Tuesday, July 1, 2008


WHEN I GO TO the trails that intruded into the jungle fastnesses of Cuernos de Negros Mountain Range I felt sheer excitement and my adrenalin rushes to a level that is way beyond my normal dose.

Ask me why?

It is simply because along its trails, there are many surprises lurking from within that you would not find in any other mountain range. You liked adventure, you'll find it there. I will afford that information to you as I slowly dissect my experiences there, step by step. We will get there in time, but first, the introductions.

Cuernos de Negros is simply unique in terms of flora and fauna and it offers an assortment of challenges and treats that perk up your interest. For one thing, Cuernos de Negros is a huge botanical laboratory and a specie farm administered by the Silliman University2 in Dumaguete City.

Actually, the mountain range straddles the boundaries of Negros Occidental on its western flank while Dumaguete City takes a piece of its eastern part and Negros Oriental eats up the remaining eastern side. Its highest point is Mount Talinis, standing 6,425 feet, more or less, above sea level, and is the peak by which local mountaineering activities is concentrated upon. It is by that name that Cuernos de Negros is more popularly known.

I first climbed Mount Talinis, together with the Cebu Mountaineering Society (CeMS), way back on September 25-26, 1993. We were there upon the invitation of the Silliman Mountaineering Society (SMS), with which climb that year they hosted together with the Region 7 office of the Department of Tourism and the Province of Negros Oriental.
My second climb was last November 30 to December 2, 2001, also with CeMS.

In my first climb, apart from CeMS and SMS, there were many mountaineering clubs, private groups and individuals who joined the said climb for which the total participants would be about 75 persons, more or less, including twenty-two of us from CeMS.

From Dumaguete we were ushered by buses to the trailhead at Dauin, Negros Oriental, south of the city where there was a tree planting activity. It was a sunny morning. Having done that we began our climb on the snaky upward trails where the heat of the sun bored into our exposed skin.

Pushing on we reached the tree line and by then verdant canopies of diptherocarps gave shade above our heads and then it rained, causing trails to be slippery and deceptively dangerous. Later, we passed by Deer Ledge, a rocky promontory hidden by the forest. I was with Daddy Frank Cabigon, the late Sir Joe Avellanosa, Dr. Abe Manlawe, Sir Nonoy Edillor, Sir Rex Vecina, Bebut Estillore, Dennis Legaspi, Lilibeth Initan, Tony Cabigon, Patrick Ng, Ben Lao, Atong Genato, Ann Vidal (nee Gonzalez), Yvette Lasala, Suyen Figuracion, Louie Tecson, Bruce Raagas, Alex Manlawe, Lani Perez, Calot Uy and Nanding Mercado.

A half-hour later the trail led us to a very thin ridge and we stopped by to take our lunch there after the rains temporarily halted for a while. We sat on the razor-thin trail and enjoyed the expansive vista afforded by that tree-less ridge where the view from all around was uninterrupted. It overlooked the city of Dumaguete, the town of Dauin, Tañon Strait and the islands of Cebu, Sumilon, Apo and faraway Siquijor. Behind us were the great expanse of the old-growth forest that abound on this part of Negros island waiting to be explored.

As it rained again we pushed onward. Rivulets of water, turned the trails squishy under our trekking boots and it was very cold. Sometimes, in some parts, it made rivers and ponds out of it. It was on this part of Talinis that I came to know Karen Reina3 of MFPI-Visayas and she was with her personal guide, Ramon “Ete” Vendiola, a walking botanical dictionary. Ete, by the way, could identify anything belonging to the plant world and he could even give its scientific name and its vernacular equivalent, including its uses.

By then, the trails were becoming more physically challenging as they snake through exposed roots and gnarled branches. Most often we find the seat of our pants kissing the muddy dirt as we maneuvered to ease ourselves along with the unwieldy big backpacks to pass through the roots of giant trees where we, sometimes, got snagged by the woody tendrils that we fail to evade or notice.

It was a battle of wits and of strength. You have to think and plan a strategy to overcome every obstacle that came your way and it was very hard to have a clear mind, especially, when the cold rain is bothering you. Your body would go numb with the cold and you would tend to walk like a zombie, unfeeling and uncaring, a probable case of a walking hypothermia casualty in the making.

