Saturday, February 23, 2008

Trekking to Balanan Lake

A friend of mine has coined a phrase to describe when something goes wrong on a day trip in the Philippines. He and his wife ride a motorcycle and have been caught in the rain on several occasions; they just look at each other and mouth the words "adventure". It is an apt way to describe even an uneventful day trip to a Negros Oriental tourist destination.

When we decided to Trek to Lake Balanan it had rained straight for a week. The day actually started as a bright sunny Philippine morning. As my friend, his wife and I sat sipping coffee, my honey text from the house; Hun, are we going for adventure today? That’s all we needed to get us off our collective rear ends. Rain or shine we were off to Balanan Lake! Never mind that it was already afternoon and it was a 30K journey.

It was a beautiful sunny, hot day as we left Dumaguete on our motorcycles. Just as we passed Zamboanguita, and just as the road began to climb and turn twisty, it began to rain. We traveled on a few kilometers but with the heavy downpour getting worse we took shelter in a roadside bus stop. We were cold and very wet. Adventure? You bet!

After the storm passed, the mountains in the distance re-emerged from their cloudy shroud. Somewhat encouraged by a slight warming in the air temperature, we remounted our motorcycles and continued on to Siaton. Balanan Lake here we come.

Arriving in Siaton, we were nearly dry once again. The area around the village is filled with rice fields, it is a wonderfully verdant scene and represents some of what I consider to be the best of the “real” Philippines. Snowy egrets fly about the fields looking for food. King fishers also are numerous. Oxen and bicycle Pedi cabs clutter the road.

After passing through the village proper, the road takes a few turns. Immediately after crossing a small river, there is a sign on the right side of the road, Lake Balanan 10K. I pulled up and stopped at the sign. I turned to my friends and asked “good for another 10K?” After a somewhat enthusiastic nod we started the long climb to Balanan. It was already late in the afternoon; our rain delay lost us about 45 minutes. Intrepid travelers that we were, we pressed on, hoping still to get back to Dumaguete before dark, foolish thought as it turned out.

The ride up the narrow road to Balanan Lake is not a difficult one. The road, as most rural roads do in the Philippines, alternates from smooth concrete and rough unpaved stretches. The scenery on the climbing ride is some of the most beautiful in the Southern part of Negros Oriental. Fertile river valleys, distant rice plantations dotted with banana and coconut trees predominate. As we climbed further, we saw terraced fields on the steep slopes with a scattering of Nipa huts dotting the mountainside.

Then abruptly, the chain fell off my rear sprocket forcing me to pull over. I had noticed a few days prior that there was a little too much slack in the chain. Typically, I told myself, Ah, I’ll take care of that soon. Well, not soon enough. It was a simple matter to put the chain back on, but I was well aware that once that occurs, the likelihood is it will happen again… It did.

If I had the proper wrench, I could have made a quick field adjustment, but I had no wrench with me except the small tool kit supplied with the bike. Just then a Habal Habal rider came blasting around the corner. Ading, my honey, suddenly screamed out John! She had recognized this guy as an old friend of the family. Now one might ask, what are the odds of that happening on a remote mountain road high up in the Philippine countryside? Quite good actually, since this was her home territory, and in the Philippines extended groups of friends and family seem infinite.

I took it as a good omen; here we were in the middle of a true life adventure. John ran to a conveniently near house and returned with wrench. Within minutes he had removed the rear wheel and begun to repair the chain. A few moments later we had two of his friends there also.

The Habal Habal bikes are an art form in themselves. Looking all the world like something out of Mad Max and the Thunderdome. These reworked modified motorcycles are the modern version of mules of the Philippine mountains. Carrying easily six or even seven passengers, they ride the winding unimproved roads with uncanny ease. The drivers are like diminutive bronco riders, navigating rock strewn roads and steep inclines, with an intuitive sense of both balance and finesse.

The three moto-caballeros quickly repaired the motorcycle on the spot. We busied ourselves looking at the scenery and taking some pictures. As the repair was completed, John did not ask for any money, but Ading gave him 60 pesos for helping us out. This is the honest unassuming nature of many Filipinos, people helping people. It is after all, necessitated in the remote mountain communities.

So with yet another adventure highlight under our belts, we resumed our climb to Balanan Lake.
Balanan Lake has undergone a significant amount of infrastructure improvement since the last visit I made 2 years ago. They have added floating Nipa huts that can be towed across the various sections of water. There is also a new tree house which is available for overnight rental. Surely that would be a fantastic way to experience the beauty of the area. However true to local tastes, it is also equipped with a loud Karaoke system, which somehow seems to diminish the whole experience. Luckily no one was using it while we were there. There are canoe and Kayak rentals as well.

As you approach Balanan Lake on foot, (you have to walk the last 100 meters, or be shuttled), it reminds me of entering Jurassic park. There is a stream flowing across a concrete ford with a footpath made of concrete to look like interlocking stones. A pond on the left and a waterfall on the right add to the atmosphere. There is a gigantic Balite (Banyan) tree on the right side of the stream as you enter. With roots streaming down its side, it looked 15 meters in diameter. Philippine legend associates Balite trees with demons and spirits, dili ingon nato, meaning "things not like us" in Visayan dialect. In any event the scenery was looking primordal and very exotic.

As you walk up the path and approach the lake, it is evident that commercialization has increased, with the addition of a store, reception center, and rental cottages etc. Still by world standards it still is a rather undeveloped remote area, and quite scenic.

Since it was late in the day, we decided to leave after briefly looking around, promising one another that we would return and have a day to spend at Balanan. We hopped back on our motor bikes and left for Dumaguete. It was an uneventful ride back down the mountain and up the highway north… for about one hour. As we approached Dauin I noticed black clouds in the distance. It was getting dark now, and within a few kilometers, the skies unleashed another deluge upon us. Coupled with the darkness, the rain made it almost impossible to see. We crawled back to Dumaguete at a snails pace. Arriving at long last, we dismounted our wet steeds, looked at each other all dripping wet, cold and dirty; no one had to say it. ADVENTURE.

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