“A piece of cake… it’s just the world’s biggest cake.”
We were concerned upon reading on Australia’s Smart Traveller website to “not under any circumstances travel to the Mindanao region, as there has been terrorist activity in the past including kidnapping of Western tourists.”
After researching with tour organisers in the Kidapawan area (home of Mt Apo), we found that the kidnappings had only happened in the North West part of Mindanao Island, and that we should not be alarmed about travelling to Kidapawan in the South East. So to put it in perspective, it was like not travelling to Sandy Bay because you had heard that there was some rough goings on in Smithton.
The area in question is home to the largest mountain in the Philippines, and being the keen trekkers (walking boots and backpacks, not to be confused with the “Beam me up Scottie, live long and prosper” types.) that we are, after much deliberation we decided to throw caution to the wind and book a flight.
Arriving in Kidapawan City; having not received any threats on our livelihood from the either the taxi driver, the friendly and helpful people at the mall, or our van driver from Davao, we met our groovy guide Alvin. Alvin was the most hospitable person I have met, not only in the Philippines, but anywhere we have ventured so far. After signing our lives away in the tourism office, Alvin took us around the city before introducing us to a new culinary delight that had yet to grace our tastebuds. “Halo halo,” is served in a large bowl that comes out looking quite similar to a breakfast cereal. There are corn flakes, but also cold milk, ice, glazed fruit, small beans, and to top it all off a scoop of Ube ice cream. This recipe can vary from place to place, but is in essence it is what I envisioned as a 6 year old kid as what I wanted to eat every morning.
Here we also met our guide for the next few days, Neil. Also a cool relaxed customer, he was easy going and enthusiastic about the trek that was to follow. We went over the details of our two night, three day trip before Soph and I nabbed a ride back to our accommodation (a great spot recommended by Alvin) for an afternoon nap.
After a couple of hours off, Alvin picked us up to take us to a local watering hole for dinner and a beer or two. We were certainly being spoiled and this was much more than we were both expecting or had ever received from a tour organiser before. We had a top night, with good food, good beer and even better company. We shared many a laugh including Alvin’s answer to our query about the terrorism in the area that had once made us feel so tentative about heading south.
“Oh, yeah,” he quipped as he stroked his cleanly shaved jaw to emphasise his lack of beard “we are all terrorists, but we are on holiday!”
Any possible doubt or fear for our safety had certainly been extinguished by the conclusion of this evening. We met the owner of the bar, a friend of Alvin’s; before we relocated into the karaoke room which was privately sanctioned off (I’m unsure as to whether this was for our benefit or for the safety of the other patrons). We all had a bash, Soph singing “Summer of 69,” I had a real go at “Radio Ga Ga,” before Neil got inspired and forced/eased us into a duet of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Freddie Mercury rolled so hard that night his grave deepened another 6 feet. The republican finished the evening on a beautiful rendition of a love song, before we really had to call it quits in preparation for our early start the next morning.
Oh Mama mia mama mia let me go...
Alvin picked us up from our accommodation at 6am (now that’s commitment) and took us to Jollibee’s (the McDonalds rival) for the required hangover breakfast of sausage muffins and pancakes. Gold.
We were then taken directly to the drop off point of the Mt Apo trek. Well, at least I am pretty sure that’s what happened; Alvin & Neil could have had 9 holes on the golf course for all we know we did sleep the whole way. Half a kilometre gone and we knew we were in for something special. With the beautiful jungle scenery ahead and geysers from the bubbling springs flanking us, we had the collective epiphany that this was no longer just a mission to the highest peak for us. This was going to be spectacular.
Our first river crossings took place on rickety bamboo bridges, high above the swirling torrent below. My lips formed an upturned excited grin as the theme tune from Indiana Jones seeped from my voicebox. I was a little kid again. The path winded gradually upwards, through terrain dominated by bright flowers and butterflies, I was a little girl again.
Just like Indiana Jones, pre Crystal Skull of course.
Soph doing her best Kate Capshaw
Neil was very knowledgeable on all the flora & fauna, happy to divulge information both when asked and unprompted. There are three different grades of guide in the area, C, B & A. The "C" guides are trainees, the "B" guides are good guides but are not certified by the Kidapawan Tourism Council, and then there are the "A" guides which boast the most experience, knowledge and are registered with the council. There are only two Class “A” guides in Kidapawan; one was taking us up the mountain, and the other we sung karaoke with the night before. “A” guides are also naturalist guides, who have taken it upon themselves to conserve Mt Apo, controlling landslide damage and the ongoing issue of litter on the trail. I cannot recommend highly enough paying a little extra for the professional and friendly service of Alvin & Neil.
After a couple of hours walking, we approached and conquered our first steep incline. We were puffing harder than Meatloaf after a third encore.
“I’m guessing that isn’t the steep part?” Said I,
“No… but don’t worry, Mt Apo is a piece of cake,” chirped Neil as he continued to climb. “It’s just the world’s biggest cake!”
