Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Once Upon A Hike Up Mt Apo, Philippines

Mt Apo, at 2,950m above sea level, is the tallest mountain in Philippines.  The shortest trek is about 15km, and takes a minimum 2 days to complete the trail.  You would think you could do it in 1 day, technically, if you don't count day and night, you could possibly, but you wouldn't want to do it in the dark.  Every year, they have a race up Mt Apo and the record time at the moment is held by a local at 12H.  Interestingly, the race consist of mountain biking, running up and down and white water tubing for the last leg!!
My expedition started with online research on how to go about doing a trek up Mt Apo.  There are several routes, the more common ones involving Kapatangan-Kidapawan or Kapatangan-Kapatangan or Kidapawan-Kidapawan.  Note that as I mentioned in my previous post Climbing Mt Apo The DIY way, Kidapawan trek involves about 6 river crossings which could get dangerous during the rainy season or when it rains.  If you do not want to get wet, avoid Kidapawan. 
After much research, I decided to go with Mt Apo Adventures who organizes group trips up Mt Apo via the Sibulan Trail (which is Kapatangan-Kapatangan), one of the easiest trail.  Sir Albert Gabriel (adventuregabo@yahoo.com) is very helpful and did a good job organizing the trip.  My email to him was replied almost on the same exact day and all questions were answered without me even meeting him!  His packages and prices are all listed in the website link I provided (just click on the Mt Apo Adventures), and they are pretty reasonable given that everything is provided for.  If you are looking at doing other trails (his website does provide the different trails), you can email and ask him about it and he can advise you on it.
I find this the most value for money as they include practically everything - food, tent, sleeping bag, hiking sticks, transportation and even 1 night stay at Davao city!  For my single air-con room (with cable TV and attached bathroom), it costs approximately P560 per night with breakfast.  The hotel is D'Counter Executive Dormitel which I would say is pretty value for money.  There is hot shower too if you ask.  As I wasn't going to bring a fleece jacket, Sir Albert even provided a fleece jacket for me, free of charge!  Plus, we get a souvenir T-Shirt (which is pretty cool) and certificate after the climb.  Putting two and two together and considering all the factors, I decided to go with him.  There were 11 of us in the group, so the cost per person was P4,700.  Pretty value for money I would say.
And so it was, on the 28th January 2014, I found myself up at 6am in the morning, met up and sat through the briefing with Sir Albert and also made payment for the hike.  Our 11 people consisted of 4 locals, 2 Chinese, 2 couples living in Australia and me.  And accompanying us were 6 porters and 1 guide (Aman).  Our little van took us to Kapatangan drop off point within about 3H and we started the hike just after noon.  Weather was pretty good on the first day of hike and it was all uphill in the forest.  Before we get into the forest though, we had to walk through thick bushes, if you do not want to get cut on your legs/arms, wear protection on them or change into long pants before changing back.  Me, I just went with the cuts.  The first day hike was a lot of 60 degree incline in the forest, some parts are a little slippery.  There are markers on the branches in case you fall behind the pack but in some areas, the markers are not as clear.  Generally it was not too difficult to follow.
Passing by the village

Our group quickly separated into 3 - Us 5 (Australians and me) with our guide were at the front, then the 2 Chinese, and the 4 locals were way back.  Technically, the forest part was not very difficult going up.  If you have done Kinabalu, this is not too difficult but without the nicely paved steps.  Our group arrived in Camp 1 in 3 hours, and the others followed an hour later.  Between the beginning (where we passed through 2 villages) and Camp 1, there is no water source, so pack your water source sufficiently.  There is a slow stream at Camp 1, where the water is drinkable.  If you are more conscious, you can bring purifying tablets.  Me, I drank the water and I'm fine!

