Monday, July 9, 2012

NAPO TO BABAG TALES LII: Black Saturday Night Training

THERE IS SOMETHING exciting when people hike in the mountains during the night. I know of outdoor clubs or groups of hikers doing that every now and then. They go up – one way - to their campsite destinations in a long chain of lights, a wonderful sight to behold in the woods from the eyes of a startled toad.

The battery-powered flashlight, which have developed from a low-voltage incandescent bulb to halogen to light-emitting diodes (LED), is the standard equipment that you will find inside the hiker’s backpack and a lot of them are known to carry an extra. The LED have multiplied the ordinary bulb’s lumen power a hundred times over and changed the name of the flashlight into a torch. Credit that to technology.

However, when you use a torch, there is one primeval function that you inadvertently choose to ignore and disregard. It is not one’s fault though but this is an instinct that have evolved through constant use in the past by our earliest ancestors and have, likewise, declined through neglect, through our dependence with modern technology and through ignorance.

This natural night vision is developed to great advantage by nocturnal hunters. I am not a hunter but I prefer to use my eyes to work my way in the dark. That is a fact. I have led people on the trails many times and, by situations beyond my control, commit them to walk in the night. Of course, they used lights but I advance my natural sight to good use on myself.

Actually, hiking in the night is strictly prohibited if you jerk yourself hard to read Leave No Trace. That is true. Night has more of its hazards than day. There are only three instances where you could do night navigation in the mountains: (1) When you are caught up with dusk as you try to make it to the campsite or to a pre-defined destination; (2) You rouse early from sleep and start at early dawn; and (3) You are training in a controlled environment.

Night Navigation Training does not come often and when it does I make sure my people at Camp Red is given priority. Actually, NNT is a prescribed skill for bushcraft and survival. However, I am generous enough to welcome members from other outdoor clubs or anyone who is/are willing to learn upon my invitation or through referrals.

Fourteen participants arrive at Guadalupe in the late afternoon of Black Saturday – April 7, 2012. They are Justine, Faith, Bogs, Dominikus, Glenn, Eli, Paul, Edwina, Bette, Ivy, Jessie, Ernie, Boy and James. Seven of them are registered nurses and some are connected with the Philippine National Red Cross as volunteers. I give a short overview of NNT and final briefing.

We start from Napo, Sapangdaku at 6:00 PM. I advised the participants to use their torch when crossing streams and when in doubt of the ground where they are going to tread at. Always fix a certain celestial body as reference when the moon have not yet risen. By the way, the full moon is still a full day old and it may rise any moment.

Our pace is slow, deliberately done to control the brain from sending the wrong signals. We arrive at Lower Kahugan Spring at 7:00 PM and proceed to refill water bottles. Sooner, we will be at the place where we will prepare, cook and eat our dinner. Camp Red prefer to eat their meals fresh from the cooking fire.

By the time we leave the spring, at a rise along the trail, the moon shine its silver sheen. I could see better the path. I lead them to a steep switchback and, at exactly 8:00 PM, we reach the Roble homestead. There is nobody in the house and it is dark. I prepare anyway the ingredients for our meal and started cooking first the milled corn.

I chopped the taro leaf stems, eggplants, gumbos and green peppers while Ernie start to saute garlic and onions in edible oil in a big pot. Water is added and I drop all the chopped green things inside including horse radish leaves I plucked along the trail. Meanwhile, dried fish is cooked in oil by the rest of the guys. Canned tuna are, likewise, reheated.

The cooking took long due to strong headwinds brought about by moonrise that play on the stoves. Mists accumulate and become rain clouds and the night temperature begins to drop. The moon give its full shine on our stay at the Roble place and the participants take advantage of this by talking among themselves, exchanging notes and email ads.

We eat our supper an hour late. We were supposed to leave the place for Babag Ridge at 10:00 PM but it is now 11:00 PM. Nevertheless, NNT should proceed without haste. This day is my last day of fasting. I do this every Holy Week and I should have broke my fast at 6:00 PM but my commitment to teach NNT precedes over my gut.

We follow the East Ridge Pass and a soft shower begins to fall. Even in the middle of summer, this is normal during a full moon. The moon’s gravity carry the mists from the ocean and land, condenses when cooled by the turbulent air that is channeled by the Babag Mountain Range from the sea and accumulates into rain clouds.

The branches and leaves sag as I pass by, brought heavy by water. I could still see clearly the trail. The clouds covered the moon yet it is still bright enough for my eyes to see. Behind me, most of the participants use their headlamps. Their confidence begins to wilt under the pressure of rain and an inner fear of a misstep.

Sooner or later, their brains will play games on them unless I have to stop and reassure everyone that I am in charge of this whole thing. Rest is given to those who toil and everyone give their best to ignore pain, cold and that primeval fear of the dark. Safety in numbers negate that fear and those who paced faster wait for those who lagged.

