Thursday, 12 January 2012

Manila to Banaue

In which having bought new hiking boots, I land up walking barefoot and there is a lake of indeterminate depth
Starring Doc who wasn’t a doctor and a tuba player who showed me his pants.
In 1991 Mount Pinatubo, a supposedly extinct volcano, erupted unexpectedly blasting 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide gas into the atmosphere, completely changing the landscape, killing over 800 people but most importantly for the Filipinos, clearing out two American bases in the area. Permanently.  Now of course, the resultant crater is a tourist attraction. 

To get there you usually have to travel from either Clark or Angeles – the twin capitals of prostitutions (American Army Woz Here) – but determined to avoid these I managed to find a rather expensive day trip from Manila.  I was collected from outside my hotel at 4:30am precisely – just as the unsuccessful night workers were hovering around to pick up taxis.  It was just me and a Danish couple on the trip and we were driven by Frank who was far more chatty than was required at this hour.

View from the front seat of the jeep

The drive out to Santa Juliana took about three hours (even without Manila traffic and not stopping at the red lights – apparently this is legal before 6am) and from there we took a four wheel drive jeep out across the moonscape to get to the crater.  The jeep drives through the river beds weaving between rocks and taking some rather precarious courses through the water.  You can see the line of the ash layer in the eroded river bed.   It’s an incredible landscape.  Stunningly beautiful and incredibly dusty – we were completely covered by the time we arrived at the end point. 

Crater lake
From there you cross a rickety little bridge made of fallen trees and boulders and set off hiking up the river valley.  Our guide was called Doc and he set off at a formidable pace that I battled to match.  We had gone no more than a hundred metres before we came to the first crossing point.  Even my good boots would not have coped with wading through the knee high water, so it was shoes off and on we went. 

The Danes needed to be back in Manila to catch a flight at 5pm so it was all a bit of rush and thanks to the uneven ground you hardly got a chance to stop and take a look around.  The climb was steady and towards the end wound up through a leafy grove fizzing with mosquitos and other biting insects.

The view of the crater itself was absolutely worth it though – emerald green waters, circled by white-grey cliffs only just starting to show the signs of new vegetation. We managed to persuade Doc that there was enough time to have a swim and rushed down to the lake side to plunge into the depths. There’s a big sign saying swimming is not advised because the lake is of indeterminate depth (really??) – and the drop off was certainly steep: you couldn’t touch the bottom less than a metre off the shore.

We made it back to Manila in time and I spent a happy couple of hours in Starbucks before heading to the bus station for my overnighter to Banaue.  You have to arrive a good hour before they set off to secure your seat and for the first time in days (Danes aside) there were other travellers to talk to.  I struck up a conversation with a German couple and an American tuba player who was living in Beijing playing for the Chinese National Orchestra.  “How do you have such a tiny bag?” I asked.  He immediately offered to show me his secret and whipped out a box of disposable briefs and proceeded to explain how he had managed, with great difficulty, to procure them in Singapore where they were considerably cheaper than in China.  A deeply disquieting moment.  I had to immediately look away from the like-a-nappy-but-not-quite packaging and of course regretted it afterwards when all sorts of questions started to occur to me. What, for example, were they made of?

The night bus itself was fine.  I am saying that but I don’t mean it.  I am just trying to complain less about night buses because there will be more of them.  It was freezing.  Jaw quiveringly freezing. And they played two very loud movies back to back and then at 4am, just when it got all quiet and I thought great, I can get some sleep, they suddenly turned on the music. Really loudly. The Philippines seems to be gripped by an obsession with country and western music.  No matter what kind of vehicle you’re travelling in, it is blared out through the speakers.   I was also on full Manila-schooled alert with my locked back on my lap and rather wary of nodding off anyway.  By the time we got to Banaue I would have checked into a brothel and felt absolutely delighted about it.

Walking back out

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