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Enjoy no-frills camping in the great outdoors in Tanay

After nearly two years of being cooped up indoors due to the Covid pandemic and its accompanying lockdown, the lowering of alert levels gave us an opportunity to get out and breathe the fresh air. 

Upon the suggestion of then Tanay Senior Tourism Operations Officer (and now Municipal Development and Planning Officer) Jeff Pino and with the assistance of acting Tourism Officer Joicee Jules Gapido, I made plans to again try out no-frills camping at Fresno Agro Forestry and Eco Tourist Campsite, a hiking destination opened last 2019.

Owned by Mabini Dela Sada, an IP (Indigenous Person), the campsite was developed and managed by Reynaldo Zapanta Fresno, a Capiznon from Mambusao town. Joining me on this trip were my son Jandy and Ramon “Mon” Sarinas, a fellow Don Bosco Makati high school batchmate and an avid outdoorsman and photographer. 

After a two-hour trip, Mon and I met up at the camp’s registration area beside the entrance. After lunch at the restaurant, we drove our cars all the way up a rough, steep, and narrow dirt road to the summit of Mount Kulis (620 MASL), parking our cars just outside a pavilion. Still, a work in progress, the building, when finished, would house some 10 rooms and a second-floor view deck where one can watch both the setting and rising sun. Already in place are restrooms and a restaurant where you can order silog meals (tapsilog, tocilog, etc.). The summit once housed “Cardo Dalisay’s” kubo (the “bahay ni Cardo” from the ABS-CBN primetime TV series FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano) but this was destroyed during the powerful Category-4 Typhoon Ulysses.

Beyond the building is the campsite where the grassy hillside has been terraced to create level platforms where campers could pitch their tents. The terraced platforms can accommodate some 16 tents.  As we arrived on a weekday, we were the only campers. On weekends, the area gets packed with tents all around the place sprouting like mushrooms. 

Despite the afternoon sun, a cool breeze was blowing. Around us we could espy, on the east side of the hill, the destinations for our tour tomorrow—the Spider Web below us and, in the distance, Mount Sambong and Noah’s Ark.  Come dusk, we were treated to a beautiful sunset.  After a delightful dinner of pork liempo grilled over our stovetop grille (bonfires and campfires are not allowed), with rice cooked by the staff at the restaurant, we retired to our tents and warmed ourselves with shots of fruit-flavored gin while listening to cool music.  It was lights out by 10 pm, a curfew set and enforced by management.       

We woke up before 6 am to witness an equally fiery sunrise and, after a filling breakfast of hot coffee, corned beef omelet, and fried rice (prepared by the staff from our leftover rice the night before), we met up with Edong Penamante, the head of the 200-strong Fresno Tour Guide Association (about 90 percent of which are indigenous people) who was to be our mandatory guide for our 5-hour tour of Camp A and Camp B. 

After a preliminary briefing by Edong, we all went down Mount Kulis, via a cleared dirt trail (the sides of which have been leveled to accommodate more tents), to the giant Spider Web, a favorite of most trekkers. We only had to wait a little while for a previous group to finish. Getting on board was tricky and we had to crawl to make it to the center of the “web,” made with nylon ropes. Once in place, Edong, high up on a perch, directed us to create star-like configurations before taking our photos. On one side of the area are some 13 native-style huts, of different sizes, which are rented out.  Nearby are some common public toilets.

It was uphill from thereon as we made our way up, via a steep and rocky trail, to Sambong Peak (629 MASL) or Heart Peak, named after the heart-shaped, flower-lined wood and bamboo backdrop where couples pose. Located at the back of Mount Kulis, it was named after the generous number of native sambong plants (Blumea balsamifera) in the area. There are also limestone karst formations on a cliff, perfect for Instagram shots.

From Sambong Peak, we next made a 30 to 45-minute hike, along a trail involving mountainous slopes, rocky and grassy areas, to Noah’s Ark.  This boat-shaped wooden structure, with bamboo outriggers, sits atop a limestone karst formation and is approached via a wooden bridge with bamboo railings. A sea of clouds sometimes envelopes the mountain and Noah’s Ark was designed as such to create the illusion that you are sailing over this sea of clouds. Visitors also pose atop a limestone karst formation beside the bridge.

From Noah’s Ark, it was another 30-minute hike to the Registration Area where we had our lunch and rested awhile prior to our visit to Camp B. It is a steep uphill-downhill hike to get to the Hanging Bridge at Camp B but, luckily, there was an open top 4 x 4, driven by Stephen Fresno (a relative of Reynaldo), that would take us there. Still, it was a bumpy, roller coaster ride going to the Hanging Bridge. We also had to look out for tree branches that could knock us off our feet. For safety purposes, only a maximum of seven persons are allowed on the bridge. After crossing just halfway for our pose, we made our way back and hiked, along another dirt trail, to a riverside swimming pool created by a dam. Here, we rested our tired bodies as we immersed ourselves in its bracingly cold waters.

This capped our tour and we made our way back, this time uphill via the same 4 x 4, back to the Registration Area (where others alighted) and continued our way, again uphill, back to our campsite at Mount Kulis. The piece de resistance of our stay was now over, so we spent the rest of the day relaxing our tired bodies inside our tent. Come morning, after another hearty breakfast, it was time to pack up and make our way back to the not-so-great indoors of Manila.

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The article was originally published in Business Mirror and written by Benjamin Locsin Layug.

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