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PINATUBO 10 YEARS AFTER : Beyond the valley of lahar
Source: Inquirer
Author: Constantino C. Tejero
Date: 2001-04-29
 
WHEN Mt. Pinatubo in Botolan, Zambales,

erupted in mid-1991, we covered the cataclysm

for three days from the vantagepoint of Clark

Air Base in Pampanga.



It was one of the most destructive volcanic

eruptions ever recorded in human history. Its

effect is being felt until now.



It made up the minds of the Americans to close down once and for all their

military facilities in the country, first Clark then the naval base in nearby Subic.

The late photographer Emil Salas and I were the last journalists to leave Clark as

it closed its gates and the first to see it become history, that early morning of June

15, 1991.



Toward noon that day, we did not think we

could return to Manila, as the world turned

totally dark with rain and ash fall, and the

earliest onrushes of lahar came. With bated

breath we waited to be petrified into stones.

That climactic eruption lasted for about nine

hours, collapsing the mountain’s summit and

producing a caldera 2.5-km wide.



In the following years, we covered the

heart-rending exodus of people affected by lahar, and their resettling in various

provinces. Now, 10 years later, we return to find Pinatubo literally a picnic.

Expect the savvy Filipinos to find ways and means to turn adversity into triumph.

Not only have they found out they could make figurines, vases and numerous

bric-a-brac with Pinatubo ash, but they’ve also discovered several accesses to

the caldera and are now marketing treks to the mountain to tourists.



High adventure



The regional office of the Department of Tourism gives away a brochure with this

friendly travel advisory: "Local tour operators offer diverse tour packages ranging

from low-impact travel along the sunken landmarks in Bacolor and Porac in

Pampanga, to the lunar landscape in Sapangbato, Angeles City, and the Mt.

Pinatubo lake in San Marcelino, Zambales, to the high-impact trekking adventure

to the crater of Mt. Pinatubo via Brgy. Sta. Juliana in Capas, Tarlac."



Needless to say, we chose to experience the high adventure. Last week, we

joined the Smart-DOT Media Climb to Mt. Pinatubo—although we couldn’t see

the connection. (We were sure no enterprising Filipino had ever dared build a cell

site on Pinatubo for obvious reasons. Also, the soil in those parts is rich in sulfuric

acid so that any metal cable or post is sure to be corroded in time.)

Continues the brochure: "The trail to the crater of Mt. Pinatubo follows the Crow

Valley gunnery range along the O’Donnell streambed in Capas, Tarlac, a flat long

valley that leads right up to the crater. The trek is a 1-hr drive on board an

all-weather jeep plus a 3-4-hr hike to the top of the volcano."



That should have served as a warning, but we were heedless. During an overly

sumptuous dinner of Tarlaqueńo cuisine at Coconut Grill on McArthur Highway

hosted by the Tarlac Chamber of Commerce and Industry, tourism regional

director Ronaldo Tiotuico detailed the travails of trekkers, but that only prodded

us to go.



Fragile zones



After an overnight stay in Tarlac City, courtesy of Sun Garden Hotel, we started

very early in the morning, while it was still dark, as some had to go to the market

to get the prescribed sandals for the arduous hike. (One of our four

guide-porters, Conrado, had been using his pair of Spartan slippers on those

trails for years. Your Niké won’t do.)



Our convoy of four vehicles traversed a valley of sand and stones surrounded on

all sides by lahar sediments that have been temporarily concretized into peaks

and plateaus. This was all desert. What was once the O’Donnell River teeming

with fish and aquatic plants had been reduced into numerous rivulets on a bed of

rocks, stones, pebbles and sand.



When the valley narrowed into canyons, then into gorges and ravines, until it was

impassable to a four-by four vehicle, the hike began. Because of the heat, we

were strongly tempted to walk under the shadows of those peaks, but Conrado

advised us to stay away from them. Those were fragile zones, and any time the

soil could erode and those mountains of rocks and sand could fall on your head.



Everything that has been said about the trek is true. We can’t begin to describe

the physical strains here—the blistering of the feet, the tightening of the veins, the

searing of the skin, the swelling of the lungs, the cramps, the headaches, the gas

pains—but we can now speculate on what a candle must feel as it melts from its

own flame. We didn’t exactly melt under the sun, but we could have collapsed, if

we weren’t made of sterner stuff.



Fantastic vision



As we made the final steps to the ascent, we staggered, literally staggered and

reeled. There before our eyes was a wide, wide jewel of blue and green, the lake

of the caldera, one you can only see in picture books, one you behold only once

in your lifetime, so beautiful.



The excited trekkers could barely find words for this fantabulous sight. How

could they tell their loved ones back home what they had just seen? They felt so

cut off from the rest of the world, physically and psychologically.



The Smart people passed around an Ericsson R190 dual-mode

handphone—marketed as the world’s lightest and smallest satellite mobile

phone—and we blabbered away to those who had been deprived of this vision.

(Now we saw the connection.)



A lot of picture-taking followed. We had a little picnic of sandwiches and fruits.

Some couldn’t resist dipping into or swimming in the warm healing water of the

lake.



As a reward for our travails, our hosts drove us to Clark and housed us in two

villas at the Fontana Leisure Parks. With the Pinatubo tragedy receding into the

dim reaches of our memory, we lived the good life that night quaffing beer,

sipping coffee and fruit juices, playing cards, feasting on Norwegian salmon

steak, Hungarian goulash, spicy chicken, shrimp rice.



Toward morning, we flung our tired body on to our fluffy bed, and we slept the

sleep of the just, with our cell phone by our side.
 

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