Camp 1 - our tents
Our 3 porters (with the food and half the tents) got 'lost' somewhere.  Well porters don't get lost, but 2 of them technically waited for each other at opposite ends and ended up just waiting at the wrong place until our guides went down to find them.  So our dinner got delayed, and while we waited, it was freezing cold!  I was wearing 3 layers - Long sleeved shirt + Down jacket + Fleece, and 2 layers of pants (thick leggings + pants) and beanie and gloves.  Please be prepared for the cold at night because it IS REALLY COLD!!! Temperatures drop to 2-8 celsius at night.
Dinner was freshly cooked by our porters and guide and was pork sinigang with rice on the first night.  If you have special dietary restrictions, tell Sir Albert and he will arrange.  I got my fish and eggs.  Everyone just conked out right after dinner as we have an early morning start the next day.  It is essential to really keep warm to get a good night's sleep.
The next morning, woke up at 6-ish and had our breakfast of hot milo with luncheon meat and rice. Once again, my special was eggs with bittergourd.  Then it was break camp, fill water and onwards travel.  Do fill up the water at this stage as there will NOT be any waterholes until you reach the summit. 
Breakfast time

The hike up to Camp 2 was pretty steep and still within the forest area.  We took 1H to get to the start of the boulders.  (*Note:  when I mention "we" I mean the group of 6 of us - Australians and me and the guide.  As an estimation, the rest of the group was about 1-1.5H behind us) After which it was a 2 hour hike/climb up the boulders.  Compared to Mt Kinabalu, these are looser and jagged rock surfaces whereas Kinabalu was relatively flat rock surfaces.  I did Kinabalu in 1 day meaning I was at the rocks mid morning when the sun was shining bright and it was more difficult then with the altitude and the sun.  Mt Apo boulders going up, though looser rocks, I didn't feel too much of the thin air and the sky was a little cloudy so was not as tough.  But with loose rocks, it meant that some parts were a little tricky.
We had a short lunch break when it started to rain.  But we have come too far to NOT make it to the top.  So we took a 30min hike up to the mirror summit just for the sake of it (though we really couldn't see anything as fog was everywhere!!).  Then it was a 15min hike down to our campsite for the night near the summit.  It was 130pm when we arrived.  This camp site was beautiful, right within the valley.  There is a water source here but the water tasted a little sulphurish, although it is still safe for drinking.  Then we all settled into our tents to seek warmth while the rest arrived later. 

Misty campsite
With the foggy weather, we knew there was no chance of a sunset, but still we tried our luck and went up anyways.  No sunset but the view was pretty awesome.  Our dinner that night was Pasta with Tomato sauce and tuna.  Everyone just went crazy when we saw pasta! Something other than rice :)  It was pretty good! 

As soon as we were done eating, it was lights out as the next day we had to wake up at 430am for the sunrise.  The night was really freezing cold.  Up here, the temperatures probably dropped to -2 and it was too cold to sleep.  Note to self and others - Keep your feet super warm because my feet were freezing cold and couldn't sleep because of that.

Next morning at 445am, we went up to the highest point of Mt Apo for the sunrise (about a 15min hike).  And we waited, in the freezing cold, for the sun to slowly rise up.  It was really amazing view as  you can see Davao below, samal island and talikud island.  We stayed up there for an hour or so taking pictures and just revelling in the feeling of being on top.  Not to mention shivering in the cold.

Mighty 5 (haha) - Cold.....
After a quick breakfast, it was break camp and we started our descent at 730am.  Going down, it is best to start as early as possible as you do not want to be caught in the afternoon showers or going down in dimming lights.

Me and the guide/porter

Crater Lake
The hike down brought us through a different boulder path than we came up and the view was amazing! With the great weather, we were just in awe of the view presented before us!  Going down boulders is not my strong point and I'm not good at it as rock surface and loose rocks are tricky for me.  We took 3H to get down to camp 1 where we waited a while for the rest of the group.  They were approximately 2H behind us.  After a short break for lunch, we continued our way down in the forest.  Going down in the forest, it was slippery and steep.  Some of us slipped a fair bit.  Hiking stick helps to keep your balance, but mine broke just before we entered the forest.  But thanks to my Kampung Addidas, I was able to get a better gripe of the soil and just hang onto the trees and roots for support!  Another 3 hours brought us from camp 1 to our drop off point and the trek finally ended at 230pm for the 6 of us. 


