Explorer’s Notebook 1: Tracking the Mandalagan Mountain Range

Back in 2011 when I was only three years into hiking, I, along with two other friends decided to take our hiking to the next level.  We have just finished our basic mountaineering and orienteering courses and we were itching to put it into practice.  We were fortunate enough to be living around the border of the Northern Negros Natural Park which is home to the Mandalagan Mountain Range.  Many hikers would know this place through the famous spots known as Danao or Tinagong Dagat and the sulfur vent of Sulphatara.  We know that far beyond these spots, the mountain range had much more to offer for people who thirst for adventure.

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Guides: Tatay Jose and Unsoy, with me, Marwel, and Bong

These are pieces I wrote right after we did the four-day exploration.  There’s brevity and bad grammar (and spelling and punctuation), but because I have written them at the time when the memory was very fresh, I will keep these notes just as how it was written before.

I was working part-time in a call center back then while still in the fourth year of my engineering course in the university.  I used most of my paycheck climbing. One of the climbs I have invested much into with my meager salary was the tracking and exploration climb we did last April 21 to 25, 2011 at the Mandalagan Mountain Range via the Murcia (Canlandog) to Campuestuhan trail.

A supposedly 4-day-3-night tracking activity in the Mandalagan Mountain Range.
Entering the range through Brgy. Canlandog with our guide, a local, Tatay Unsoy. Along with him was his brother Jose who went with us so Tatay Unsoy would have company when he makes his way home through Lantawan trail from Danao on the fourth day.

Day Zero – Preparation for the climb
Logged off from work at 12mn, Tatay (Romwell “Bong” Gubuan) and Marwel (Maroelle Joulle Pontino) earlier did the marketing for supplies, waited for me through Lacson street where we ended up having dinner at KFC Lacson. Back to the shop, we packed our things, readied our homemade stove, while I managed to catch a thirty minute slumber. Early the next day, Tatay’s Habagat – Alpine 60+10L, Marwel’s Habagat-Sigbin 30L, and my Lowe Rucksack was filled to the hood. Made our way to Libertad and off to Bangga Wawa in Murcia where we road habal-habal individually, up to Brgy Canlandog.

Mt. Canlandog is very visible from my home in Brgy. Granada, Bacolod City.  It is where transmission towers are located as its peak can strategically send electromagnetic signals to receivers in the city.  This mountain is less known for mountaineering activities because it is mostly open trail and thus exposed to sun, compared to its neighboring peaks covered with canopy trees.

Day One
From Brgy. Canlandog, it was a long sunny walk through the open fields. Finally we reached what seemed like the entry to the forested area, Ponsian River where people bathed (it was Holy Thursday). Upon our second intercept to the river, we stopped for lunch where Marwel and I took a quick dip in the river, very cool and refreshing. We started trekking again through what our local guides called Tumuktok and Bulubinlang Peaks (that’s what they’re locally known). We passed by Almaciga Camp (where the E-trekkers who were behind us had the first night camp), Agang-ang ridge (knife edge ridge formed out of broken boulders), Mata Usa (eye of the deer, the forest was home to the Visayan Spotted Deer), the barko (a boulder shaped like a galleon). We reached the Suba sang Bulubinlang around seven in the evening where we had our first night camp at its bank.

My parents frown on the fact that I was hiking at such a young age (I was 16 when I started and 18 when I did this exploration). And especially that I was hiking during the Holy Week.  I forgot how I managed to do these climbs without their permission.

During this exploration climb, I was assigned to do the tracking.  I took GPS points from an old black and white screen model of Garmin and then plotted the coordinates on a NAMRIA topographical map.  The map we used was a photocopied version of the original map and then wrapped in transparent packaging tape for waterproofing.

The first day was one of the most interesting day with so many sights to see and plot on my map.   There was the Almaciga camp, the Mata Usa, and the Barko, although the most interesting and the one I had been looking forward to was the Agang-ang Rigde, the knife edge ridge made of sharp boulders.  The difference of this knife-edge ridge to others knife-edges in other mountains is that it was covered in tall grass so it was hard to determine whether you are about to step out of the narrow ridge and probably fall into who-knows what’s at the bottom.

