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Jungle Night Noises – Camping at Bulusan Volcano Natural Park

Submitted by on May 13, 2013 – 11:20 am
Lake at Bulusan Volcano Natural Park

It turned out that the camping area was more of a myth than reality. It wasn’t a camping area as such. They just allowed people to put up their tent on a small grassy patch right beside the park buildings. That was fine with me, and I decided to stay there. They even had a bathroom available and tables and chairs – everything I could want. I had stumbled into the perfecg set-up. It was doubly and even triply perfect because I don’t think I had the strength to do any more cycling anyway.

Being a Sunday, there were quite a few people at the park, including a group of graduating students who had come there for the obligatory post-graduating trip. I don’t quite understand these events, but these people –a group of five – had come all the way from Manila and they had spent one night camping on the volcano somewhere. At the end of this weekend, they each got presented with a certificate and they posed for pictures holding their certificates.

People began to leave as the afternoon wore on and eventually I was the only one left besides the park staff. They were extremely friendly, and they even cleared a space underneath a big shelter for me to put my tent there. It would be drier and cleaner and more private there than pitching my tent on the bit of grass in front of the main building.

From the canteen, I purchased a few packages of instant noodles and two cans of the ubiquitous Argentina Corned Beef and some instant coffee. Then I set about putting up my tent. It was very exciting since this was the first time I’d put up the tent since arriving in the Philippines. I felt like a serious and rugged traveller instead of the usual goof on a bicycle. It also made me feel good to be using all this camping gear instead of just lugging it around. I realized that without this gear, this night would not even be possible. Without a tent, sleeping matt, sleeping bag and stove, I wouldn’t be able to stay in a place like this. I’d be forced to keep moving until I reached a town with a hotel.

I looked at my gear with a critical eye as I unpacked and set up. My tent in particular struck me as huge. I had recently been reading some cycling blogs online and I noted with interest the tiny tents that other cyclists use. They aren’t even tents so much as survival shelters. I found that a very attractive idea because they would be so light and small.

Perhaps if I put my tent up in a big field, it would seem smaller. But putting it up underneath that roof, it suddenly struck me as immense – as big as a house. No wonder my cycling load was so heavy if I was carrying such a tent. I was pleased, though, to see that all of my waterproofing had not damaged the tent in any visible away. I was worried that I’d unpack the tent to find it all glued together and melting. But it was dry to the touch and seemed to be in good shape. I won’t find out how waterproof it is until the first night in a rain storm, I guess. I did, however, pour some water on the fly and it beaded nicely and simpy ran off, so that was a good sign.

Setting up camp and then cooking dinner wasn’t easy. It was the first time for me to do this, and it felt like a very complicated process. It’s just like packing up the bike and cycling for a day – it feels almost overwhelming the first few times you do it. Then all the details slowly become part of habit and routine and it doesn’t seem as difficult or challenging.

I had picked up some denatured alcohol while in Legazpi and I had carried it with me the last couple of days. I fired up the Trangia and made myself a hot cup of coffee. Pure pleasure! Then I boiled up the noodles and just tossed in the can of corned beef. The result in the pot would surely not win any culinary awards, but it was a good meal for a hungry cyclist and I ate every bit and drank every bit of broth even though I cooked twice what was recommended for one person. I probably could have eaten quadruple that amount.

It was a fantastic night. The meal was great and being out here in this dense jungle with the beautiful lake and the volcano towering above was wonderful. No jeepneys and no tricycles and no monster trucks and no demon buses. No horns. No engines. No videoke. No insane levels of noise. Just chirping birds and the drone of jungle insects and tree frogs and other creatures.

After dinner, I read a book for a while using the light from a kerosene lamp one of the guards had lent me. There were just two guards left at the camp at night. Everyone else went home to Bulusan to return in the morning. The guards disappeared into a shelter behind the main buildings, and I was completely on my own in this beautiful place. I read for as long as I could keep my eyes open and then I crawled inside my tent for the night. It was very early, but there was really nothing else to stay awake for, and I figured I would wake up before dawn anway.

