27-May-2001 -- Allow me to begin this narrative with a little background. I first came across the Degree Confluence Project in an article in USA Today last April while waiting for a flight back to Manila (I am an American Expatriate residing in the Philippines). Being a geographer by education and an explorer by desire, I was fascinated by the project and logged on to the site as soon as I got home. I was very impressed with what I saw and got rather excited about visiting a confluence here in the Philippines, especially since it was quite likely to be the first in the country!
After reviewing the atlas and local maps, one Philippine degree confluence (there are about 37 primary confluences) struck me as particularly interesting -- 14N-121E -- not only from a geographic point of view but geologically as well. Plus, it seemed easily accessible!
The degrees 14N and 121E meet on the southeast side of Volcano Island on Lake Taal in the province of Batangas. About 73km (45 miles) south of Manila, Lake Taal is itself a collapsed prehistoric volcano that measures about 7km (4 miles) across, making Volcano Island a volcano within a volcano. It is one of the worlds smallest "active" volcanoes and has had 33 known eruptions, the most recent in 1977. The bulk of the island emerged during an eruption in 1911 that killed more than 1,000 people. Today the island has more than 47 craters and 35 volcanic cones. Small volcanic lakes, steam vents, and sulfurous pools have made Volcano Island a popular local tourist spot.
Our group of three (the other two being born and bred urban dwellers who balk at the thought of walking a few blocks, and get panicky at the slightest sight of scurrying bugs) decided to attempt a visit to the site on May 27, a Sunday. A check on the local weather conditions revealed a tropical depression nearby, making the success of the mission a bit dubious. But we decided to proceed anyway and, if the weather got nasty, we would make it a reconnaissance trip and return at a later date.
The youngest member of our team (Kristoff, age 9) was just returning from overseas. After picking him up at Manila Airport Saturday night, we set out on the 2-hour drive down to a small barangay (village) on the North shore of Lake Taal. We reached our destination around 10:30 in the evening. After moving our stuff into our rented "room", we had a nice late dinner picnic by the lake, accompanied by the requisite army of ants, various tropical bugs, large bats, and a bullfrog or two. We retired back to the room where Kristoff worried that a "giant" spider he saw in the corner would crawl all over him while sleeping (God forbid we encounter anything bigger during our hike the next day!).
We awoke Sunday morning to a beautiful tropical day! The lake was as smooth as glass and the azure sky was punctuated with cumulus clouds. Fluffy cotton in a sea of blue! We were anxious to "bag" the Philippine's first degree confluence, so we wolfed down some juice, sandwiches and bananas, and headed out.
The first task was to negotiate the rental of a local banca (small motorized boat), find a guide, and brief them on our objective. A guide was not necessary in the traditional sense, but it is always a good idea to have a "local" act as a liaison to deal with villagers regarding local information, tips, and "right-of-way" issues. I undertook this task and after securing the boat and guide, we headed out to the island. (Not speaking the Filipino language -Tagolog- the decision of me organizing this end of things was surely a mistake, as you will read further down).
After reviewing the topos and acquiring updated information regarding terrain (most Philippine topos were surveyed in the 1950's and frequent eruptions have changed the island’s landscape since then), we put ashore at a small fishing village on the SE side of the island. Roger, our guide, said that it was the only entry point to get to where we wanted to go. I had taken a GPS bearing when we were near the island's shore and had a clear visual of the general area of the confluence. I felt we should continue around the next point before going ashore, but hey, he's the guide, right.
At the small village we rented a horse for Kristoff but Olma and I, not wanting to be wimps decided to hike. About halfway up the first hill, I realized that the trail we were taking was veering too far North and towards a higher elevation than the confluence. I still had good visual contact with our desired destination and pointed this out to Roger. Part annoyed, part curious, he said it was okay, as the trail would get to where we wanted to go.
Almost to the top of the next hill, we looked back to see two enterprising young boys on their horses, following with hopes that we would change our minds about renting them. After deciding between pride and comfort, Olma chose to continue on horseback. I held out for a while longer but since I was getting further and further behind my two team mates on horseback, I figured it was smarter to join the club and got on the third horse.
The ride took us through hilly scrub brush and along volcanic rims; always with interesting scenery and dramatic views. The smell of mint was always in the air as the local islanders grow it for medicinal purposes. The horses were a blessing, as the ambient air temperature was about 38°C (101°F) with a humidity approaching supersaturation. As beautiful and serene as it was, though, I couldn’t seem to fully relax - I remained concerned about our destination as our route was taking us no closer to the confluence, and, in fact, a little further away! I discussed this with Olma and we decided to take a "wait and see" attitude.
We soon reached the rim of the crater of Binitiang Malaki volcano. After appreciating the striking view and taking pictures, I took another bearing. We were still about 1km (half-mile) NE of our desired destination. Explaining this to Roger seemed to make him distressed. After some two-and three-way discussions with Olma doing the translating, we realized he had misunderstood me about where we wanted to go when I briefed him that morning! He thought we were the usual tourists going to see the volcano and to take the trip down to the crater. Roger felt we were, in fact, at our destination!
Stressing the fact that we didn't want to go down into the crater and pointing in the general direction of where we wanted to go, an overgrown trail visible, Roger replied, "No path. You cannot go there." Olma, speaking in the local language, told him in no uncertain terms that getting to the site was the reason we came, that we were not leaving until we got there, and that we were heading there with or without him! Finally realizing we were quite serious, we left the horses and he accompanied us along the old overgrown trail that was headed in the right direction. Using the GPS for bearing and a compass to navigate, we continued to hike and bushwhack our way towards the site.
After suffering through thorny bushes, loose dry footing, muggy hot air, and Kristoff asking every twenty meters or so if we were near the site, we finally reached the degree confluence! In our excitement and haste that morning, we forgot to bring something "proper" to toast our success with, so we settled for water and Gatorade. The actual confluence was in a dense thicket in a small gully with no visibility, so we took our pictures from about 15m (50ft) uphill. We took a long look around the site, clowned around a bit, and then got ourselves ready for the hike back to the boat. The guide then took us to a nice beach with black volcanic sand for a refreshing dip in the lake.
Our hat's off to Alex and the gang, as we think the Degree Confluence Project is an excellent undertaking! We can't wait till our next degree confluence outing!