Davao City. Zamboanga City. Basilan, Sulu. General Santos City. Davao del Sur. Maguindanao.
(southern exploration in almost 30-days)
I just wanna share my story about my exploration in some critical areas of the southern most part of the Philippines. I do really love traveling and I could say that experience was a remarkable one. I was involved in this site visit activity in the southern-tip part of the country. Believe it or not, I was assigned in some dreadful provinces such as Basilan, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Shariff Aguak, Jolo and many more for almost one-month. Honestly, it was my first time to travel in Mindanao then, as far as work-related is concern. Basically traveling is part of my work nature, and I’ve been already traveled many local places to established telecommunication peripherals and radio frequency services. But my experience in these often venues for news stories was a different kind of moment. However, I appreciate more the beauty of Philippines because I already landed my feet down and witnessed those virgin islands, greenly forests and mountains in the most cornered part of rural provinces of Mindanao. Experiencing some scary high threatened atmosphere in those places added to my unique unforgettable escapade.
We had to cater our naval military client to restore their VSAT (very small aperture terminal aka satellite) system facilities. And hence, I was part of the team to conduct survey and to study their existing facilities installed in different coast-line area of Mindanao. The project name was Coast Watch inter-connectivity since literally all remote stations are located in the edge-most of different southern islets. Their function is to monitor 24/7 different sea vessels including submarines that pass along the area of Philippine territory including possible intruders, and so communication between the satellite offices and main headquarters are very crucial and important during this time.
Our team, composed of group of engineers, explored Mindanao in thirty days escorted by Philippine Navy, for our security. Initially, our exploration started in navigating the Eastern part of Mindanao that includes; General Santos City, Davao City, Davao del Norte, Sarangani, Davao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat.
At first, I thought that all sites we will be having then was an easy access station wherein located directly in the off-shore. My instinct was a mistake. We had these partial climbing experience in some certain of slope terrains just to reach our target site locations. Through walking like we trek or backpack ourselves in such trails. We really felt like we’re mountaineering the area-scape. Places like Kalamansig (Sultan Kudarat), and Pilas Island (Basilan) were no joke at all in traversing few kilometers these such risky and isolated places.
One of my unforgettable experience in this site assignment was witnessing one of stations in eastern Mindanao loaded with high-caliber riffles stored along with the servers and other telecom equipment in a secured data room. I know for a fact that Maitum in Sarangani province is one of the dangerous area in southern Mindanao considering the number of rebel groups involved in war fare against the government, also some ambush cases recorded in the area. So, alert-wise on part of this military group with this kind of preparation set-up.
Aside from our feet that experienced walking few kilometers just to reached the station in a certain land slope, our 4×4 vehicles also did encounter such difficult terrains. We passed some savage bushes with muddy and rocky scenery along the road for a quite an hour. Upon reaching the peak of San Agustin station, our two 4×4 vehicles (Montero and Strada) were brushed by mud and dirt, I knew their weariness in climbing that such high terrain and so they they had to rest as well even for a while.
Most of our transportation means in the Eastern Mindanao was via land travel. In Western Mindanao, it’s a different kind of story. We traveled all site routes over the sea water with high current wave encounter sometimes, as all remaining naval stations are located in different tiny islands of Sulu, provinces. And so, second part of our assignment was to travel and to inspect satellite coast watch stations in the Western part of Mindanao. Our first destination was in Los Pilas, Basilan. Wherein the station is located in the isolated top most of semi-mountain terrain island.
We had a quite hard time in traversing the site peak of Los Pilas since we were carrying all the testing equipment with us to be used in the site activity. But just like any other climb activities, it was such a precious feelings we had upon reaching the site peak as we witnessed the huge seawater that surrounds us with different islets scattered all over the Sulu Sea.
Among those islands in Sulu province that we’ve visited, Pandami island was the best experience we had. The place was so peaceful, there were numbers of trees and mangroves that added made the island to have a nice view and green scenery. The sea-water was so clear and calm and so our team was teased to swim.
We stayed in General Santos City, Davao City and Zamboanga City as our main stations during our Eastern1, Eastern 2 and Western visits in Mindanao respectively.
Critical Points Encounter:
1. Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao – going in to this area, you should definitely pass the roads of Maguindanao province along the way are towns of Shariff Aguak (where most of the news about MILF rebel and Philippine government soldiers warfare happens) and Ampatuan (where most numbers of media were slained during pre-election campaign also known as the Maguindanao massacre). As we passed along these provinces, those mentioned incidents refreshed my minds about the conflicts occured especially as we saw the exact place where all media and other local residents were killed during the pre-election campaign in 2009. The crime place was a bit creepy as the view consists of only high bushes with under developed roads and no houses were observed.
As we traveled back from Sultan Kudarat to our home barracks (Gen. Santos City), along the way somewhere in Maguindanao, one of our security escorts got a phone call and informed us that a war was happening. Our team had decided to stay for a few minutes in the 8th Infantry Battalion camp site along the way. And it was confirmed that a conflict occurred during that time. Being a civilian people in that critical moment especially passing that danger zone was unexplained feeling. Along the way, our security escorts were preparing their handguns and riffles in case we encounter some strange situation. Our van driver was in participation as he drove quickly with 150-kph on his speedometer to bring us back to our home-based GenSan. The following day, we learned from news that 20 soldiers had been killed during that war encounter.