It was great to be away from the noise of the city, but as a camper you do quickly realize how noisy nature can be, too. Jungle insects are extremely loud. You don’t realize how loud until you are lying in your tent trying to sleep. Noise is also amplified at night – every rustle of a chicken in the bush sounds like a T-rex about to tear your tent open and eat you alive. One noise in particular puzzled me for a long time. Then I went outside to answer a call of nature, and the mystery was solved. The sound was the beating of dozens of bat wings. Bats swooped and dove all around the trees and around my head. It took a bit of effort to simply stand there and not freak out as the bats dove closer and closer. Thanks to many books and movies, I pictured them getting caught in my hair and things like that.

I didn’t sleep through the night at all. I wasn’t used to sleeping on my Thermarest with my Exped inflatable pillow. But I slept now and again, waking up often to listen to the night sounds. At dawn, I was wide awake and bushy-tailed and I walked down to the lake to enjoy the scenery. It didn’t take me long to decide to stay there for the day and for another night. I knew I would regret if I left the place and found myself too quickly back in the urban jungle.

An enjoyable pattern has emerged over the years on trips like this – trips where I spend a day or two at places where you normally just stay for a short time. By staying for an extra day or night, you see the place over time and pick up on the rhythms. You realize that the place has a life of its own and you see how it fits into the local community. You appreciate it in new ways even if you don’t fully understand it.

This park – the Bulusan Volcano Natural Park – fits into the local social environment in all kinds of interesting ways. It is here as a tourist attraction for visitors from near and far. However, it is also a source of income for lots of local people and is something of a social club. It is a place where local people come to hang out.

I started out saying that by staying in a place longer you can come to understand it. But that isn’t true in many ways. In fact, I think I would have had to have stayed for several weeks to figure out all the relationships. As with most places in the Philippines, it was difficult to even figure out who worked there and who didn’t. As the day wore on, more and more people showed up and most seemed to have some kind of official capacity, but I had no idea what they could be. Some people seemed to come up to the lake just to relax and hang out. So there ended up being a large crowd of people simply hanging out at the tables and near the canteen. Regular tourists and visitors – those showing up in groups in cars – didn’t seem to have any trouble with it though. I guess they are used to encountering large groups of random people just hanging out. They would approach the large group confidently and just express their wishes or questions to the group at large and the appropriate person would answer or help them out. I approach these large groups in a state of confusion. I never know who is officially in charge, who works there and who doesn’t. I look for the rules about what is possible. The local visitors realize that pretty much anything is possible. You just have to ask and make the arrangments. I look for signs and written information. Local visitors just say what they want.

I also learned that the lake is a source of food for many people. I spoke at length with one middle-aged man about this. This man seemed to be a kind of volunteer at this park. I suppose he could also have been a paid employee. It’s impossible to say. He did, however, speak with authority about it and felt responsble for it. He spoke of “we” when he expressed any opinion of the park.

He pointed out that many people fish in the lake. They do so with fishing rods and with nets. Technically, since it is a national park, they are not allowed to do so. However, it is nearly impossible to stop them. What the park staff do is try to find ways for these people to make money through the park in other ways other than fishing. It seemed like a good idea, but I saw no evidence of this working. Even the official staff (at least as far as I could make out) fished in the lake. At the end of the day, the last group to leave by tricycle was delayed because they had to wait for a woman that was checking her net in the lake. My informant told me that this woman was raising five children on her own and she needed to do everything she could to make ends meet. When she finally returned to the parking area, she was carrying a small bag of fish she had caught, and this, I assume, would be dinner for her famiy that night.