I arrive at Babag Ridge at 12:30 midnight and everyone take a rest to recover their breath. The fogs are thick and it is around twenty degrees Celsius. Ahead is a store – although closed at this hour - and I may have to boil water for coffee there. Everyone needs something hot inside their tummies. Just a kilometer more and we could have that hot coffee.

After the coffee break, it is time to resume the last half of our journey. This time it is perilous because the path is slippery and it is all downhill. The moon is on the downswing of its orbit and it may disappear anytime behind the mountain range and the rain fell again at 1:30 AM. This time I encourage everyone to use their lights.

This trail to Kalunasan is seldom taken by me and I always have trouble remembering my last route there even during daylight. The night presents a bit of a problem for me this time so I arm myself with a meter-long bamboo stick. I sharpen the end so I could use it as a weapon and as an anchor to stabilize my downward pace.

The No-Santol-Tree Trail is a route that I have discovered three years ago based upon the description of a local about the presence of a santol tree (sp. Sandoticum koetjapi) that marks the trailhead. The moment I looked for that tree, it is nowhere to be found, and I got lost as well, walking in circles obviously wanting to satisfy my exploring spirit never knowing that I found a different path.

I equip the female participants with wooden staffs as an aid to walking and balance. I have limited control this time and this is the most difficult part of the activity and I have to use my small LED light as well. I start at a snail’s pace but I slip and I smack my butt hard on the trail. Vegetation is much thicker here but I am not worried because I have a torch.

The shadows play on my brain and I begin to doubt at myself. The route I followed seems unfamiliar but I persisted until I see a hint of a faintly-familiar bend in the trail that led me to a more common contour. I am the navigator and guide and I use my trailcraft skills to the max to offset the deceptive appearance.

I cross a low saddle that lead into another ridge and, this time, I know where I am going but the going is not easy as I have expected. The path have been obliterated almost by thick growth due to non-use by people and I hack the vegetation with my bamboo sword to part a way. This is a path that is so narrow and where the soil is very soft.

Meanwhile, the peaceful night is shattered by blasts of firecrackers in the distance. A religious activity signifying the Resurrection of Christ has just started. I wait for the slow walkers and give myself a break. The trail is very misleading and I would prefer that those behind me are very visible from those much much behind. I walk as if without purpose just killing time so that those from the tail end could catch up.

Satisfied with the pace, I cross several arroyos – dry waterways – where loose broken rocks and detritus accumulate in an unstable manner. I arrive at the first of the many tamarind trees found along this trail. Four months ago, an unusual bat pestered me here and I wait for its presence. The time is 4:00 AM.

I walk on and rested below another tamarind tree. A bat did appear but it is not the one and I scare its wits by whacking it with my stick almost hitting it save for its timely last-second maneuver. It never returned.

The rain have stopped but it had left a wet and slippery ground. The eastern sky showed traces of light. In a little while the sky will be much brighter and there will be sunrise in an hour or so. Birds in their nests greeted the dawn. The small valley reverberate from the sound of its great number.

The sun did come just in time when I reach a copse of tamarind trees. This is the hub of four trails going east, west, south and north. I rest and waited for the participants to arrive. One by one they came and welcomed the opportunity to sit again after many hours of walk. I ask everyone if they were alright and everyone smiled erasing the tiredness showing in their eyes. 

By 6:00 AM, we were already at Guadalupe sipping hot chocolate drink and pairing it with sticky rice. We have come and walked from the dark mountains of yesterday to greet Easter Sunday. Osiyo!!!


  • Night is different than day, caution should be exercised.
  • The walking stick is very useful in night navigation. Not only it could aid you in your balance and a counter to gravity, it could be used as a probing stick and a weapon.
  • Check night sky fixtures as your reference. It will aid you in your general direction.
  • When using your natural night vision, refrain from switching on your torch. The glare of unnatural light destroys your night vision. If it does, switch off the light and close your eyes for ten seconds and blink several times afterward to fine tune it back.
  • Use your peripheral vision to great advantage. It is that part where you could detect movement and other objects which cannot be detected by a frontal sight.
  • Use your light when crossing a stream or when you are in doubt of the part of the path before you.
  • Do not play in to your brain. The brain receives signal from your eyes and tenses the muscles and release more adrenaline. Heart pumps more blood and would need more oxygene. You hasten your pace and you gasp for air and you become fatigued. Save your energy instead as you are not chasing someone in the dark.
  • Walk very slow. Take your time.
  • Walk during full moon or at least where the moon is not less than half.
  • Wear visible clothing.
  • Prepare a route card and leave it to your base support crew, a friend or to the authorities; and indicate the time when you will arrive or notify them.

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