Luzon Mt. Pinatubo

Mt. Pinatubo's Tolkienesque Beauty

Wednesday, March 21, 2012Ryan Mach

Exhilarating 4x4 ride, scenic views along the way, a gorgeous crater with cool turquoise water - it couldn't get any better than that.
True, you can hurt yourself while riding on one of those 4x4's. These little monsters run, gallop, trump like crazy over rough terrain of dust, gravel and rocks - basically not minding any hurdle. With mad drivers intent on giving their passengers a 'fun' experience, the ride can turn into a dangerous exhibition. Not for the faint of heart, I tell you. But as long as you buckle up (no seat belts, just on hold to the bar real tight), you'll be safe. The possible worst thing that can happen to you is bump your head or butt against the hard metal and that's just a little price to pay because you don't really get to experience riding on a 4x4 that often.

As our lady companion aptly put it, 'you can't drive like this in Manila.' Damn right. You can't find a dynamic, rugged path like it in the metro too. Well, perhaps you can, but you won't find it as scenic as those ones in Mt. Pinatubo.
The way to the crater begins in an open clearing, which from a distance looks like a sea with low tide, dotted by cows, goats and some Aetas wandering about the vast field. 21 years ago, the same field was an image of terror and tragedy as denizens ran for their lives, escaping the angry lahar that swept the land when Mt. Pinatubo erupted without warning. Thick ashes covered the entire place and deadly pyroclastic mud washed away all hopes and dreams.
Today, it's a scenic barren vastness that has become a tourist attraction.

About a hundred tourists aboard the Victory Liner bus got off and huddled near the local tourism office of Santa Juliana, Tarlac where sturdy 4WD jeeps were lined up. The excitement was palpable amidst the loud chatter. Trekkers geared up for the adventure by emptying their bladder, stuffing their stomach with breakfast, applying sunblocks and readying their cameras. At around 7:00 in the morning, the trek organizers called out names for their 4x4 assignment. Engines started to roar, breaking the cacophony. The fun had officially started.
And the sun's fiery gaze began to spread across the plains punctuated by wandering people and animals. Gullies of hardened lahar extend beyond the horizon where mountains meet the sky. It's a panorama reminiscent of Tolkien's Mordor.

Nobody minded the heat. After all, trekking to the crater is not possible without the sun. "It's just too risky to trek when it's raining," our guide, Manong Mario Kadiang, advised us as the 4WD jeep slowed down on a sandy slope toward a rivulet.  Some months ago, a foreigner and her local guide were swept away by the strong current of the river. The missing bodies were retrieved a day later. "The dead woman's leg was found a kilometer from her body." Understandably, treks automatically get cancelled when there is bad weather.
There is another shorter route to the crater known among regular hikers as Skyway but it's currently impassable because of the damage it suffered from previous typhoons. The trek by taking such trail won't take longer than an hour.
But really, the best way to fully appreciate the Tolkienesque beauty of Mt. Pinatubo is to hike the sandy and rocky path leading to the crater.  Passing through valleys and gorges is one of the great highlights of the trek. The gorgeous views - paper-thin walls made of loose sand, towering rock formations and tiny winding streams bring to mind the marvelous scenes from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. With wondrous vista before your eyes, a two-hour trek doesn't feel too tiring.

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