25-Oct-2006 -- We managed to organize a quick break during Eid El Fitr and headed to see the Philipino half of the family. The wife is from Bago City, Negros Island which I have visited a couple of times before but never got much further than the shopping malls, golf courses and the local mountain resort. This time I was determined to get further a field and see more of Negros and what better way than chasing a confluence? I had looked up to see whether the nearest points were taken a couple of years ago when I last visited. There were one to the north that needed a boat and one to the south that was in the mountains. The wife is not so keen in me running up mountains after confluences as I got the whole family arrested whilst I got 30N 33E so the safest bet was to go north and get 11N 123E. It was a bit hectic before I left so I did not even get a chance to see if any one had claimed it since but the hunt was on, so who cares!
The first stop was the local bookshop to get the latest & greatest maps. Having looked at them it looked like head up to around Victorias and find a boat to rent, not difficult in the Philippines I would think. The wife was not so sure as “there are no good beaches on Negros” pandering to the whims of tourists! There was an interesting dilemma amongst the maps I bought, some showed a road that ran from Bacalod, the capital, through Murcia, Don Salvador Bendicto and on to San Carlos on the east coast of Negros, others did not. The In-laws were not sure if a road was there or not. That settled that, the plan was try and cross to San Carlos and then return via the northern coast, checking out the best location where we could rent a boat from which to attempt 11N 123E. The next issue was transport, as it was Eid El Fitr which the Philippine government has made a national holiday and so the inlaws were keen to come as well. Hence the obvious choice was rent a Jeepney and fill it up. Roque, my brother in law arranged this and it promptly turned up next morning. The driver had never been to San Carlos and had no idea of the way, Roque had only been via the coastal route so we set off not knowing whether we could get there or not. The road passes between Mount Canlaon, an active volcano that last erupted in January, and mount Manralgan. The road was there as it soon became obvious because of the busses we met and that passed us. This took a little of excitement out of it but did not detract from the scenery of steep gorges, terraced paddy, and impressive mountains. Mount Canlaon is the highest peak in the central Philippines, the Visayas, and the ash plume can clearly be seen on the satellite imagery. It can be climbed but only from about January to March when it is the driest. Despite the fact we look straight onto Mount Canlaon, on a clear day, from our front porch the wife was blissfully unaware that it was an active volcano.
Half way over the Jeepney driver looked at the steepest hill we had encountered so far and decided that his Jeepney was not up to the task and wanted to turn back. This would have ruined the day so he agreed that he would drive up if we all got out and walked up the hill. He was assured that it was flat after this by a helpful passer by. We walked and he got up and we carried on into more lovely scenery. There were a few more steep uphills after but none quite so bad and a couple of sections of road had not been surfaced on what is now termed the eco-tourism highway. However the down slopes heading in to San Carlos was even steeper and the Jeepney driver, used to the flat between Bago City and Bacalod, was clearly nervous, but the view was spectacular.
We had lunch in the mall at San Carlos before heading north around the coast. I was expecting coastal plain all the way but the northeastern corner of Negros is covered in foothills that had the Jeepney chugging merrily away without too much strain. I was keeping a hopeful eye out for a nice beach for a quick dip but Negros has not been blessed with the first rate beaches that’s it neighboring islands of Cebu and Boracay have. As we progressed westwards we started to see what Negros has been blessed with and that is sugar. Sugar has been a major source of wealth for Negros for the past couple of centuries and we were in the middle of the harvest season. In the past, narrow gauge, steam railways carried the sugar cane into the “Sugar centrals” where it was processed, nowadays it was trucks, smaller ones to get the cane to localized staging areas and bigger trucks to the processing plants. They certainly know how to load their trucks, and we had lots of fun getting past some of them.
When we got to Victorias we started looking for boats to rent which caused me a few problems. Take me to the beach I would ask which was answered by an incredulous “On Negros?” followed by embarrassed inlaws explaining I was “foreign” and knew no better. “Fishing boats” was more fruitful and we headed towards the docks at Victorias, but the bridge was under repair and we got lost in the detour, followed by more confusion about there being no beaches on Negros. We gave up and were heading towards Silay when I spotted a sign “Beach Resort” and with self righteous authority I got the Jeepney to turnabout and head down the road. The beach was a beach, quite nice in fact, except the sand is dark brown, muddy brown would be a good description. However a muddy brown beach just does not meet the popular conception of a beach paradise so I could not be to triumphant about discovering a beach on Negros. But more importantly there was a fishing harbour with a variety of boats right next door. In the Philippines it appears there are two main classes of local fishing boats, the Baroto, basically a canoe with outriggers and either a small engine or sail for the poorer fishermen, or the larger Pambot, basically a boat with similar design to the canoe but large enough to take several crew members. All three variants were available at the harbour and the owners of the larger ones which I had decided was necessary for a 10km sail into open water were happy to rent their services. However it was now 4pm and despite their assurances they could cover 10km there and back in 90 minutes, I decided that the prudent approach would be to return next day with more time.
