Murcia, Negros Occidental, the Philippines
October 31, 2016
Sometimes the wilderness, I realized, was your own backyard. Born and raised in Bacolod, I was perhaps the last person of my generation to visit the town next-door. It took almost half a century and a change of city to get me to step foot on Murcia.
Mambukal Resort had been a popular attraction in my province for decades. For this homecoming trip with a couple of friends in tow, it deserved to be the first item in our itinerary. From the airport, our rented van drove us directly to the mountain resort. By then, crowds had beaten us as it was a day before a major holiday.
A complex of restaurants crowded a slope where the van had dropped us off. We chose Ikea Restaurant, close to but not next to the restrooms. We plopped down on their wooden chairs and ordered Pinoy brekkie, which took some time in coming.
Our welcome party was sleeping on the job, though. A colony of megabats, specifically golden-crowned flying fox, was hanging out…literally…from a bald tree. They glistened in the morning sun, thanks to the bright orange fur that gave them their name. None of the nocturnal creatures stirred amidst the increasing noise decibel of resort excursionistas.
With only that morning to explore the resort, there was no way we could see all seven waterfalls Mambukal was famous for. A teenage guide advised us to cut to the chase by hiring a motorcycle driver to whisk us to the seventh waterfall. Tired from our early flight and without proper hiking gear, we took up his offer.
Each of us hopped on our respective habal-habal (motorcycle and driver for hire). I was paired with Ariel Olmo, also our guide. I mounted my ride guilty of the sin of omission – no helmet! None was available for both driver and passenger. And on the roughest road at that! All elements leading to a Darwin Award. I said a prayer and crossed my fingers as Ariel vroomed at full tilt, literally. If my butt bounced off the seat an inch higher I would’ve been thrown off. That was truly bucket list stuff, again – literally.
The resort was managed by the provincial government, but there was a glaring lack of safety measures. Should I be surprised? Even the fee for habal-habal drivers and guides was arbitrary. Ariel just said, “whatever amount you want to give.” How was I to know the going rate? We paid him P300 for his efforts, less gas, and I added premium for being a good conversationalist. I interviewed him about his life and family while I was holding on to his shoulders for dear life.
After some 20 perilous minutes, we alighted at a whitewater mountain stream. Ariel announced that we continue on foot. It was a relief. A short-lived one. The terrain was not less rough on foot than on habal-habal. It required doing splits over boulders as big as cars and balancing acts on slippery stream-smoothed stones. The trail was Sagada-lite.
I minded each step. There could be snakes lurking in the bushes, although the trail was well-worn, not really a stomping ground for legless creatures. The perils took the form of flora rather than fauna. Case in point: Mickey Mouse fruit with rounded ears that gave it its name (aka nipple fruit). The yellow fruit competed with flowers in adorning the countryside. I thought they were a colorful species of tomatoes. Later in Facebook, a friend posted a link about this fruit that turned out to be poisonous, as most brightly colored things in the wild were.
Finally, the main event. Just when I could not hike another stretch of rock and mud, a faint roar wafted through the breeze. A clearing revealed the seventh waterfall of Mambukal. We made it!
The falls poured into a small lagoon inviting me to peel off my sweat-drenched clothes and take a dip. I dipped my toe instead. Nah, the water was too frigid for a swim. So much for soaking in mountain freshness. What else was there to do but pose for selfies?
We turned around after about 20 minutes. There was nothing to do but bask in the rawness of the wilderness. How refreshing – not just the air and water – that there were no cabanas, restaurants, shops, and hotels that would strangle the waterfall. I made a wish it would remain as pristine as we found it.
Trekking back downhill, we needed sturdier support to keep our old knees in place. By some stroke of good luck or genius entrepreneurship, a couple of local children on school break (it was a holiday) was on hand to lend a hand. Jomar held my arm through the steep trail as did Maria Reena to Melds. Our Korean friend was left to his own devices.
Back in the resort, we passed by a sulfur spring. We were at the foot of Kanlaon, after all, an active volcano. Sulfuric vents were bubbling up the bluish and boiling pool, exuding a distinct smell. Small wonder the no-swimming sign was up. I (half)-jokingly said I would’ve pushed our friend who begged off from this trip at the last minute into this hot spring.
Earlier in the trail, I asked Jomar, my young hiking assistant, what he did to earn money, aside from helping visitors of a certain age through the trail. He said he picked flowers and sold them to shops downhill. It made sense. Mambukal Flower Gardens, just off the hiking trail, was overflowing with blooms and plants.
At past noon, we only had time left to quickly peek into the Japanese ofuro bathhouse. Mambukal, before it had all these distractions, was originally conceived as a Japanese spa by Kokichi Ishiwata. Alas, our schedule did not permit us a relaxing bath in its sulfur dipping pool (warm, not boiling!).
It was enough that I made it through the wilderness. Without safety gear (but never again!) on bumpy roads and slippery trails. Somehow I made it through. Alive and well. And off I went further than my own backyard.