A welcomed lunch break came after climbing some makeshift bamboo ladders and weaving through the breathtaking scenery. We had the track all to ourselves; the only people we passed were two locals carting a freshly hunted wild boar down the mountain.
Up we go!!
The afternoon saw us getting into the swing of things as momentum and thoughts of a hearty dinner and a bed kept us moving closer and closer towards our goal. We reached our destination at approximately 3pm. The only thing that stood between us and our campsite was the marsh. If we put a foot wrong, we would be up to our neck in thick, black sludge. Fortunately, with our fearless leader showing the way, we reached our tent with mud hardly reaching the top of our laces.
Please, wear the right socks. Footrot can happen to you too.
Our campsite was in a great spot adjacent to a lake, which reflected the peak we were looking forward to reflecting about climbing the next day (this sentence makes sense if you read it more than once… I think).
After a big meal and a few shots of brandy to keep us warm, we put our barking puppies to bed.
We were surprised about how freezing it was up there at night. Yes, it is up a mountain and yes I should have known better than to only pack my thermals and a jacket, but in my defence it was 25 degrees or so down in Kidapawan. Anyway if you do end up climbing Mt Apo, heed my advice and take an abundance of warm clothing.
Even the spiders were cold
Suffice to say I didn’t sleep that well, slowly trudging my first few steps trying to keep up with my speedy wife and deft guide. But, just like the day prior, I built up some momentum and was enjoying life to the max before too long.
It was to be a short walk of two and a half hours up to the pinnacle through what could only be described as a sparse landscape compared to the jungles of yesterday. It was still very beautiful and made for easier climbing, albeit steep as the price tag on a new Mercedes. Reaching the top with a spring in our step and a smile on our faces, we had accomplished our goal. We had climbed from 1300m to 2956m in about 8 hours. We were physically wearied but mentally elated and excited. Oh and did I mention the view? A breathtaking panoramic visual overlooking sulphuric lakes, beautiful jungle landscape and the rugged cliff faces emphasised the reward for our upwards scramble. Possibly overcome by the beauty, sense of achievement and aching hamstrings, we took a well-earned nap before a spot of lunch and our awaiting descent.
A few Z's at the Zenith
Our descent was a rapid one. We made it back to the campsite in less than two hours, where we were joined by half a dozen Philippino climbers. A campfire was lit, brandy was drunk and bellies were laughed. We also had the chance to try some of the aforementioned wild boar that Neil had purchased from the hunters. It was quite chewy but tasted like a mix between beef and pork which was pretty awesome if you’re a carnivore. We rugged up and crawled into our sleeping bags weary, but content.
It was Sophie’s turn for a rough night, but unlike me, she hardly said a word and pulled on the boots ready for our departing descent. We got a good early start and began taking on the marsh with our now expanded group. We had a little contest to see who would slip over the most, which Soph was sure she would win (or lose I guess is the right way to put it.) She was sorely mistaken, or is that she was un-sorely mistaken? I took a tumble a few times to take out the crown but fortunately no injuries except for my broken pride and fractured ego. Even the flawless Neil fell on his hindquarters at one stage!
One of our missions on the trip was to pick up litter left by others who had walked the trail before us. We made a real go of it today on our way out, as the trash was the only blemish on such a beautiful part of the world. Alvin mentioned that they do take volunteers up the mountain for a big clean up every so often which is great to see, so we figured the least we can do is lend a hand.
Sweating like a pig on a spit, we made our way back over the rivers, through the winding paths, past the butterflies to the fuming hot springs signifying the end of a highly satisfying, soul-finding, stunning three days.
Exhausted, we were taken 500m up the hill past the drop off point to a swimming area and accommodation which is host to a hot spring. The three of us and our porter Tata were joined shortly thereafter by Alvin. We enjoyed a celebratory brew or two while Neil, Soph and I played some cards well into the evening, including a wager that involved the loser jumping into the cold pool (remember how much I whinged about the evening chill before?) Being more than proficient at cards, Sophie played well and placed a respectable 3rd. Unfortunately, there were only the three of us playing so in to the drink she went. Neil and I followed in sympathy shortly thereafter. We made a mercy dash to the hot spring to warm back up and scorch our badly sunburnt bodies. It was a fun and rejuvenating finish to the past few days.
Soph hoping for some Irish luck. Unforunately she aint Irish.
We enjoyed a home cooked breakfast at Alvin’s house the next morning, which was again going above and beyond amazing hospitality. We packed our things and said our fond farewell before taking a trike to the bus station. Of course the buck didn’t stop there; Neil followed us on a motorbike to make sure we didn’t get ripped off by a bus driver. There were not enough thankyou’s for our new found friends, and I hope that one day we will return to Kidapawan for another hike up the beautiful Mt Apo.
If not, I hope that one day we will return to Kidapawan for another go at karaoke.
It just goes to show, don’t trust everything you read on Smart Traveller.
If you would like to find out more about Mt. Apo, contact Alvin here!