From Dust Till Dawn

 

High road to heaven?

When a volcano blows up, after the dust settles, you can expect some rather spectacular scenery. So the setting for one of the most powerful eruptions in history ought to be a show-stopper. With my Gallic trio aboard, we bundled into our trusty Toyota Vios, and went way further than Hertz Car Rentals had bargained for. After a twisty, coast-hugging, jungle-piercing journey across Bataan, we drove down the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Highway, with dramatic views of Laharland and the Central Luzon countryside whizzing past us at 110 kilometers an hour. Unfortunately, the minimum speed limit made it impossible to properly appreciate, much less photograph. When we exited at Concepcion, one town away from the Pinatubo Spa in Capas, Tarlac, we were still blissfully unaware that although we already stood in the shadow of the volcano, its crater was still a whole day’s adventure away.

After a bewildering circuit for an hour through sprawling Capas town, we pulled into the spa with relief, an hour later than the recommended crater trip cut-off time. It took some frenzied cajoling and solemn promises not to dawdle to convince the crew to take us on. By then, it was a race against the sunset, since we couldn’t be caught up at the crater by nightfall. So off we went on what our guides described as their fastest trek up, ever.

The 4×4 gods must have decided to smile down on us as we were assigned a none-too-pretty but seriously reliable beast of a vehicle for the climb. As we rambled through the tricky dunes of rock and ash, we came upon several fancier but not-as-brutish vehicles that were literally stuck in the mud. One even called out to us for help, but there was no stopping our advance. All’s fair in love and lahar.

The landscape, which via the transformative effects of time, weather and plant life, may have begun to look less otherworldly, but the sense of being in a former blast zone was just as eerie. The silver lining to our late start is that we had missed the heat of the day, which meant we only had the dust to deal with. But then rumbling forward through the random streams and puddles dotting the course would splash us clean with sulphur-y water.

After bugging our guide every few minutes asking “Are we there yet? Are we going to make it?” the ash flats finally gave way to the ascent. The driver even turned off the engine, refilled the water tank, and waited for the thermometer to go down to make sure our steed was primed to climb.

Ashen peaks unique to Pinatubo

With more of rough lurching than smooth coasting upward, by the time we broke through to the plateau, it felt like we had cleared the next level of heaven. Delicately sinuous ash formations alternated with lush jungle, the haunches of pillowy clouds. Various sections of the expansive crater resembled prairies, aeries, savannahs, fjords and coves in the sky, evoking an ashen, floating fairyland, with the small community of resilient Aetas its enigmatic guardians. We zigged and zagged around jagged mountain ridges that thrust sharper, and forded flowing waters that grew clearer, the closer we got to the source. If not for our rush, every turn would have seen us getting off, slowly sighing, and capturing the panorama with innumerable digital snaps.

Upon reaching the 4×4 parking area, we wasted no time dilly-dallying and zoomed straight up the path to the crater lake. This gash in the volcano’s heart presented a lost world of fresh green and crystal streams, no ash here, but maybe some fairy dust. The trail was surprisingly easy, and we set another record by speeding up and across in what could have been no more than 13 minutes, spurred on by the dying of the light.

Sunset over the lahar-scape

So there we were, our raison d’etre a mere hillock beyond, panting and breathless. But that was not a moment to catch one’s breath, when it had just been taken away by what was there to see. Random, frenzied impressions synapse around my brain as it tried to make sense of the imagery and sensations – water, air, earth and fire – here the elements have collided to birth something achingly, beautifully primeval. It was an experience that exhumed deeply buried ancient tribal memories of great catastrophes and barely comprehensible upheavals. We were at the scene of where the earth had once done her worst, rebooted the cycle, and now presented her creation in all its living glory.

Dusk falls on our dune buggy

One could rhapsodize forever, struck dumb by the sight, the rarefied atmosphere, or just the stress of the ascent. But alas, we had less than 15 minutes to do our orgy of touristic admiration. At least we were treated to one event most visitors, save those who spend the night, don’t get to experience – dusk on the crater. On our descent we gave chase to the sun, and it was then I thought that this must be what vampires feel, but in reverse, when the shifting light could literally draw the line at life and death.

Not-so-raging bull at the end of a dusty day

Safely back down on the lahar-laden flatlands, we realized that, however harried our trek, there still was no such thing as unfortunate timing. It was magic hour in the shadow of the volcano, and along with the sun and sky, it set out to put on a show that would blow us away. Blazing light licked at the peaks and valleys of the caldera, and glowing like a radioactive ruby, Sol bathed Terra in the colors of her fire. We stopped to pay homage, all shaky with relief, appreciation, and anticipation. We had paid call to Pinatubo, and she had deigned to welcome us. We tendered no sacrifice, yet she had offered us safe passage.

 – text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010

 

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