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.
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
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.
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.