The Living Mountain
By: Steven Knipp
This is the tale of a mountain. It is the story of the highest peak in the Philippines. Although the Philippines is a nation with more than its share of famous and beautiful mountains, Filipinos everywhere know this mountain well. They regard it with particular affection, and call it Apo, a Pilipino word for a revered elder.
Of all nature’s majestic wonders, mountains are most awesome and complex for humans to comprehend. In modern times, mountains have come to represent grave danger to commercial aircraft and airline pilots avoid them at all costs. But for farmers, the lofty and ponderous bulk of mountain has meant that they could catch even the highest rain clouds, bringing welcome relief to arid crops, as well as drinking water to farm animals.
By almost any standard, Mt. Apo is immense. Soaring to 2,900 meters, the mountain is extraordinarily broad: its base is larger that the island of Singapore. In recent years, man has discovered that the interior of certain large mountains can provide wondrous new gifts to mankind – the gift of power. Apo is such a mountain.
Apo’s vast, mysterious interior is matched only by the mountain’s equally mysterious and more accessible exterior. To hikers and climbers, mountains pose a physical challenge to conquer their lonely and windswept summit, while to professional and amateur photographers, they represent objects of great natural beauty. Finally, to the spiritual among us, mountains provide indisputable proof that, for all our technical achievements, we are still far from being masters of the natural world.
Mount Apo is an outstanding mountain in that it appeals to all of these sentiments. Because of its great height and sheer mass, Apo even affects the climate of much of the southern island of Mindanao. Clouds, laden with water, regularly crash against its upper slopes, and the resulting rainfall has made Mindanao one of the most fertile regions on Earth. The vast plains surrounding Apo are a veritable garden of Eden, where pineapple, coconut, banana, pomelo, durian, mango and marang grow in rich abundance.
To Filipino naturalists and conservationists, Apo has long been an object venerated for its beauty and its mystery. To the rural people who live on its lush lower slopes, the mountain’s many moods are as familiar and comforting as their own heartbeat. To the natives whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers have made their homes on the mountain, Apo is a sacred summit – home to the gods known Apo and Mandarangan.
The term Apo is widely used for the mountain by lowlanders, but Bagobos prefer to call their mountain Sandawa, meaning mountain of sulfur. And with a good reason, for Mount Apo is an inactive volcano. Though the last know eruption took place in the 16th century, sulfur vents on Apo’s upper slopes perpetually give off clouds of sulfur steam and bubbling hot-mud pools offer hard evidence that there is a living mountain deep below the surface. Intensely heated waters located deep within Apo will someday turn steam turbines, which will in turn provide electricity for much of rural Mindanao.
The first recorded attempt to climb Mount Apo took place in 1859, when the Spanish colonial governor-general of Davao, Don Jose Uyanguren, set out from Davao with nearly 80 soldiers. The uncharted terrain proved so difficult, it was reported that more than 20 climbers died, forcing the expedition to turn back. A decade later, a second mission, better equipped and led by a hardened platoon of Spanish National Guards, also tried. Yet, they, too, failed to reach the wild and windy summit.
Finally, in the autumn of 1880, after an arduous six-day climb, Governor Joaquin Rajal of Davao reached the very summit of Apo, thus finally conquering the highest mountain in the Philippines. Two years later, a duo of German scientists also made a successful climb to the top, taking elaborate notes of the mountains bewildering array of flora and fauna as they climbed.
In the centuries before Apo was officially explored, unknown numbers of native Bagobos may well have reached the summit during hunting expeditions, or religious pilgrimages. Unfortunately, evidence of their adventures was never recorded and their stories are lost forever in the swirling winds atop Apo’s summit.
In the 1960’s, increasing numbers of adventurous climbers trekked to Apo’s summit. Finally, in 1974, the mountain was officially opened to Filipino and foreign recreational climbers through a specially selected trail from the small town of Kidapawan situated on the lower slopes of the mountain.
People and Wildlife
While recreational trekkers see only the physical beauty and the challenge to their fitness, Mount Apo has come to represent survival to the natives as it provides many of the basic necessities of life. The largest group of residents are the Bagobos and Manobos. Not so many decades ago, these hardy people survived a hard-scrabble life as forest hunters. Today they make their livelihood as subsistence farmers growing such crops as corn, potatoes, cabbage, camote, peanuts and coffee.
One such hardworking farmer is 47-year old Nelson Tula. Like many Bagobos, Nelson has lived on the mountain all his life, as had his father before him and his father’s father. Despite only attending school until the third grade, Nelson speaks the Bagobo dialect as well as Tagalog fluently, plus a smattering of English which he learned from foreign missionaries in the 1950’s.
