Few travel experiences can inspire quite as much awe as hiking to the top of a mountain, but as James Springer found during his time in the Philippines, that feeling of wonder and respect is only amplified when the mountain in question is a volcano with a rather tempestuous history.
After picking our way through the debris of a resort under major restoration, we found ourselves sitting in a twin-engined boat gently bobbing on the edge of Lake Taal, alongside the shoreline skirting the town of Tagaytay, in the province of Talisay. Across the lake to the south spreads Taal Volcano Island, a flat and unimpressive landmass that certainly did not inspire visions of any great volcano. The engines roared, pointing us in the direction of the island, and with Philippino pop blasting from the boat speakers, we were on our way. The journey was dreary. In fact, while on the lake it seemed like the scale of the fabled Taal lake within a volcano, within a lake, within a volcano had been clipped.
It was in Tagaytay, the day before, that we had our first taste of the fabled Taal Volcano natural megastructure. Looking out over the view from the Palace in the Sky, you can see why Imelda Marcos picked Mount Gonzales as the site for his exclusive retreat. To the south stretches – left and right in a massive, kilometre-wide circular rim – the circumference of the Main Crater Lake, a caldera geological formation resulting from an emptied magma chamber collapsing miles below. And in the middle of the main lake, drenched in misty-blue perspective, rests Volcano Island looking dwarfed and impotent.
The palace was abandoned mid-way through construction and now stands as a poignant example of how public funds can be misused by corrupt leaders. Standing as a skeletal concrete frame, the inside of the palace has collected a thick, green layer of mould that has been scraped away creating white etchings; towering concrete pillars decorated with proclamations of love. If there is anything standing as a testament to the athanasia of Taal volcano it is that palace; an edifice that seems to define the vulnerability of human existence in comparison to the scars left on the earth’s surface during its natural history.
So, it was worth venturing up Mount Gonzales just to put the whole thing into perspective, which culminates in a natural formation of a scale almost unimaginable and worthy of its world record-setting fame. But, while on the boat, skimming across the main lake’s smooth surface, that sense of awe seemed muted. In fact, we were made completely oblivious to what would soon become a mind-bending and treasured experience.
Docking onto the island, through thick fronds of lake weeds, reveals a village-style of life and a surprising commodity supporting business based on the tourism the volcano naturally attracts; horses. Around every corner, tethered to every tree and munching on every rare tuft of grass were slight ponies that looked more like donkeys in build. Their purpose was as shocking as their presence; to ferry overweight Korean and Arab tourists up to the top, a feat made to seem impossible when considering their hip bones jutted out like mountain bluffs and their Himalayan-ridge of a spine made a very precarious-looking saddle. Needless to say, we walked up, a decision that we only realised the worth of about half-way to the top as riders who passed us with gritted teeth looked to be in a perpetual state of discomfort.
The hike was a novel experience. After a relatively flat start out of the village, the path began to incline gradually, but what really made the going tough was the fine layer of volcanic dust carpeting the whole track. As well as creating a sliding effect – like what happens when walking on a beach – when walking through the mini-ravines carved out to make the path the dust was so fine that all walkers and horses kicked it up so as to create dust pockets, so thick that we had to cover our faces in a desperate effort to avoid coughing and spluttering.
Half-way up the track opens, revealing a patchwork of deep green palm orchards intermingled with barren patches of burnt trees and black earth along the side of the volcano. It was at that mid-way point that we finally had a sense of what it would be like at the top. Just below the sharp summit is a deadly incline, again the path morphing into mini-ravines, so that the trail of brightly coloured walkers in front of us suddenly disappeared only to emerge again at the top. When through this part, the only other obstacle is a holding area for the horses, a group of shanty lean-tos to protect the horses from the glaring sun, and other shelters for the horse guides to rest while their soft plump packages make their final way on foot to the top.
When reaching the top and looking down at the algae-green lake at the bottom of the crater, as well as rotating in order to soak in the panoramic view, two things come to mind that can only be realised there. The first is that when panning over its steep, straight sides, looking down at the crater lake and catching just a faint glimpse of bubbles coming to the surface from the depths below, the volcano no longer feels benign. It is there that the volcano exudes its fabled menacing character, the crater a testament to the awful power it once wielded. Even though its most active history was from 1965 to 1977 – erupting during that time nearly every year – it is the legendary eruption of 1911 that suddenly becomes all too real while standing on the precipice of the crater’s rim.
On a Sunday afternoon, January 27th 1911, the volcano began emitting jets of steam and earthquakes rocked the region felt as far as Batangas City 30 kilometres away. Then, during a 4-hour period, the volcano continued to explode, ejecting glowing rocks and ash, flashes of lightning, an umbrella-shaped black eruption column, hot air and mud rain coating the towns of Talisay, San Nicholas and Baňadero. At its most violent stage, in the early morning of January 28th, the eruption was felt as far away as Manila and Dagupan, waking people by what was called “a strong earthquake and very large booming sound.” That kind of power is a rude awakening by anyone’s standards, made worse by that fact that the 1,335 dead probably didn’t even see it coming. The unassuming, flat landmass viewed on the boat ride over suddenly became something else entirely; a violent reminder that those in the past, living in the shadow of nature’s most feared disaster, usually paid dearly and without mercy.
The second is the true sense of scale that you feel when at the top, more so than at the Palace in the Sky on top of Mount Gonzales. When twirling on the spot, panning 360 degrees, the whole formation – from the main crater lake to the crater and lake on Volcano Island – becomes a mind-bending fractal that elicits the same amusement as a Russian doll; one, inside another, inside another. Bar viewing it from above, the view from the top of Taal Island’s crater is the only place that presents the whole thing in its entirety – and it is an awesome sight to see. Perhaps the most enlightening effect is that, considering this huge formation is only on one island of the Philippines, it makes you feel incredibly small; almost insignificant to the point of futile in the presence of such stubborn grandeur.
After a leisurely rest, and trying to avoid a persistent old woman trying to sell the opportunity to drive a golf ball into the crater for a mere 50 pesos a swing, it was agreed to head back. The way down is always quicker and easier, and our group – far from being tired – felt revitalised. We stopped for a beer and continued with another group of young local students, as giddy as we were. It is as they say – it is more fun in the Philippines.