TRAVEL: Asik-asik Falls: Tinago’s big brother

ALAMADA, North Cotabato (MindaNews / 04 May) – I’m one who’s not easily impressed by waterfalls that enthrall many. I am, after all, from “The City of Waterfalls.” What others see only in their textbooks or in travel magazines as majestic waterfalls, like Maria Cristina and Tinago, are commonplace to us Iliganons.

Thus I may be a snob when I’m with non-Iliganon friends visiting waterfalls in other places. Once I told friends what they thought as the paradise in front of them was just a sari-sari store of a waterfall. And that if they come with me to my place, I’d show them a megamall. They thought I was boasting, but came with me nevertheless, eager to find out if I was telling the truth, or to ridicule me if their expectations fall short. They thanked me to high heavens after our trek to Tinago Falls, even though they were cursing on the climb up that caused them muscle pains in their legs that lasted days.

Thus I almost don’t take a second look when I see pictures of lesser waterfalls in magazines or online.

But the first time I saw a picture of Asik-asik Falls some time last year, it captured my imagination right away. And I told myself I gotta visit the place. But Alamada in North Cotabato is nowhere near for most everybody, especially so because the town is far from the busy highway that connects the cities of Davao and Cotabato.
04asik1web(ASIK-ASIK FALLS. Visitors enjoy the cool waters of Asik-asik Falls in Alamada, North Cotabato. This waterfall is unique, with waters gushing out of the side of a cliff, shooting through the thick foliage, unlike other falls that are basically rivers falling into a ravine. Photo taken 27 April 2013.MindaNews photo by Bobby Timonera)

Late last year, work brought me to Alamada, but in a mountain so far away from Asik-asik. Last February, I was in the nearby town of Aleosan, so near yet still too far. You have to allot one whole day, I was told, to really enjoy the falls.

Asik-asik, you see, is a recent discovery for people outside Alamada, or even for many Alamada residents who are not from Barangay Dado, or even for Dado residents themselves who are not from Sitio Dulao. Jessa Obejero, who’s from the area, said it was only April last year that Asik-asik was “discovered” by outsiders. Thus, for the longest time, only those living in the vicinity, like the 16-year-old Jessa and her neighbors, were enjoying the waterfalls.

For a while, only the habalhabal (those motorbikes with extension seats ubiquitous in the remote parts of Mindanao, being usually the only mode of public transport for rural folks) could come near Asik-asik. Sensing a tourism boom, the local government built a road. But up to now, it’s still really rough roads. You need a good habalhabal driver familiar with the terrain to get you to Asik-asik safely. If you bring a car, only 4×4 off-road vehicles are good enough.

When work brought me again somewhere near, in Midsayap, last week, I and my colleagues planned for it. We set aside one day to visit Asik-asik after all work was done.

We left Midsayap early, as soon as the sun rose, and was already at the poblacion of Alamada a little past 6 o’clock.

It costs P600 to P700 to hire a habalhabal to bring two passengers to Asik-asik, in Sitio Dulao of Barangay Dado, and back. The driver will either wait for you at the reception area near the falls, or sometimes they’re helpful enough to accompany you down the long walk to the falls and bring your heavy stuff for you. Or even drag you up on the way back if you don’t have any energy left, as what happened to one of us.

If you’re used to the comfort of an airconditioned car or bus in the highway, the habalhabal is one hell of a ride, much more if the road is wet from a previous night’s rain, as was the case during our visit. I told a colleague I lost the square root in my brain as we negotiated the rough roads.

For some, the scariest part of the ride could be crossing the makeshift Raradangan Bridge. The concrete bridge, we were told, was damaged years ago. You can just close your eyes and trust your life to the habalhabal driver. We saw one among a group of hobbyist riders fall from his bike, but luckily didn’t fall into the water. Four-wheel vehicles can’t cross this wooden foot bridge; they just have to cross the shallow river below and hope not to get stuck in the water.

But beyond the bridge, the scenery is beautiful, with rice and corn farms and small banana plantations all over, as far as the eyes can see – in the plains, in the plateaus, in the rolling hills. Can’t help but pull out my trusty little Lumix LX5 point-and-shoot to take some pictures despite the habalhabal flying off the ground every now and then.

The habalhabal ride takes almost an hour, so expect discomfort in your buttocks.

