Across Mindoro Island On Foot And A Raft
By Apolinario Villalobos
The plan to traverse the island of Mindoro from Calapan to Mamburao, was concocted at the house of Dr. Gus Guerrero of the Mountaineering Association of the Philippines (MAP). The invitation to join their small group was extended just after I, together with the PAL Mountaineers, concluded a cross-country trek of the Leyte Mountain Trail. At the house of Dr. Guerrero slides presentation was made to show the terrain of the Mindoro with all its rivers, tributaries and waterfalls. The plan was to start the trek from Villa Cervesa at Calapan, then trek up the forested side, and the Eagle Pass, to look for the source of Amnay River, then, using a rubber raft, drift down to the China Sea. Gus was confident that everything would be alright as he has explored the area during his stint with the PANAMIN, a government agency that worked for the uplift of the indigenous tribes during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos. There were four of us that evening, huddled over several bottles of beer while discussing the trek – Gus Guerero, Vincent Christian, Bobby Sison and I. The plan was to extend the invitation to a limited number of friends due to the “nature” of the expedition.
Finally, Gus was able to get confirmations to join from Bobby Sison, Dul Gemora, Fred Jamili and I. The inflatable life raft which Vincent and I picked up from the Philippine Navy Headquarters at Sangley in Cavite was through the courtesy of the then, Rear Admiral Simeon Alejandro.
Our journey started at a bus terminal in Pasay City on September 18, 1982 for a ride to Batangas City from where a ferry was to be taken for Calapan, Mindoro. There was a threatening storm on that day, so that our sailing from Batangas City to Calapan was not smooth. On board the ferry, Gus, a doctor by profession, briefed us on the use of an instrument for reviving a drowned person.
Dul Gemora who went ahead to Calapan days before to look for Mangyan porters was at the Calapan wharf upon our arrival. Everything was well coordinated as we disembarked from the ferry up to the time we left for Villa Cerveza, a sitio of Victoria, and a last-minute shopping for additional provisions.
At Barangay Cerveza, Dul introduced us to our Mangyan porters, whom he got from Baco, a nearby district. Barangay Chairman, Isabelo M. Malamanis of Villa Cerveza, accommodated us for the night. Casually, he asked us for our “mission”. He could not seem to comprehend that what we were doing was just for fun. We told him that, as gambling is for gamblers, liquor is for drunkards, so is mountaineering for us – nature lovers. He accommodated us for the night and introduced us to his two trusted men who would guide us up to the mouth of Amnay River.
Before we retired for the night, he did not stop from discouraging us by confiding that the river could have swelled due to incessant rains, and there was yet, the raging typhoon, and worse, the population of the leeches must have tripled due to the rainy season! All we told him was, we leave everything to the Lord!
At dawn, Fred Jamili had a nightmare. I had to nudge him awake to stop him from waking the neighborhood up with his shouts of “where?…where?”. When asked about it over breakfast, he told us that he could not recall anything. We just presumed that perhaps, he was dreaming that we got lost and in despair, he shouted.
It was a pleasant day when we left the barrio to start our trek, despite the forecast the day before, about a typhoon that would whip Mindoro. We left just before the sun was up. In no time, we reached Aglubang River whose rushing water reached up to our waist at the deepest, and spans about twenty meters at its widest.
After Aglubang, we made it to Ibulo River in less than an hour, and which was swollen a little bit according to our guides. After crossing it, we rubbed our bodies, clothes, socks and shoes with laundry soap to deter the leeches which abound in the area.
After about an hour of trek, the leading guide pointed to the mountain ahead of us, indicating that it was Mt. Balagayon. It was yet a little farther, but which we had to cross before reaching the Eagle Pass. At the foot of the mountain lived Nganga, a Bicolano who had been in this part of the island for a long time, and came to be called such name because of his habit of chewing betel nuts that made his mouth, eternally blood red. He was supposed to join the guides up to the mouth of Amnay River because of his thorough knowledge of the area. Unfortunately, he was sick, so we had no other choice but be satisfied with the two from Villa Cervesa.
From Nganga’s house, it was an upward trek following a Mangyan trail that wound through the thick forests of Mt. Balagayaon. True to Mr. Malamanis’ words, leeches were at their thickest at this time of the year, and they feasted on us! We had to stop from time to time to check each other for the leeches that needed to be removed from our face, ear and eyes. Some clung firmly. Practically, the soap was no match against them. One after another, the Mangyan porters groaned under the weight of the 62 kilos life raft which each of them carried at an interval of fifteen minutes.
There was an intermittent drizzle before we reached Balisong which we targeted at noontime, but failed to do, so that we were forced to take our lunch by the river while taking a break for twenty minutes. The drizzle became a downpour. Along the way, I learned from one of the guides that the name of the place, Balisong, referred to a small waterfall that gently cascades down boulders covered with creepers and ferns.
