Into Uncharted Apayao

Monday, April 15, 2019

apayao forest

Storytime is a series of  stories about my most memorable travel experiences. Read more here.

There was a mighty roar but the path did not give. Tires kept spinning and engine kept revving but the “open” tricycle stayed in place. In this gravelly road, stones were now a-scatter, and a trio of grooves had been gouged.

It was an overcast kind of morning in the middle of March; the sky metallic and heavy. Kara and I were in the untold parts of Apayao, riding with two local women aboard this roofless trike. She rode with the driver, Kara did. The rest of us, along with our bags and a roll of linoleum, were in the side car.
kara santos celine murillo

When it became clear the tricycle wasn’t going anywhere, all four of us leapt out of our seats. Then off our ride zoomed up the incline as soon as we did, dislodging more pebbles from the rock-strewn path. We trudged until the ground leveled, then, aboard once more, we proceeded bumpily. For several more times, we did this graceless dance – each performance becoming slightly less enthusiastic than the last. We had a long way ahead of us after all, and I wanted to save my strength.
apayao back roads

After about half an hour, we reached a place where the soil turned orange and the land gently rose. Houses made of wood huddled in one corner. Further up the slope was what looked like a school. A few fruit trees and shrubs lined the periphery. By this time, Kara and I were the only passengers left, and here we met up with our guides.

There were three of them. Well, four if you count the boy who tagged along. They will lead us into the wilderness of Pudtol, into forests few people have set foot on.

Before coming here, we’d had an audience with the town’s tribal representative. We’d been told – well, warned would be the more appropriate term – of many things, both of the physical and of the meta.

“You had no idea about all of that?” Kara had asked after our meeting. There was an accusing edge to her tone which surprisingly made me grin. 

I’d shrugged.

“I just saw it on Facebook,” I’d admitted.

Sasapakin kita eh.”

There’s a good chance I’d imagined her saying that, but I swear I’d heard her threaten me. But, take relief, no one had been harmed during this adventure. 

At any rate, it had been my idea to include this in our itinerary. While I mainly wanted to travel with her, I also wished to go further into this province. Might as well – It was my second time here after all.

“Can we go trekking?” I’d asked her tentatively a few days before our trip. 

I’d shown her that particular Facebook post, prefacing it with “let’s also go here”, and the first thing she’d noticed was the caption: it apparently took eight hours to reach

“I’ll bring tents and stuff,” I’d offered.

This conversation had been on Messenger, but I could imagine her rolling her eyes.

I’d resorted to downplaying the trekking time. 

“Since you’ve already been to Lussok, let’s do whatever you want after,” she’d relented.

But even then, nothing had been set on stone. Our first day had been ironed out – to explore Luna. But the next days had remained iffy. Nonetheless, arrangements had been made – just in case. And I think, at the back of my mind, I had known I was going to insist it

It was now drizzling back at the orange-soiled slope. I sighed. If it did not let up, I would be willing to retreat. But as soon as everything was set, the downpour eased and with things prepped and selves braced, our adventure veritably began.

It took us all morning and past noon, through bamboo copses, past a villager on his way back from fishing and who’d been trudging for three days, a quick stop at an upland settlement benefiting from an irrigation system whose course we also traced, and up stacked boulders and amidst giant rattans, to find a suitable campsite. Our guides went immediately to work, hacking and digging and kindling a fire. In no time, our room for the night was constructed, with boughs as poles and vines as twines and anahaw leaves for awning. See, I lied about bringing tents – I only had a poncho and a sleeping bag, but the poncho turns into a tarp and so our roofing was expanded just in time for another round of rain.
bamboo forests philippines

upland isnag house

irrigation system in the philippines

bushcraft philippines

With hot rice and leftover fritters, all of us huddled under the tarps. Our guides told us to go ahead and eat – they’d be hunting for fish in the river in a little bit. And so Kara and I ate. The mood was somber, spawned, perhaps, by the rainshower and the hungry being finally able to feed.
camp food philippines

The sky cleared again and the men headed for the river. We did, too, but instead of goggles and torches, we were lugging our cameras along.

It was time for photos.

Places like this were easy to photograph, but were difficult to describe. This was one of those experiences of landscapes that render you out of words, where silence seems like the only fitting response and anything else feels irreverent. But, we are here, and so we shall try. 

Bounded by coveys of trees, bristling and stratified, and a spread of schist beds and massive stones, the river glided along its course. Its celadon waters dark and glistening. A blanket of sounds covered us: chirps, hoots, caws, and a kind of high-pitched din that tied it all together. Underneath it all was the gregarious gurgle of the waterway.
A coolness, too, hung over our skins, like a sweet, gentle caress that teased and hovered – not really touching. Then there was the mustiness of the woods, a steely scent lingering in the air, and something primordial, like a long-forgotten dream. It might’ve been the way light fell, but despite the clarity, everything seemed unreal, almost as if one wrong touch and all would dissolve.


On the trail to here, I already had plenty of my “secret smiles” – the kind that inevitably comes when I am in the woods. Barely have we crossed the threshold of this sanctuary when tall, ancient hardwoods started appearing, like proud sentinels standing guard over this realm. There were the usuals: akleng parang, tangisang-bayawak, bagtikan. And then came the forest leviathan: the white lawaan. This precious and rare dipterocarp was hard to miss, especially in an old-growth forest such as this one. It towered over everything else, and in a place where all is already lofty, anything loftier would indubitably stand out. The ones I saw, for example, were easily around 70-80 meters, their pale trunks stark amidst the sea of green.
old growth forest apayao

The lush canopies made it hard to see the sky. Greens and shadows colored our path, and the foliage seemed to glow golden. The sounds, too, were loud and vibrant – both harmony and cacophony. Wild songs.
apayao dipterocarp forest

This place was ancient, wise, and very much alive.