04asikweb3(ON THE WAY TO ASIK-ASIK FALLS. The scenery is beautiful, but the roads are bad. Photo taken 27 April 2013. MindaNews photo by Bobby Timonera)

Once at the reception area, if you don’t have food or water with you, or if you hadn’t had breakfast yet, maybe now is the time to sit down and eat. Pastil – rice and small slices of chicken wrapped in banana leaves – is a favorite food around here. Or you can buy food and eat later, while enjoying the scenery at the falls … granting you’d dare climb down the steep path and stairway.

The initial descent is a dirt foot path, then a stairway carved out of the red soil supported by bamboo, then concrete steps. We were told it’s maybe 360 or so steps for each of the soil and concrete stairways. That’s a lot for the uninitiated, at least double the height of the stairway in our Tinago Falls.

Because it rained the night before, it was slippery with my flip-flops, so I decided to go barefoot all the way down, and all the way up. Maybe not necessary, but these days I’m going gaga over barefoot running, so might as well go barefoot here. To “Feel the Earth,” as barefooters love to say.

The hike down took us about 20 minutes. Then, lo and behold, are the unique cascades of Asik-asik.

Unlike all the waterfalls I’ve seen, Asik-asik’s waters do not come from a river falling into a cliff. There is a river nearby, yes, but it just passes near the edge of the mountain, not falling into the ravine. Asik-asik’s waters are streaming out of the side of the mountain, shooting through the lush vegetation clinging on to the face of the cliff.

Looking up the vast expanse of streaming water falling in front of me, fine mist wetting my face and my camera’s lens, I can’t help but compare it to Tinago Falls of my hometown.

All I can say is, I finally met Tinago’s big brother. The highest part of Asik-asik may just be as high as Tinago, but it’s much w-i-d-e-r. My 17mm wide angle lens on a full-frame dSLR couldn’t accommodate them all, whereas the same lens on the cropped sensor of my lesser dSLRs, which narrows down angle of view by a factor of 1.6x, could already capture the entire width of Tinago. But maybe because Tinago has a bigger natural swimming pool below and you can thus view it from afar, whereas you are just too close to Asik-asik’s waters. But still, Asik-asik’s cascades have such a wide expanse, more than 100 meters wide.

As in Tinago, I’d love to bathe right under the cascading waters. You just have to endure the pain like those of a thousand acupuncture needles piercing your back as you struggle to suck in air amid the volume of water falling right over you. It’s nice that both waterfalls do not have as much water as Maria Cristina that could run a turbine to energize a few cities.

We were lucky we came early on a Saturday, thus only a few people were there ahead of us.

Jessa – who is in charge of documenting the arriving habalhabals and their passengers at the reception area, aside from selling boiled sweet corn that her family planted in a nearby farm – says that a huge crowd usually goes to Asik-asik on weekends. We saw them on our trek back.

Last year, when word just got out that there is now road to Asik-asik and there’s already a paved stairway going down, thousands came and crowded the place. “There were so many people that they’re like ants joining the long queue down, and meeting the throngs of people in the long queue up,” added Jessa.

Asik-asik as it is now is still pristine, and I’m hoping it stays that way for the rest of time. Or maybe we were just there early before the huge crowd came?

I’m worried over the development going on. Because of the tourism potential, LGUs and businessmen are prone to make all scenic spots easily accessible to as many people as possible to keep the revenue coming. Like Hong Kong building an escalator all the way to the mountains.

If I’ll have my way, I won’t build that paved stairway to Asik-asik, as a way of naturally controlling the number of people going there. Now, the trek to the falls is too easy. I can’t imagine going there with thousands of others. Managing garbage would be a nightmare.

04asik2web(It’s not easy climbing one’s way back from Asik-asik Falls in Alamada, North Cotabato, with over 700 steps of the stairway. Photo taken 27 April 2013. MindaNews photo by Bobby Timonera)

In the same way that I hated the paved stairway of our Tinago Falls. It was much more fun hanging on to branches and roots on our way down, and on our trek back up, during my youth. Then they built a swimming pool right beside the beautiful natural lagoon. For me, it was such an ugly sight even when the pool was new, such an insult to nature. And when the resort went broke, the now damaged pool became such a huge eyesore.

I’m hoping the local government of Alamada, and that of North Cotabato, have learned that lesson by now. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)