Friday, November 7, 2008

San Francisco, Agusan del Sur

Enchanted on Diwata

Mountains surround most of Agusan del Sur but between the municipalities of San Francisco and Rosario lies Mount Diwata. It stands apart from the nearby mountain range visible near Rosario, and it’s impossible to keep one’s eyes off it as one travels on the National Highway in Barangay Patin-ay.

Diwata stands close to 2,000 feet and offers a number of enticing features to those who dare explore it. For one, there is the Boys Scout camping site, now named theDatu Lipus Macapandong Eco-Tourism Park, where visitors can both enjoy the cool waters of the mountain and be mesmerized by a view of its summit. Some residents of San Francisco claim that trekkers will be rewarded with the discovery of a waterfall, of which there is an abundance in Mindanao ’s largest province. There is also talk about sect members living somewhere up the mountain, and whose church is supposedly shaped like Noah’sArk.

Imagine what other discoveries can be made if one goes by the legend of Diwata being a giant’s burial ground. It isn’t hard to visualize. Diwata actually bears a slight semblance toMount Makiling, and its strong potential as a major tourist draw of Agusan del Sur is the reason why Governor Adolph Edward Plaza launched the “Stairway to Heaven” project during the recent Naliyagan Festival. The project involves the construction of concrete stairs and resting shed for those who want to immerse themselves in the mountain’s beauty. That is the provincial government’s vision for the future, but for now, first-time visitors have to rely on those who have climbed Diwata - and this is where the San Francisco Mountaineering Club (SFMC) comes into the picture.

The SFMC, formed last summer, is headed by Juancho Vicente. There are so many mountains in Diwata, but what better way for the group to mark Agusan del Sur’s founding anniversary than climbing Diwata?

Mist is covering the Government Center when I arrived in San Francisco one cold Saturday morning. There are 25 of us in the expedition, and our starting point is a small forest of palm oil trees along the San Francisco-Rosario boundary. We are divided into two. I joined the first group.

The gradually ascending path is easily distinguished from the grassy surroundings that we pass through. The view of the palm oil trees below is quite breathtaking. At halfway point we can still see the trees, but not the second group. After waiting for nearly half an hour, we decided not to tarry any longer (our leader said the two groups will meet at the Philcom building, which is near the summit).

Now the climb has turned steep, and coconut trees, shrubs and grass have replaced the palm trees below. A few meters before we reached Philcom, some of us attempted to contact the other group through a walkie-talkie, mobile phones, even shouts - without success. We have yet to reach the top but the second group is already making its own adventure below.

After another rest period of almost 30 minutes, we headed for the Philcom building, which we can see right above us. An exhausting climb of about 15 minutes took us almost to the top. Ecstatic at getting that far, I turned around to behold my reward - and discovered that clouds completely blocked the view.

But gradually, the clouds dispersed to reveal the Agusan landscape. The view kept getting better and I was almost bursting with pride at completing the trek to witness it, but my pride was quickly deflated when another group made up mostly of women and children ambled towards the Philcom building. Our leader asked one of the women if they met the second group on the way. Negative.

Our leader decided to stay at the building and wait, and 12 of us decided to proceed to the summit. Now we were in the hands of an old man named Jeffrey who was clad in a long-sleeved sweater and jogging pants? Myself? I wore a sleeveless undershirt and shorts. It was only at Diwata’s peak that I realized why Mang Jeffrey was dressed that way.

We were unable to see the clouds at the top because it was heavily forested, but we felt a slight chill. We walked on a ridge about 12 inches wide. I took note of the lawaan trees we passed, as well as a number of interesting plants such as romblon and rattan.

The romblon plant appears identical to a pineapple plant. Mang Jeffrey told me it’s used for making mats (banig). Then he directed our attention to a plain-looking plant, which, he warned, will make us itch on contact. Looks can really be deceiving.

But apart from these and an eye-catching butterfly with a red-colored body and black wings, our surroundings did not serve to fully distract us from the narrow ridge we treaded. It was snake-like, and I can’t recall how many turns we made. Mang Jeffrey occasionally hacked tree branches and leaves to make our trek less difficult.

A number of times we went down one ridge and climbed another. It was during those times that I chose to inch downward, letting my buttocks push slowly so not to suddenly slide off. A memorable moment came up when we came upon a fallen wood. Mang Jeffrey said he can’t tell the depth below, so he advised us to find another trail. But Father Gabby said we should go forward for experience’s sake.

In the end, I find out that it wasn’t as deep as Mang Jeffrey thought. One of us smiled a clownish smile when I took a photo of the rest who struggled to make it to the other side of the wood.

Our water supply runs out. After we made another descent, Mang Jeffrey pointed us to a stream nearby. He positioned his left hand just below the water’s surface to filter out the bits of earth. It took only a few seconds to fill each of our bottles. I gulped the water, savoring the coolness and ignoring the slight earthen taste.

Another upward thrust led us to a grassy field. Mang Jeffrey said we were at the nape of Diwata. We have crossed the summit for almost two hours. The clear path was before us again, making me quite unmindful of where I stepped. At one point in the path that is covered with tall grass, my right foot strayed and I nearly fell off.

We reached a partly built house around noon. Mang Jeffrey told us that this is where we should take a long break before proceeding.

While we ate, my eyes feasted on the awesome sight - the mountainous terrain of Surigao del Sur, the Philippine Sea and Turtle Island. But dark clouds gradually moved towards where we were, signaling that we should get moving.

It was close to 1 PM when we began our descent. We saw a clear path once more, but Mang Jeffrey said he knows of a short cut. We have no idea that it would turn out to be our most unforgettable experience on Diwata.

We detoured from the path and get reacquainted with the ridge. But I noticed that Mang Jeffrey cut down more branches and leaves more often than before, belying his claim that he passed this trail before. When I told him this, he said this is what mountain climbing is all about and I am unfit for it. I was on the verge of retorting that it wasn’t my fault if the LRT and MRT are the only places I climb, but I bite my tongue and instead focused on reaching the base.

It was also at this point that I didn’t mind my skin getting in contact with romblons and rattans (I can withstand blisters, but not a fall). But I wasn’t spared slipping off many times).

We negotiated a step downhill path that led us to a stream glistening from the shiny black basalt rocks underneath. From here, Mang Jeffrey said, we would reach the base in the shortest time.
But the stream descends sharply and the rushing waters do nothing for our balance despite our spiked shoes. There were no plants to hold on to. I was close to Mang Jeffrey during most of the trek, which means that I was in front of the pack most of the time. It was at the stream that I became fed up with being front man, so I let Father Gabby and his five young wards go down first.

We forged ahead, carefully choosing the rocks to step on. At one instance, Mang Jeffrey put down a big tree branch for us to walk on. In one area, some of us chose to crawl on the grassy sides. It was during these moments that Mang Jeffrey positioned himself below us and volunteered to serve as a human bridge to ease our difficulty. I admit that the act erased whatever animosity has built up towards the old man. Furthermore, Father Gabby constantly kept our spirits up with inspirational remarks peppered with scientific observations.

It was part 4 PM when we reached the base. I was surprised that I still have the energy left to walk a few hundred meters. The back of my shorts has been ripped off, but everyone was too tired to notice. My legs and right shoulders were blistered, but I wasn’t bothered.

We neither saw the waterfall nor met the sect members, but there are enough reasons for climbing Diwata again. I thanked Mang Jeffrey for his efforts but I didn’t tell him what was on my mind - I’ll be glad to take him to any LRT or MRT station in case he visits Metro Manila.

(First published in Philippine Daily Inquirer on September 29, 2002)

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