Our going was slow because of the stops for the regular check we made to each other for leeches, aside from the slippery trail that we were following. While negotiating one of the ridges, Bobby unfortunately slipped on a flat rock. He was thankful to a bush which stopped his fall, though he sprained his left knee as a result. His fall caused a commotion among the Mangyan porters because they thought, he encountered a snake.
We reached Ugos River late in the afternoon under a heavy rain. Instead of tents, we decided to use three ponchos as shelter that we pitched on an elevated area. It barely accommodated the thirteen of us, including the guides and the Mangyan porters.
The following day, we broke camp after a light breakfast and moved on despite the heavy rain. It was a tough start for us, while aiming for the Eagle Pass. The thick primary forest this time yielded one more kind of leech, a green one with yellow stripe, in addition to the black ones that abound on the ground.
From behind the thick foliage, we could hear the distant gurgling of a river which we were told was still Ugos. We were following a Mangyan trail leading towards the west as we moved on, and the forest becoming thicker. At about noontime, the leading guide told us that we had to follow another trail because the old one which they were using before was gone. Everybody became impatient, especially, Gus who told us earlier that we were supposed to come out of the forest into a vast cogonal area at about noontime. The group decided then, to blaze another trail leading towards the river below. Reluctantly, the leading guide consented while the other one was sent to find out the extent of the trail that we were following.
We went down the ridge, practically wading through thick clumps of cogon grass while Fred was left halfway to give signal to the rest if it was alright for them to follow us. Meanwhile, Dul took charge of the equipment. In half an hour, we were able to blaze a new trail. Unfortunately, it was not Amnay River that we found. One of the guides refused to join us further up, for fear perhaps of the several waterfalls that we had to negotiate. With just a mumbled instruction for us to wait for him, he went up again. We were left shivering in the rain for about an hour and a half. After almost an eternity, the guide returned with Tony, a Mangyan whom he found working in a “kaingin” on the slope of the nearby mountain. After a brief introduction, we were on our way again with Tony leading us. Halfway up, Gus stopped to bandage his left knee which was giving up.
After almost an hour, we came out of the forest into a sea of cogon grass! On our right, we could distinctly hear the sound of a river which Tony confirmed as Amnay. As if for a climax, the Eagle Pass made us gingerly trudge on its two-foot wide ridge with a length of about 400 meters. And, this we had to do without looking at both sides – practically cliffs covered with grass. Bobby got another scare of his life when he slipped again! Our effort was compensated with the fantastic view of the ribbon-like and foaming Amnay way below!
On the banks of the river were Mangyan huts that constitute Barrio Ugos. Barangay Chairman Garong allowed us to use one of the communal huts which could normally accommodate five families. Tony, the Mangyan guide who led us down refused to accept the money that we offered as remuneration for his effort. Instead, he asked for some amount of salt which we readily gave. The suppressed joy on the face of Tony upon receiving the bag of salt gave me a tingling sensation down my spine.
That afternoon, we tried the rapids of the river using the modular type life raft that the Philippine Navy lent to us. They had five separate air modules which we thought would be very advantageous considering all the threatening rocks and boulders. But during the test run, we found out that we were helpless against the current. Also, in our group, only Fred and Bobby were familiar with paddling. On the aspect of running this kind of river, everybody was zero in experience. So there was no disagreement on leaving everything to fate. We were already one day behind the planned itinerary.
We woke up early to prepare ourselves for the start of our “critical” journey. There was no solid food taken, except for a bite of chocolate downed with coffee and milk. This, according to Gus would prevent choking when somebody gets drowned! That early morning, too, the guides and porters from Villa Cervesa left us.
Just when everybody was raring to go, we found the front half of the raft’s main chamber deflated! There was a hole, obviously, that we fortunately discovered after an almost thirty minutes of search. It got patched up eventually. Since the start of our journey that morning, we got stuck eight times and got caught in a whirlpool! We managed to run only about seven kilometers of the river when we finally stopped before a fast bend strewn with protruding rocks. The bend was where the Ugos also flowed, so that one can just imagine the current as a result of the merging.
We were trying to reach a consensus whether to avoid the bend by carrying the raft and our packs to the other side or go on when Pidyo Mondejar spotted us – from the other side. We introduced ourselves by hollering to him. We threw the life rope to him to support us while crossing the river to his side. He was such a helpful fellow and we found out that he was working at a nearby ranch owned by a certain Dr. Tolentino and Judge Abeleda.
He was told by a Mangyan about the presence of strangers – us, so he came to investigate. He warned us about the gorge and a waterfall that are dangerous down which we were targeting. An investigation was made, and it was confirmed, so that we decided to avoid the bend. We carried the raft on the other side then, and went on with the run with Pidyo who enjoyed the bumps and his occasional fall. We managed to cover about two kilometers until darkness caught up with us. Pidyo suggested that we spend the night at the ranch, and leave the raft by the bank.