2. Davao del Sur – if your objective is to reach tip most part of San Agustin, Davao del Sur for such virgin islands, you have to pass a long national highway with no residential houses nor commercial establishments around. What you will see is only the numbers of trees and bushes with semi rice-fields in both sides of the road. All vehicles are required to drive for a most speed it has, as it is prone to a New Peoples Army (NPA) ambush and guerrilla conflicts.
During our trip, our driver maintained the speed of our ride at a flat of 150kph or sometimes even higher. As per our security escort, as possible, we should avoid stopping anywhere within the road to prevent any toward strange incident such as car jacking etc. But when the nature calls, we couldn’t fight it for God sake. And so luckily we had a chance to pee in the near checkpoint area somewhere along the road, and took as fast as we could. Yeah! We survived on the initially stoppage avoidance incident. Few minutes later, we had a fast heart beating feeling again as we encounter this hindrance. Along the ascending side road of the mountain, our trip were temporarily blocked by a lying huge tree due to a land slide. Several fallen big rocks and a tree scattered along the road and that made us stopped for a while. We immediately fixed and put aside those blockages and continued our journey. Fortunately, we again survived in that isolated inhabited area.
3. Jolo, Sulu – it is the capital of Sulu province and its entire population is composed of muslim locals. Jolo port bridges all sea vessels route between Zamboanga City and provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. It is where number of ferries and boats from city stopping over to load/unload cargos and passengers to transfer to other vessel destined to southern most of Mindanao. If you’re a foreigner, journalist, or even Manila tourist that carried by chance to Jolo then you’re in danger. I dunno but this was stuck to my mind after we were informed by our security escorts and Philippine coast guard everytime we’re there.
On our first day of stop to Jolo port, we immediately received an information from one of coast guards on-duty that three technical persons of Smart telecommunication were beheaded by the muslim bandits in Smart site in the province with no reason. And as a visitor, our team was quite alert and took lots of care to ourselves. Our team was intact and chose to stay inside the coast guard office compound to secure ourselves against strange and eerie environment of the province. Whenever we’re starving to hungriness while waiting for our scheduled ferry to aboard, we usually quickly walked a few meters towards Mc Mickey (famous fast food restaurant in Jolo) together. We didn’t even talked loudly in tagalog way in order for locals to not hear any Manila accent from us that might trigger any untoward incidents. Even the in-house vendor of the shipping passenger line we took, advised us that we shouldn’t walk the town proper alone without any escort from military especially on Manila-based tourist like us. Stranger bandits were just walking around and might target us.
4. Pangutaran, Sulu – Sulu is a small autonomous island province geographically located in southwestern part of Mindanao, Philippines. Wherein it is surrounded by an open sea and hence, travelling along Sulu water is a bit hard to encounter since it is where sea current from east and west meet that made some certain strong waves and pressure.
Upon touring Sulu headed to Pangutaran, we expected to take Philippine Navy ship since we had a security escort. But no to avail, we took public sea vessel instead via Jolo, Sulu route. After of almost 12-hours in an overnight sea travel from Zamboanga City to Jolo, Sulu port, we transferred on the public passenger and cargo vessel M/L Princess Marimar. When we saw this old and rusty sea ferry that we would going to take towards Pangutaran, our impression was that it’s scary to take and it might sink anytime for as easy as 1, 2, 3,. considering its physical unpleasant look as compared with other huge vessels. But no choice, and so we proceeded.
I felt really scared as we encountered heavy rains and strong winds along our trip. Our team felt like we’re inside the small dipper that floats in a pail of water while shaking with high sea current waves. We had a hard time to steal some naps due to shaking movements.
Another scary incident and I could say one of my unforgettable sea travel in my entire life was when our team navigated back to Jolo from Pangutaran thru a mini ferry with overloaded passengers. Since we’re looking forward on our next and scheduled trip in Jolo towards Zamboanga City, public ferries in Pangutaran port had a huge time gap of departure and hence we forced ourselves to take the available and scheduled small ferry. Since it was laready full, we decided to even sit on the rooftop of the ferry boat just to bring us to our destined Jolo port the soonest. Sitting beside us were set of banana products, used soda bottles, water drums and sacks of goods along with other passengers as well.
It was mid afternoon as we passed the huge open sea of southern Mindanao, and yet it was so dark due to a gloomy weather and it was a sign of a heavy rain. And yeah it was! We encountered strong winds, super heavy rains, with thunder and lightning plus a strong sea current waves along our trip. Our team was intact while lying in the ferry roof covered by a big tarpaulin to protect us against rain. I had a chance to observed what was really went on as I partially pulled-off my tarp cover and noticed that some mentioned objects behind us were already fell out to the sea due to a strong winds and sea waves that made our ride shaking and result to falling of cargo products to the sea. Some of the passengers were yelling and didn’t know what to do. Current waves covered and slapped our small ferry boat strongly. As it was happening, I was simply holding my company life vest with me if an emergency and unwanted incident occur while my eyes were closed while I prayed. Luckily, it’s not our time yet and after of an hour of breath taking sea travel experience, we arrived in Jolo port safely with a bit fear about riding on a small ferry along with a bad weather 🙂