The Tapulao Traverse is a 40-kilometer journey which we took at a relatively slow pace — four whole days. It’s possible to do the traverse in two to three days, but TapTrav is the group’s first 8/9-rated climb (all of us except CJ), so we took it slow. And for me especially, with my notoriously bad endurance (I’m so sorry guys), it was unforgettably challenging.
There’s little that is technically difficult about this traverse, but what make it challenging are the long distances and variety of terrain. A whole day can take you through calm river valleys, hot grasslands, rocky outcrops, and thick tropical forests. Unique to this traverse are the white-water-and-sapphire beauty that is the Zambales River, the majestic Sumatran pines, locally known as tapulao, and the abandoned mining road that stretches from near the summit to the settlement of Dampay in Zambales.
- Tapulao Traverse
- Mt. Tapulao is an Ultra (ultra-prominent peak) standing at 2037masl. Till the 1950’s, it was the site of large-scale chromite mining operations.
- Jumpoff point: Brgy. Labney in Mayantoc, Tarlac
- Exit point: Dampay, Brgy. Salaza, Palauig, Zambales
In this article: Itinerary | Trail Map | Narrative | Takeaways | Logistics
- Climb proper April 13-17, 2019
- Friday, April 12
- 3:00am depart Pasay
- 6:00am arrive in Mayantoc, buy breakfast
- 7:00am catch Elf truck to Labney
- 9:00am arrive in Labney, settle down at Kapitana Baun’s and explore the town
- Saturday, April 13
- 3:00am depart Brgy. Labney, 10 river crossings
- 8:00am Mt. Kinaulaman assault
- 12:00pm Mt. Silyasi lunch
- 4:30pm Mt. Pimaryo e-camp
- Sunday, April 14
- 8:00am descent
- 3:00pm Zambales River camp
- Monday, April 15
- 4:00am Mt. Tapulao assault
- 9:00am Mao and Camille e-camp in mossy forest
- 4:30pm Romane, Rufin, & guide camp in KM16
- Tuesday, April 16
- 7:00am Mao and Camille break camp and continue ascent
- 2:00pm Mao and Camille reach summit
- 3:00pm Mao and Camille lose trail outside mossy forest; head east to mining bunkers and KM16 water source instead of west to camp
- 4:00pm group finally meet up and eat
- 5:00pm descent to Brgy. Dampay Salaza
- 10:00pm take a 1-hour in KM5 store
- Wednesday, April 17
- 1:00am arrive in Dampay, have baths and some coffee
- 2:00am ride tricycle from Palauig to Victory Liner Terminal, Iba
- 3:00am depart Iba, Zambales
- 10:00am arrive in Pasay
- Friday, April 12
It was a damp and chilly morning in Mayantoc, Tarlac, where we arrived at 6:30AM on Friday, Mao, myself, R, and CJ. We weren’t due to start our climb till the wee hours of the next day, but we were there early because we’d been told that there was only one ride a day from the town center of Mayantoc to the settlement of Labney. The ride — it was an Elf truck — would depart from 11:00AM to 12:00PM daily.
To our surprise, the Elf was already there and ready to go. We rushed to get some breakfast in 7-11 and quickly bought a couple of raincoats from the market. Then we flung ourselves into the truck and hung on sipping our coffees through the whole bumpy ride. It was just 7-11 City Blends, but that was one of the best, warmest, most memorable morning coffees I’ve ever had.
Our fellow passengers were an old man and his family. They were transporting goods, like rice and soft drinks, to Labney. The man, Mang Lito, struck up a conversation with us.
Upon finding out what we were planning to do, he looked at us two girls, then asked the boys if they thought we could do it. The boys assured him that we could — we’d hiked before. This made me laugh in the Elf truck. But later on, when the traverse proved to be exhausting (it’s a long one), I would remember this question to motivate myself, haha.
By 9:00am, some hours ahead of schedule, we arrived in Labney and settled down in Kapitan Baun’s home. Kapitana Luz is a sweet lady who let us spend the day (and night) at her home, and had us join her meals.
