Have a one-of-a-kind adventure in Compostela Valley, Davao

There are two kinds of people on this trip to Compostela Valley: those who keep a safe, 100m distance from the action, and then there’s myself and photographer Jacob Maentz who weave in and out of a troop of armed enlisted men, sidling as close to the fight as we safely can. Until the explosion.

When the half-pound of TNT bursts into a red, orange and black tower of fire rising 6m in the air, it is neither the sight nor the sound that surprises you. As the heat rips into the field, radiating from the center of the blast, you are initially taken aback by the force. For those of us who have never been to war, it is this palpable shock wave that is memorable. The rest of the explosion can be experienced vicariously in the movies, but that blast can only be understood firsthand and up close.

Modest by warfare standards, the explosion — a very real climax to the make-believe destruction of a rebel camp — is a fitting end to a 30-minute annotated demonstration at Camp General Manuel T. Yan Sr in Mawab, one of the municipalities of ComVal, as it is abbreviated by the locals. Enacted by men of the 10th Infantry Division, it is a novel tourist draw, and possibly a first in the country.

Zipping over the army camp

Known in military parlance as a static display, the maneuvers are an existing training tool for these active members of the armed forces, but this time around, they perform it for an audience. “We’ve already had busloads of students come in for an educational tour,” explains Vanezza Serrano of the regional tourism office who, in tandem with the privately run Visit Davao Summer Festival, a consortium of tourism stakeholders and the Provincial Tourism Office of Compostela Valley, are the auteurs of a tourism product that may initially raise a number of questions. Do bullets and TNT make for a good mix with busloads of children?

ComVal, the fourth-newest province in the country — it was part of Davao del Norte until 1998 — is named after a fertile plain in its center and lends itself easily to efforts in ecotourism thanks to a network of 100 unexplored caves, active volcanoes, 60 recorded waterfalls and sightings of Rafflesias, some of the largest individual flowers on the planet. But as a relatively new tourism destination in the process of carving out its niche, it’s having to take some rather bold steps under the tourism slogan “Something different”.

The army boot camp I attend during my visit is certainly as different as it can get. Once a major base for the Communist Party of the Philippines, the 100ha military reservation has been reimagined as an adventure camp open to anyone who’s curious about the Armed Forces of the Philippines. I raise the question of safety and am quickly assured that the attraction is limited to unrestricted portions of the vast complex. It is also very much a work in progress, with a learning curve that evolves daily, evidenced by an ever-changing set of activities. In fact, the local tourism office housed within the camp, which runs the actual tour, claims that you can have your photos taken with a real tank, or fire live ammunition at a range. This is immediately refuted by the acting commander of the 10th Division Training School, Major Franz Josef S Diamante (spelled without a period after his middle initial as military lore reserves periods only for those who have passed), who is quick to point out why both propositions are not feasible. “Bringing the tanks to the unrestricted areas will damage the roads, and the firing of bullets by civilians?” Clearly ripe for rethinking. Instead, he offers a safer option: “Would you like to try rappelling instead?”

The clear waters around Kopiat Island on the ComVal coast

We are transported, appropriately enough, on the back of a military truck to the training school’s tower. It sits on top of a hill, a wood and metal structure that rises to the height of a five-story building. There are wooden planks arranged horizontally, spaced around five inches from each other, running down the front of the tower where one may secure a foothold. From the topmost deck, two ropes are lashed onto a pulley system and a safety harness on a trainee’s body, controlling both ascent and descent. “We have the best view from up there,” says Maj Diamante, “You can see all of Davao del Norte. An eagle’s-eye view, if you will.”

The 10th Infantry Division is also dubbed “Aguila”, after the Philippine eagle that calls this landscape home. I think to myself, “I see what you did there, Major.”

There are no apologies from the officers as I step off the edge with my back to the ground below and trust the ropes to take my full weight, only a reminder to bend my knees and release more rope as I make my way down. “You cannot graduate unless you finish this part of the training,” adds Maj Diamante. A tool to foster confidence, it has a more practical application: “We rappel face down with our weapons at the ready when we need to engage the enemy from a height. Or when we descend from a helicopter into the battlefield and there is no space to land.”