How this large lowland jungle remains to be, how wildlife thrives freely and so fiercely here, we owe to an indigenous practice.

When a member of the Isnag dies, the elders declare a body of water or a parcel of land as sacred in honor of the deceased. For about a year or two, until the holding of the “say-am” rituals, such areas are off-limits, with penalties imposed on those who trespass. This tradition is called lapat

A word that means “sanctuary” in the local tongue, lapat, while mainly a religious practice, has become the core of Apayao’s conservation methods. Embedded into the culture whose concept is innately understood by the residents, local laws had turned these ethnic declarations into “Indigenous Protected Areas”, complete with forest rangers – dubbed as Green Guards –patrolling it.
lapat tradition apayao

Here in Apayao, punishment for cutting trees is worse than that of murder,” Luna’s tourism officer had quipped during my first visit. 

He’d been joking, of course, but the penalties for violations are, indeed, no laughing matter: a fine of Php10,000 to Php50,000 plus three months of community service. 

Apayao’s is the only local government that has culturally-rooted conservation laws, the enforcement of which birthed the largest forest reserve in the North. 

The Last Frontier of the Last Frontier. 
isneg tradition conservation

We weren’t even that far deep into this forest and already it felt like the modern world did not exist. Our cameras and phones looked out of place here, anachronistic. Disconnected and remote with naught but trees for company, time here moves deliciously slow. So even after what felt like hours spent on snapping images, we found that we still had plenty of daylight. 

On one side of our camp, where reeds gathered along the riverbanks, Kara hung up her hammock. On the other, on a nook in one of the rock beds, I lay. Our guides were back, and were feasting on their catch by the river. I politely waved when they offered me some. Jacket on, and earphones plugged in, I let my mind drift away.
outdoor hammock philippines

pudtol river

To me, songs – man-made ones, the kind with words – are like vessels. A shortcut to memories, if you will. I like to distill moments like this into music, and while the forest made so fine a music of its own, I prefer something less complex. And so I listened to a few choice songs until one felt worthy enough to be associated with this place and this memory.

Hot sand on toes, cold sand in sleeping bags
I've come to know that memories
Were the best things you ever had

I didn’t realize I fell asleep and by the time I came to, light has slightly softened. I sat up and saw Kara still in her hammock. I climbed down my bed of stone and walked to her side of camp. 

“Hey,” I began. “I’m gonna go swim. You wanna come?”

“Yup,” she said, disentangling herself from her red cocoon. 

Soon, we were neck-deep into the cold, cold river, talking about things – both big and small. I wasn’t a fan of the freezing water but I ignored my chattering teeth and let the cold took hold. We stayed there, submerged, even after it started raining again, until there was hardly any light.

Evening fell swiftly, and the darkness that came with it was thick and complete. In the harsh light of a portable lamp, Kara and I had dinner. Our guides off to the river to hunt once more.

When they came back, their haul included river prawns, and Kara, who’s a sucker for seafood, couldn’t say no when the men offered it to her.

“Oh my god,” she said, eyes wide. “This is delicious.”

I stared at her, amused. I would’ve rolled my eyes but that was her thing. 

Satisfied with our meals, we rolled out my sleeping bag and used it as a mat; Kara’s hammock we used as a blanket. A few moments later, there was another round of downpour – not hard, but enough to necessitate more anahaw leaves for awning.

I usually slide into slumber easily but that night I had trouble sleeping. Not that I was uncomfortable – our spot was cozy, warm, and dry. And the gentle patter of the rain was reassuring. I was just, well, overwhelmed you could say. I could not relax and I did not know why. (Well, I know, but that’s a secret.) I also kept looking out into the dark, expecting to see something. At one point, I saw a greenish flicker. A lone firefly. Had it not been raining, I was sure we would’ve seen plenty of them here.

We slept like dogs down by the fire side
Awoke to the fog all around us
The boom of summer time

The morning after was surreal. I rubbed the hard-won sleep from my eyes and reached for my glasses, gasping as everything came into focus. 

Mist was rolling and slithering, across trees and over rocks. It was like someone decided to add wisps of white paint in this already spectacular scene. I was awake but the place looked more like a dream.
pudtol forest reserve

Last night, Kara and I had mulled over the future. We were getting jaded with traveling, we felt. All the comings and goings had started to exhaust. At least she had a “main quest” to keep her on track, I’d told her. I, on the other hand, seemed simply aimless.

Most times, I feel that if it weren’t for the things (and people) that tether me, I would’ve ran aground a long time ago. I would’ve flown away. This whole life is starting to feel like a constant chase for sensations. Some call it reckless, I call it breathing

But then places like this give me... Well, it gives me life.

At the sight of the woods in that early morning light, I could almost feel my heart pumping a stream of renewed vigor. Like every cell in my body had fixed its flimsy hold on each other. My breathing eased. My limbs felt limber. 

Home truly is the forest. 

“You happy?” Kara asked me at some point. 

I beamed. Great companions, too, can resuscitate. 

“Yeah. Very.”

We stood
Steady as the stars in the woods
So happy-hearted
And the warmth rang true inside these bones
As the old pine fell we sang
Just to bless the morning

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