Labney is quite remote. Here, there was no longer any reception, though the Kapitana did have a TV where ABS-CBN came through pretty clearly. (After dinner, a few other neighborhood ladies came over to watch Ang Probinsyano.) As for electricity, they’re on the grid, but connection is intermittent. Judging by the number of small generators in the area, they seem prepared for longer power outages. People collect water in buckets from the nearby river, because there’s no irrigation in town yet. The barangay is considering building a small dam to provide them with hydroelectricity (and maybe running water).
My phone was still okay, so I could continue working; however, losing signal ahead of time meant I could no longer communicate with the office. So, unable to sign out of work, it was time to explore. We put down our bags, ate our 7-11 sisig breakfasts, and walked around town.
It was cloudy and humid, but that couldn’t disguise the fact that Labney, nestled in the curves of Camiling River, is a heartwarmingly pretty place. People sped in and out of town on the dirt road, mostly on Honda TMX’s or Rusi TC125’s. Carabao sauntered by the river (or in it); children swam, men cut and carted lumber, and women washed clothes.
In this mountain-circled valley of pebbly beaches and dark sand and clean air, it was hard to imagine that just six hours before, we were in a dusty, crowded bus terminal in the city.
We shared lunch with a PSA (Philippine Statistics Authority) officer who was there to take note of even more remote residences beyond Labney. She was worried about the rain, but Kapitana Luz assured her that she could spend the night here if she needed to — here or in any house in town. Maybe we’re just hardened city rats, but this brand of hospitality was to us unfamiliar and magical.
These are a whole bunch of paragraphs, I know, to be dedicating to just the jumpoff point, but Labney alone is worth visiting, even if one doesn’t intend to cross Mt. Tapulao. Time also passed so slowly. We’d take an hour’s nap that felt like three hours, or a three-hour nap that felt like a whole night’s sleep. We’d sit talking for what felt like the whole afternoon, only to find that just thirty minutes had passed. It was unsettling, but maybe it was because there was no signal at all — absolutely offline, we were simply in the valley, body and soul.
The First Mountain Range • Saturday, April 13
At 1:00 AM, Mang Arturo arrived. We’d been expecting a guy called Arjay, but during the afternoon in Labney, Mang Arturo had introduced himself as Arjay’s father, and our guide instead. He said he’d helped open up the trail back in 2005 and had lost count of how many times he’d traversed Tapulao. He’s turning 60 this year, and his strength and endurance really put all of us 20-somethings to shame.
After a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs, we left Labney at 2:30AM.
The first leg of the traverse involves 10 river crossings. It’s basically only one river — the Camiling River — but it meanders. We had to cross where it was shallow in order to get to the foot of Mt. Kinaulaman, our first summit.
At the ninth river crossing, we saw a few empty huts. Mang Arturo said these were the huts of ginger gatherers, ginger being one of Labney’s main products.
A slow start
If we knew how long there was to go before reaching Zambales River, we should have rushed to reach the foot of Kinaulaman before sunrise. But the river crossings were so pretty!
We practically slow-danced across the streams ooh-ing and aah-ing over everything. We waited for the stars to fade and for the sun to come out, and even took a thirty-minute break before climbing Kinaulaman. Based on itineraries we’d seen online, we thought that after the Mt. Kinaulaman summit, it would be a straight six-ish-hour descent to Zambales River. Wrong.
Anyway, the first east-facing assault was hellishly hot. Really should have gotten there before sunrise! We heaved painfully up the grassy plain for almost two hours before finally entering the shaded forest.
The summit of Mt. Kinaulaman stands at 795 masl, and though we did get there at noon, it turned out there were several more summits to go. This was a mini-mountain range. There still remained the summits of Silyasi, Pinmaryo, Bangko, Daldalayap, and Mapalan (pardon the spellings; I spelled these as I heard them). These aren’t big enough mountains to merit official names on Google Maps, but I’m guessing these are what the locals have been calling them for generations.
Camp in the forest
We had lunch in Camp C, on Mt. Pinmaryo, before pushing onwards through the seemingly endless forest. We were all entering zombie mode, so by 2:00PM Mang Arturo told us that we could set up camp 2 hours away, in a clearing with a water source. It was either that, or our exhausted asses would get to Zambales River at around 8:00PM.
