Stepping out of the bus I literally and metaphorically breathed a sigh of relief. Having spent the previous week in the stagnant smog of one of the most polluted mega cities on the planet, the opportunity to fill my lungs with the cold sweet air of the mountains of Northern Luzon was pure ecstasy.
I had taken the 11 hour trip north from Manila for one very specific reason – to try and get a glimpse of what is often referred to by Filipinos as “The 8th wonder of the world”, the famous rice terraces of Banaue. Unfortunately the mountain weather had other ideas, and as I grabbed my bag and headed down some slippery steps into the busy early morning, Banaue’s famous rice terraces were but a figment of my lonely planet induced imagination with low grey clouds sinking heavily into the surrounding valleys obscuring everything but the most immediate.
Banaue is compact to say the least, and standing at the main junction it was easy to take it all in. Looking up and down the main street for somewhere to stay, I spied the Greenview lodge, and although there was certainly nothing green to be viewed, I managed to nab myself a very reasonably priced room, and set about washing the long bus journey off me. Feeling more human I set out to explore Banaue, and after 5 minutes I had concluded that it really didn’t have much going for it other than a thriving tricycle industry, and an incredible bakery selling all sorts of carb based deliciousness.
The weather had begun to deteriorate, and back at my guesthouse as I tried to make a dent in what can only be described as a ‘sack full’ of flapjack brought from the bakery, an old TV in the corner explained why – the north of the Philippines was experiencing the tail end of Typhoon Bopha – one of the strongest tropical cyclones to ever hit the southern islands. Unlike the south of the country we were in no real danger, but it did mean that the chance of me seeing anything more than grey cloud for the next week was greatly reduced. Worried about the dangerous flapjack and cake addiction I could develop if I stayed within walking distance of such an exquisite bakery, I decided to leave Banaue to explore some of the surrounding villages, complete with their own rice terraces, and settled on the tiny village of Batad on account of its remoteness, and the fact that the woman at the tourist centre told me that tourists didn’t often go there for more than a day trip. This was music to my ears, and after politely declining the ridiculously priced tourist bus, I decided to take the local jeepney instead and spent the difference on buying supplies for my trip – at the bakery.
Jeepneys are an amazing form of transport – originally converted from American army jeeps left in the country after World War II, jeepneys are now a national icon in the Philippines and are quite the artistic statement – the modern versions are true to the original shape, but now sport the most audacious designs and names, making them both gaudy and brilliant in the same dubious brush stroke (not unlike Guatemalan chicken buses or East African Matatus)
I found my way to the jeepney stop, and was pointed in the direction of “Holy Land” a classic chrome and stickered beast heading to Batad. Of course it wasn’t leaving for a while, and so I climbed in through the small rear door, and waited until the bus filled with local people and all the accoutrements required to ensure the full rural Filipino jeepney travel experience. Soon the jeepney was full of local people laughing and joking in the local mountain dialect whilst bags of all shapes and sizes, sacks of rice and pig food and crates of beer were loaded up around us before the final touch was added in the form of a dozen chickens all tied together in case they made an uncharacteristic bid for freedom.
To pass the time I shared some of the legendary flapjack around with the giggling gap-toothed old women opposite me and immediately made some new friends for the journey. With a crunching of gears and a satisfying backfire, we left Banaue in a cloud of blue smoke and the jeepney began to climb the surrounding mountains on precarious roads, struggling each time we turned one of the dangerously tight switchbacks. Despite the grey skies and drizzle, the drive was stunningly beautiful – huge vertical drops into the valley below were covered in lush, dense forest punctuated by powerful waterfalls all passed by at a modest pace as the jeepney struggled up the ever increasing gradient. The final mile was straight up the mountainside on a track which by rights should only have been navigable by a serious off road vehicle, but incredibly the jeepney was nursed to the top by our noble driver, with the only damage being a motion sick child, and a bus floor covered in chicken shit – no doubt a dirty protest to their unlawful imprisonment.
