|PINATUBO 10 YEARS AFTER : Beyond the valley of lahar
|Author: Constantino C. Tejero
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.