Out­door road trip

Amaz­ing Philip­pines 4WD ex­pe­ri­ence

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words DEAN MEL­LOR Pho­tos DM AND FORD

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.

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