I saw people coming and going all day long and I was hard pressed to figure out what some of them were doing, where they had come from, and that sort of thing. Some were easier. First thing in the morning, I was shocked to see joggers. Two men ran through the front gate from the access road. They were dressed in typical jogging clothes with water bottles in belts around their waist. This didn’t fit at all with my image of the local people. Why would villagers wake up in the morning and go for a jog? I associate that behavior with city people, and there are no cities anywhere near jogging distance from this park.

I also saw lots of what I would call villagers. These were rough-looking men with machetes in wooden scabbards and carrying mysterious bundles. I saw these men around the lake when I went for a hike. Some were swimming in the lake with a face mask, obviously trying to catch fish or other creatures. They had fires burning on the hiking trail and had a set of pots bubbling away. I couldn’t imagine that this was “legal” activity inside the park boundaries, but there they were. Everyone knew them and when they left with their catch and their bundles, people who worked at the park greeted them and chatted with them. These men even seemed to sell their catch to the official park staff. Security guards stay overnight at the park and must cook their own meals, so I assume they largely eat fish from the lake, too.

People on motorcycles came and went all day long. I couldn’t figure out if they were local people or visitors. There were also large groups arriving on tricycles. These were clearly people from local villages, and it appeared that they did not have to pay any kind of entrance fee. It was understood that local people could come and go as they please. Only actual tourists had to pay the entrance fee and the parking fee. These tricycles were more packed with people than any tricycle I had ever seen before. Every square foot of available space was taken up by a person with many more clinging to every possible hand and foothold on the outside. It astonished me that they could support that much weight and that the engine could move it at all let alone up that steep hill which had reduced me to pushing my bicycle.

A surprisingly large number of expensive-looking SUVs came to the park throughout the day. The people in these vehicles were clearly tourists. According to my informants, they came from as far away as Manila, though I found it hard to imagine what the attraction would be. It was a very nice spot – jungle and a lake at the foot of a volcano – but I couldn’t imagine driving 15 hours from Manila to see it.

While I was speaking to my main informant, another man – a younger fellow in perhaps his late twenties or early thirties – introduced himself. I assumed he was a visitor from far away because his English was excellent and he was carrying a very nice camera – a Fuji X10. I complimented him on his camera, and he laughed ruefully and said that Fuji had just released the X20, which was much better than this model. This lament – that of a consumer wishing he’d waited to buy a newer model – is something I associate with rich city people. But I found out that this man was a doctor in a village just up the road a bit. Had I heard of this village earlier, I would have gone there to stock up on food and drinks, but I didn’t know about it until it was too late.

A lot of young people came up to the lake. Some appeared to be working. There was a lot of activity around one of the tables with forms being filled out and numbers being tallied up. It all seemed very complicated. People at this table broke out in loud song from time to time. (There was no electricity at this park, so there was, thankfully, no stereos or radios or videoke machines.) Other young people stretched out on the various tables and took naps. Young boys came and went carring long fishing rods over their shoulders. These boys walked out the front gates. I asked my informant about them. Where are they going? He said that they lived in various villages around the lake and were walking home. They had to walk as they couldn’t afford a tricycle or anything like that. It is 2 kilometers back to the intersection and, presumably, several kilometers from there to their village. These boys had walked the entire distance up here to the park and were now walking back again. That astonished me.

Almost everything surprised me and puzzled me as I spent my two nights and nearly two days at the park. Early in my second morning, tricycles arrived as early as 6:30. One tricycle had a total of 12 people – three adults and nine children – plus the driver. Watching it unload was like watching a clown car in a parade with endless clowns climbing out. These 12 people were full of noise – shouting and laughing and singing and running around. They went to the edge of the lake and I heard the happy noise from there. They stayed about half an hour, and then they all climbed back into the tricycle and drove off down the access road. This was a good example of the rhythm that I just couldn’t figure out. Why did they make the effort to come up to the park? It was an effort. They had to rent a tricycle and all get together and come up here. They were certainly local people. So the lake would not be a novelty. Why come up here at 6:30 in the morning, look at the lake, and then drive away again? I had no idea.

