Negros Occidental: In deep and oh so high

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Forget all about your hacienda image of Negros Occidental this land throbs with action beyond the soft swaying of sugary cane in the fields.

Dive ship wrecks encrusted with scintillating corals and swarming with iridescent fish that are so near the sunlit surface of the sea, we only need to snorkel to see them. Climb the highest peak in the Visayas on a trail so pristinely free from human debris, so naturally conducive to spirited trekking with towering trees providing shade and tree roots forming natural steps, that it takes the able-bodied first time climber like my photographer a little over six hours to ascend 2,435 meters above sea level and gaze upon an-awe inspiring crater above the clouds.

Relax by immersing in mountainside waters of balmy volcanic hot springs or chill to the freshest ripe mango fruit shakes. Stroll among the elegant ruins of a mansion overgrown with flowers and foliage, or savor succulent chicken inasal by the city’s humble roadside market. Negros Occidental is a land of extremes.

For far too long, Negros, has been a land of bittersweet contrasts. There is the island’s name-derived from the dark-skinned indigenous Ita who once ruled it and are now endangered and displaced; and “white gold” – the euphemism for refined sugar which accounts for much of the island’s wealth and inequity. There is the palatial opulence of a handful of elite families who have lorded over haciendas of sugarcane for centuries and have parlayed its profits into ownership of the nation’s telecoms, banking, real estate, food manufacturing-some 90 percent of the country’s economy-even as their own province lies mostly ignored by their development; and the local plantation laborers, working for a pittance as their forefathers did over a century ago. There is the gaiety of the Masskara Festival, today a big coming out party of the island taht showcases spectacular street dance, costume design and theatrics; and the tragic origins of this same fiesta- the sugar market crash of 1980 that resulted in starvation and the sinking of MV Don Juan that same year, which resulted in the deaths of over a hundred Negrense passengers- that the fiesta seeks to mask with smiles and frivolity. But there is even so much more to Negros Occidental than all that.

Now gaining recognition is a new way of experiencing Negros occidental. it taps the beauty that existed in Negros Occidental long before modern shopping malls or even ancestral mansions. This is the primal Negros Occidental, the one we don’t just see or taste.  And these are experiences sweeter than any sugarcane sap.

Getting in hot water

Located just 32 kilometers from the provincial capital city of Bacolod to the north at the foot of Mount Kanlaon, some 366 masl, are the sprawling 24-hectare facilities of Mambukal Resort. Well-maintained footpaths and short canopy walk among the treetops lead to a series of seven waterfalls, most notable of which are the Quippot and the Sudlon Falls. At the center of it all is a boating lagoon and around it are Japanese bath houses, spas, lodges and cottages, wall climbing facilities and kiddie pools, camping sites, and food courts. Mambukal resort offers a reassuringly safe, tame, child-friendly environment where travelers can take their first steps in to the outdoors. All around us, the forest trees exhale a cool refreshing breeze.  Above us, soaring through the air and roosting among the towering hardwoods, are hundreds of fruit bats.

But for all these attractions, what turns our heads at Mambukal is the unseen-the scent and the heat from its volcanic sulfur hot spring baths. they offer an invigorating and relaxing dip where we can soothe out travel-weary bodies. But with so many attractions awaiting us, photographer Terence Angsioco and I soon hightail it and find ourselves on the road again.

With birds of the same feather

Pulupandan, meaning “island of screw pines,” is located on marshland at the northwestern shore of Negros. here, the land, the sea, and the sky bleed into one as the sun begins to set. Here is where one has an excellent vantage of the sensuous repose of the island of  Guimaras. And here is where one can find a birdwatchers’ paradise.

At Pulupandan sanctuary, bird watching is just too easy. What ever misconceptions we might have had of birdwatching as a sedentary and patient hobby is proven wrong at Pulupandan. Here, birdwatching is to gaze at nature’s living fantasia, a free and inviting smorgasbord of colors and shapes. Here, bird-watching is enthralling, exciting and accessible.

After a short ride from the municipal hall, the vista opens up to reveal a glorious visage. Birds in the hundreds-an abundance of black-winged and common stilts, Chinese egrets, purple herons, whistling ducks, white-collared kingfishers, and sterns to name a few-flock to feed at the farmers’ fishponds,  oblivious to birdwatchers, their cameras and binoculars. Numerous and enchanting are the stilts with their bright pink legs. Here, one can witness wildlife at its most elegant and sublime.

Frederico Infante, Jr. municipal administrator of Pulupandan, is the man to take you around in these parts. His enthusiasm for birdwatching is boundless and infectious. Besides facilitating our transportation and security, he informed us about the species we witnessed and deepened our understanding about his hometown and its bountiful ecology. “There are three ecosystems here: the marine, the wetlands, and the inland birds. We have more than 17 kilometers of coastline. The birds  are here year round, though some are migratory,” he points out.