We had arrived at the ‘saddle’ which is as far as the slight depression in the mountainside which is laughably called a road goes, so to get to Batad proper I would have another 45 minute walk, mercifully all downhill. The remoteness of Batad had really appealed to me, and although the rice terraces were still obscured, the mist rolling through the valleys made the scene suitably exotic and adventurous. After consulting with a woman holding the largest coconuts I had ever seen (food stuffs not breasts), I headed down the precariously slippery slope towards the little village hidden in the clouds which by now had menacingly enveloped the entire region, slipping and falling almost every other step as the path down to Batad was quickly becoming a river valley with all the rain even more eager than I was to make it down the hill.
About halfway down the hill one of the other passengers from the jeepney caught me up, bounding down the hill with two giant gas canisters and negotiating the slippery path in a pair of flip-flops which must have been made by NASA or something as they seemed to defy all sort of laws of physics relating to gravity and friction. We stopped for a rest under a small locally made hut and he introduced himself as Rambo the farmer. After some inane chit-chat the conversation somehow drifted onto the topic of fighting (which I guess shouldn’t be surprising considering my companions’ name) at which point Rambo stood up, and enthusiastically proclaimed “Which is exactly why I carry this…” and proceeded to produce a handgun from the depths of his baggy jeans.
Having rarely been faced with gun wielding farmers named Rambo, I didn’t exactly know how to react, initially I thought about running, but considering the topography and my seeming inability to even walk down hill without falling over, I decided that wasn’t ideal, so I instead tried to channel my inner gangster and appear completely nonplussed that I was on a remote mountainside with a strange man grinning at me with a gun in his hand. It turns out that my inner gangster isn’t very good, as Rambo seemed to immediately sense my concern and assured me that he did actually have a licence for the gun…but had unfortunately ‘lost’ the paperwork. Trying to show an interest in this increasingly surreal situation, I asked Rambo why he felt it was necessary to carry a handgun, he waved the gun towards the cloud hidden peaks and said it was “very important” to have one whilst hiking in order to deal with the “snakes” on the trail! Now I do not claim to be the world’s most knowledgeable when it comes to weapons or that I have an intricate knowledge of the indigenous snake population of Northern Luzon, BUT surely a big stick would be sufficient enough to deal with all but the very largest of snakes, and even then a sturdy log would probably suffice wouldn’t it? I tried to carefully communicate this to Rambo, but sensing the conversation had reached a confusing crescendo, and with apparently no regard for his future chances of procreation, he thrust the gun back into the waistband of his jeans, launched the gas canisters back onto his shoulders and with a smirk which bordered on sinister left me to slip and slide my way down the hill.
Wet from the rain, muddy from my lack of balance, and still suitably baffled by meeting Rambo, I made it to the small village of Batad. I had opted to stay at Simon’s guest house predominantly on account that his son had been responsible for nursing our jeepney to the saddle, and as I negotiated the final few slippery steps into the open plan wooden deck which over looked the valley below, I wasn’t disappointed – Simon was a real gent, and as I was his only guest (I was apparently the only traveller in the whole of Batad) he treated me to an evening of stories of his time as a globetrotting sailor over giant plates of pork and rice, and several cold beers.
The following morning I was woken up by a shaft of light arrogantly shining through the window which could only mean one thing – the typhoon had finally abated. Walking out of my room and onto the vast wooden deck I was confronted by one of those views which you can only really throw clichés at when you try to describe it – the deep valley seemed to drop for miles but instead of the typical smooth curves formed by nature, this hillside bore the beautiful scars of human intuition and creativity. Hundreds of flat ‘steps’ had been laboriously carved out of the hillside and ingeniously irrigated from the surrounding forests to create a watery patch work of rice terraces with the ability to yield enough rice to sustain the entire local population in an area otherwise devoid of any other suitable agricultural land – an incredible feat of human engineering over 2000 years old.
