Volcano Hiking at Mount Pinatubo

A few weeks ago now, while Helen was visiting us in April, we went hiking at Mount Pinatubo.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long while, but it takes some organization and prior planning.  I had visited the area earlier, but we only viewed some of the devasation it caused to a local church.  This time we were going to get a close up look at the volcano itself.

It’s a pretty unique opportunity.  Mount Pinatubo is a volcano which erupted in 1991, causing the second largest volcanic explosionn of the 20th century.  Its eruption coincided with the heavy rainfall of Tropical Storm Yunya, which amplified the devastation significantly. The eruption lasted 9 hours, caused two earthquakes, and the erupting lava mixed with the excessive rain resulting in 10cm of ash covered an area of 2000 square kilometers, killing more than 800 people.  Half a billion dollars in property was destroyed and entire communities were wiped out.  The top of the volcano collapsed creating a massive caldera, which today is a large lake.

20 years later the cliffs formed by the volcanic explosion are starting to grow greenery

Today the journey from the outskirts of the devastation to the lake is across a lunar-like landscape, broken up by multiple riverlets running down from the caldera lake.  The first part is covered via jeep for about an hour, as it can only move at a very slow place across the rocky boulders and river beds.

The lunar landscape that is crossed by jeep

An hour out, the journey moves to foot.  Rattled from the jeep experience, and under the burning sun we walked for almost three hours to reach the lake.

The ascent is gradual, and the path is relatively straightforward. But that doesn’t make it easy. There’s lots of scree and its easy to slide on the loose gravel, and it was particularly hot that day. The sun came out and stayed out. I wore a hat but felt like my brains were being boiled! There was very little shade. It took almost three hours to reach the last part of the journey, up some steep steps to the plateau in front of the lake.

A victorious smile from Helen who was a trooper!

I was dismayed to see that there was little shade at the top, which was occupied by others, and it was another steep climb down to the actual lake shore, which meant another climb back up. We took a little rest and a food break and found the energy to go down to the shore.

Others paddling down by the lake’s edge

Some were in the water, but changing into swim wear was not an easy option, and the banks of the lake were really steep – it was caused by a volcanic explosion after all – so we stayed on the lake’s edges and paddled. A bit disappointing really, because the thought of plunging into cold water kept me going all the way there.

Taking a boat out on the lake and a close up of a landslide, which were all around

We had started the day at 2.45am, waited in our building lobby one hour for the driver who didn’t actually show up until 4.30am. That put us at basecamp one hour late, and  there were no more jeeps available to pick us up. We were 7 people, and the jeeps only hold 6 (so we were told) so we had to split be up into two parties when the first jeep was finally found, which probably meant we couldn’t all hike together. 45 minutes later, Helen, Latham and I were finally picked up by a driver who didn’t know where he was going. The back door was broken, the side doors opened by themselves. We stopped to help another jeep with a flat tyre that turned out to be our stranded friends. We all piled into our jeep, which now was magically holding 9: the driver, the 7 of us, their guide and our guide. That’s three in the front, four in the back, one guide on the bonnet and the other holding on to the back of the vehicle. Photos don’t begin to show the whole picture!

The guide sat on the bonnet the entire time (with the other hanging off the back). How they stayed on is a mystery to me!

Being packed like sardines had its advantages when we drove in and out of river beds or bounced across dried mud and tire tracks. It stopped us flying around the vehicle as we were all jammed so close together. There were no handrails. The key fell out of the broken ignition on particularly bumpy spots, stalling the vehicle. The insides of the doors were missing, revealing the inner workings of the window and door handles. It was the crappiest, most abused vehicle I have ever traveled in.

However, our experience wasn’t even close to one reported by others. Other friends, coincidentally, had decided to visit Pinatubo that day. However, they had gone with a large group of about 30. Instead of supplying 5 jeeps to hold six-a-piece, some genius sent everyone out on a not-quite-large-enough bus, so some of the group had to sit on the roof. Of course, a long vehicle can’t handle the steep up and downs on the rugged trail, and after 20 minutes it got stuck out in the muddy, middle of nowhere. They were stranded in the lava fields for over two hours in the burning sun. They arrived at the crater lake, looking mighty pissed off, just as we were leaving.

The day was long and tiring, filed with amazing vistas and memories of a unique experience, but marred by really terrible communication and horrible transportation. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this type of thing here. But for the uninitiated, the challenge is thus: Going in you know that the trip will probably encounter unexpected difficulties. What they will be, and how bad they will be, is unknown. Forewarned may be forearmed, but often there is nothing much you can do. Do you say no to the next one? Or do you make the best call you can and go for the experience?

Buried Churches and Bats….Spooky!

Guillermo Church. Not a recent picture, but a really good one that shows what lahar can do to the countryside and whole villages. Look how deeply the church is buried!

Recently we visited Pampagna on an all day excursion, taking in churches, traditional food and a lantern festival. About 2 hours north of Manila, its the home of the still active volcano of Mount Pinatubo.  When it erupted on 15 June 1991, lahar flowed from the slopes of the volcano onto the surrounding countryside, burying everything in its path.  The massive eruption and subsequent destruction was devastating and one of the most powerful volcanic explosions in recent years.  Towns were completely wiped out, and the landscape was changed radically.  Over 20 years later, you can still see evidence of the explosion in just the grey ash colour of the soil, not to mention the property damage and strange elevated roads.  Among the many half-buried buildings that still stand is the San Guillermo Parish Church in Bacolor, which we went to view.  I cannot find my SD drive with all the photos, so I will have to make do with descriptions, which is a real shame as the photos were great!  (I blame the cat, who probably batted it and chased it from my desk to some remote dusty corner of my office.)

The townspeople excavated the altar and the retablo after the volcanic eruption and relocated it under the dome in order for the wooden retablo to fit.  And clean up and other repairs were done, of course, but the main church still remains half-buried in the ground.  IF I had pictures you could see the main entrance to the church is now through the first story windows and the altar now sits under the eaves.  The congregation sits looking down out of half buried windows, and bats fly occassionaly around the altar.  (I saw a colony of them nesting high up in the ceiling.) It was literally, bats in the belfry….and very weird too.  You can see where the expression came from.

Other than these oddities, its business as usual inside the church.  Its decorated, clean and cared for.  There was a baptism while we were there.  Everything is just a little higher than normal.

We are planning another trip to Pampagna next month.  This time to visit the slopes of Mount Pinatubo’s crater and to swim in the crater lake.  So more on Pinatubo to follow…. (hopefully with photos next time.)