All that training in Mawab comes in handy the following day in the town of Maragusan, home to two hot springs, 300 cold springs and 30 known waterfalls. The day promises the second part of an adventure dubbed “Chasing Waterfalls in ComVal”, and we bravely choose to begin with Pyalitan Falls, the most difficult of the 30 to access.

After an hour’s trek through tertiary forest and highland vegetable plots, weaving our way carefully on a trail hewn precariously on the very edge of a precipice, we reach the main stream of the four-tiered waterfall. A team of six men from the ComVal Emergency Response Team (COVERT) and their local counterparts wait for us at the base of a 2.4m ascent on falling water with ropes and safety harnesses. At the base of the third tier, the real challenge becomes apparent — apart from a rope-assisted climb up a 4.6m vertical rock face, I can see that the only way to the waterfall’s second level, where one can finally see the main tier, is a narrow crack formed between three huge boulders that had fallen on each other through time. It is barely a foot wide.

The training at the army camp proved life-saving at the waterfalls

The guides bark out orders unapologetically and, because I can’t think with my body dangling in the narrow space, I follow blindly: “Bend forward! Now twist your back to the left! Put your foot on the log and then hoist yourself up! Raise your arms! Now lift your weight!” I somehow get my 91kg, 1.73m frame through the crack, and the next thing I feel is another arm pulling me through, like a baby from the womb.

Then Pyalitan’s main tier comes into view: a gash of white in between so much green, framed by a spread of palms and creeping vines; the rush of clear mountain water crashing from an impressive 46m fall. The climb takes a toll on your limbs, leaving you with aching calves and stretched upper arms. Our tired bodies find solace, ironically, in another body of falling water. A hot-spring waterfall aptly named Mainit (hot) is conveniently located by the roadside of Maco, another municipality of ComVal. Here, sulfuric water flows down large boulders and into rivulets that run beneath a bridge. Although they do not collect at a pool, you may stand on the boulders, yellowed by a crust of sulfur, and feel the soothing heat. The local ladies lay out a bamboo bed (or lantay) for a P100 massage right on the flowing stream, with the steam rising through the bamboo slats into your pores. Trained in the art of hilot (native massage), they are also able to share a litany of benefits that sulfur has for those with skin problems, and the residual heat’s ability to soften tight muscles. By the time my manghihilot (masseuse) gets to “cure for eczema”, I am partly in dreamland, thanks to her ministrations and the sound of rushing water.

Pyalitan Falls

Young as the destination is, the Visit Davao Summer Festival and the provincial tourism office are also in tune with this generation’s parlance, harnessing social media and attracting an audience that appreciates clever, well-written catchphrases and tour pamphlets that read like a page from a travel magazine. At the Mainit spring, for example, posters for the just concluded 1st Bobay Climb — an all-woman adventure trek that is named after the native Mansaka tribe’s word for woman — feature Mainit as one of its stops along with a promise of “crater, spring, summer and falls”. Never was a proposition so well-versed or aptly coined, drawing inspiration from a pioneering writer of girl-power anthems, Carole King.

The ladies of the Bobay Climb camped on Lake Leonard’s shores, at the foot of Mount Leonard Kniaseff, both named after a mining prospector who stumbled upon the lake in the 1930s. Photographs of the climbers show a dozen or so women lounging on hammocks strung between trees, with the placid lake in the background, and the provincial tourism office’s reference to “pure bliss”. But every good story lies beneath the surface, and in this case, quite literally so.

Lake Leonard is in fact a 6ha crater lake at 790m above sea level, created from collapsed lava domes from the volcanic activity of Mount Leonard Kniaseff, one of the country’s active volcanoes and a link in the Pacific Ring of Fire (although its last eruption has been dated to 120AD).

Today, though, there is not a trace of that sinister undercurrent with hardly a ripple on the dark and eerily still water, and only a slight rustling in the trees as several birds roost, eyeing us with a pointed curiosity. A man harvests swamp cabbage, perhaps to feed his livestock or to make into a meal for his family, slipping off from the shore noiselessly in a delicate bamboo raft lashed together with nylon twine. I wonder if he knows of the sleeping volcano under the lake.

Written by

Jude A. Bacalso

Photographed by

Jacob Maentz

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