Locals celebrating Holy Thursday at Ponsian River:

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(1) Tatay Unsoy at Camp Almaciga where part of the almaciga tree was burnt by campers, (2) Barko, a large boulder shaped like a marine vessel, (3) taking coordinates of the camp at Bulubinlang

 

Day Two
Breakfast was at 9am (we’re the really laminday type of campers when it comes to waking up in the morning). The etrekkers even arrived at our camp, stopped to have lunch, while we were just about to pack up. The ascent to the next peak was rather steep. I forgot the name of the peak though (or if at all it had a name). We stopped by at some point where our tummies were growling and needing to be filled already. So there was lunch, and also the realization that we were already past the trail where we were supposed to pass to get to our second night camp, Pandong Bato. We took our position through the GPS tracker, and then realized that we were somewhere near something I shall not talk of right now. Anyway the second day was the most fulfilling part of the trip because of that. So we carried out, climb down and then climbed up again, until we were nowhere. No GPS signal, just a gulley and a stream and what seemed like the camp of the mangangayams. We stopped for coffee and then started the night trek. We followed the hunters’ trail which lead us only to a river. River trek! It was a long river trek and my mind was working double time exploring. After what seemed like forever we reached the end of the river trek that night since we were already at the end of the stream where the water dropped some unknown height below. I took coordinates and found out we were somewhere 1.5km ASL. We set camp at a tiny clearing by the bank of the stream just before the water falls. It was a gully, thank God, it wasn’t that cold. Our tent was sloping down, any strong movement would cause it to slide down the stream. Dinner was served and since the day was long, fulfilling, and tiring too, we disappeared into our sleeping bags.

That day, we reached the second highest peak of Mandalagan Mountain Range at 1831masl.  Within our knowledge, it was the first documented ascent of such peak.  We camped at a narrow clearing that night.  I had a hard time sleeping because of the sloping terrain and the fear that our tent could roll down into the narrow river.  Worry has started to kick in because that day, we had lost the planned trail.

GPS data for the second highest peak of Mandalagan:
(1) Campsite at day two, (2) view of Mandalagan range from the trail

 

Day Three
Third day proves the most unrewarding of all days. It seemed like dark ages at the extremes. Since we were left at the end of the stream before the water falls, could not continue the river trek anymore. I manage to roam around that morning and found that the falls was a good 20 meter drop, impossible to climb down. No way but to trace a trail up the ridge to our left. No trail, nothing to hold on, nothing to step on. Just the thick mud and compost and by chance some roots that weren’t that strong anyway. Those were the longest moments of the climb. Where every step was a doubt and every transferred weight was a big worry. But then we got through climbing down that wall and I ran like I was the happiest kid to the river. There I saw the 20 meter drop falls where we first came from, and beside it was a little fat waterfall, which I now decide to call the Mag-Amay Falls as a tribute to my tatay who first planned this trip. I was waiting for them for quite some time that I managed to bathe by muddy sweaty self in the cold river. River trek again. The river trek seemed like forever. But we passed by a good number of falls, whose view made my heart smile (I bet most of them were undiscovered yet by hikers). We stopped at the river junction, took coordinates, and watched in awe at the gliding hawk eagle which seemed to hover back and forth at the junction. One branch of the river led to Tangkal, the old crater, very evident at the map, and the other allegedly to Pandong Bato where we were supposed to have gone the previous night. And so we followed the alleged branch with hope in our hearts. All hope died down when after an hour, we ended up at a wide tall water fall kept in between cliffs that suddenly turned to block our view of what was ahead of it. I was still a happy kid though, enjoying the photo op at the falls and some holes on the cliff that might possibly lead to deep caves (who knows?). Because we were hungry and some of us were a bit disoriented and frustrated, we stopped and ate lunch. I explored possible routes and found that there was simply no trail, not even hunters’ trail. After lunch, we bush whacked again climbing up a wall that had nothing to hold on to or step on. That was a great tiring adventure though. We reached a lower angle slope where we could already “walk”. We followed the ridge, the signs (fog, smoke from sulphur), the map, the hunters’ trail, but it was just impossible to know which peak we were, what it was called, or where it was leading too. Hunch was our only basis. So we trekked and then back and then trekked and then back, it was the most frustrating feeling ever. We climbed down a steep trail where at one point I got blanked out, lost grip and fell a good 3 meter fall. That was funny though. and then we reached a stream in another gully where a hunters’ camp stood. We set camp since it was already 7 in the evening and too frustrating to still be looking for Pandong Bato. Our camp was beside a triple drop falls, very refreshing view. Had dinner and sat by the falls to review my life at that very frustrating moment. I was a weirdo. Back to the camp, I picked up some glow in the dark twigs which I placed on the ceiling of our tent. Finally closed by eyes to rest.