Strength you would have to conserve to preserve your body heat. And that strength would be drained quickly when you tackle the trail obstacles without a clear mind, especially in Talinis. There were many on the trails that I passed by that succumbed to slight hypothermia.

I noticed there were many species of trees that I have not seen yet or were rare, but, here in Talinis it was in abundance. One tree that I came to admire was a giant fern. It towered over me by 20 or 40 feet and its trunk was very thick, perhaps, five feet in circumference! I would not be surprised if somebody would ascertain its age as between 600-800 years. It was my first time (and until now) to have seen such a giant fern.

Trodding on I came to a spot where some guys from SMS where placing a cordon of rope away from a muddy pond. I noticed many mountaineers' faces were very pale and scared stiff at the object before them. I stared up at a scrap of plywood placed on a tree trunk and read some scrawled letters on it -- “Beware! Quicksand! Detour!”.

The trail passed beside the quicksand and the trail space was very narrow due to a wall of rock beside it overgrown with stumped trees and bushes. People were grasping at the branches and twigs of those plants that grew on that rock wall, maybe afraid that a part of their foot (and, maybe, them) would be swallowed by the quicksand! I was amused because a foot of dry ground happen to separate them from the edge of their imagined threat.

Well, true enough one or two bold SMS guys plunged into the quicksand itself with a leash to their body to visually explain to them that it's not life-threatening. And it released the bottleneck that was beginning to form on that place. Mind you, it was my first time to see a working quicksand.

We climbed on higher and higher until we reached a hump and from there it was downhill for a short distance and then an open plain which was rare in Talinis. It held a body of fresh water -- Lake Nailig. We camped beside the lake and spent the night there. It was particularly cold and it was raining reducing the programmed night activity into a dream.

Meanwhile, Bebut arrived at dusk and sheepishly admitted that he got lost and thought that another lake, Yagumyum, on the other side of Talinis, was the campsite. He thought he was the first to arrive there. Later, sensing that for a long time nobody arrived yet, it came to his mind that he was in the wrong place.

By early morning before we broke camp and started downhill, I sipped on an aromatic cinnamon tea that Ete prepared. This tree grew in abundance beside the lake and Ete boiled the tree's barks and dried leaves to a desired effect that even tea haters would love to drink. Then, it was time to go. It was not raining. It was a long downhill trail that we took. It was quite steep and slippery on some places but the trail was good. The area where the trail negotiated were with few undergrowths and shrubs and that gave me an opportunity to let gravity hasten my pace. So I ran that snaky ribbon of brown ground.

From a distance I saw a flat expanse of cleared ground which were yellowish in color. A river ran through it. It gave off a foul smell as we neared the place. There were no traces of living organisms thriving there. Here and there were stumps of trees blackened from the heat emitted by the ground. A dead crow lay rotting nearby. Death lurked here. This is called Kaipuhan, a sulfur lake.

From there we passed by “fern valley” a strip of flat land beside a river which were abundant with three-foot high ferns. It was so primeval and so Jurassic-ish. We pushed onward following the river and passed by “leech ranch” - a name given in reference to a privately-owned ranch which has a thriving leech population which were nourished by a herd of cattle and carabao.

We trekked for the whole morning taking lunch nearby a small waterfall just a kilometer beyond “leech ranch”. We walked for about another kilometer following the river and passed by Casiroro Falls, reputedly the country's highest free-falling waterfall. It was a great view and many locals were taking a picnic there. Finally we reached the trail end at 2:00 PM and a truck soon took us down for the town of Valencia, the site of the Palimpinon geothermal plant.

In Valencia, Bebut brought me to a friend of his, a grizzled guerrilla veteran, who owns an assortment of World War II collectible items. Man, it was amazing!

Japanese Imperial Army war equipments were neatly arranged and placed. From uniforms and headgears, boots, a machine gun with tripod, assault rifles and bayonets, pistols, ammunition, ammo boxes, cups, canteens, Rising Sun banners and flags, cigarettes and reading materials, jugs of saki, a stretcher, even a skull with a bullet hole on the cranium.

But the most prized of them all was the gattana with scabbard, whose length indicated it belonged to a high-ranking officer, of whose skull is the one displayed. The one with the bullet hole! Also, there were war implements for American GIs, as well as cases of wartime-era Coke bottles neatly stacked.