In the old days, before a recently-opened road linked his high mountain farm to the tiny settlement of Kidapawan, medical attention was a whole day’s hike away. Now it takes less than an hour’s drive by jeep or truck over a still rough road to reach a doctor. But Bagobo women still prefer to have their babies at home, Nelson says, under the watchful eye of a Bagobo midwife.
Nelson knows the procedure well, for he and his wife Pacita have ten children, aged from 27 years to 12 months, three of whom are married. Challenged to give a first name roll call, Nelson hesitates just a tad, smiles shyly and recites: “Rommel, Verna, Ronnie, Annabel, Rogelio, Mercy, Remy, Rommel, Reniel, and Liza.” Nelson does not think his family exceptionally large, however. “Some farmers have only seven children,” he says, “but I know one who has 16 children.”
Aside from a half dozen crops he rotates seasonally, Nelson, like many Bagobo farmers, supplements his modest income by growing cash crops such as abaca, which is made into strong hemp rope, and soft silky tiger grass which, when bound together, make excellent brooms which are sold to local traders who in turn sell them in the thriving markets of Davao or distant Manila.
With the spare ash raised, Nelson buys his two most expensive commodities, sugar and rice, as neither of these lowland crops will grow in the cool mountain air. He also buys cans of kerosene for lighting and cooking.
The ever-resourceful Bagobos also plant and harvest whole fields of an enchanting bloom known as “everlasting flowers”. The flowers have been given this charming name due to the fact that even many years after being picked, their bright colorful petals refuse to fade. Six months after planting, the everlasting flowers burst into bloom, turning entire meadows into brilliant quilts of bright yellow, pristine white and vivid red.
Once a week, during the harvest season which runs from January till March, pretty Bagobo girls gather baskets full of flowers which are then strung together on twine to make attractive garlands. The lovely everlasting wreaths are equally popular in humble Bagobo mountain homes as well as those of wealthy flower lovers in Manila. A dozen garlands sell for just 40 pesos on Apo, but prices increase many times as the flowers reach distant Philippine cities.
Despite the large number of wild creatures that make their home on Apo’s vast slopes, relatively few are ever seen by even the most observant climbers or photographers. Given the density of the forest and the natural instinct with which animals can hide themselves in the mountain’s many impenetrable valleys and windswept ridges, this is hardly surprising.
Apo’s wildlife is rarely seen, but it is there nonetheless. The most famed of Apo’s wild creatures is the magnificent Philippine Eagle. With a wingspan exceeding two meters, it is one of the largest eagles in the world. A bird that mates for life, the eagle can live in the wild as long as 60 years. This great hunter has no known predator save man. In has been the spread of human populations which, over the last 50 years, has brought this magnificent winged creature to the verge of extinction. Where once the Philippine Eagle soared over most of the Philippines, from Northern Luzon to the high cliffs of Palawan, today the bird is largely seen in remote pockets in Mindanao.
Though the eagle is undoubtedly the most impressive creature making its home on Apo, there are other species which also make the mountain their home. There are several hundred varieties of smaller birds, including doves, parrots, kites and pigeons. Also sharing the forested canopy with the feathered creatures are various furred animals such as flying squirrels, lemurs and monkeys. Also at home in Apo’s deepest forests is the extremely rare tarsier. This tiny creature, no bigger than a coffee cup, resembles a miniature monkey with huge oversized eyes. It is an extremely picky eater and dines only on live insects.
Down below on the moist forest floor, rarely seen or heard, are wild pigs and herds of mountain deer which feed on the lush flora. In this land of eternal greenness, few species will easily catch the eye of the average urban visitor. Except, that is, for sudden flashes of vivid color spotted in the underbrush by an unusually alert hiker or photographer: jungle orchids! The colors of these resplendent flowers range from white and pale yellows to astonishing reds and shocking oranges. The rarest orchid of all is the beguiling Waling-Waling, which blossoms for six full weeks. It can only be found on the slopes of Mount Apo, and grows nowhere else on earth.
In the whole of the Philippines, there are perhaps 10,000 different flowering plants including everything from the tiniest, velvety soft mosses and lichens, to the stately molave trees, splendid jungle giants better known internationally as Philippine Mahogany.
Apo is also home to some less-than-elegant vegetation like the pitcher plant. Sometimes confused with the Venus fly trap, this unique plant boasts an ingenious method of feeding itself. At the top of the pitcher’s plant stem is a hollow “pitcher” which produces a sweet-smelling juice. This aromatic liquid is designed to attract hungry and unsuspecting insects. When a curious ant, or spider, or beetle enters the pitcher to investigate, it soon finds itself trapped in a deadly sticky goo from which there is no escape. After a day’s worth of insects has fallen into the goo, the pitcher plant slowly closes its lid at sunset and the insects entombed inside are literally processed into plant food.