The third day was the craziest day of all.  The rise and fall of emotions was extreme.  I was absolutely delighted to see the two waterfalls, the one I named Mag-Amay Falls.  I was frustrated when the long trail led to an unscalable cliff.  I was elated to hear signs of sulfur vent whistles.  I was heavily disoriented when darkness kicked in while we were following a water stream. I was hungry and hallucinating, felt like I was the only hiker in the trail and that I was being followed by Japanese soldiers with bayonet guns.  The image is still clear in my mind.  When we set camp that night, I was sobbing alone by the river out of mixed emotions – I was glad that we were finally able to rest after a long exhausting day, and was scared that we will not be able to find our way.

(1) an after-struggle timed self-photograph at Mag-Amay Falls while the others are still struggling at the descent, (2) “1942” carved into a flat boulder by the river, a Japanese occupation marking perhaps?
(1) Bong standing before a massive landslide, (2) a hawk eagle drifting by
(1) me sitting at the edge of the waterfall, smiling in the photo but deep inside frustrated because we still haven’t found the trail, (2) twigs coated in bio luminescent fungi, served as faint lights inside our tent

 

Day Four
The next day we followed the river again. River trek! Not even an hour passed, we reached Pandong Bato, finally. I was filled with hope again. The water was so irresistible. We all had a good swim. We trekked again up to Sulfatara. My first time there. We found trail signs. I picked up trash of the earlier hikers. Had lunch near sulfatara. We climbed up again and jumped in joy when we have reached the ridge that traced the trail to Danao. Finally, we got down Danao where nobody was there anymore. Just the trash! It was already raining hard and lightning was out to catch us. We followed the trail to campuestuhan where our guides already went ahead to their homes back in Canlandog through Lantawan trail. The three of us, Marwel and tatay, battled our way down the strong river current. At the dam, the water was just as mad as the rain. We had to install ropes for river crossing. We followed the irrigation. The trail to Campuestuhan seemed like forever. We reached the community where I was singing and dancing in relief. Found a lot of light, it was their fiesta! A nice dinner of inasal na tinae and hotdog and chorizo with the locals. We stayed at one of the rest houses that night. Very relieving (although sad that the adventure was at its end).

The fourth day was a great relief.  It was also one of the longest hikes I’ve done. Like in day 3, we hiked for almost 12 hours.  We were able to cover the spots of Pandong Bato, Sulphatara, Tinagong Dagat, and head to the community in Campuestuhan just in time for dinner and the barrio fiesta.

(1) Pandong Bato, a large cave-like boulder that could serve as a campsite, (2) river near Pandong Bato where we took a quick dip to relieve ourselves of all the exhaustion from the last four days
(1) One of the big vents of Sulphatara, (2) mapping the coordinates at the boiling puddle of sulfur in Sulphatara
(1) We ate a whole bowl of rice after the long day at the trails, (2) view of the mountain range from Campuestuhan
(1) The old site of Coral Cay Conservation’s terrestrial project, the Negros Rainforest Conservation Project at Campuestuhan

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Day Five
We had breakfast of misua with sardines. Coffee overlooking the peaks of Mandalagan. We packed up and rented a multi-cab down to bangga Arceo in Alangilan. At bangga Arceo we waited by chance for a tricycle to Granada. Fortunately, a distributor of groceries to the sari-sari stores gave us a ride down to Granada. Finally we were back home. Had a heavy lunch. And had some rest.

We headed to my home in Granada.  My father prepared a lunch for us and I was sure they weren’t very happy about the fact that I just spent the last four days getting lost in the mountains.  I was sure it was a couple of days and a lot of random, odd, and angry questions thrown at me before I could be comfortable around my family again.  But then, that four days of exploration is still one of the best adventures I have ever done in my life.

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Our backpacks and my trail boots after the exploration hike

 

 

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