So we set up our first camp on Pinmaryo at around 4:00 PM on Saturday afternoon. (By the way, Mang Arturo is an expert at estimating times of arrival based on pace; it’s amazing.) There was a trickle of water nearby, as well as a small patch of banana trees, planted by the locals’ ancestors.
It was a chilly evening, and the water was so icy cold that steam would rise when it touched our skin. Though we were disappointed we couldn’t make it to Zambales River that day, that night was comfortable, and we fell asleep to the weird beepings and shriekings of forest creatures.
Zambales River • Sunday, April 14
After breakfast and breaking camp, we set off for Zambales River at 8:00 AM. Again, the forest was thick and challenging, but since it was mostly a descent, we were refreshed enough to go on and on. I say refreshed, but walking in a mossy forest for hours can put anyone in a daze — R and I both fell flat on our faces at different times.
Once, Mao and I saw what looked like a huge chicken flapping away from the trail, leaving a clutch of eggs. I decided not to pick any up because that chicken looked scary big and I wasn’t even sure it was a chicken, but when we caught up with Mang Arturo, he said we should have taken some, haha.
We also encountered our first local raspberries, what locals call hapinit. We picked and ate what we could. They’re refreshing, not too tart. I’m sure they would make a lovely jam.
Anyway, we were soon out of the forest. Before us were wide, grassy slopes and a view of the eastern side of Mt. Tapulao. It was a leisurely downwards walk through the grassland, which was only interrupted once by a thick patch of lightning-struck trees. After a little more of this garden-like trail, Zambales River comes into view. It was a magical sight: a procession of smooth boulders and turquoise pools, the deeper the more colorful.
But before getting there, a last challenge: the final stretch of the descent is around 60 to 70 degrees steep, with falls on all sides. Fortunately, it’s a rocky descent, with a lot to hold on to. Unfortunately, just as we got there, the sky darkened and thunder started to roll in soft, threatening booms. And it started to drizzle. This wasn’t exactly the best place to deal with a wet trail.
The most difficult part of this descent was the unfamiliarity of our cargo. Without an unusually heavy backpack, steep cliffs would be easier to negotiate. As it wouldn’t do to be overconfident about my balance, I slid down when possible, as quickly as possible.
Midway across the river to the campsite, I pulled off my hiking boots and stepped right into the water. It was, I can’t stress this enough, a huge relief.
I felt like Dora the Explorer: grassland, rock face, biiiig river! Backpack, backpack. Finally, here was the big river. The sun emerged, thankfully, as we set up camp. We rinsed some clothes we intended to re-use, cooked up a big, early dinner, washed, and swam for a bit before resting in our tents.
It was 6:00 PM when we entered our tents, intending to attack the upwards trail into Tapulao after midnight. That was also when the storm started. It was a real, WTF storm — a hard rain, with cracks of lightning and thunder one after the other, and in the background, the heightened sound of the rushing river. The clothes we rinsed, hung out to dry outside, were absolutely drenched.
Getting stuck in the storm scared me so badly (and I know, unreasonably) that I couldn’t sleep, which was a stupid move. I knew it was totally irrational, and it was hell of a bad place and time to have a panic attack, but that’s life for you — spontaneous, like a summer storm.
This bad emotional response to a sticky situation was both unexpected and a major drawback. One day I’ll get around to posting that article about fear, rational and irrational, in unknown (and outdoor) situations. For now, suffice to say that I was shookt by both the storm and my own emotional and physical reaction.
The storm ended at around 10:00PM, and I lay there wide-eyed waiting for it to return, but it didn’t. The skies cleared and the moon shone, but I wasn’t getting any more rest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my lack of sleep would totally come back and bite me in the ass later.
Monday, April 15
At 4:00AM, we began the steep climb up the slopes of Mt. Tapulao. We’d planned to do this in the dark because we had no intention of repeating the hot eastern ascent that had so exhausted us two days before when climbing Mt. Kinaulaman.
