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.