According to the owner, when the American liberating forces and local guerrilla units overrun and have taken all Japanese defenses in the lower levels of Talinis, the latter decided to consolidate on that tree-less ridge I mentioned a while ago. It was on that ridge where the Japanese decided to make a last counter-attack with shouts of “Banzai!” that sent fear among the Americans, who hid behind whatever cover they could find. The Filipino guerrillas met the Japanese head on. It was in the heat of the battle that the guerrilla veteran met the Japanese officer waving the Rising Sun banner in one hand and the gattana in the other. The officer was running toward him while he aimed his Garand at the oncoming threat but he ran out of ammo. He took his Colt .45 and took a hurried shot at the officer and hit him on the head.

That explains the war spoils and that, also, sums up my first trek to Talinis. But, we still have a day to toil at Dumaguete City as the boat will be leaving for Cebu on the next day yet. Bebut decided to bring me along and he became my instant tour guide towing me to his former haunts in and around Silliman University, where he studied during his college days. We visited a mini-zoo, a beach and his old friends and we all rocked and rolled over bottles of beer and his favorite, Tanduay Rhum 5 Years!

On my second attempt in 2001 we started at the same Dauin trailhead. We passed by another route and we camped at Lake Yagumyum. During the night it was raining and it was very very cold because it was already December. Somebody said the temperature went down to 12.2 degrees on that night. I was with Doc Abe, Daddy Frank, Sir Rex, Dennis, Joy Tongco, Noel Delante, Sir Nonoy, Rosebelle Daculan and others with whom I could not recall anymore their names.

By 9:00 AM of the following morning we folded our tents and off we go for Lake Nailig. The last time I was there the beach head was wide enough to accommodate dozens of tents but this time the waters were high and, I think, what dry ground there is could only allow around five tents at the most. We waded in belly level of water to cross to another dry ground and took lunch there.

Further along the trail, we met another group of mountaineers and I recognized Cliff Abrahan of the University of San Carlos Mountaineers (USC-M) among them. They were going to camp at Lake Yagumyum.

We passed by the quicksand area and took a trail that whirled and twisted with lots of handholds. The trail seemed unusual in that each time we took a step the “ground” shook and bounced. What seemed to be dirt or soil to the eye are but an assortment of roots and low branches that intertwined each other through the years and, later, covered by moss and dirt took on a shape as if it is solid ground. We mountaineers call this the “monkey trail”, the “Tarzan trail” or the “balentong trail”.

By dusk, we stopped by “leech ranch” and took all the risks to spend the night there under the roof of a workers' bunk house. Morning came and we discovered our “hosts” thick and fat from the nourishment they got from beneath our tender hides. We were busy all morning looking all over our bodies, our equipment and clothings for any stragglers that we may have missed.

Taking a hasty breakfast to quickly rid us out of “leech ranch” we followed the river meandering beside it for the trail end which we reached at 1:00 PM and, altogether, took a late lunch there.

After that, we hired an Isuzu truck to take us back to Dumaguete City and we sailed from there for Cebu in the evening of December 2 and reached Cebu Harbor the following morning.

Cuernos de Negros or Mount Talinis, whichever name you might use, for me, is the best mountain to climb on. It has good discernible trails. Trails criss-crossed each other but never does it stray towards another area except within the confines of Talinis. That means, the chances of you getting lost in Talinis is almost nil like what happened to Bebut. It has lush and pristine stand of old-growth trees and plants. It's bio-diversity is rich. It has many good camping sites, especially beside lakes Nailig and Yagumyum, where water is in abundance for drinking and other needs. Along the trail there are water sources. So many many features or quirks of nature are waiting to be discovered there in Talinis.

But the best part in going there, if you happen to be based in Cebu, is it is not tight on your budget! See you on the trail!

Document done in OpenOffice 2.3, Trebuchet MS font, size 12.

1Spanish for “Horns of Negros”.
2The biggest university campus in the entire Philippines. Founded in 1901, it is located near the picturesque Rizal Boulevard of Dumaguete City Harbor. It is run by Protestant missionaries.
3Karen Reina was Vice President for the Visayas then of the Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines (MFPI), an umbrella organization for all mountaineering clubs and organizations.

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