Lake Sebu of south Cotabato: Zipping past misconceptions

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An old house crowns a slope of land in the T’boli village of South Cotabato. From a distance, it bears the same humble facade of numerous homes within the area—it is fenceless, quiet and unimposing. Within its walls, however, past the stilts partially carrying the weight of the second floor, and up its dangerously steep, wooden stairs, visitors may find one of the oldest living treasures of the Philippines.

The treasure is a woman. And even with a hunched back and an exhausted countenance brought on by old age, her bearing is that of daunting regality. Her name is Lang Dulay, the matriarch of the t’nalak or T’boli cloth weavers. She was a recipient of the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) in 1998 which honors the most prestigious artists and cultural figures in the country. More importantly, she is a rarity in 21st century Philippines. With her presence under its roof, the unimposing house in the T’boli village suddenly becomes a metaphor for the whole of South of Cotobato.

Located in the southern regions of the Philippines, the province boasts of many tourist attractions and natural beauties long documented by the t’nalak of the T’boli people. However, most of them are veiled by equally numerous things man-made or otherwise. There are those tucked within the lush embrace of vast greenery. There are those immediately unseen past the unassuming ambience of the provincial life. And more prominently, there are those that are even portrayed unjustly by the bad publicity brought on through the province’s proximity to Maguindanao. Behind these veils lies a truth, however: South Cotabato, despite its modesty and unwarranted reputation among numerous Filipinos, is a place worth visiting.

A testament to this is Lake Sebu. Sandwiched between Sultan Kudarat and the rest of South Cotabato, the crucial watershed known for providing irrigation to nearby areas, spans over 300 hectares. Encircled by spines of land, the waters within the basin are as tranquil as the breeze that passes through the open windows of Lang Dulay’s home. At times, it is populated by fishermen, boat-riding tourists or patches of pink water lilies. Not far from the lake proper, however, these waters take on a more aggressive demeanor as it forms the majestic Seven Falls.

A ‘rapid’ change

Like majority of South Cotabato, the prestige of the Seven Falls is well hidden by an air of modesty. The route that leads to it—a beaten downward path—belies the overall majesty of the cascading spectacle. While there is an obvious attempt at development, the roads can at times be rocky and the view can be far from promising given the amount of obscurity provided by tall trees covering the riverbed below. The street signs leading to it are also quite reserved.

From the entrance, a long footpath must be taken. But despite the lack of embellishments in the route, this is where the transformation begins. Here, the modest air of Lake Sebu gets washed away by an endless, inconsolable rumbling. Once the downward route begins to flatten, one can see it framed by arching trees: Hikong Alu, the first of the seven falls.

Descending from the crescent shaped mouth of land, Hikong Alu ushers the Cotabato waters through a mercurial path that forms what is arguably the grandest natural feat of the province. The waters, from the initial cascade move rapidly past the pillars of a bridge which offers a face-to-face view of maiden downpour. They then head over to the second, and reportedly, tallest waterfall, Hikong Bente.

The most scenic of the seven, Hikong Bente crashes against a clutter of rocks often populated by tourist who, due to their proximity to the base of the falls, are often given an inkling of the power behind the natural wonder.

The waters from that point would stream through the zigzagging formation of the third falls, Hikong B’lebel and the fourth falls, Hikong Lowig, before descending further to Hikong K’fo-I, Hikong Ukol, and finally, Hikong Tonok.

While the flow of the waters may be followed by foot through long winding paths downward, there is a quicker alternative for those who are willing to literally put their lives on the line.

Highest zip line in Asia

Among the most popular attractions in Lake Sebu are the Php250 zip rides over the Seven Falls. It began to operate in November 2009 through the efforts of the Provincial Environment Management Office. Composed of two lines—with the first being 740 meters long and the second being 420 meters long—both hover over four of the seven falls.

True to the nature of most attractions in South Cotabato; the take off point of the first zip ride is far from daunting. With the height of the first line initially covered by trees, it is easy to underestimate the number it boasts of (182 meters above the riverbed; reportedly the highest zip line in Asia thus far).

During asianTraveler’s visit to the Seven Falls, such underestimations can be seen in the faces of those taking the ride. Among the tourists that day was a pair—one man and one woman. As they waited patiently for their turn, both were eagerly taking shots at each other’s ability to hold their composure throughout the ordeal. The woman even quipped that she bought adult-sized diapers for the man just in case his bowels decide to act up while he fears for his life. The man on the other hand told the woman that marrying her would be much more frightening “than this.”