Waiting at the drop off point, we contemplated getting our own transport back to Davao first as the others were too far behind.  But after lots of waiting and negotiating, 2 hours gone and the rest of the pack arrived. We saw no point in getting another van with the rest of the group back again.
The van dropped us back at the hotel after about 3 hours and it was time to wash up and clean off the 3-day dirt!
All in all, it was a really good experience.  Was tough at some parts, and the cold at night was unbearable at times, but the experience was great!  Our guide was really nice and had a lot of experience climbing the mountain.  The itinerary was pretty well planned and the timings provided were rough estimate to buffer for the slower hikers.  Food was pretty good.  Do note that climbing Mt Apo does require stamina and training.  If you are those who never exercises, please do not try it.  At least train a little before you go.  Unless you exercise regularly, then it is not that bad.  I didn't train but my regular exercise did help me along the way.  It is NOT a walk in the park.  Especially since you will be carrying a pack on your back, which really adds load onto you.  So pack light.  You don't need a new set of clothes everyday.  Going with an organized group means that you don't have to pack food or tents so it helps.  Do bring along trail food or munchies for you to snack along the way. 
Also, if you 'worry' about your clothes getting muddy and dirty, bring those you are going to discard.  I throw away all my hiking clothes, except for the winter wear.  The T-shirt, the long sleeve shirt, the socks - All thrown away.  There is absolutely no way to shower, unless you are willing to brave the cold night and wipe yourself down with a wet towel.  And plenty of rubbish around also.  Basically the group pack their rubbish (plastic, cans etc etc) up and leave them at a corner.  But, I got to know from a divemaster that once or twice a year, they do a massive clean up of Mt Apo, especially after the Holy Week.  Groups of porters will go up Mt Apo just to collect these rubbish down to dispose.  Though could have done with more frequency.
Possible to do it in 2 days? Yes of course!  We had quite a lot of lax time given we arrived at Camp 1 at 330pm, and at the second day campsite at 130pm.  So, could have pushed on a little bit more on the first day, especially if you start earlier.  We started at 1230pm, so if you started 2-3 hours earlier, easily you could have been up to the summit campsite at the end of the first day which would cut it down by 1 day.   Our guide told us a 63-year-old guy did it in 2 days! Must have been a really fit grandfather.
Other than that, just go and have fun, enjoy the scenery and make the most out of it! 

