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On Mindanao, an island better known for terrorists than tourists, a rugged mountain rises through the clouds. Verdant trees line a narrow dirt path leading up to the precipice, and a bubbling river beckons the adventurous spirit to follow it into the wilderness. This is Mount Apo, the crown jewel of the Philippine climbing experience.
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Towering 2,954m above Mindanao, the southern region of the Philippines, Mount Apo is the highest peak in the country. The climb typically takes two or three days, depending on which of the many trails you choose, and is not for the faint of heart. But those who brave the near-vertical slopes, rocky ledges and hidden swamps are rewarded with dazzling views and a journey that inspires the soul.
While tourists are often warned to avoid the entire Mindanao region because of internal tensions with rebel groups, most of the violence is isolated to areas farther west than Mount Apo. An extensive pre-climb safety briefing, registration permits and knowledgeable local guides (arranged by the local tourist office) are required. The biggest problem you are likely to encounter is how to capture the mountain’s grandeur in a photo lens.
Getting to the base of Mount Apo is a journey in itself. After flying to Davao City (direct flights are available from Manila and Cebu), tourists must take a two-hour bus or van ride to Kidapawan for orientation, then ride an open-air jeep or motorcycle to the base camp, another hour away. Alternatively, you can hire a private car or taxi the entire way from Davao City. A Unesco World Heritage site, Mount Apo Natural Park spans about 64,000 hectares and is nestled between the Davao and North Cotabato provinces.
My barkada (group of friends) left the base camp at 4 am, hoping to be well into the forest by the heat of the day. The hike began like any other mountain trail. In high spirits, we followed the path up and down a few minor hills and bounded across the river on stepping stones, laughing about who would be the first to stop for a water break. As we trekked up the mountain however, slick footholds along craggy cliffs replaced the once-easy dirt paths and breathless wheezes replaced our carefree jokes.
Once in the rainforest, the trail seems to disappear, visible only to the most experienced guides. You can feel the altitude shift as you continue the ascent – sometimes at a 90-degree angle. Occasionally rickety ladders or rusty handholds help travellers up, but often it is a task to find a secure tree root or steady rock on which to place your foot that will not trigger a minor landslide onto your mates below. Many backpackers camp the first night at Lake Venado, a welcoming expanse of serene flatland dotted with hidden swamps. The tune of cicadas lulls you to sleep after an evening of crystal clear stargazing.
Watching the sunrise on Mount Apo is like sitting in a watercolour painting. As the mist clears, pastel pinks, oranges and purples dance in the sky around you, challenging you to race the sun to the summit. If you do not mind hiking in the dark, you can leave Lake Venado three to four hours before dawn and reach the top at the moment the sun peeks over the horizon, illuminating the lone white cross that stands at the peak.
From the apex, the view is clear and unobstructed. You are far above the clouds now, surrounded by a vast expanse of nothingness and a panoramic view. It feels like the top of the world; a transcendent experience.
The journey down is not as arduous as the hike up, but it is not by any means easy. Still, many take the opportunity to stop and “smell the roses” along the way. Mount Apo is considered one of the richest botanical mountains in the region, and rare plant and animal species thrive in this unspoiled environment. Hidden waterfalls along the edifice offer refreshment to weary travellers. At the bottom of the trail, hikers can rest their aching legs at soothing natural hot springs.