a visit after more than
a hundred Years
By Apolinario Villalobos
If praises could be heaped, Mt. Apo would have mountains of them. All it takes for one to utter compliments is a good plunge into its fastness.
The Bagobos who inhabit its valleys are aware of Apo’s hidden pulchritude, wove tales around it, and told them from generation to generation. These tales which were narrated with realism later on spread to the lowlands and fired the imagination of a handful which later on multiplied to thousands.
According to these tales, Apo is the abode of Sandawa, a goddess who married Matutum, a god who lived on another mountain several ranges away. As the tale would further say, their solemn wedding took place on Apo’s summit, hence, the presence of an altar-like rock, that greets trekkers as they make their final long stride before slumping down for a refreshing rest.
Even with the mountain’s first attempted exploration in 1859 by Don Juan Oyanguren, Davao’s first Governor General, there was this unaffected attitude showed by the natives. With Oyanguren during that time were Datu Bago, two officers of the National Guards of Davao, thirty deportees and thirteen Bagobo porters. The first expedition was not successful despite their careful effort in following the flow of Tagulaya River from Davao. There were even fatalities and discomforts drove them back to Davao.
The second attempt was made in 1870 by Real, another military official who started the trek from Tubay, Sta. Cruz in southern Davao. With Real were a captain and thirty sailors. But like the first expedition, they failed in their bid. However, that time, there was no casualty, their only consolation.
A successful expedition made it to the summit in 1880. The “conquest” was made by Don Joaquin Rajal, the Spanish military Governor General of Davao. Sharing the laurel of success with Rajal were Dr. Jose Montano, a French scientist, Father Mateo Gisbert, S.J., a Jesuit priest, and several military officials. Guided by their Manobo porter-guides, they penetrated dense forests, endured pouring rains, the cold, and braved dangers which have always been part of Apo. On the sixth day of their trek, an hour after noon, they made it to the summit. It was a feat which today has inspired trekkers to do the same.
Like our predecessors, we let our Bagobo guide led us through the dense forests and four ranges of Apo, more than a hundred years after Rajal’s successful assault of the summit. That was during the centennial climb in 1980, when I and the PAL Mountaineering Club joined hundreds of other climbers from all over the country for a trek after more than a hundred years of Rajal’s conquest. We, too, braved the dangers and endured the cold. Berting, our barefoot and ever alert Bagobo guide was an unassuming figure who stood out in a group of natives at Ilomavis before the centennial trek to Apo started. Just like the rest of Bagobo residents around the area, he considered himself a part of Apo. His personality was oozing with confidence, so that we did not hesitate to entrust ourselves to him.
While on our way to Lake Agko from Ilomavis, I learned a lot from Berting. The most important was the customary greeting, “Lihatkay pa”, when passing by a group or a house. The greeting which literally means, “just passing by”, is a stranger’s announcement that he means no harm while passing through a group or a house.
Trails cut on the side of the mountain consisted part of the way to Agko through communities that were alive with everlasting flower, a kind of scentless summer bloomer. Patches of coffee trees, almost bare of late season fruits complement bananas and reluctantly growing corns in greening the valleys.
Ahead of us loomed the second mountain that we were to traverse, the following day. It promised an easy trek and surprises. Capped with unmoving cumulus, it looked challenging to us lowlanders, especially, because its dense fortification of tall trees was all that could be seen from Sayaban where we drank our last Coke for the week.
The sun was intense at this time, about three in the afternoon as we trudged on. With close to five hundred trekkers who took time out from their jobs at home and office, it was more like of a fiesta. The youngest among us was an eleven year-old boy and the oldest, a seventy year-old war veteran.
I had no idea how far it was to the first camp from where we started, this time under a shady tree in the yard of deserted shack. I was told just two to three hours away. It was Berting, our guide who told me. And, it could be based on his phase, I presumed. But with the breathtaking panorama ahead and below us, it was useless to reckon our progress.
Just before sundown, we found ourselves below the Agko camp which was bursting at the seams with so many trekkers. The log cabin which could normally and conveniently accommodate almost a hundred, overflowed with trekkers who did not bring their own tent. The caretaker, however, was obviously prepared for this influx as shown by a cleared area just in front of the cabin. A new latrine was also constructed in addition to the old one.
In no time at all, tents mushroomed on the ground where tall grasses once thrived. Campfires were made and soon, the air was filled with laughter, scents of frying fish and bacon. This was Lake Agko. The name, though, was more apt early in the morning when the small body of water was at its bluest. The thermal pool fed by hot and cool springs was a delight, especially, to those who made it their reason for coming. It had a therapeutic effect to the weary body so that some would soak themselves twice for the duration of their stay in the camp.
We woke up to a cold morning, the following day and reluctantly stretched out legs. We found out that others have already packed up to start the trek to the Hot Spring. From Lake Agko, we traced the trail to the Hot Spring. Although, the trail was clear, we found the ups and downs as not easy as we thought. We had yet to crisscross the Marble River nine times. And, this we would do after negotiating two ranges, yet. Exciting discoveries made us forget the difficulty of sliding down a muddy trail or clinging to rocks and roots to pull ourselves up. We love nature and this prevented us from plucking unusually beautiful plants along the way. Orchids hanging from branches overhead competed with each other in attracting us. And, there was the “moss forest” that intrigued us.