Climbing Mt Apo - The DIY way

For those of you out there who prefer to plan and trek Mt Apo yourself, you can do so easily by registering with the respective authorities in Davao Oriental.  Though I must caution that if you are a single climber, the cost would add up significantly and would be much more expensive than if you joined an organized group of 4 and above (where an organized group provides all the equipments and luxury of porters, while organizing yourself doesn't avil you with these).  However, if you are a group of 3, splitting up the costs of the guide, sleeping and cooking equipments and even porters would be a cheaper option and you get a private tour.
Listed below will be the information and organization you go to to register your own climb.  This is based on the starting point from Kidapawan - some 3Hours local bus transport from Davao City (costs approximately P150 per way).
Contact Kidapawan Tourism Office - Their facebook page is this Kidapawan Tourism Office.  I spoke with Gillan via facebook and she is very nice and helpful.  Their contact number is on the FB page as well.  They will help you to arrange all the registration, guides, food, equipment rental etc.  You can contact them prior to your arrival, and settle all the necessary things upon arrival the day before your climb.  They normally do registration on weekdays, however if you go on a weekend, contact them ahead and they can arrange.  Receipts can only be given out on weekdays, so you will get it after you finished your climb.
You can also contact Marlon Ceballos at see_values@yahoo.com or his facebook page Marlon Ceballos.  He is the president of the Kidapawan Mountain Guide association and he can personally arrange a guide for you.  He works together with Kidapawan Tourism Office.
There are many trails from Kidapawan, and you can choose to do a traverse trail or back-trek.  Traverse trails are harder and probably takes longer than 3 days, though you could push it through.  The Office requires you to pay the guide fee for a minimum of 3 days, although you could potentially complete certain trails in 2. 
The Kidapawan Trail starts with several river crossing, which is not ideal when you climb during the rainy season as flash flood is frequent and would be dangerous when crossing.  So do take note if you decide to start in Kidapawan.  The good thing about starting or ending in Kidapawan is that you get to go to the Hot Spring and get close to Lake Venado. 
Below listed are the fees involved:
Permit: P500 (local), P750 (Foreigner)
Guide: P800/day (local), P1,000/day (foreigner)
Porter (optional): P350/day max 15kg load
*Note: you will have to be responsible for providing food to your guide and/or porter
Tent rental: P250-P350/night (you will have to bring your own sleeping bag)
Cooking set rental: P200-300/night
Transport from Kidapawan to drop off point: P85/pax for a habal habal for 3 (this means if you are 1 person, you pay for 3 pax for the entire habal habal).  Unless you prefer to wait for the public transport.
If you choose a traverse trail, exiting from a different location, there would be an exit fee of approximately P250
Do note that the above guide fee is for the back trail Kidapawan.  Apparently there is a different guide fee for traverse route, which could potentially go up to P1,500/day.  Ask at Kidapawan for more information, or contact Sir Marlon.
Do note that the last bus out of Kidapawan back to Davao City is around 730pm, so make sure you are back down before that if you plan to head back to Davao.
I will post an entry on my climbing experience with an organized group - Mt Apo Adventures in a separate post.  As I mentioned, it is more expensive and less value for money for a single climber to register on my own, so I decided to go with a group which happened to have an available climb on the dates I wanted.  Also, the cost includes a night's stay in Davao at a pretty good budget hotel.  For those of you out there, hope this helps if you plan on doing it on your own or if you plan on organizing a group trek on your own.  It is also possible to start in Kapatangan (also about 3H from Davao) and do a back trek or traverse to Kidapawan. 
Do note that it IS COLD at night when you camp.  The temperature is between 2-8 degree celsius and can even drop to -2.  So do bring winter clothings for the night and also for the early mornings especially the sunrise.  If you have a thermal sleeping bag, it would be best.
There is another climbing group Climb Mt Apo who organizes such trip for P5,000 per head for a group of 3 or more, including everything except for food, tent and sleeping bag.  This group does not provide accomodation in Davao City.
I've also gotten some other contacts who can help to arrange Mt Apo treks, but for more details on the costs and itinerary, you would have to contact them direct to ask - Micheal delima michealdelima777@gmail.com.  He quoted me P14,500 for a solo climb which includes everything except sleeping bag and tents.  Conversely, he directed me to Jhoc Nalda (his FB page)  or contact him at +63 (0)9172558923/ +63 (0)9981924345 to arrange for cheaper/lesser expenses.   

Monday, February 03, 2014

Diving with Critters in Samal/Talikud Island, Davao Philippines

What is a vacation without some underwater action?!?!  Little known Davao actually has pretty amazing macro diving!!!  A small island just 20mins from Davao itself is Samal island, and just a little away from Samal is a littler island - Talikud.  Around these 2 islands are critters, critters and more critters.  Basically a macro photographer haven!  At least according to the guys from Samal Watersports Center Samal Watersports Center FB
My research was basically typing into the google search engine for dive centers in Samal and chanced upon Samal Watersports Center.  They seemed pretty organized and good, so an email to PJ and pretty much instant reply (provided he's not out on a dive) to confirm everything! Just like that!  No additional questions asked!  Everything was confirmed via email and I just went out to meet them at Davao Boat Club.  Although they are based on Samal Island, it is no problem for pickup at Davao as they will dock at Davao Boat Club to get their tanks for the dives.  So just arrange for them to pick you up at Davao Boat Club at 9am and they'll be there for you.  Payment is made after the dives, at the end of the dive before they let you off the boat.  P2,500 for 2 dives, including lunch (freshly cooked onboard), and if you choose 3 dives it will be P3,100 where the 3rd dive would be a night dive.
At 9am, I waited at Davao Boat Club.  At Lanang road, right beside Pearl Farm.  A taxi from Davao City costs about P160 or jeepneys kinda do go there as well!  25mins and you are there.
I was greeted by my DM for the day - Klo Lim.  Onboard the boat were 6 more divers.  Our group were split into groups of 2, each with their own DM.  Fortunately for me, I got 1 DM to myself - Like a private tour. 
The visibility that day was not the best, at most about 7-8m due to the changing weather.  But still, didn't deter the critters from being spotted.  My DM was pretty good at digging and discovering the critters.  I wouldn't have known there were things hidden beneath rocks!  We spotted lots of different types of shrimps, crabs, some I've never seen, also mantis shrimps.  Not to mention Seahorse!!! 

