Outdoor road trip
Amazing Philippines 4WD experience
WHEN MOUNT PINATUBO erupted on 15 June 1991, no one could have predicted the devastation it would cause. This was the second biggest eruption of the 20th Century, and Mt Pinatubo spewed out a billion tonnes of magma, 20 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide and more volcanic ash than any eruption since Krakatoa in 1883.
Three months prior to the eruption, a series of earthquakes provided some indication of what was to come, and as volcanic activity around Mt Pinatubo increased, local inhabitants were advised to evacuate the area, including 20,000 indigenous Aeta people who lived on the slopes of the volcano, and up to 200,000 who lived in the lowlands around it.
In a cruel twist of fate, on the day of the eruption Typhoon Yunya also struck Luzon; as a result, heavy rains combined with the ash ejected from the volcano to create massive lahar flows that buried numerous towns and villages, and destroyed most of the agriculture and infrastructure in the surrounding area. In total, around 840 deaths were reported, mostly from roof collapses caused by the weight of the wet and heavy ash that had settled on houses, but many thousands of lives were saved by the early evacuations.
In October 1995, more heavy rains saw the lahar overflow from the Pasig-Potrero River, which buried Bacolor town. As a result, the Filipinos built a 56km-long U-shape ‘megadike’ as a last defence to protect Pampanga province; it was completed in 1997 and is called the FVR Megadike, and it’s so big that it has a highway built atop it.
Quarter of a century after the Mt Pinatubo eruption, the lahar beds are still the dominant geographical feature of the landscape around Mount Pinatubo. Although thick, tropical vegetation has made a remarkable comeback along the sides of the riverbeds, the grey lahar, made up of ash and rocks, looks as though it could have been deposited just a few days prior. And when it rains the lahar continues its movement downstream…
Of course, the resourceful Filipinos have found ways of making use of the lahar, which is now often referred to by locals as ‘white gold’. In fact, as we make our way to the Sacobia River just a short drive from our hotel, we can see earthmoving equipment quarrying the lahar for use in construction projects and road building. Ironically, it was used extensively in the creation of the FVR Megadike itself.
I’m behind the wheel of a Ford Everest, and the sense of relief I feel as I turn off one of Pampanga’s main roads with its Filipino traffic chaos is shortlived. I now have to pilot the sizeable (left-hand drive) 4WD wagon along a narrow laneway lined each side with jittery toddlers and mangy-looking dogs. Despite their formative years, the toddlers and their slightly older siblings exhibit remarkable road sense;as our convoy proceeds slowly through the village of Haduan, I’m more than happy there are no ‘incidents’ to report.
As we break free of the village we find ourselves surrounded by a moonlike landscape, albeit one with lush green vegetation on the horizons and a decentsize river running through the middle of it.
Driving on the dry lahar is easier than expected. In parts the surface is as hard as concrete, and where it’s softer the driving could hardly be described as challenging; we don’t even bother to lower tyre pressures to aid traction. We do, however, change the setting on the Everest’s full-time 4WD Terrain Management System (TMS), which is achieved by turning a clearly marked dial on the centre console. Moving from the ‘Normal’ setting to ‘Sand’ mode makes the throttle more sensitive and instructs the transmission to downshift more readily, so we’ll have plenty of power on tap if we need it.
It’s only when we pull up just before the track meets the Sacobia River that we’re instructed to select lowrange and lock the rear diff, for where the lahar meets the dark water, we’re advised that a vehicle can easily become bogged… and not easily extracted.
Before we tackle the water crossing, we watch as local farmers ride their motorcycles across the river. Even the water buffalos that they’re tending seem unfazed by the potentially boggy lahar beneath the surface. As I dip the Everest’s wheels into the drink I feed on the power and splash across to the other side without a problem.
As we continue upstream we’re confronted by the discrepancy between living standards of the rich and poor in the Philippines. On one side of the river are shacks made from old scraps of timber, rusty bits of corrugated iron and anything else that could be cobbled together, in which entire families live, trying to eke out an existence anyway they can using the
…the reward at the top is a lake with stunning turquoise waters surrounded by steep crater walls.
river as their only resource, while on the other side we spot tourists relaxing in the pools of a resort called Puning Hot Spring and Sand Spa. The latter also offers 4WD safaris along the lahar beds of the Sacobia River.
We push on and rinse the dust off the vehicles under a waterfall before we reach the end of the track where the high walls of volcanic ash seem to close in around us. Our guide tells us that off-roaders used to be able to drive almost to the top of Pinatubo, where there’s now a crater lake, but these days you have to get out and walk to the top. The hike is 5.5km and ascends some 300m from where you’re dropped off in a 4WD, and the reward at the top is a lake with stunning turquoise waters surrounded by steep crater walls. Unfortunately our tight schedule sees us point the vehicles downstream and make our way back to the comfort of our hotel.
While a four-wheel drive trip along Mount Pinatubo’s lahar beds was never on my travel radar, I’d certainly like to make a return trip with a little more time up my sleeve to explore the area more, and to cover that last 5km to the top of the volcano.
The water crossings here require a bit of momentum to avoid becoming bogged in the lahar and mud on the river’s banks.