The lumbia of the lake
We embarked on a trip to Lake Motong as early as 16 months ago, but we only made it halfway there because of problems with the boat’s engine.
Some of my companions were convinced that the forces of nature were not in our favor. After all, we had earlier been warned that one of us would not return in the event that we made it there. I was disappointed, but how does one contradict the legend surrounding the lake?
Motong is in the region of La Paz, one of the seven river municipalities of Agusan del Sur. It is said to be enchanted and that there are spirits guarding it.
Consider this: the lumbia tress in the lake – their physical features identical to coconut trees but with a difference: the long leaves of the lumbia point upward - are regularly seen moving. The Manobos living in the area claim that the movements occur if anyone cuts any of the trees or kills any animals without seeking the spirits’ permission. Deaths have reportedly occurred, indicating the ultimate price paid by those who dared hard the lake’s ecosystem.
Our initial setback did not dampen my eagerness to get to Motong, and we made our second attempt one drizzly morning in March. La Paz Mayor Renato Munez kindly drove our group - Tourism Officer Joy Tolentino, her friend Donna, Cesar Allonder, Ali Tabacon and me - to Barangay Panangagan, where our “outboard” (the local term for a boat) waited.
We passed four rivers - Adgawan, Hinayawan, Bubunawan and Tagacupan - before reaching the remote barangays of Langaslian and Angeles, where the lake is located. Along the way, I spotted some white egrets and small birds with a red-colored had and a turquoise-colored body.
The river became narrow and shallow as we neared our destination. The surrounding landscape changed from green plains to small, lush mountains. We reached Motong creek after a voyage that lasted close to three and a half hours, under a glaring sun. I estimated that we traveled around 50-60 kilometers on the river.
We walked barefoot on a rocky creek about 300 meters long. I was slightly uncomfortable but I was pushed to go on by the sound of a waterfall. In time, the sight of Motong Falls made the sunburn on my face, nape and arms more bearable.
We gaped at the waterfall’s beauty. It is about 25 meters high, with green weeds scattered in the shallow area of the pool below.
Suddenly, dark clouds appeared overhead and raindrops fell. I was a bit worried but Joy assured me that we would not have difficulty climbing up. Besides, she said, rain was a good omen, a sign of welcome.
Fortunately, the rain lasted but a few minutes and the dark clouds dispersed.
We took some photos, after which a Manobo accompanying us performed a strange ritual to ensure our safety from mishaps. We stood in front of a deity carved from the branched of a sagay (an itch-causing plant) and before which four lighted candles and a few eggs had been placed. He chanted a prayer, picked up a rooster and waved it at each one of us. Then he slit its throat, let the blood drip on a plate into which he dipped his left forefinger, and made a cross sign on the left foot of each member of the party.
After the ritual, Joy gave Ali and me three 1 peso coins that, she said, we should throw into the lake as an offering.
And then we were ready to go.
We climbed up earthen stairs with a rope to assist, an experience like walking up Banawe’s rice terraces. After about 10 minutes, we found ourselves a few steps away from the tip of the waterfall. Joy said we were standing at the mouth of the lake.
We walked a muddy path of about 200 meters accompanied only by the chirping of a cricket. Joy led the way, saying that the path would take us to a spot with a better view.
There, standing on a floating guiho (wood used for making chopping boards), we saw a profusion of lumbia trees as well as dragonflies colored, red and blue and transparent.
I was a bit startled when Joy pointed to a clump of lumbia a few meters to our right and said that when she and Mayor Munez visited last February 4, the clumb was further to the left.
She said there was a balete tree hidden within the clump. I looked, but didn’t see it.
Soon two bamboo rafts arrived, on which we were to explore the area. We admired the tree-covered mountains surrounding the lake, whose shores are populated with lumbia about 10 meters tall.
According to Joy, Lake Motong is around three kilometers long and about 100 meters wide. The subsidiary creeks are its source, and the waterfall its outlet. It is believed that the lake is deep, but no scuba diver has ever gone down to measure its depth.
Another eye-catching tree is the lanipao - not much leaves but with branches and leaves extending horizontally, resembling parallel lines. We also saw some huge yakal and narra trees. Except for a small slope where the trees had been cut, the rest of the landscape seemed untouched.
It is true that in many rural areas, tranquility is the norm. But in Motong it was unnaturally quiet. We heard nothing but the sound of the oars in motion and the barking of a dog from the lone bahay kubo on the shore.
The stillness made me a bit uneasy, and my mind raced with questions: what lies beneath the surface? What it’s like to spend the night there?
At least those who live in the kubo could answer the last one. One tale often told is that one moonlit evening they heard the rhythmic beat of a drum, which had such a hypnotic effect that it moved them to dance.
Our rafts went as far as a few hundred meters away from the guiho on which we stood. We didn’t venture farther because we didn’t want to be late in returning to Panangagan. On the slow way back, Joy pointed out to me three more clumps of lumbia that are said to move.
By the looks of it, and going by the stories that many will doubtless scoff at, those trees are standing in strategic spots, as though they were guardians of the lake. The mayor has a rational theory to offset the strange stories: the roots of the lumbia are attached to logs underwater, and they movie when the current is strong.
After our descent, we had a quick lunch while the Manobo who earlier performed the ritual chanted a thanksgiving prayer. I caught a last glimpse of the waterfall before we left.
The Manobo people consider Motong a sacred place. On the local government side, a resolution has been passed declaring it a forest reservation and water storage area.
Despite the distance (the road that connects La Paz to the National Highway is 60 kilometers long and the length of the river traverses makes it more than 100 kilometers), the place has the potential to be a tourist attraction. Motong Lake and Falls may be the local counterpart of New Zealand’s deep-blue, bowl-shaped Lake Quill and its outlet, the lofty Sutherland Falls.
There are plans to build some cottages there for visitors who intend to stay longer to enjoy the view and do some fishing. Indeed, a few days’ stay there would make up for the lengthy trip just to view this eerie lake and its splendid falls.
(First published in Philippine Daily Inquirer on August 3, 2003)