The water temperature was pretty cold - 26 degree celsius, common for this time of the year in Philippines where it is still kinda winter waters.  Current is not particularly strong in Samal/Talikud, though at times there were some small ones.  But if you have been to Komodo, this is nothing!  Relatively speaking, it is an easy dive.  Not much of corals so as to speak, as all are dead.  But I must say it really is a macro paradise of sorts.  According to East (resident Dive Instructor) it is even better than Lembeh Straits.  I for one had been to Lembeh and with this dive, I wouldn't agree, but he has been diving in Samal for longer and had seen better days and visibility, so I would not disagree as well.  I've seen photos that they have taken, and they were really amazing discoveries!  I guess, if you went at the right time, it would be amazing too!  Also, we only went to 2 dive sites near Talikud, and I didn't have time to explore dive sites nearer to Samal which might provide even better creatures.
Still, if you have time in Davao, I would highly recommend taking a dive in Samal.  Davao city doesn't have much to offer, so why not spend your time diving??  You can choose to stay on Samal island too, however the resorts on the island are slightly on the pricier range.  Samal Island can easily be visited on a day trip as the boats leave Davao pretty frequently.
Depending on your budget, you can get a room in Davao from as low as P350 (fan with bathroom).  D'Counter Executive Dormitel offers fan room with bath and toilet and TV for P370 (single) or aircon at P560 (single).  If you are ok with shared bathroom, there are hotels at P250 (single fan).  Staying in Davao presents you the chance to do some shopping at the SM Ecoland, or walk to the local public market Bankerohan to buy some really cheap fruits.

Chasing the Waves Amihan style - By the Little Red Bikini Girl in Dahican Beach

Planned a trip to Davao, and upon research, chanced upon this little jewel of South Mindanao known as the Dahican Beach.  The so-called Boracay of Yester Years, before Boracay became this tourist trap of an island.  And, it is known for the Amihan Boys - the Surfer dudes of the Philippines!! Yes, of course, Dahican may not be as famous as its neighbours - Cloud Nine with the amazing waves, but it is still a nice beach and great place for beginners to learn surfing!
Trip to Dahican beach is not to be taken lightly.  First, you have to get to Mati either via the public bus or the van from Davao City.  Upon landing at Davao International airport, you can just take a 10min walk out of the airport to the little bus stop just outside Jose Maria college to wait for the bus to Mati.  The bus takes about 5H (P282 for air-con, P255 for non air-con) to get into Mati, while the van would take about 3.5H, costing about the same.  My journey was by the bus, which was frequent enough. 
Upon arriving in Mati, it was late night (after 6pm) when the sky turned dark.  I checked myself into Chew Lodge, which is a 5min walk from the bus stop.  This area near the bus stop is not Mati City, and hence food choices are far and few.  Chew Lodge is located very near to the Market (as you walk out of the bus stop, take the first left, past the market, and take the 2nd right).  For better options, you can choose to stay in Mati City (5min habal habal ride away).  Chew Lodge is a very basic home run lodge, where bathrooms are shared amongst all guests.  I got a room for P250 with a double bed fan room with nothing else.  As mentioned, this area doesn't have much food choices except for roast chicken, or small local food stall with nothing much to offer at that time of the day.  If you want more food options, take a trip down to Mati City.  There are 2 more home run lodges just opposite Chew Lodge but I didn't ask for their prices.
The next day, I traveled down to Dahican Beach (20min motorbike ride for P40 each way).  Just tell the driver you want to go to Amihan Surf, or anywhere you are planning to go, and they will drop you right there.  It is easier if you know where you are going, else you will have to end up walking the entire stretch of beach to find the different resorts.

