Friday, November 7, 2008

Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur

The hidden wonders of Tugonan Falls

After spending more than two days on the Super Ferry en route to Davao City, I couldn’t blame Jocelyn for falling asleep during our evening journey to Agusan del Sur. I felt tired from the long trip too; but I couldn’t close my eyes because both of us were setting foot inMindanao for the first time and I couldn’t help feeling excited about it.

Not much can be seen at nighttime, even if Fe Tan-Cebrian, Provincial Tourism Operating Officer (PTOO) of Agusan del Sur, told us at one point that we were passingMount Diwalwal. She also warned us in advance not to expect any beach, as Mindanao’s largest province is landlocked. But we found out later that Agusan del Sur has plenty of attractive sites to offer.

Mountains seem to surround most of the province’s boundary, which shields Agusan del Sur from typhoons. But a typical days isn’t complete without a drizzle or heavy rainfall. As many of the locals told us, there are two climates in their province - wet and very wet. This makes the southern region look like a catch basin, as rainwater goes down from the mountains. Flooding is not a rare occurrence.

The Agusan Marsh is most popular to outsiders but Ma’am Fe claims there are other spots that can match some of our country’s best tourist sites. It’s logical to assume that lots of mountains and water means there are waterfalls that are waiting to be discovered. The one we visited is located in Prosperidad, which is the provincial capital; but just like Surigao City, this municipality looks rustic and idyllic like many of the towns we passed by.

It was a sunny Friday morning when we first dropped by the town hall to meet the municipal mayor and his Tourism Council staff who accompanied Jocelyn and I toTugonan Falls . We were both surprised to find out that we would be riding on motorcycles, which is a form of public transportation in some parts of this province. It was my first time to ride on one, and it was perfect for the next adventure that we were just about to undertake.

We first dropped by a gas station a kilometer away from the town hall to fill the gas tanks. My right shoulder stiffened from having my right hand hold the back handle, so I chose to put my arms around Jocelyn during the succeeding minutes of our trip; she was sandwiched between the driver and I. We next stopped by a small carinderia to buy some lunch. While waiting for our orders, I started at theGibong Bridge, which looked like it was made as a shortcut to the Philippine Normal University located on the other side of the Binaba River.

After packing our food, there was no stopping from going to Tugonan Falls. The journey via motorcycle is an adventure by itself, as we passed by partly constructed roads, rice fields, coconut trees, stretches of falcata (used for making paper, pencils and toothpicks), and a few toog trees, which is only found in Agusan del Sur. I even encountered a few motorcycles loaded with five persons (including the driver). The sun was getting brighter but I didn’t mind, as the strong gush of wind made the whole voyage fun.

After about 20 kilometers, we entered a narrow, muddy road that is approximately a couple of kilometers long. The terrain was uneven and there were many turns. I imagined we were part of the latest episode of “Survivor”. It was almost an hour when we reached Barangay San Lorenzo, the community nearest toTugonan Falls.

The place was grassy, the houses were quite scattered, and the domesticated pigs and chickens were bigger compared to the ones I see in Metro Manila. We rested under some shade beside a sari-sari store, and waited for our guide to take us toTugonan Falls . He turned out be middle-aged, wearing a white, barong-like polo, back pants, and calf-high boots. He brought a kid who turned out to be the one who would lead us. He said that on a straight path, the distance between Barangay San Lorenzo andTugonan Falls is three kilometers long. But that wasn’t the case.

We entered a terrain that was both vegetative and uneven. The path was muddy and slippery and a couple of the Tourism Council staff opted to walk barefoot. My Nike running shoes were soon covered with brown mud and I had to hold on to some branches or partly-cut trees, as I nearly slipped on a number of occasions.

Our first stopover was a barren field. I felt like my waistline shrank by about an inch. We asked the kid how far we were from the site and he answered, “Not much”. In provincial lingo, that means we have a long way to go, as rural folks are accustomed to walking long distances.

After resting for about 20 minutes, we entered another vegetative region. I don’t know if it was the mud or the slightly-steep path that made me breathed heavily. I was about to request for another rest stop when we heard a loud rush of water. Our guide said that we weren’t far away. The last few meters were the most difficult part of the trek, as we slowly descended towards a rocky stream. The sight of the falls a few meters in front of us was an ample reward for our difficulties.

Tugonan Falls is about 40 to 50 feet in height; and below is a stream that leads to another falls, this one about five to seven feet, that cascades into a pool of emerald green water. Our guide climbed up a bit and carefully walked closer to the falls. He encouraged us to join him but we were all too tired to move and find out how deep the pool is. I just stood with my aching feet getting soothed by the rush of the cool water.

I looked around and noticed that above the falls where tall tress where wild ferns hang suspended in the air. I got the impression thatTugonan Falls is located deep in the heart of a small forest. Richard Sombrio, who has been our frequent companion in most of our visits to Agusan’s attractive sites, remarked that monkeys are found in the trees here. I didn’t hear the familiar sound of their voices though, probably because there were scared of our presence. The only animal I encountered was a dragonfly, which hovered above us for some seconds. It was only about an inch long but its bright blue-violent wings caught my attention. It added a bit of sparkle to that place.

After we were through with our lunch and a few photo shots, it was time to leave. Climbing up was as hard as going down - we had quite a struggle crossing over a fallen log. After the ascent, we descended down a barren slope that led to a stream. A bridge is located above it but it is only made of three bamboo poles - two for crossing and one for a handle to keep you from falling. No one knew how fragile the bridge was so we crossed it one at a time.

A few minutes after we passed the bridge, a light drizzle began to falls. I panicked a bit, as we were all aware that it would make the muddy path more slippery. It was a good thing that it only lasted for a while but we had a tough time struggling to climb up a muddy slope. There was a house and shade at the top and we took another rest. I took a last at the small forest whereTugonan Falls is found. It was a great site but Richard said that not many could go there because only the adventurous could trek the path.

Another rest led us to another tiring trek. Jocelyn was so desperate to get out of the muddy trail that she shouted her frustration a few times. She was so tired that some of the motorcycle drivers who joined in our adventure aided her a couple of times. One of the female staff of the Tourism Council asked me if I was sick, as she couldn’t help but noticed the ragged breathing that showed my exhaustion. I told her that I could still hold on, as we weren’t far away from Barangay San Lorenzo.

It was close to four in the afternoon when we made it back. We went to the nearest water pump (poso) to scrub off the mud on our feet and legs. I felt so high that I didn’t mind holding on to the back handle when we rode the motorcycle again. We all thought our adventure for that day was over but we were wrong. As we were passing by the narrow, muddy road, our motorcycle slipped and we fell on a small pond of muddy water. Jocelyn tried hard to keep herself calm while I couldn’t help but feel amused especially at the sight of the approaching water buffalo (carabao). But it was a smooth ride from then on.

The afternoon sun was still bright when we rode back over Gibong Bridge. Ma’am Fe was there to fetch us and she noticed how our faces got tanned from the adventure. She said that we were scheduled to travel on theBinaba River and go to Binaba Falls . I had to tell her evening was approaching so we decided to call it a day. There will be a next time, and I thought that our trip toTugonan Falls was so memorable that I will reminisce about it during the coming rainy days.

(First published in Manila Times on October 11, 2002)

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