Mount Everest for the first time. This pursuit has given me some of the greatest joys in my life, but also some of its worst moments, including when I lost two friends to a backpacking tragedy. As we approach the apex of its popularity, I am one of the few who earnestly believe that there is room for all of us on our country's mountaintops.

AMIHAN ON CALAVITE

My knees were beginning to rattle when I woke up beneath a single-wall tent shortly after midnight. High up on the grasslands on the northwestern tip of Mindoro island the half moon was sinking behind the clouds down to Paluan Bay but the wet wind was still up, kicking up spray through the mesh door and onto my face from the pegged vestibule that had somehow loosened up some during the night.



It is during these moments that the backpacker's previous decisions could come back to bite him or her. I was wearing a long-sleeved TNF trail running shirt, running shorts, and a cheap, thin Frogg Toggs raincoat and pants combo over them, part of a very light pack setup that weighed 9.1 kilos, and my torso felt comfortable. But I did not bring wool socks and chamois and the existential questions started coming up. Will this kill me overnight? Should I pull up the socks from the trek shoes and wear them? Should I go out and fix the peg? Will my colleagues who were new to this mountain kill me after I assured them that the camp site would be sheltered from the winds? Should I risk the camera from the spray and practice shooting time exposures with the Milky Way as backdrop?



In the end I went out to pee, saw cloudy skies in the half light, shrugged and ducked back into the shelter to sleep some more.
Calavite, some 1,400 metres above sea level, is one of those delightful destinations where one could dawdle, even sleep, on the trail and not worry about being forced into a night trek. The annoying Divisoria vibe of the highly-trafficked mountains of the country in the middle of a backpacking boom is also absent due to its remote location. It takes more than five hours to get from Manila to Mindoro via the port of Batangas, and a few more hours from Abra de Ilog to Ulasan, the Mangyan community above Paluan Bay where the trail starts at an orchard of what looked like cashew trees. We used the long van ride, usually the least enjoyable part of any backpacking trip for me with my legs forced to curl up, to nap. There was simply no place to to sleep in at the crowded ferry. I would not call the trail easy, but we had it to ourselves and most of our team covered it in 3-4 hours going up, with a generous lunch stop under the gorgeous tropical lowland forest canopy below the grassland. I and another member of the team actually neglected to pack lunch, so we shared some buns and a cheap cheese substitute.



Calavite is officially a wildlife sanctuary, though the critically endangered dwarf water buffalo called tamaraw that it was meant to protect was present only as a rumour rather than a reality. I saw a lot of wild pigeons during my first visit here three years ago, along with free-range cattle. This time there was neither, and the burning to create new farms has raised the treeline a few more metres upward since then. I was delighted to find though that water had pooled at a shallow depression on part of our old camp where the hooves of many grass-eaters had left their imprints on the tiny green plants and dried-up mud around the water hole. Who knows, a tamaraw might have even come here to drink in the night while we slept. But I don't hunt so I can't read tracks. In any case, the water served as a nice foreground to some of my photos.



What we had not bargained for was the ferocity of the northeasterlies, the dry amihan that relentlessly whipped our camp site. It was conceivable some of our tents could have ended up at sea, more than five kilometres away, had we made any schoolboy mistakes while pitching them. It was the start of the typhoon season the last time we came here, so the wind was coming from the sea, losing most of its power slamming onto the limestone cliff between us and the bay. Most of our new members pushed on toward the summit after pitching their tents, though most turned around and headed back at the big rock shaped like an eagle's head near sundown. Having gone there myself previously I elected to explore the interesting giant limestone formations at the bluff until the white light turned yellow. The rocks were broken and speckled with crumbling white marble and green lichen sprouted through the cracks.



With the wind at full force we could get loud at night without disturbing anyone else. One of the camp kitchens was decked out in Christmas lights and there was red wine, goat cheese and I believe Serrano ham -- I don’t eat red meat -- to start the party going. We had brought along five non-member guests and who knows, they might have liked what they saw and decided to join us at our annual training camp come June.

RANGYAS ON BATOLUSONG

The trusty, frills-free Petzl tentatively lit up, blinked and then died after I loaded batteries recycled from two previous climbs. Corroded terminals, which I had stupidly neglected to check when packing for a day hike. It was at least two hours before daybreak.
Normally, when on a night trek in the mountain wilderness and your equipment fails, you're dead meat. But these are not normal times and this is not a normal mountain. The village was already buzzing with climbers, and shops were already open. Need batteries, no problem. Forgot your slippers, no problem. Want to buy a powerbank, no problem.



Batolusong, the young day trippers call it, a reference to the downs frequently enveloped in morning fog. Sea of clouds, is the popular term, a poor man's Mount Pulog. The mountains near Manila, as well as those near provincial centres, are now major tourist draws for a young, upwardly mobile population probably raised inside the virtual nurseries otherwise known as giant shopping malls and looking for something... different. I heard people actually have to queue up for up to one hour to have their pictures taken at Gungal Rock, the prominent outcrop at the Ampucao Ridge in Itogon that has been conveniently renamed, um, Mount Ulap. The line to get oneself tattooed with crushed charcoal by an old Kalinga woman in Buscalan is supposedly even longer, poor granny.
We boarded vans past midnight for the low hills of Tanay, near the southern terminus of the Sierra Madre, to view the um, sea of clouds, from



the best possible perch. Rangyas peak rises some 765 metres above sea level above the grassy flats, the muddy trail cloaked in a bamboo grove with feathery culms that cause skin rashes. Given a new leash on life by the cheap AAA batteries and with a full-size metal tripod slung from my shoulder, I brought up the rear as we were given instructions by the team leader Diane to "run" to Rangyas in two hours to catch the sunrise and toast her birthday with sparkling wine. These were young people who had just completed their basic mountaineering course and could run a marathon at a moment's notice. Some wore hydration vests for ultra-marathoners instead of the more traditional day packs. The kids promptly disappeared from our sights about halfway into the climb.



San Andres, the trailhead, is that sort of place that is in between an upland farm and a Manila slum. The first part is a dirt road where you still have to ford streams and refill your water bottle from a spring, but with the poor migrants busy burning the hillsides to convert into farms and where shopkeepers erect temporary huts along the trail to sell coconut milk, coffee, and noodles to visitors. Just before Duhatan, the designated Batolusong camp site marked by java plum trees below the downs, I and a fellow sweeper left behind a third member to chase after the rest of our group.



Too late, dawn had broken by the time we scaled the rock face guarding the summit. We missed the start of the birthday party, where Diane celebrated with balloons made of condoms, and there was no sea of clouds. We could see Laguna lake, Talim island, and the Pililla windmills to the right. But never mind, I'll take the golden light over clouds anytime. Still, we were the first group to reach the top, and on our way down we met many of the late arrivals. The descent is about an hour long if you're a trail runner.