He reveals to us plans to offer tourists a more romantic and eco-friendly means of transport through the fields-on horseback no less-as well as dinners of freshly grilled local catch that will benefit fishermen. “Tourists can also visit the ancestral houses here,” he adds. He then takes us to the beach at sunset where, with a stunning view of Guimaras, one can also go on a dolphin watching cruise.

Pulupandan is home to a pod of Irrawaddy dolphins, one of the world’s rarest species distinguished by their blunt nose. “They’re a pod of 30 to 40 adult individuals,” he notes. “The best time to see them are when the waves are calm, during when the first quarter and third quarter moon comes around, when there’s no white caps on the waves and there’s no need to hold on to the sides of the boat,” he advises.

Diving Disneyland

From Pulupandan, the Negros Occidental Tourism Center, our gracious host, drive us to Artistic Diving Resort at Sipalay, located at the southern end of Negros, facing the Sulu Sea. Named after its Swiss co-proprietor and dive master Arthur Mueller, Artistic Diving Resort will always be the town’s first and foremost destination for diving.

Arthur recounts, “The beach is very similar to Boracay but [offers] much better diving-very beautiful coral reefs with drop offs. We have all these underwater attractions. We have dolphins and we have sharks, white tips, just out here at Fritzantino (Wall), a dive site. We have all these wrecks here. That’s the reason why I came here. We have from the Second World War the American ship SS Panay sunk by the Japanese in 1942. Right next to it is a freighter cargo ship (the MS Jojo, sunk in the 1980’s) 80 meters long with double masts at convenient depths of 20 to 25 meters. I settled here in 1998.back then there was no diving operations or resorts here. There was still mining. I was the first to open up these diving activities.”

Before we take a stab at scuba diving, Terence and I first do some snorkeling. Taking an hour-long boat ride from Sugar Beach, we arrive a the wreck at Julien’s Reef near Turtle Island. Th seabed is only six to seven meters deep. At some points, the hulking wreck of the cargo ship-broken up into large chunks and strewn over a large area-are very near the surface and can easily be seen by snorkelers.

We then head back to Artistic Diving Resort to recharge our cameras and eat lunch before scuba diving. After a short briefing by our dive instructor that refreshed my memory on the basics-equalization, decompression, signals, etc-we head out to one of the resort’s most accessible dive sites, aptly named Disneyland. It is as easy as a walk in the park.

A wide expanse of white sand punctuated by many huge islands of coral teeming with fish just a few minutes boat ride from the shore, it is the perfect place for novices to explore and interact with parrot fish, lion fish and many other species. Tiny clownfish, territorial and protective of their patches of anemone that they claim as home, boldly face off divers, giving us a chance to interact with these feisty and charming fishes. Reiner Fischer, our Austrian dive instructor, tells us that this site is perfect for our photographic needs since its relatively shallow waters, some six to 15 meters deep, still allow the bright colors of fishes and corals to register on camera. Any deeper and images begin to fade into blue. He discourages flash photography so as not to disrupt and disorient the aquatic wildlife.

Reiner admonishes, “All these people shouldn’t buy or pick up shells and starfish. These are living things.” He wishes more Filipinos would appreciate their own underwater wonders. “I am aware that for some diving is relatively expensive. But if you do not have the money you can just buy some fins and some goggles and just enjoy (snorkeling). I see these local fishermen spearfishing. They can afford it. But they are not enjoying nature,” he laments. With its shallow yet beguiling diving sites so near the shore, Sipalay is the perfect place to start exploring the underwater attractions of the Philippines and Artistic Diving Resort is the ideal place to learn how to do it properly.

Having explored Negros Occidental’s depths, we head north to explore the island’s highest peak.

Peering into the maw

Kanlaon Volcano, the highest peak in the Visayas region, defines Negros, itself the third largest island in the Philippines after Luzon and Mindanao. It’s geothermal activity is what heats the sulphur springs of Mambukal. It’s volcanic eruptions are what account for the richness of the island’s soil. It gives this land life. And sometimes, it takes it away. it is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, having erupted 26 times since 1919. On August 10, 1996, the mountain erupted and spewed rock, boulders, and ash without warning, killing Filipinos Neil Perez and Noel Tragico, as well as British student Julian Green. Seventeen other climbers from Belgium, the Philippnes, and United Kingdom were on or near the peak that same day. They were rescued by the courageous mountain men of Guintubdan Guides and Porters Association of Mount Kanlaon Natural Park.

