“That looks serious”.
That was the immediate thought when I was shown the mountain I am supposed to climb. Dubbed the ‘Tres Marias’ by the locals of Bataraza in southern Palawan, this is a limestone block with three jutting, steep precipices and one intervening mesa. I have climbed limestone crags before but the precipitous flanks of Tres Marias could give me more than what I bargained for, and the jagged rocks that limestone peaks are known for offer more than their fair share of hazard.
For this climb I was accompanied by a councilor from Narra, who arranged everything beforehand, including the acquisition of guides. My guides for this ascent are from the Pala’wan tribes- one of the most widespread of indigenous peoples in Palawan, apart from the Tagbanua. The Pala’wan are short in stature, with the tallest among my guides reaching only around my shoulder height, or in the neighborhood of about 5 feet tall; the rest are marginally shorter. Despite their physique, the Pala’wans have incredible stamina and endurance and, as I have noticed, will drink very little water even when trekking under scorching sun.
These peoples, like most other tribes within the island, are engaged in slash and burn farming, and the apocalyptic evidences of their activities are manifest. At the time of my visit, I walked through hectares of freshly cut and burned tracts that continued all the way to the base of Tres Marias- the thought of so much biodiversity perishing from the hands of man is near unbearable. From what I was told, the provincial government of Palawan allows its indigenous peoples to practice their way of lives unimpeded, but in this age of mass consumption, these same people practice farming not just for subsistence but to earn, and the effects are horrifying. Incidentally, this same consequence is also of importance even to a casual hiker: whereas many mountains within the country start off through exposed agricultural lands which eventually give way to forest cover after only about less than an hour, the trails going to Tres Marias are practically denuded for almost five hours of brisk hiking. Try wrapping your mind around that.
This trip also marked the first time I asked a guide/companion to carry my rucksack for me, as the very exposed trails enervates whatever stamina I have reserved for this particular climb. That is Regrido; the sack he placed atop my pack contained rice, canned goods and other rations we have brought along.
About two hours into the trek, we stopped at a leveled clearing that, I was told, used to be a basketball court until it was torn down because of frequent squabbles amongst those who come to play. This same spot also happened to be within a coconut plantation of one of Regrido uncles, and we helped ourselves with the available bounty. And then we continued on our way...
If you consider yourself as a true outdoorsman or naturalist and this photo just breaks your heart, let me assure you that this is just a tiny portion of the recently burned and hacked forest that I passed along that day.
A Pala'wan child holds a dried Drynaria frond as an impromptu fan.
A bangkal, possibly the very widespread Nauclea orientalis (Family Rubiaceae). A terrible photo, though.
Getting closer to Tres Marias.
After almost exactly four hours of frying ourselves under the sun, we reached Regrido's home for a stop-over. Behind his home is a larger structure with low roofing, and within it, appears to be the small village's chieftain- possibly also Regrido's relative. I removed my shoes, went inside, and greeted the village elder, although language barriers prevented some real discourse. The house was spacious, with two gongs hanging near the entrance.
This, I was informed, is used for separating the rice grains from the stalks.
One of Regrido's daughters carries her younger sibling.
This contraption, made from bamboo and studded with the barbed tips of rattans' extended midribs, is employed to catch bats from within caves.
After catching our breaths and Regrido's family had eaten their late meal, we set off again, to summon his uncle, who will also join us for this trip. We happened upon him and his family planting rice on a recently burned slope.
While waiting in the shade for Regrido's uncle to finish his chores, I caught sight of this shack with children playing inside. The baskets are used for carrying rice to fields for planting.
A Pala'wan woman, who has finished her share of work climbs to a shady spot atop a tree stump with her child.
I found this makeshift basketball board and ring perched on a young coconut tree. Even in the remotest places in the Philippines and even within tribal villages, basketball is played. The children just smiled when I asked what they use as ball.
Perhaps expecting some game, Naib- Regrido's uncle- carried with him a rifle.
One of the very few tall trees left standing within this village. Tres Marias looms behind.
By 6:11 in the early evening, we reached the foothills of Tres Marias. Because there was no water source on the mountain, we faced the dilemma of staying where we were and attempt to reach the mountaintops the next morning, which will severely affect our itinerary, or take the risk and stay on the forested shoulder which will shorten the time needed for the final assault. Fortunately, the man who lives on this clearing, offered his gallon of water for our use. But we had to move fast, as darkness was fast descending and there were no clear trails going to the mountain proper.
At 6:40, we reached the shoulder and decided to camp on a leveled but narrow area beset with limestone blocks that made pitching a tent impossible. We braced ourselves for a long night.
But being a plant person that I am, the sight of this Begonia species, similar in appearance to Begonia taraw but most likely a new species, brought its fair deal of delight.
And while rice is cooking...
...I was scrambling on the rocks to photograph the forest denizens:
These twig-mimicking stick insects, called 'rasrangas' by the locals, may be a species of Dares, related to D. philippinensis. Depicted is a male and a female, respectively.
That was my piece of real estate for the night, photographed early the next morning. That wonderfully rectangular block of limestone is what I used as my ersatz bed, though rather uncomfortable as it was on the short side and my legs were almost hanging down. So I slept in a shrimp-like position.