With the PAL Mountaineering Club were guest-climbers from Japan, members of the Roppongi Alpine Club. They were unanimous in admiring the mountain for its beauty, and to think that we have barely completed a quarter of the way to the summit.
Wasting only five to ten minutes of rest for every hour of our trek, we went on, cautiously treading perilous soft trails. I could feel that portions of what seemed be overly trodden trail were made up of moss and a misstep could lead to a disastrous fall over the cliff. Halfway to the Hot Spring was the Malou Shih Falls that emptied into the noisily gurgling Marble River. The waterfalls was named after one of the pioneers in promoting the mountain to the trekkers. Trying to drown the noise of the big river was the concerted chirps of the cicadas that abound in this particular part of the forest. Their solid racket was terrifyingly loud that one would think, they’re giant green insects.
Fallen logs hampered us, until we went down what appeared like the last downward trail to the river. We found it to be the last one, indeed. We also found the river teeming with restless trekkers. It was as if Apo was just a few blocks away from downtown and was being visited by weekenders. Fatigue was etched on every face. But there were few who managed to crack jokes and drowned the river’s noisy flow with peals of laughter.
Boulders and high-rise banks, as well as, thick ten-foot high grasses prevented us from going up to a flat surface. The easiest and most practical thing to do then was to crisscross the river nine times. Jumping from one protruding rock to another, we were able to avoid getting wet. Freshly-laid makeshift bridges also provided us with good footholds where gaps between rocks were wide. The usual chirps and all calls of birds prodded us on until we reached an opening on the left bank – trail that cut through a thick pocket of grasses.
It was almost noon when we reached the Hot Spring and some trekkers were already feasting on their cold packed lunches. The gushing cool spring water gave us a relief after the almost four hours of hike through the forest. Nearby was a waterfall, delicately flowing down a cliff, flanked by orchids and ferns. After the hastily eaten packed lunch, we proceeded with our trek as we had yet to traverse another mountain before reaching Lake Venado.
We went up a grassy trail that led to a mossed forest, a primary one, as indicated by its centuries-old trees. Mossy buttress roots provided us firm, though, soft ground, even short links over gaps made by gushes of springs. We bent and squeezed ourselves through meshes of intertwining branches and twigs. But those were nothing compare to the eighty-five degree face of a cliff that we negotiated a little more than half-way of the remaining trail to Venado.
After blistering our feet from the steep ascent, we came face to face with the formidable cliff. Everyone was trying to figure out how this almost vertical incline could be tackled. At this point, all four limbs were used. Protruding rocks and roots came in handy, as we gruntingly pushed ourselves up. It was so far, the most difficult part of the trek.
The rest of the way, were easy ones – over fallen logs and through thick bushes and lianas. We took everything in stride until we reached a thicker mossed forest. It served as some sort of a curtain which seemed to be hiding something. As we parted the last clump of tall grass from our way, we stepped out into a breathtaking spectacle – the panoramic Lake Venado, beautifully laid out at the foot of Mt. Apo. The scene was so breathtaking that we had to shout to release the choking tension within us.
We stood on a dry swampland without knowing what to do. Everybody was taken aback by the sight – gleaming white driftwood forest, extending branches of centuries-old trees and beyond, the summit of Apo which seemed to sparkle under the gleam of the four o’clock sun. The sight was beyond description. Words were not enough to help our eyes give justice to it which seemed to have magically unfolded before us. We were at a loss as to what to say. We moved on towards the placid lake. The sun was fast descending beyond the western horizon and this gave a more dramatic effect to the vapors emitted by Lake Venado.
Just before sundown, the rest of the trekkers arrived, likewise dazed by the sight. Tents were pitched lending color to the intriguingly drab surroundings. Campfires were lit just in time to counter the cold air that slowly enveloped us. It was a chilling evening, particularly at about ten when the temperature suddenly dropped more.
We woke up to a cold morning and sight of grass blades drooped by the weight of icicles. At about eight, when the bluish mist was beginning to disperse, the smooth-surfaced lake began to reflect the clear image of Apo’s summit. I took time to explore the surroundings of the lake, and when I went back to the camp, my buddies were all ready to “assault” the summit. The trail leading to the summit was well-trodden by trekkers, and in half-an- hour, we were greeted by a big rock, the “altar” – the summit, at last! In the early sixties, two trekkers were wed on this spot.
We were all kept busy in satisfying our curiosity by exploring the crater with its sulphuric yellow pillars, the twin peak, and the pockets of grassy nooks with dwarf plants. After the traditional photo opportunities to document our memorable feat, we retraced our steps back to Lake Venado to break camp and immediately trekked back to the Hot Spring where we pitched our tents for the night.
In the morning, we broke camp early as we intended to trek back all the way to Ilomavis for a ride back to Davao City, to catch up with the last flight for Manila in the evening. At Ilomavis, we were met by Pablo, the leader of Manobo guide-porters who bade us farewell but wished for our return. We told him that we will definitely be back, but may not be as a big group. Some members of the club were already making plans of celebrating their birthday on the summit, calling such as, “birthday climb”. I did it myself, together with some close climbing buddies.
The trek up Mt. Apo may be initiated either from the traditional trail in the Kidapawan side via Ilomavis, Makilala via New Israel, or Sta. Cruz via Baracatan. It is important that trekkers should coordinate with the Department of Tourism in Davao City, or the local governments of Kidapawan and Makilala.