The moment both of them were face-to-face with the vastness beneath the line, however, there were no more jokes of adult diapers or future marriages; there were only hands clasped tight, eyes shut, veins jutting as the weight of their bodies hang on a tight harness, and, of course, screams soon contested by the whizz of the line as they zipped over the 182-meter drop.

The experience itself can be over in a matter of seconds. But it can also leave a memory that may last for years. The quick ride over the expanse cupping the four waterfalls—from Hikong Bente to Hikong K’fo-I — imprints itself, not necessarily through the image of the falls, but through the exhilarating gush of wind beating against the face, and the pull of gravity inciting thoughts of imminent danger from the enormous depth below.

A tip, therefore, is in order for photographers or anyone who wishes to remember the ride more for its imagery: ride the zip line facing the take off point. This robs the ride substantially of the aerial excitement brought on by the face-wiping speed, but it does give a more scenic and longer lasting view of a majestic trio—Hikong Bente, Hikong B’lebel and Hikong Lowig.

As of the writing of this article, the zip line of Seven Falls is among the most modern attractions in the area—an onward movement for a province that has a lot of potential for further development. According to Cesar Sulit Jr., the Senior Tourism Operations Officer of South Cotabato, more may yet to come as the area seeks to focus on tourism.

A contest of views

As South Cotabato attempts to bring focus away from its unwarranted and inaccurate reputation as a Mindanao province, its locals have sought to turn the attention of tourists to a more flattering view: the grandeur of Lake Sebu. In line with this, numerous parties have sought to take advantage of the scenery through the development of several resorts. Among these establishments is the Mountain Lake Eco Resort.

True to its name, the solar powered, environmentally-friendly lodging area is formed by a downhill row of cottages that highlight the raw beauty of the lake. It’s most outstanding feature is its location. Descending toward to a dock that faces the east, dusks spent at the resort are welcomed by an arresting sunrise toyed by nearby hills surrounding the basin. It is views like these that make one forget of the many misconceptions surrounding Mindanao provinces.

However, in a contest of who can provide the better view, it appears that the Mountain Log Resort, which is a boat ride away from the Eco Resort, seems to be literally on top of the competition. Among the many features of the establishment is a soaring tower on top of a hill. At the tip, one may find a panoramic view of the municipality surrounding the lake—a lush marvel of sprawling greens accentuated by linings of water which leads to the vast basin.

Weaving a legacy

Though modernization may aid Lake Sebu as it seeks to become a premiere destination in the Philippines, it can also be said that sustaining the practices of old. Among the many offerings the lake can provide is a rare chance to mingle with the T’boli people whose culture and practices are long rooted in discipline, strength and commitment.

During the team’s visit to the home of Lang Dulay, the sound of the weaving process could be heard as far as the base of the narrow stairs of the longhouse. It was that of wooden pieces colliding violently. It came from a T’boli weaver, sitting in front of an unfinished t’nalak cloth suspended like a hammock in front of her parked body.

Her hands gracefully danced over the unfinished yet fine strands of the fabric made of abaca. She gently pinched pieces of the material and mildly brushed a metal blade on the surface. She then grabbed a piece of wood sheathed on the fabric and yanked it with a force that surprisingly didn’t translate to her face. The fabric shivered as she repeated the process. She would continue to do this for months until the cloth successfully adheres to the high standards of her people.

This weaving combines delicate intricacies with sheer brute force. It also calls upon the discipline and skills honed over years of dedication. Being that she is so old that she can’t even remember her own age, weaving matriarch, Lang Dulay, is no longer capable of it. Meanwhile, her gait, slow and dragging, alludes to the weight of time long accumulated in all those years of her weaving her name into prominence among the Filipino people.

But if there is anything that Lang Dulay, and Lake Sebu itself, teaches a traveler, it is to never be so quick as to pass judgment. Even now, she serves as the prime designer of the t’nalak—a foundation to an enduring though understated culture that continues to witness the transformations of its home land. Even now, her dwindling body is but a mere shell for her enduring worth as a national treasure. Even now, her regality, one that translates despite her hunched back and her tired countenance, fills up an otherwise unimposing house which serves as metaphor to the hidden grandeur of South Cotabato.

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