That is how steep some of the 'trails' were..
Liparis condylobulbon- a common and widespread orchid species with many small flowers that reek of dog turd.
My Pala'wan companions looking and trying to determine the fastest- but not necessarily the safest- route.
A species of Epithema (Family Gesneriaceae) that I have not, so far, been able to determine at the species level.
A jewel orchid. Due to its lack of flowers, identification was unlikely.
Calanthe mcgregori, another common and widespread orchid within the archipelago.
Here is one of the two jutting precipices of Tres Marias; the taller one has to be accessed by crossing a jagged and very steep ridge that serves as the connecting saddle between the two.
And this is the taller of the two towers of Tres Marias. If you look at the first photo of this post, you will see this as the shorter of the two, but that is only due to its position.
From where we where, a saw-toothed ridge had to be negotiated to reach the taller pinnacle. This part, without a doubt, is the most dangerous portion of the entire climb, where a climber's wrong step can plunge him to his death. Strong winds buffet the summit, which adds to the risk. Due to the treacherous nature of the ridge, half of the party, including the councilor, opted to be left behind to wait for us on our return.
This spectacular shrub is Rhododendron javanicum subsp. palawanense (Family Ericaceae). The glowing flowers have a heady perfume. Huge thanks to Ronald Achacoso and Derek Cabactulan for providing the identification.
Another beautiful shrub with large and fragrant flowers is this species of Fagraea (Family Gentianaceae). Sincerest gratitude to Pieter Pelser for supplying the genus name.
Even Menzie had to pose next to a Fagraea flower:
A curious orchid with succulent leaves. Its lack of flowers prevented me from identifying it, even at the generic level.
Paphiopedilum philippinense, a widespread slipper orchid that is most often found on limestone.
From atop, the extent of the lowland forests' destruction is clearly evident:
This is the same species of Begonia I photographed the night before; they are rather common near the summit area.
A species of Zeuxine (family Orchidaceae) displays it gleaming white flowers. Its identification has so far evaded me, and it may either be a new species, or a new species record for the Philippines (if it does occur in neighboring countries).
Nearing the summit, the vegetation grew denser...
... until it became nearly impregnable on the summit itself.
A small clearing gives a glimpse of the neighboring peak:
Non-flowering examples of Aerides odorata, an orchid with very heavily scented blooms.
Unfortunately, I have no idea about these plants' identity. But those powdery-gray leaves are quite outstanding.
A gorgeous rhizomatous fern from the genus Selliguea (Family Polypodiaceae). Thanks to Julie Barcelona for the genus identification.
Making our way back. This photo should present an idea of how narrow the ridge was.
According to Peter Quakenbush, from Michigan, this is possibly Medinilla speciosa. Peter focuses heavily on Philippine members of this genus, and if there's anyone who can lead a Philippine Medinilla monograph into fruition, it's gotta be him. The Philippines has the most number of species from this genus anywhere in the world.
The bladed rocks have delivered serious punishment on my battle-tested pair of Merrell Watersport Gauley. By the end of this climb, the apical sections of the soles have all but been torn away.
This clump of miniature orchid is possibly Schoenorchis paniculata.
About 50 minutes later, we reached the previous night's campsite, where we took a brief respite. This is Naib's container for his rifle's pellets:
An coin spider from the genus Herrenia (Family Araneidae) prowls on the forest duff.
Back in the hut at the base of the mountain, we paused for a respite. Incidentally, the owner also manufactures these rice baskets for local use; such baskets are also sold by the Pala'wans at the weekend markets in Bataraza.
A 'lusung', used to pound rice to separate the grains from the husk.
A glimpse of the mountain from its base.
Getting to and from Tres Marias involves crossing this river, which is situated on a low valley. This is where we cooked our rice for brunch, which took forever to cook.
Very few species of Begonia are known from Palawan, and this may be a reflection of the paucity of researchers visiting the island. This may be a still undescribed species.
A crab with dark violet legs and dactyls was found foraging on the river.
The leaf used for this purpose is from hanopol (Poikilospermum sp., family Urticaceae). Amusingly, the councilor suggested beforehand that leaves from wild bananas be used, but the Pala'wan insisted that these will impart a bitter taste on the food. The councilor disregarded the warning and learned it the hard way.
A gaudily-colored limacodid moth caterpillar, beset with poisonous thorns.
This is Naib's property, which should be forested only weeks before I arrived.
On our way back, my mind was freed from its reins and could not help but feel anger for this current state of affairs. If truth be told, my mission was to locate and observe an orchid said to occur in this area, but failed to see even one. The reason: they have been collected indiscriminately by the local tribes to be sold to orchid dealers who in turn sell the plants wholesale to a few buyers, mainly from Luzon. The practice, along with the rampant burning and felling of forests for the cultivation of cash crops, is doing irreversible damage to Palawan's dwindling lowland forests, and we may be losing more than what we can document.
In an ideal world, indigenous peoples should be leading their lives as they have did for centuries, but contact with the outside world and those who take advantage of them have altered their ways of existence, and the forests are paying the steep price.