Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Amazed by Aliwagwag Falls of Davao Oriental

At first, all I heard was a muted rush as I stepped down from the bus that took us into a sleepy village in the hinterlands. As I walked into the clearing, the murmuring sound of gushing water grew increasingly louder. Moments later, the roaring loudness swelled to attention-grabbing proportions. This all the more drove me to quicken my pace to see what I came for. And then, in one fell swoop, there it was—one of the most amazing wonders of nature I’ve ever seen in my whole life. 

For several seconds, I just stood there caught in a spell, staring for what seemed like eternity at the spectacle. Frozen. Fixated. Flabbergasted. Fascinated. So were the other excited souls who joined the trek that Sunday morning. Who wouldn’t? Right in front of us was this awesome free-flowing stairway that seemed to reach upwards into the sky. It isn’t every day that you get to see a spectacle like that.

Snapping out of my daydream, I quickly held up my camera and started shooting. My subject? The thundering maelstrom of cascading energy that is Aliwagwag Falls, dubbed as the “highest waterfalls in the Philippines” and one of the country’s most beautiful. Locked away in the lush forestlands of Cateel in Davao Oriental, it is actually made up of a series of 84 cascades located in the village of Aliwagwag, about an hour’s drive from the town center.
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Each of Aliwagwag Falls’ spellbinding tiers have varying heights ranging from 1.83 m (6 ft) to around 33.53 m (110 ft), with an average width of about 9 meters (nearly 29.53 ft). From its summit down to the bottom, the falls has a total drop of around 338 m (1,110 ft), much taller than Makati’s Gramercy Residences (302 m), the highest skyscraper and residential building in the Philippines.
I’ve been wanting to see the falls a long, long time ago but time and circumstance weren’t on my side then. A few weeks ago, however, I learned that Arthur, Elmer and Edwin (a.k.a. Weng), my friends at RTours Mindanao, were organizing an invasion of sorts for the nth time to four of Cateel’s cascades, including the one in Aliwagwag. I was flushed with excitement. This is it! I’ll finally get to see the falls, I told myself.  Without much ado, I got in touch with Weng and readily signed up for the tour. 

As the much-anticipated date neared, my desire to see the cascades grew stronger by the day. And by the time all of us—a thirty-plus entourage of weekend wanderers—reached the place following an almost five-hour ride from Davao City to Cateel, my excitement, not to mention the exhilaration, to see and shoot the falls had already reached fever pitch. So strong was my excitement that it practically drove away all the anxieties I felt during the long commute.

Warning: the sojourn to Cateel may not appeal to the fainthearted. Those who’ve been there know that it’s one tough journey passing through the rough roads of Compostela Valley into the gripping gorges of Davao Oriental. There’s a whiff of danger as the vehicle negotiated through the winding and wobbling stretch of the mountainous terrain. There can be no margin for error. One wrong maneuver of the driver over the craggy path could have sent everyone tumbling down to—heaven forbid!—a fatal crash. But it was the peril and suspense that spiced up that wild ride to our destination, making the trip one of the cheap thrills I’ve ever experienced in this borrowed life. 

Indeed, the odyssey to that part of Mindanao is a fantasy fulfilled for this inveterate thrill-seeker; it was a rare chance to upsize my sense of self, to push my personal boundaries to the max. It was one exhilarating joy ride that gave me a wispy but gripping aftertaste of life on the edge as our bus snaked through the darkness of the unknown.

All the hazards of the trek, however, vanished into thin air the moment I laid eyes on the cascades. Geez, this spellbinder of a falls is a photographer’s delight! It’s truly something to die for, more spectacular than what I’ve imagined it to be, I thought as I snapped at the spectacle from my vantage point at Aliwagwag Bridge. Its towering height and unique rock formations, I supposed, could qualify the fascinating falls as our country’s next bet for the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. 

Despite its growing popularity among local tourists, especially the daring and the adventurous, the falls, however, isn’t part of the international tourist map yet. Perhaps it’s the lack of creature comforts which people usually look for in a tourist attraction. Largely unspoiled by “progress”, the area where Aliwagwag Falls is located has no pay phone, no restaurants, no souvenir shops, no accommodations. Perhaps aggravating the hesitation is the perception that foreigners still have about Mindanao; that it’s risky to go to this part of the Philippines because they’d get kidnapped, killed or what have you.

Nonetheless, I’m positive that things would change for the better soon. I’ve read somewhere that plans are afoot to develop Aliwagwag Falls and its environs as one of Davao Oriental’s tourism development areas (TDAs). If this pushes through, I can only hope that the villagers, the local tourism officials, the provincial government and other stakeholders would work together to ensure that the au naturel charms of the awesome falls are preserved to the hilt so that tourists of this generation and the next will be able to savor the no-frills, laid-back simplicity and serenity of this amazing beauty. :D

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