One of these real-life heroes, Rey Estelloso, accompanies us to the top of the mountain. Gaining recognition for braving the rainfall of rocks and boulders to repeatedly run up and down the mountain to carry climbers on his shoulders, Rey is a legend. Having ensured the safety of hikers since 1989, Rey is now joined by a new generation of guides. With us for our climb are his fellow guides Rudy Mateo and Ronillo Tolentino. In my nearly two decades worth of experience in outdoor sports, I attest that the guides of Guintubdan are the most reassuringly competent, knowledgeable, hospitable, and fully-equipped I have come across in Southeast Asia. “We are trained in first aid, basic life support, mountain search and rescue, camp management, Leave No Trace trail ethics and even how to entertain guests,” attests Rey. And being proudly Ilongo, they also prove themselves masterful chefs, cooking for us the best camp cuisine I have tasted in my entire life.

Mount Kanlaon Natural Park mandates one guide for every five hikers. Hiring guides as well as porters is essential to maintaining the pristine beauty of mountain trails. It is only when locals find livelihoods in eco tourism more rewarding that exploitation of the mountain-most often through slash-and-burn farming, charcoal making, logging, quarrying or mining-that they leave behind these destructive practices and take the initiative in preserving nature. The fees for guides and porters-700 and 500 pesos respectively-is money well spent for a priceless experience.

Thankfully, Kanlaon is a major mountain with a daunting reputation. This, along with the fact that mountaineers from elsewhere need a plane ride to get to the island of Negros, mostly limits this volcano to mostly experienced and respectful mountaineers. It is best to note that the peak season for FIlipino climbers during summer, most especially on Holy Week. Foreigners tend to flock from August to December to escape the winter. Local climbers from Negros often time their ascents during weekends and holidays. Climbing on a weekday, we have the mountain to ourselves, making the experience a sublime and transcendental one. There is not one single bit of trash on the trail, old or new, thanks in large part to the guides. There is no noise to ruin the bird songs and the chirping of insects. There is nothing but bliss. And the weather is perfect.

Though I am a seasoned mountaineer with my own time-tested gear, Terence is a first-time climber who needs to lug around his arsenal of professional camera equipment. Thankfully, our hosts at the Negros Occidental Tourism Center choose the shortest trail up the mountain that begins at La Carlota, about 750 meters above sea level. After an overnight stay and hearty breakfast at Guintubdan Visitor’s Center, we begin trekking past eight in the morning.

Despite the chilly morning mountain weather, we soon find steam rising from our sweaty bodies due to our exertion. I, along with Rudy, take the lead and set the pace. The forest provides leafy shade all throughout. Trees’ roots conveniently form natural steps and shallow terraces. The soil is an ideal mix of loam, leaves, and gravel-the kind that holds firm even in rain and doesn’t threaten to sink our feet into a quagmire. There are few fallen tree trunks and overhanging branches. I find the climb very easy. Even Terence is never too far behind.

Along the way there is the refreshing Ranchos Do Waterfall and several water sources. We also come across a tree with the remnants of an tire hanging from its branch. Rey explains that it is all that remains of a plane crash- a Fooker turboprop of Philippine Airlines flying from Bacolod to Bohol that crashed in July 1967.

We arrive hours early at the saddle point campsite, once the emergency helicopter landing zone from where the victims and survivors of the last eruption were evacuated. Shielded from the numbingly cold and ceaselessly blustery winds, the saddle point is an almost ideal camp site with spaces between small trees just wide enough for three man and two-man tents.

Just beyond the campsite is Allison’s Cliff, named after a girl who fell to her death from it, and below it is Margaha Valley, once Kanlaon’s crater during prehistoric times. To the right is a relatively flat expanse of purple shrubs and grass and the Kissing Rock, a man-high boulder where couples smooch supposedly for good luck. The wind is so fast and strong that the wisps of cloud that rise from the ridge snake in serpentine fashion like cigarette smoke.

With so much time to spare even after taking so many photos of stunning views, we decide to drop our multi-day backpacks, and speedily assault the peak with only bare essentials. The terrain beyond the Kissing Rock abruptly changes into a steep slope of loose sharp rocks completely bare of any vegetation that is an effort to climb. As we near the peak marked by a pile of rocks with flags planted on top of them, we see a row of stones to the right leading to it. Our guide warns us to never stray beyond it; they mark the danger zone at the crater’s lip that can collapse into the abyss at any time. The guides had placed the stone markers after tremors on February of 2012 caused cracks to appear on surface near the caldera’s edge.

A group of three stones mark a safe vantage point from which to view the depths. We take turns taking pictures of each other lying down just before these rocks with the crater’s maw as a backdrop. We then turn our attention to the pile of rocks that marks Kanlaon’s summit. We arrive at the peak at three in the afternoon.

For a moment, there is a solemn appreciation for the untamable supernatural beauty that surrounds us and for the men and women who have lost their lives here, many of whom have had the sites of their death named after them. And then we take wacky jump shots of ourselves. With Kanlaon welcoming us with such sunny weather, we take it as a sign to jump for joy. Such are the sweet contrasts of Negros Occidental.

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