02 Oct Batad: The Toughest Trek
Ever heard the saying: Nothing worth doing is ever easy? Well, we’ve certainly learnt the truth of this sentiment since we’ve been travelling. As I noted in our six-month travel update, none of the most memorable experiences I’ve had so far on this trip have been easy; they’ve all been physically, mentally or logistically tough and have pushed me well out of my comfort zone. Our trip to Batad in the Philippines was another travel experience that drove me to my absolute limits but in doing so, I achieved a kind of strength I never knew I possessed.
The Rocky, Rainy Road to Batad
Completing the journey from Banaue to Batad itself was no easy feat. As we awoke in Banaue I noticed the fog of illness I’d been struggling under for the last few days had receded somewhat and although I was still feeling weak, I was more hopeful about surviving the tough journey ahead of me. So, shouldering our backpacks we hired a trike to take us to the Batad Junction. From there the road spirals up into the mountains, becoming rockier and more uneven by the minute; it’s possible to get a jeepney the whole way, but that was way too pricey for us. Instead, we disembarked at the junction just as the first ominous drops of rain began to fall from the smoky-grey sky.
The uphill, hour-long climb was slow going in my weakened state and I struggled with the weight of my backpack; things got steadily worse as the rain began to fall heavily and the path got steeper and less stable. Within no time we were soaked to the skin with no shelter in sight; the road was abandoned save for the occasional construction worker tasked with improving road access to Batad. Soaking and miserable we had no choice but to continue though; there were no taxis to hail or cafes to stop off in, only the long road stretching ahead and our own two feet. There was literally no way to give up.
“Welcome to the Saddle,” a voice called as we rounded a final curve in the road, red-faced and dripping water. The smiling twenty-something Batad local, who introduced himself as Adi, urged us to take a break. As we sipped cups of hot, sugary three-in-one coffee, he pointed out the tiny shop window to where you could just make out, beyond a steep flight of steps and a winding path, the tiny village of Batad.
“Maybe,” Adi ventured with a furtive grin, “I can be the one to assist you with you trek tomorrow in Batad?” We nodded our agreement and set off on the final 45-minute leg of the journey. Despite leaving a good twenty minutes beforehand, we were surprised to find Adi effortlessly catch up with us as we neared the village; he led us all the way to the registration hut where his sister collected our tourism fee and offered us massages – pretty savvy, Adi’s family.
It was then that we got our first glimpse of the incredible rice terraces spread beneath us, like a huge grassy amphitheatre nestled in between dark-green mountains. The terraces stretched, like a giant staircase, up towards the misty sky.
“Tomorrow,” said Adi, “I will take you over the terraces to the waterfall.”
Hiking the Batad Rice Terraces
The next day dawned clear and bright, the sun already pounding down on us as we headed off with Adi for our Batad rice terraces tour. Even with regular stops to take photos and rest, my leg muscles began to screech in complaint as I struggled to pull myself up the tall steps, sweating under the yolk-yellow sun. I couldn’t believe it when Adi led us up the uneven, stone path to the top-most tier of the terrace; the view below us was dizzying and I fought to keep my concentration as we picked our way along in single file – one step out of line could send you plummeting off the edge.
Nothing, however, could detract from the incredible views we witnessed. As we towered, tiny and insignificant, above the basin of the terraces I cycled back through some of the other amazing views I’ve seen on our travels so far; nothing could beat this. Awed into silence I was astounded at how this kind of beauty could exist – the world, I’m realising, is a far more incredible place then I ever could have imagined.
We then began the long descent down the terraces, at times clinging to the sides of rocks and using each other for balance as Adi strode ahead, sure-footed and nimble, a brightly-coloured umbrella spread above him to fend off the sun. Eventually we reached a long flight of steps leading down into a lush valley; as we trekked deeper a distant roar rose up to greet us and the air cooled as we caught our first glimpse of the mighty Tappia Falls.
“Be careful, do not go too close to the waterfall, people have died here,” Adi warned as Andrew and I headed eagerly towards the base of the waterfall, cool spray covering us as we approached. Close up we felt the awesome power of the falls; water crashing in a never-ending white pillar into a bubbling, swirling pool beneath. We waded into the water as far as we dared, letting the icy currents swirl around our swollen, aching feet and I sat on a rock to rest, gazing up at the huge and dreadful – but undeniably beautiful – sight before me.
Dread settled in my stomach like a heavy stone as I faced the journey back. While Adi flew ahead without even breaking a sweat, for me, ascending stairs is the toughest type of trekking; my legs burn and no matter how hard I try, I just can’t catch my breath. I was reduced to climbing just a couple of steps at a time, sometimes on my hands and knees before stopping to rest while Andrew urged me on. The only upside was that the sun had retreated and the air had cooled considerably; in fact, the sky was turning a familiar shade of charcoal, threatening rain. Eventually I simply disappeared into myself, a ball of sweating, fiery pain, my eyes focused only on each step until we emerged, panting, onto the terraces again.
As promised, the skies opened as we headed downwards across the terraces, taking shelter in the village before beginning the final, painful ascent up the terraces to our lodge. I was moving incredibly slowly now, each step a monumental battle, my mind and body protesting every shuffling footstep. The stone ledges were crumbling and unsteady and we were often forced to balance on one foot while clinging to the rocks above and hoisting ourselves onto the next tier. I was almost physically sick as we neared the top, my pace crawling almost to a stand-still.
I’ve never been so thankful to finally sit down as I was when we got back to our lodge. Strangely though, as physically exhausted as I was, my mind now felt pin-point sharp and clear, an extreme lightness filled my insides and I wrote the following words in my journal:
“I couldn’t have imagined such places existed before we came here. Everything back home feels so far away and I know, deep down, that this is where I’m meant to be right now. I don’t want to go back yet or give up this freedom. This view; this place high in the mountains, this steep uphill struggle, one painful step at a time is just what I need. I finally feel that this life really belongs to me.”
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