I couldn’t wait to get down into the valley and explore the terraces properly, especially whilst the weather lasted, so after a speedy breakfast of locally sourced mango, I loaded up my dry bag, slung it over my shoulder and headed off to find the Tappiya waterfalls located in the next valley.
First stop was the neat and tidy primary school perched on the side of the hill at the head of the path down towards the terraces. Judging by the drop behind the school, it’s a good job that basketball is more popular in the Philippines than football as a wayward shot in this playground would see you lose your ball forever. I began to zigzag down the hill passing neat little houses full of scatty chickens and the odd pig, towards the terraces glistening in the sun. The last house I reached before getting to the terraces proper housed a gnarly looking old woman who said she would come back and see me later on to give me a massage – I looked back up at the almost sheer mountainside I had struggled down, and then looked the frail old woman in front of me and decided I was pretty safe from her wrinkly embrace, so I smiled and left the path and headed out onto the terraces. Walking through the terraces required balance, forward planning, and good eyesight to spot the brilliantly positioned stone steps to either climb up or down onto the next level, and slowly I managed to navigate my way along the thin edges which bordered each of the perfectly kept water filled rice paddies.
In the centre of the rice terraces is a small settlement consisting of about two dozen small houses and an ugly church, I walked past smiling children happily annoying their mothers whilst the men trudged up and down the terraces towards their little patch of land, smiling at me through twisted teeth stained red by the constant chewing (and spitting) of bettlenuts – a local nut which when chewed stimulates the body and mind much the same way as cocoa leaves do.
The path on the other side of the village was straight forward to find, but incredibly steep. The sun was beating down now, and I was getting a healthy sweat on whilst middle aged men carrying huge loads practically ran up and down the path with their perfectly adapted calves providing propulsion. From the top I could see down into the next valley at the swollen river racing around its meanders fuelled by days of rain. Following this force of water through the muggy undergrowth I once again elegantly tripped, slipped, and fell down towards the valley floor where eventually I was met by a thundering wall of water surging from 30 metres above me crashing into the dark volcanic rocks below, showering me in its cool refreshing mist, a welcome interaction after the sweaty walk. After the rain the river was a force to be reckoned with, and I decided swimming wasn’t the best idea, so instead I spent the afternoon climbing around on the rocks nearby, getting as close to the lip of the falls as I dared, and basking in the warm tropical sun.
On the way back to the village I passed day-trippers from Banaue eager to spend their five minutes at the falls before rushing back to the warm, guidebook approved embrace of their privately hired minibus and hotel – why the rush? Doing things quickly seemed to be completely at odds with the ambiance of a place like Batad and I was enjoying the change of pace after a week in manic Manila. Back amongst the terraces I got woefully lost trying to pick my way through the intricate maze of narrow paths, and after a good 20 minutes of trying to pretend I wasn’t lost but merely taking pictures, I conceded and asked a red toothed drunk for help, who with an unsteady gait and a penchant for shouting at chickens, somehow managed to get me back on the path which led to the last hill of the day.
Back at Simon’s I celebrated my day’s achievements with a cold beer and took up my position on the edge of the deck overlooking the terraces as the sun began to set turning the sky an angry crimson. What followed was one of the most magical things I have been privileged to see – the setting sun was reflected in 100s of water filled terraces creating what can only be described as a natural glitter ball – it was an incredible sight, and I couldn’t help but sit and smile as I took in this natural wonder and strummed away on an old guitar which I wish I could actually play. The sun had set and I was once again full of good food, it was the perfect end to the day – I felt almost guilty that I had the place all to myself, until I was joined by a certain increasingly amorous gnarly old women who I then had to spend half an hour trying to explain to that I really didn’t need a massage – how she made it up the hill that night I have no idea, but I decided to take the extra precaution of locking my room that night – just in case!
I spent a couple more wonderfully peaceful days in Batad, refuelling and recharging before deciding, with the onset of yet more rain which returned Batad to a misty mystery, that it was time to head back to Banaue to continue my Filipino adventure.