The ranch was supposedly just “behind the hill” ahead of us. But the muddy trail made our progress sickeningly slow. Until finally, pitch darkness enveloped us. Pidyo admitted that he was sort of confused as he was losing the trail, despite the help of two flashlights. After about three hours of walking like zombies, we finally reached the ranch. Each one of us just tried to find a cozy corner for the night…without giving attention to the pang of hunger.
The following day, Pidyo and Gus inspected the river for calculations. When they came back, they reportedly failed to see the gorge. In other words, there was indeed, a waterfall that drops to several meters!
After breakfast, we discussed our strategy. The plan decided on was to ride the raft until it reached the bend where it would be allowed to fall down the waterfall and go with the current up to the bend at the ranch where I would be waiting. Those who rode the raft, would retrace their way back to the ranch. At the last minute, however, they decided to ride on the raft and take chance in falling with it down the waterfall which they enjoyed, even the bumps on the boulders. Pidyo even fell down but before anybody could react, he was back to his place in the raft, as if pulled by a rubber band!
At the ranch, over lunch, Pidyo was excitedly giving hint that he would like to experience the run all the way to the China Sea in Mamburao. It would be impossible, except if one of us should give up his space. I decided to do it – give my place to Pidyo and trek my way to Mamburao over mountain trails with three Mangyan boys as guides.
The following morning, the three Mangyan boys and I started out just before sunup. The boys were Nito, Lito and Canoy. They warned me of several mountains that we had to traverse and several rivers that we had to cross. I thought it to be just okey, considering my experience in the just concluded mountaineering and river trekking along the Leyte Mountain Trail.
First we followed Amnay River until we reached Labongan River which we crossed. It was waist deep but the current was strong. Ikbo river was next, and then, Amnay again where I was almost carried far downstream by the strong current, had I not taken hold of a boulder. From Amnay, we trekked up Mt. Kabalagonan where monkeys greeted us with their shrieks. We continued on to Tingo mountain without resting a bit until we reached Sipuyo River which we had to cross again, after which we went up Mt. Palasa and onward to Mt. Hibaltang where we met two Mangyans. This time, rain fell. We doubled out time to reach a Mangyan village at the foot of another mountain where we planned to have lunch. At about noontime, we found a Mangyan hut where we rested and took our lunch of rice, mushrooms found along the way, and shrimp caught in the river.
Immediately after our lunch, we started for Pentin, the last river that we had to cross. It was tough treading on the knee-deep, soft sandy and muddy banks of the river until we reached a safe portion which we crossed. I was wrong to assume that everything would be fine after all the river crossings. The typhoon that hit the island of Mindoro two days before, inundated many rice fields and caused the overflowing of two lakes. Mud was knee deep but we went on traversing the one last hill before finally reaching barangay Pinagtorilan.
Looking back from atop the hill, I consoled myself for having reach this far, alive after the trek over several mountains and twenty-six crossings of the major rivers and their branching outflows due to the flood. Pinagtorilan still showed some signs of the inundation which it suffered resulting from the onslaught of typhoon Ruping. Barangay councilman Jose Iῆigo told us that the water rose to about seven feet. The kind barrio official accommodated us for the night.
We left Pinagtorilan early the following morning for Sta. Cruz. Earlier, I decided that we hike all the way to the said town but changed my mind when I saw Canoy limping. We therefore, just hiked for about sixteen kilometers over partly -flooded roads, then we turned left at a junction for Puyo where an outrigger canoe could be taken for Sta. Cruz which was another sixteen kilometers away, yet. The outrigger fetched us at about noontime and I was glad that we need not transfer to another canoe if we just follow the shallow part of the sea and negotiate a river all the way up to Sta. Cruz. While on our way to the open sea, we encountered four big waves that soaked my backpack including the camera which I failed to put inside a plastic bag.
Upon reaching Sta. Cruz, my Mangyan guides stayed behind for their trek back to their village, while I took a jeepney all the way to Mamburao airport where I found the rest of the group – Fred Jamili, Dul Gemora, Dr. Gus Guerrero and Bobby Sison, relaxing. Also, on hand to meet me was the PAL station manager who remarked that we accomplished something never done before, and during a typhoon, yet. I found out that those who took the river were able to make it to China Sea as planned despite difficulties, although faster compared to my trek and river crossing, as they reached Mamburao ahead of me by about four hours.
That day, there was no scheduled PAL flight so we had the whole airport terminal for our tired bodies. We consoled ourselves with the thought that despite our inexperience in canoeing, we were able to make it – traverse Mindoro Island, from Calapan to Mamburao, on foot and a raft in six days!