The Magic of Mt. Kitanglad (2): The Adventure Begins. By Alex M. Tiongco

31st May, 2009 Sunday

This day started early. 3:00 A.M. There was a flurry of silent but vigorous activity of repacking luggage that had been unpacked for the night, putting them in plastic bags and into jute sacks for loading onto the pack horses. The birders were not as neat in repacking as the horsemen but that would have to do.

The ground was still wet but the rain had mercifully stopped early the night before. The bright wispy yellow and blue dawn brought news of sunny days ahead.  It brought to mind and old saying which an old Sea Captain taught me on predicting weather:-

“Red skies in the morning, sailors take warning, red skies at night, sailors delight!”

Horses and horsemen appeared as before, pack horses first, then riding horses. I noticed to my great amusement that male horses are also afflicted with early morning tumescence. I looked around to check if anybody else had noticed it but everybody seemed to be busy looking elsewhere. I was embarrassed to have noticed, inspite of myself.

Not-so-lonesome cowgirlAfter all the bags were loaded and sent off, and the girls had ridden away to camp, we found that there was only one horse left for us four men – a pack horse.

Adri, Felix and Nicky, looked at me in unison and then to the horse, deferring to the senior citizen. I backed away and flatly refused to ride a horse with no stirrups. Felix the cop, the perfect gentleman, the original caballero saved the day for me by volunteering to get on the horse – which he did with great difficulty. He got on and was quite uncomfortably and precariously perched on the makeshift wooden platform designed for carrying cargo with his legs dangling wantonly on either side of the horse, looking much like Don Quixote ready to assault the windmills.
Eagle Lodge was a good five kilometer walk uphill from the jump off point from 800 meters elevation to 1,300 meters which took us all of 2.5  hours to negotiate. It would have been a relatively comfortable walk had it not been for my rucksack which I had foolishly retained thinking I was going to have a merry ride up.

When we got to the river, the water was gently babbling, low and almost clear, with no sign of yesterday’s fury. Even the overflowed banks almost bore no witness to the flood. Such is the resilience of nature.

Nicky suggested it was better to take turns riding on Felix’s horse to cross the river instead of wading.
After everybody had crossed the river, Felix, gently rubbing his backside, adamantly refused to get back on his horse again. This time, all the windmills in the world could not get Don Quixote to mount his beloved Risonante.

With glee, Adri jumped onto the horse and rode away, eyes bright and grinning from ear to ear like a contented Native American boy with his legs purposely gripping the sides of the horse.

There was one long arduous climb and we found ourselves on a plateau on top of the world. If not for my laboured breathing, I could have broken out in song for we were so high and the day was so clear, we could have seen forever except that our views were partly blocked by the higher Mt. Kitanglad ahead of us.

To the east below us were the tips of  smaller dark blue mountain ranges suspended in midair in a bed of bright cotton candy clouds.
In the distance to the south, was a tall, long, blue mountain range looking like a blue wall. Behind this wall was small bright yellow peak peeking out from way beyond the range.

“That” said Nicky pointing to the yellow peak “they say, is the tip of Mount Apo.”

I looked around absorbing the view in awe of its Artist but my eyes kept wandering back to the distant bright yellow peak which was filling me with a sense of poignancy. For it was there at the foot of that peak where I first began my journeys a few lifetimes ago – Davao.

I had only just begun my adventure on Mt. Kitanglad but already I could see that we can never run out of exciting mountains to climb. It is all up to us. We are the captains of our souls.

At the top of the world, Nicky called for a timely break. Confidently, I reached back to my backpack to get my bottle of water and my throat went even dryer when I realized that my water bottle was not there.

I did not know how much farther we were going to trek. I only knew  that the distance made it prudent to take a horse, so naturally I was slightly concerned but I did not let on to Nicky and Felix about my foolhardiness of carrying a backpack without any water in it.

Later, we turned away from the road and crossed an abandoned farm into a deep wooded gully. The track was very narrow, just enough for a horse to squeeze through between ravines and was knee deep in mud churned endlessly by recent horses hoofs. We avoided the mud as much as we can by skipping over clods of earth by the embankment. Steep slides down were followed by steep climbs. I wondered how  the girls on horseback and the Indian boy with no stirrups were able to negotiate safely those steep muddy slopes. I prayed that they were okay.
Tere’ told me later that when she passed through there, she was really, really afraid and prayed real hard.

“Huwag po kayong matakot ma’am” the horseman said in halting Tagalog. “Sisiguraduhin ko’ng ligtas tayo sa sakuna. Sumalig lamang tayo sa Dios at hindi tayo pababayaan  Nuon.”

The simple but succinct advice of the horseman, the innocent confidence on his skill and his absolute dependence on the Almighty, totally reassured Tere’s spirit and she began to notice the beauty of the hitherto fearsome ravines and to hear the sweet but then unfamiliar bird calls. But try as she might, she could not focus her binoculars on any bird because of the heaving brought about by horse’s breathing and its gait.
Trinket had a different experience in this narrow path on the way back. Her horse refused to go through prompting her to ask the horseman to let her off but the horseman insisted that she and the horse should go through together and they did.
“Trust your horse!” was the advice of Carmela the expert cowgirl.

The Eagle's LodgeHere in the ravines, we who traveled on foot saw more lifers – Mindanao Ibon, Black Masked White-eyes, Mindanao Hornbills, Grey-hooded Sunbird, etc. We almost caught sight of the Long-tailed Ground-babbler which called in so near and the  White-browed Shortwing with its Shamanic songs. We could see movement in the under bush but never could quite make it into a tick.