I spent most of my second day simply exploring the park. There was a very nice and easy trail that went all the way around the lake right along the shore. I put my macro lens on my camera and took pictures of wildlife and plants along the way. There were a lot of small lizards, spiders, and butterflies plus a snake and a giant millipede. When the heat of the day struck, I relaxed in the shade and read a book and chatted with people and watched all the coming and going. One man showed me his ink-stained finger to inform me that it was election day. I had completely forgotten about that. It was May 13th, the day of the elections. I had no idea what the results were or if they had gone smoothly. The results wouldn’t have meant anything to me anyway. Perhaps it was a good thing that I was up in the mountains at the park instead of down in the cities. If there had been election trouble, it would have been in the cities.

My second night was every bit as relaxing as my first. In a way, it was better because I was already more used to sleeping on the Thermarest and I didn’t have to move around as much to try to get comfortable. I slept very well and had my usual vivid dreams. I woke up from these dreams a couple of times completely unsure of where I was. I had to lie there and think for several seconds before it came back to me that I was in the Philippines. I think that is significant in that I approached my trip to the Philippines quite casually. I hadn’t ever really come to grips with it. I saw that in my difficulty in dealing with daily routines. I felt vague and rather unfocused. I kept leaving things lying around and forgetting where I put things – even valuable things. I changed out of my wet shorts into some dry long pants at one point. Then much later, I found myself wondering where my wallet and compact camera were. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I finally found them in my shorts, which I had just left lying on a table quite a distance from my tent, totally forgotten.

Packing up was quite a production after my two days of pseudo-camping. It was the first time on this trip that I’d unpacked all my gear to such an extent and then cooked my own food. I had barely been able to handle packing up my gear when I left from Legazpi from the comfort of a hostel. Doing so in the “wild” after camping was much more involved and it took a long time. At least it seemed to take a long time. As I’ve already mentioned, it takes a while for a routine of packing and unpacking to develop. Until that happens, it feels like a very complicated and even onerous process. Packing up all my camping gear was another layer of complexity – a layer of complexity that almost stumped me that morning. I stood there quite in a daze a few times with no idea what to do next or what object goes in what pocket or bag. It took a very long time, and I wasn’t able to load up the pannier bags and hit the road until something like 10:30. It was a good thing that I had planned a relatively short day of cycling.

I felt a bit strange and awkward as I cycled away from the park. The people that I had met originally had all been replaced by new people and I didn’t really know them. They would have just shown up to see some strange foreigner living out of his tent on their turf. In addition, I’d come to see this park as more of a community center, a place for local people to fish and hang out and enjoy themselves. It felt almost like a private place, and I felt like an interloper. I walked over to the current group of what I thought were the staff of the park to say goodbye and say thank you and see if there was anything I needed to do, like sign a register or pay a fee. There had been talk of a 40-peso fee for camping, but no one had collected it or mentioned it other than when I first arrived. The new group of staff were friendly but not overly. They were involved in their own conversation and what I was doing there had nothing to do with them. I could do as I pleased, and I got on my bike and rode over for one last look at the lake. I had learned the previous day that the mountain I’d been looking at all this time was not, in fact, the volcano. It was a much lower peak. The volcano itself was off to the left and hidden behind some tall hills. There was a topographical model of the area near the dock with all the paddle boats, and I could see from that model how I’d misunderstood the geograpy of the area. The volcano was clearly a much more serious customer than I had imagined. I reflected that it would be quite interesting to climb the volcano, particularly because its slopes were covered in thick jungle growth. The Mayon Volcano by contrast was quite bare most of the way to the top once you got past the lower portion. Bulsan Volcano looked to be much more lush.

Coast Road Paradise – Cycling from Sorsogon to Bulusan
The Road to Matnog - Leaving Bulusan Volcano Natural Park
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