Balbalasang National Park | Surviving a Deadly Wanderlust
“Run Ian! Run!” My screams broke the stillness of Balbalasang as huge rocks avalanched before our eyes. We scrambled like mad dogs through the thick fog desperate to find any shield from the hails of rocks.
But there was nowhere else to run otherwise we would plummet into the deep gorge. I held on to a tree as I watched the side of the mountain collapse.
Now standing face-to-face with death, I realized that it was what everyone calls the dead end.
Journeying to Balbalasang National Park is like making a trip to hell & back.
If the equation for crime is desire + ability + opportunity, then I plea guilty for the stupidity I just did on this trip. And had I died on that day, my epitaph would probably read, “Here lies the body of a folly travel blogger who died on indiscriminate wanderlust.”
Fire the Desire
Ian is a business journalist whom I have traveled with a few times in the past. We heard about Balbalasang a long time ago but back then it was logistically impossible to explore.
When he got the news from a local guide that new roads have already been built, we thought it was a good chance for us to be in the small league of trailblazers.
Balbalasang National Park is a protected rainforest tucked in the remote hinterlands of Kalinga. It is saddled thousands of meters on the mountainous borders of Abra & Apayao.
This ethereal mountain park is barely undetected by tourist radars. And before everyone else prostitute it like what many did to the home of Apo Whang-od in Buscalan, we decided to make our way quickly.
Trusting Abilities & Organizing Danger
Even seasoned travelers like us get caught in misadventures too. Challenges along the way are inevitable, like sudden changes in weather. Sometimes it will push you to make bad decisions on the road & be sorely regretful.
As planned, the trip to Balabasang was great. We will approach it via Abra in the west & traverse to northern Kalinga. From there, we will descend on the eastern side onwards to Tabuk. Finally, we should be down on the pan-Philippine highway after 9 days & 2000+ kilometers.
Driving instead of taking the public transport was non-negotiable because there is only 1 jeepney on this route & it plies once a week. Sometimes, trips even get cancelled due to erratic weather condition.
This move was somehow a serious concern considering that we will be driving on this infamous part of Cordillera.
Opportunity Turned Threat
If Google were to be believed, the distance between Bangued & Balbalasang is just around 106 kilometers. Add what locals say that travel time is about 8-10 hours, it was enough reason for my eyeballs to roll.
From Bangued, we snaked through 70 kilometers of winding mountain pass. It was a smooth ride & was made even more beautiful by the breathtaking panorama of Abra.
But as soon as we reached the last pitstop at Licuan-Baay, we were told that the road ahead was just blasted for a widening project. Obviously, it was impassable but we were assured that the debris would be cleared out immediately.
With this dilemma, I suggested to Ian that we stay for the night at the police station. After all, we could carry on to Balbalasang early the next day. But he wasn’t comfortable with the idea so we headed back to Bangued.
If there was any consolation for driving back to the capital town, that would be dipping on a warm pool at Grand Valley Hotel before retiring to bed.
The final attempt the next day was kicked off with another discovery of Abra’s delicious ramen-ish version of lomi egg noodle. Save for other delays on the road, we managed to get back to the mountain without hassle.
But just as our car coughed on the steep ascent in Malibcong, a diluvial downpour prompted us to pull over on the side. It was already past 4PM when we started to roll for the next 30 kilometers or so.
As we crawled on the slippery road, thick fog started to swallow us whole into a ghostly darkness. With a faint visibility of about 5 meters, I was scared that Satan would just pop anytime on the windshield.
Our car just fell from the end of the concrete highway & got stuck deep into the mud. Ian shifted to 4-wheel drive & his Suzuki Grand Vitara proved to be a sturdy match to the sludge despite being already 16 years old.
For about 15 kilometers, we maneuvered like snails on a muddy trail carved enough only for a single vehicle. If by the slightest chance that he would miscalculate any move, we will surely plunge deep into the ravine, thousands of meters from an unseen ground.
At that moment, not only was the outside condition getting worse but tension was also building up inside the car. Shits & fucks flew from everywhere.
And just as we thought that we made it through hell, we were more horrified to come to a fatal narrow ridge. There were no railings on both sides & dark clouds blanketed it.
We were like daredevils walking on a tightrope without a harness. This time, breathing was not an option.
I closed my eyes & prayed. After calling all the saints in heaven, we safely made it across!
But nothing came closer to the feeling of deliverance than finding right after that scary ridge a sign that said, “Welcome to Kalinga. Balbalasang 10 KM ahead.”
We were so happy & relieved! We hugged each other in triumph & hurried out of the car for a smoke. Boy, Marlboro never really felt that good.
Despite the drizzle, we snapped some selfies & I was even able to record a short clip. But then we didn’t know that it was the last time we will ever smile again.
I told Ian that we have to leave because we still don’t know what the rest of the 10 kilometers was like. True enough, immediately after the blind curve, huge boulders were scattered on the road making it totally impassable.
They were so huge & heavy that it would require at least 10 strong men to move it even an inch. We used all our strengths until our hands bled in futile attempts.
“This is beyond physics now, we need some miracles!” Ian howled in frustration.
From teardrop drizzles to serious downpour, the rain started to kill us of extreme coldness. Then we heard a loud explosion that we thought were just thunders & lightning.
But when we turned our heads up, the sky was raining rocks! Bouncing, rolling & raging towards us!
“Ruuuuuuuuunnnnn Ian, runnnnnn!”
We dashed aimlessly through the dark fog forgetting that we were on a gorge. I stumbled & rolled until I hit a tree. I tightly held onto it because with just one false move, I will plunge infinitely into the ravine.
As soon as it was over, we rushed back to move the car. But even before we could get closer, boulders started to fly out from nowhere again.
Ian & I scrambled in terror. From afar we could see a boulder as big as a chair wildly heading towards the car. At that moment, we felt it was going to hit the engine hood.
“Fuck, noooooooo!” Ian shouted in despair. All I could do was to close my eyes. But mercifully, it stopped right infront of the bumper. We crawled back up & as soon as Ian got the chance, he screeched the car on reverse maneuver far away from the crumbling mountain.
This time, my balls were already up on my throat. I was in a serious panic. We lost count how many times the sky spewed rocks & how many hopeless times we ran for our lives.
I know it wasn’t the moment for dramatic monologues but I was exhausted & terrified. My blood sugar raging & my knees wobbling. I was like a mad man crying & shouting in desperation. “We’re gonna die here, Ian!”
But we had to get our acts together & leave the mountain before it could get totally dark.
We couldn’t tell anymore if it was adrenaline rush or divine intervention but we were able to clear the road of the rubbles.
We were all covered in mud & our hands were bleeding from the razor sharp edges of the stones. But we didn’t care. All we thought at that moment was to flee from hell.
Finally, we made enough safe space for the car to pass through & we sped down feeling distraught. We pulled over in a safe distance to figure out what else could be ahead on the road.
As we took the last 8-kilometer stretch, we could see smaller stones scattered on the road. All we could hope for was a safe passage until we get to our destination.
“We’re safe now.” Ian broke the silence. I don’t know how my dumb smile looked like to him but I couldn’t utter a word.
Everyone was asleep when we got to the village of Balbalasang hidden in a lush forest. After an icy shower, the crickets & the cold mountain breeze lulled me to a deep slumber.
I woke up the next day to the sweet scent of pine & the crisp brew of Kalinga coffee. Birds were chirping & the river faintly murmuring from a distance.
As the golden streaks of light gently crept into the horizon, the emerald splendor of Balbalasang finally unfolded. And the epiphanies of life sparkled.
I will never look at the warning sign “Beware of Falling Rocks” the same way again.