With good birding, all thoughts of thirst and fears vanished. I was revitalized and felt that I could go on for the rest of the day fed only by the fascinating views of Mindanao endemics.

In no time at all, we were at the Eagle’s lodge.

Everybody had worried for our safety, and as we had taken considerable time in arriving, had wondered to themselves if the old foggie was really capable to making it to camp on foot.

I had enjoyed the birding along the way and reaching the Eagle’s lodge was quite anticlimactic. We started early and arrived safely at about 10:00 am – too early to rest in terms of birding adventure. But the horses had to be unpacked and the men paid and I remembered that I was thirsty and had to get a drink of water and we had to settle down in our fantastic new home for the rest of the adventure -the Eagle’s Lodge.
The Eagle’s Lodge is the last resort so to speak, located about 1,300 meters high almost half way up on Mt. Kitanglad . It is a huge two story barn-like structure.

The first floor is open on all three sides facing forests on the north and east, and a narrow cornfield on the south. On the west side of the barn is located the cooking area, the two communal toilets and the single bathroom. The first floor serves as the parlor, lounging and dining area. The whole of the second floor is a big open communal sleeping hall devoid of beds and furniture, much like the kampungs of Malaysia.

Behind the west side of the barn is a little hut occupied by Carlitos’ family. Carlitos along with Danny, his son in law, are the designated guides for Mt.  Kitanglad. His wife and other kids were our cook for the duration. They also drove the carabao food caravan supplying us with lunch and water in the field.

A view from Eagle's LodgeThis resort is used by birders as the base camp for their forays upland towards the Eagle’s Point, Eagle’s Nest and the Land of the Apo Sunbird.  Itis about two hours and a half climb away by road from the nearest settlement below and 3, 4 and 5 hours away respectively from the Eagle’s Point, (1,480 meters altitude) Eagle’s Nest (1,600 m)and the Land of the Apo Sunbird (1980) above. It has no electricity and is cold, from 15-20 degrees at night. Water available in the toilets and bath are supplied by rain collected from the barn’s roof into a small overhead tank. Otherwise, water is fetched from a spring and may not be palatable to lowlanders but this is drinking water to the locals and I was not so affected when I took it after we finally ran short of bottled water on our penultimate night and reserved the remaining few gallons for the ladies.

The Adventure begins….

Good-byes were said and we watched the horsemen and the horses leave. As the sound of the men’s voices and the horses’ hooves faded behind the tall trees and the ravines, I felt a sense of isolation mixed with an inexplicable, uncertain dread which was so delicious and childlike.
We were alone and our real adventure had finally begun.

There was a long silence after the horsemen left with all of us looking to the direction where they disappeared. Then we suddenly discovered that
we all had forgotten breakfast so it was decided that we should take Brunch at 11:00 AM.

Watching out for the Red-eared ParrotfinchThe rest of the day was spent on a little incursion up into the Red-eared Parrotfinch territory on the plateau of the sunflowers. This was the practice run for the main assault to the Eagle’s Nest, and, if we were lucky, to the home of the Apo Sunbird higher up from the Eagle’s Nest.
Here, we utilized for the first time the natural stair-like waterways which we were going to scale up and down for the next four days.

“Delicado ba dito pag umulan?” I asked Danny.

“Oo po”, he said matter of factly “kaya mag ingat lang tayo.”

Somehow. Danny’s taciturn reply sounded like a grim foreboding.

We had good views of the brown-tit babblers, Mountain Tailorbird,  Red-eared Parrotfinch and McGregor’s Cuckoo-shrike. Unfortunately Tere missed out on the Parrotfinch and the Shrike and was thoroughly disappointed. (But of course under Nicky’s guidance, she eventually saw them at later dates.)

We waited for the birds to show again for Tere’ to get clear views but it was getting late and mist started to surround the Plateau of the Sunflowers giving it a magical quality. Curiously, the mist weaved and played only amongst the tall trees and shrubs surrounding the rims of the plateau, providing them with a ghostly vale but refused to venture onto the plateau itself, which remained clear.

As birders we naturally speak in whispers when in the field but when the mist arose, we began to speak in even lower muffled voices like we were afraid of being heard by the great mist weaver and lose our way home.
We came home early, the mist weaver did not hear us after all, and in no time we were on to the beers! We drank like we were in the brewery and made merry as we are wont to, exchanging vignettes and vagaries of the day’s adventure.

Capping the merriment was Ixi’s gourmet treats brought all the way from Spain – Puet sausage and cheese mildly smelling of goat (hehe).  Ixi made sure to bring enough of these goodies to last for all four drinking nights! No wonder why Ixi’s hefty horse looked overburdened.
We heard a frantic “kik kik kik kik” in the distance drawing near. “Bukidnon Woodcock!” said Nicky quickly moving out to the grounds. We followed and there flying just level to the rafters was a huge bird with extra long beak! It must have been curious about us as it did a double take flying just above our heads!

This ritual close fly-over was to be repeated by the Bukidnon Woodcock every dusk and dawn for the next three days. This prompted me to write at the Registry Book of the Lodge:-

“Rx:- Bukidnon Woodcock twice a day for 3 days.”

Most of the exhausted birders were out like a light before 9:00pm. I checked the beer supply before going to bed and was happy to learn that we could afford yet another brewery drink tomorrow night – after the great assault.
Adri switched off the gas lights immediately after. (To be continued)

[Alex M. Tiongco of Davao City and Makati is a lawyer and environmentalist]

First Part: In search of the Holy Grail of Philippine birding