Amlan’s beautiful and diverse landscape is an overwhelmingly powerful call to explore. This week we visited the upper reaches of Silab Highlands, a scenic area in which very few has ever set foot–this exquisite place is known only to locals as their “hidden gem.” Near the famous Lantawan Amlan, our highest peak, this secret area is just a few hundred meters below. Still nursing our bodies from the physically demanding climb to Lantawan a week ago, the bruising and scratched marks on our skins are daily reminders that nature has its own way of defending itself from human invasion. With much excitement, we expect more of the same on this journey we are about to embark.
Our task is to document this special destination: The Ungon Cascades and the surrounding Tubigon Scenic Area in the highlands of Silab, one of Amlan’s hinterland barangays.
The reddish-brown of the clay-like earth, wet from the rains just days before, swished under our feet as we trekked through a thick cover of green vegetation; it all painted a picturesque view. A large swath of land halfway through is mostly covered in ferns, so ubiquitous and delicate, except for the much-dreaded thorny variety of Tree ferns, which can fool an uninitiated person to be a reliable support to grab onto in the event of slips and tumbles. The painstaking process of removing tiny thorns sliding underneath our skin has become too mundane, so much that they have become part and parcel of our highland treks.
Seasons change and as the months roll midway into the year, the calming power of these verdant hills will soon be transformed into browns of withered leaves and decaying growth of the forest, only to provide the nourishing nutrients for new growth come the rainy season in June.
We broke the trek into several legs, with frequent required stops to catch our breath and take in the vast expanse of uninterrupted view of the area and the nearby chain of mountains and cliffs on nearby town of San Jose–fun fact: before politics partitioned it into two separate municipalities, San Jose and Amlan together used to be part of the much bigger old town of Ayuquitan.
On the steep ravine, locals have driven stakes into the ground as makeshift handholds to prevent any accidental slips down into the unknown deep gullies below. Carved out by rushing mountain streams and tributaries that drained the parched lands in the plains of Bio-os, these gullies and the surrounding areas remained uncharted territory.
Inching our way up the mountainside, we agreed on distancing ourselves meters apart from each other, just to make sure we got everyone within shouting distance should any untoward incident happen and for emergency response to be immediately put into action.
Local guide Alfabeto Ruales, “Nong Beto”–as the group fondly called him, is a master of the difficult terrain. He knew the place like the back of his hand. At an age where most are retiring and has physically slowed down, he was showing the physical strength and mental sharpness of a 30-year old. As a small-scale farmer, he has had a long affinity with the land, and has toiled the land for the better part of his life. On that day he became our eco-guide, he was determined to bring us to the cascades that have eluded the cowardly few. I was blown away as I can not even keep pace with him and he is 25 years my senior!
We reached the cascades around two in the afternoon and immediately grabbed our packed lunches and wolfed down an already delayed meal. Towering fern plants provided a cool shade as we settled in, relaxed, and let the atmosphere of the area replenished our drained energies.
The enticingly cool waters had some in the group take long soaks; they were pensive and unperturbed by the sounds of the cascades a few meters down. The cawing of crows and the blow of a light breeze that fluttered the leafy vegetation around punctuated the stillness of the afternoon.
The business of the day is halfway done and we continued the documentation. As we were on the top of the cascade drop, we wanted to canyon down the first cascade but against the wishes of the rescue team, we backtracked a few meters up the cliff, and descended on the first cascade by way of a static rope anchored soundly on a sturdy trunk.
Everyone happily made it to the first plunge pool and we spent a considerable time taking in the view and the sound. The cascades were a sight to behold, churning up fine mist and spraying them in all direction. The second cascade, higher in drop and bigger in its plunge, was too good to miss, but the afternoon sun was pulling away. We decided to make it as another jaunt, on a planned alternative route on the next visit.
On the way back, the group helped themselves to locally grown pineapples situated on the undulating hills just a few hundred meters from the dirt road where we started our ascent. This variety is smaller than their foreign counterparts; however, they pack a punch! Their sweetness is unrivaled, and so in this case size isn’t really everything after all. Some had their picks on the way back and were not disappointed.
We will definitely be back to explore more of the Ungon Cascades and Tubigon Scenic Area, no matter how difficult it is to get there. As T.S Eliot opines, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”