To get it out of the way: just like the Kinaulaman range, I’ve read that Tapulao has several summits. You pass by Marabinela, Musang, and Cable, before reaching the summit of Mt. Tapulao. But I won’t mention them any further, because I’m not familiar with their boundaries.
The lower parts of this mountain range are mostly grassy, and brown in the summer. Past 1,000masl the first pine trees appear. We were near first line of pine trees when the sun began to rise, so we sat and appreciated the view.
Above that, crowning the summits, are thick tropical forests. We reached the beginning of the mossy forest at 7:00AM. Once we entered, the summit would still be many hours away.
After the wide, open air, entering the mossy forest is both eerie and pretty, exactly like being in a Jurassic Park movie set. All around, it’s close and damp and green.
A second e-camp
By 9:00 AM, though, I’d been awake for more than 26 hours, much of which was spent in a challenging trek. I was pretty sure I’d keel over at any moment. This was it: my freaking out and failing to sleep beside the river was finally biting me in the ass. We were still very far from the summit, so Mao and I asked our friends to go ahead with Mang Arturo, while we set up an emergency camp in the second clearing.
Of course, it’s always best to stick together. However, in this case, we all had limited water supplies, meant to last the whole day and not overnight. It would be best if our friends could push onward to the summit (KM18) and then to the next water source at the KM16 campsite. We’d catch up to them the next day.
For dinner, Mao and I shared a can of corned beef, some baby potatoes, and a couple of onions. I was shaking enough to take out the thermal blanket (the one that looks like tinfoil), but it wasn’t that cold: I was just frightened, like a dog scared of thunder. Thankfully, as the sun set, the weather stayed fair, and I finally, finally calmed down enough to fall into a long, uninterrupted sleep.
Tuesday, April 16
Mao and I set off at 7:17 AM when the sun’s warmth first started to come through the forest canopy to the ground. After such a long rest, we were really achy, so we downed one capsule of Alaxan (Ibuprofen + Paracetamol) each, plus a sachet of Hydrite in 200ml of water.
Because supplies were dwindling fast, we moved as quickly as possible, economizing on water.
We’d decided to move in the morning was because this trail, though straightforward, was still unfamiliar to us. This way, we’d have the full advantage of daylight to spot clear paths ahead and various trail marks. The trail wandered up and down, left and right, but as expected we were headed mostly west. We encountered three lower peaks before actually getting to the summit. CJ told us later that he’d doubled back to leave fresh marks on a few confusing junctions, which would explain a lot of the new tool marks beside the old, fading ones.
One unexpected drawback of a morning hike in the forest was getting spiderwebs in my face every five seconds. I’m apparently exactly the right height to get all the fresh spiderwebs just in my eyes or my nose or my mouth.
We encountered a lot of limatik, but the limatik situation in Tapulao is pretty tame. Compared to Mt. Makiling, the Mt. Tapulao limatik have a pretty weak game. We still needed to cover up, but it wasn’t raining leeches; they’d just stick to our pants and jackets from a wild-boar height.
At noon, we got our first clear view of the summit. We estimated it to be more than a kilometer, or less than two hours away, if the trail were to follow the valley, which turned out to be correct.
As we drew nearer to the summit, Mao encountered the most difficult part of the traverse (for him). I’ve seen him trek for hours on end without signs of fatigue, but when his walking was interrupted by dozens of low-hanging branches, he began to get out of breath. Since he’s tall and responsible for carrying our tent and his huge tripod, he would have to bend really low or even squat to pass tight places that I could just march through. This was bad because we had to take more and more water breaks.
Finally, after a very low and narrow passage, our water supply was totally gone (shit).
However, just two meters ahead of us, obstructed by branches and ferns, was a clearing. Judging by a glimpse I’d had of the summit through the trees an hour earlier and by my compass, I was pretty sure this was it. I didn’t want to say anything, though, in case it turned out to be a false alarm.
So — one last push. Seconds later, we broke through the trees into full sunlight. Beside us was the beautiful, stunted “world tree,” as hikers call it. In front of us, there was a marker that said KM18.