Dahican Beach
 The day was perfect for a beach day as the sun was shining bright, the sky was clear and the water crystal blue.

Amihan Sa Dahican is a group of surfer boys who are famous for their surfing prowess.  Their location right smack in the middle of Dahican Beach also makes for great surf spot.  I chatted up with Mark, one of the surfer dudes there and got myself a surf lesson (P400 per hour).  Climbed onto the board and pushed out to the middle of the sea, where the surfing started.  It was pretty manageable for me as I've tried wakeboarding and windsurfing before, so balancing wasn't a problem for me.  And I managed to stand up and surfed on my very first try!  Just remember to fall back before you reach the shore!  And don't worry too much about picking up the board as the boys will help you with it when you get washed up on shore.  Jan-Mar is the best time to surf there as the waves pick up during the period.  Don't expect super waves like Bali or even Cloud Nine, but the waves there are good enough to surf for a period of time.  Before I knew it, my hour was up! Where did all the time go?!?! Surfing was really fun and you wouldn't realize time actually passed by so quickly!  Do note that you might get some bruises or scratches from the pebbles and rocks when you fall back and get washed up on shore.  Especially when the waves come.  I got 'thrown' about a few times, and rocks are really painful when they pelt on you.
Amihan Hut
Skimboarding is also big in Dahican, and you can get a lesson for P150 per hour.  Boards are also for rental for 500-700P per day with the Amihan Boys.  You can find them on facebook here Amihan Sa Dahican, or their website at Amihan Team or contact Winston Plaza at (+63) 0921 452 5027.  They do rent out tent for P200 per night, but you will have to buy your own food to cook in their kitchen.  There are also a few resorts along the beach ranging from P1,000-P2,500 per night.
After my lesson, it was time to explore a little of the beach.  I didn't go too far out to Botona Resort, just stationed myself along one stretch of the quite beach and rested.  The beach is really quiet and idyllic, there weren't many people along the beach and you can actually take pictures with no one but you in it!  Not much of a night life there unless you create your own.  Didn't see any cafes/restaurants, so you just have to stick with the resort cafes/restaurants.  But the view is pretty amazing!  And the water was crystal clear blue!  Hope it actually stays this way, but it might be soon that people actually start to discover this little stretch of beach in Mindanao.  Already, there are constructions going on to build more resorts along the beach.  As of now, still only frequently mostly by local surfers.  I did spot only a couple of foreigners laying by the beach.
Don't you "Wish You Were Here"??
Beach is so empty and the sky was so blue
Construction in progress
Didn't choose to stay in Dahican, but probably should have cos I bet the sunset is amazing.  Went back to Chew Lodge for the night, and another 5H bus ride back to Davao City the next morning.  Going back, you would have to either choose to stop somewhere near the airport stop and head into Davao City or go all the way to Ecoland Bus Terminal and take a taxi from there.  Either way, it would be similar costs.  The conductor advised me to get off somewhere further from the airport stop and took a taxi into Davao City (about P150).  There are plenty of jeepneys passing by as well, if you know exactly where you want to get off, jeepneys are a cheap way to travel (about P20 into city probably).
Chatted with Winston Plaza (his contact listed above) and he knows places nearby Dahican where you can chase the waves in private! And he has taken some American clients on the bangka just to explore the nearby waves.  So if any of you are interested, contact him for a private tour to chase the waves!!

Also, there 2 obscure and quiet little islands - Waniban and Pujada.  No resorts or eateries.  You can pitch tent to stay overnight there, and bring your own food.  Heard from Winston that diving is pretty good over there too. 
Next stop on my vacation - Mount Apo and Diving in Samal Island.  To be continued.