Back home, Roque decided he had a mate with a boat who could take us direct from Bago and then take us to a nice island south of Bago. With the bigger Pambot, this sounded reasonable so we decided to go with this option. Next morning we, seven of us as the schools were still on holiday, moved down to the mud flats at Bago to find the tide out and a boat on the horizon. We walked across mud flats and waded out but as we got closer it became apparent that it was the powered version of a Baroto and the owner was tinkering with the engine! At this stage I decided that a drinking buddy of Roque was a more accurate description of the owner. Being stood knee deep in water some 400 metres from shore, I thought getting in would be the best option, there had to be some reality behind the two and a half hour trip time to cover 45km! I had ridden a Baroto some twenty odd years ago between Batangas and Puerta Galera because we had missed the ferry. I was young and stupid then, and just less young now so we carried on, and after bumping over the shallows for a while we got under way into the chop and incoming tide. With the two crew and the seven of us, it was evident that the best speed we could manage, even after redistributing the weight, was 10km per hour and we started 51 km from the confluence. I decided that this was not going to work and we headed back to the beach amongst grumblings that if only there was a way of getting the fat one sat right at the back, it might be wet but we could speed up. However the prospect of sitting with a prow up my rear end for 4 hours or so was not appealing.
It was back to the beach and up to the main road to catch a Jeepney. This we did but we were not the most popular passengers, as riding in the back of a busy Jeepney involves getting up close to your passengers on a thigh to thigh basis. When you are soaking wet to the waist my fellow passengers were only too pleased to move away from me as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Either that or I forgot my underarm deodorant in the excitement of the hunt that morning! On the way into Bacalod, Roque rented the Jeepney to take us all the way and then back to Bago after the hunt. We got into Bacalod, offloaded all the fair paying passengers and headed to the fishermen we met yesterday.
The rest was almost boring, we rented a Pambot called Mimi and headed out at over 20km per hour. It was a straight run with plenty of room for the team, under a sun shade. Communication with the skipper was a problem as he sat up a mast with a long tiller and a rope throttle control. We got him on the approximate track and he kept it perfectly until we got close and I wanted finer adjustment. The solution was to let him see the Garmin and he had no problem from there. My problem lay with the camera, as I had forgotten my familiar digital camera back in Cairo. Being on boat a disposable was probably the right choice so that I what I was using. However my thumbs were heavy and tended to advance beyond the stop. As a result we went sailing past while I tried to take a picture of the Garmin. By the time I did we were 200m past so we had another attempt, this time I hoped successfully but could not review the picture and the result was rather disappointing. This was definitely a variant to the zeros dance in the desert, not that my experienced Garmin gives me much of a dance these days. It was then take the photos of the four compass points and main scenic directions, the team and the job was done. I had been dubious about how much land was visible at this distance as the weather had been quite hazy but we had clear views of Panay to the north and west and Negros to the south and east. The lighthouse on the island of Calabazas was clearly visible from the confluence so we headed over to have a look. This island is twinned with the island of Nasidran and lies just offshore of Panay. On the way the skipper explained that the lighthouse is no longer manned as several keepers have starved in the past when marooned by rough weather. On a beautiful day like the one we were out in this was difficult to imagine. We were not allowed to land without prior permission from the tourism authorities on Panay, so we circled Nasidran island and headed back. There were two houses on Nasidran, one right on top with a big balcony which must have spectacular views of sunset and sunrise. According to the captain an American with a Filipina wife, owned it as a holiday home. Whether this is true or not, whoever built it has a great sense of location! It was then back across the Guimaras Strait and home with a far better appreciation of how beautiful a set of islands that the Philippines are.
Mimi Crew: Roger Juanico, Jonjun Meramine, Janjan Pascua, Monsor Lesesma, Joseph Abao & Kitoy Burgos