Part 89: The ancient rice terraces of Ifugao....
So far, exploring the northern regions of Luzon had been a great experience - from the very first moment we arrived until now exceeding any of our expectations and was more than worth all of the hassle to get here. I loved everything, from the people, the ambience, the tasty organic homegrown foods, to the scenery, but now it was time to move on to the next part of our adventure.
We took an early morning Jeepney to Bontok which was around 2 hours away - although a relatively short journey compared to what we were used to, it was an equally perilous one with valleys, more indications of landslides, sheer drops of hundreds of feet and roads full of pot holes snaking upwards through the mountains.
Around 30 minutes into the journey, Cy spoke to the driver in Tagalog, asking him if we could 'top load'. She was always telling me the only way to travel was to sit on the roof - well now was my chance! He smiled, instantly pulling over as if to say 'sure suckers' allowing us to climb up-top.
Once up there, perched on the uncomfortable rusty steel bars, and with nothing to hold us down other than our own grip, Cy banged on the roof to signal we were good to go - and with that the driver quickly sped off!!
I kid you not he didn't exactly slow down either, weaving one way then the next, with the wind on our faces and the fresh mountain air, this definitely ranked up there as experiences go - straight up, this was as exhilarating as it gets! Although we were literally one slip away from being seriously injured or far worse!! but I didn't care - the smile on my face said it all.
The only down side happened to be that this was the most uncomfortable journey ever, but totally worth the mind numbing pain in my butt, plus I was gripping so tight to prevent me from falling off that I lost the feeling in both my hands! No photo would have ever captured this moment so it was just as well we couldn't let go of the bars to reach into our backpacks to grab our cameras for fear of falling, but I'll never forget my top loading escapade.
I was relieved when we arrived at Bontoc mountain province unscathed, and after thanking the driver, we found a cafe to eat breakfast. It was still mid morning here and we didn't have a huge amount of time to look around the small town - home to the Bontoc indigenous tribe, and the historical capital of the Cordillera region, that until as recently as the 1930s they actively indulged in human head hunting and tribal wars.
Much like Kalinga, the ancient art of tribal tattooing was also practiced here, and were earned in accordance to the number of heads each warrior severed - the more kills, the more tattoos they had! It was also said that no Bontoc man could marry without first taking a head as a gift to his future wife!!
Thankfully all remnants of these traditions were long gone although the local museum here was full of artefacts and information about the brutal tribal ways of the past.
After a quick look around we took another old bus to Banaue. This time though we had to wait for an hour till it filled up before leaving. And when I say filled up, I mean literally so packed you could barely move. Only when the driver was satisfied that every last single seating and standing space was occupied, he departed. I would have gladly top loaded again if there was any space on the roof amongst the sacks of rice, and people already up there, but sadly we were stuck. To my left was a family of six; 2 adults and 4 young kids on just two seats! Plus I was sat near the back and counted almost 25 people behind me!!
A vicious 3 hour journey followed whereby we were flung from side to side as we climbed ever higher up winding roads being well over 2000 metres above sea level now. This leg of our journey was the most spectacular if not the most dizzying. Although packed like sardines in this rusty old bright coloured bus, the scenery on this route was as dramatic as I had witnessed in the Philippines, with gargantuan mountains crushing up against one another, water falls and huge bridges that went some way into distracting me from the hot packed bus
Mid way, and whilst we were still moving on the bumpy road, the conductor climbed along the outside of the bus, and onto the roof to check the passengers had paid. It was insane considering the sheer drops - playing out like a scene from Indiana Jones! Then finally we arrived in Banaue.
Me and the girls emerged from the bus journey pretty exhausted, and on first impressions alone, this town appeared to be all that Sagada wasn't. Pushy vendors, in your face reps, traffic, and people trying to sell you literally everything and anything!
Me Cy and Viv were not in exactly the best of moods after the long constant day of nauseating travelling, eventually settling on dumping our backpacks at one of the only few accommodations that were not trying to rip us off.
We were eager to get to the ancient rice terraces of Batad, with out being ripped off and after a heated discussion with one of the only aggressive Filipino's I'd met, Cy spoke to an official tour guide, who unlike the others seemed really helpful, then within a few minutes two trikes showed up to take us further up the mountains on a twisting dirt track. Me and Cy squashed into the tiny side car, whilst Viv climbed into the other one and before we knew it we were on another hair raising trip. I lost count how many times I banged my head on the roof much to Cy's amusement.
The road continued spiralling upwards, becoming rockier and in some parts it was just pure mud - thankfully we only just avoided getting stuck in several giant pot holes, thanks to the driver who skilfully manoeuvred his way around them with out stalling or we would have had to get out and push he told us. Then finally after an hour or so, we reached the drop off point referred to as the 'saddle'
Most of the scenery here at this stage was obscured from view by trees and there wasn't a great deal to see at this section either, other than a couple of souvenir shops selling extortionate priced drinks,
Dead ahead there were several guides trying their utmost to persuade us to pay them, but luckily our driver pointed us in the right direction - on learning the last part of the journey was a challenging 3km steep hike down a narrow dirt track and with huge grey clouds ascending, we quickened our pace until we reached a set of steep steps which would lead directly to the terraces. Viv slowed right down to a crawl after the last few days excursions began to finally catch up with her - she was exhausted. So we continued trekking at a slower pace for another hour until the foliage began opening up to reveal some of the views we were anticipating.
I inhaled a cool rush of clean mountain air to catch my breath and caught a first glimpse of the famous ancient 2000 year old Batad rice terraces lying under a haze of misty cloud in the distance. Standing in awe, I took in this most incredible view. Spread beneath us, like a huge emerald amphitheatre, and nestled in between the 3000 meter high Mount Amuyao, the terraces stretched, like a giant staircase, up towards the sky!!
I hugged Cy, taking in every ounce of this unforgettable view - nothing could beat this.
These ancient terraces were all owned by local people which had been handed down to them by their families for generations and I learned that a family would typically own up to 3 steps of the terraces. Sadly this would barely produce enough rice for them to live off for a year.
There where various wooden signposted trails leading down into the village of Batad and other points of interest, like a church and waterfalls. I wandered alone for a while whilst Viv found a perfect spot to rest and began sketching some of the scenery.
People were selling refreshments and I got talking to a group of local lads chewing on beetle nuts. It was easy to tell by the looks on their faces and distinguishable bright red mouths - they were buzzing out of their heads and offered me some. However tempting, I declined thinking that we had to trek all the way back up yet.
As much as I wanted to explore further it was perhaps for the best that I went back to sit with the girls to rest my aching legs, plus it looked like it was going to pour with rain. The huge grey clouds were our cue to make our way back to the path for the ascent to the saddle point. With time against us we slowly and wearily scaled the steps just in time before rain came. Luckily for us there was no one else around, and the waiting trikes took us straight back down the mountain, but things got steadily worse as the rain began to fall heavily, turning the track into treacherous mud fest.
We got stuck several times and had to push the trike, eventually taking us nearly two hours to reach Banaue.
Ive been privileged enough to bare witness to spectacular views so far on my travels in Asia. Nothing however, prepared me for the extreme beauty we discovered when travelling through Luzon and the Mountain provinces of Ifugao - although being far from easy. It was physically, mentally and logistically exhausting, pushing us all to the extreme and way out of our comfort zones but trust me it was worth every painstaking bus ride and aching muscle.
For now our adventure was over and all that remained was another 12 hour gruelling journey back to Manila....