I could hear Mao celebrating, but I wasn’t thinking about being on the summit. I wasn’t looking at the marker, either. Beside the marker, with “MAO” scratched on the label in black ballpen, was a 2L full bottle of water. WATER.
Much to my own surprise, I burst into tears. It was 1:58 PM.
Lost in the mist
After checking out the whole area, including the campsite and the old crater, we left the summit at 2:18PM. A few minutes later, a few texts started coming in: the first sign of mobile reception since Tarlac. After a last stretch of mossy forest, we emerged in the cold, misty pine forest Tapulao is known for. It was heavenly — what Baguio might have looked like before it became a city. We took some pictures in the clearing and headed for KM16. It was now around 3:00PM.
Except we took a bit of a wrong turn. A log had fallen across the trail a few meters in, and we couldn’t see too far ahead in the mist. So instead of stepping over the log to the trail ahead, we turned left down a steep, blurry old trail which led to the abandoned mining road.
So it was that instead of the KM16 campsite itself, we ended up at the site’s water source.
There was a bunk house, an old tractor, and a black pipe — this was the water source, though we didn’t know it at the time. We got a bit of signal, so we tried using that to ask our friends where to go before checking out the westward road. I also ate some hapinit that grew by the roadside.
Before we had the chance to head to the campsite, we heard a persistent whistling, and then shouting. CJ was above us, and telling us to head up in his direction. I whistled back, and we scrambled west to meet them at the campsite. R had just finished preparing noodles, rice, and champorado, and she’d opened the remaining cans of oyster and tuna. That was a seriously good meal.
At 5:00 PM, very late I know, we set off down the rocky, monotonous road to Dampay, which was more or less 16km away. It’s slippery, with large rocks everywhere, so while this part looked quite easy, it was actually a little tricky to navigate in the dark.
At KM10, we refilled our water bottles. And at KM5, there was, lo and behold, a sari-sari store where we rested for an hour or more, eating cup noodles, pancit canton, and enjoying some hot instant coffee.
(Just a note that the KM markers aren’t necessarily accurate road markers. The summit is KM18; the campsite 30 minutes away is KM16; the count goes on until the bottom of the mountain. However, KM16 feels like it’s much less than 2km away from the summit. Mang Arturo and the storekeeper in KM5 say that the distance from KM10 to KM5 is much shorter than KM5 to KM0.)
After passing the store, I’d been laughing at CJ for saying his knees were starting to hurt. I was like, how does that happen? But before we got to the paved part of the road, my right knee felt like it was about to fail. This would hurt all the way home. After four days, I asked my body, now?
And yes, at KM3, the road is paved all the way to town. You’d think it would be easier on the feet, but a downward-sloping road down is hell on the legs. Still, it was a relief to know that civilization was only steps away.
Wednesday, April 17
It was way past midnight when we finally made it to the rest stop beside the Dampay Salaza Barangay Hall. It’s a relatively large sari-sari store with guest bathrooms one can pay to use. After just a few days in the outdoors, a tabo looked like state-of-the-art equipment.
On two tricycles, we rode from Palauig to Iba under a high, waxing, and strangely orange moon. Mang Arturo was dropped off somewhere in Iba, where he would catch a ride back to Tarlac.
As for us, we caught the first Victory Liner bus to Pasay, and what with the traffic and the numerous stops, we got home pretty late. It was Wednesday, and we were just in time to greet the hordes of people pouring out of the city for their Holy Week vacations.
At the time of my writing this, our trip was last week. The various muscle aches have just begun to subside, the little scratches have scabbed, and we’ve had time to think about our trip.
Here’s what I learned from our trip:
1. Equipment matters.
We tried to be as prepared as possible, but when your limits are tested, your smallest oversights become huge inconveniences. Here are things I ended up regretting:
- Forgetting to wrap my clothes in plastic or mini dry bags. “It’s summer,” I thought, then we got caught in a storm. My bags’ rain covers could only do so much to prevent the insides from getting damp.
- Neglecting to bring more quick-dry shirts. I only had one. Especially when traveling through thick forests, one needs quick-dry attire or risk spending hours in wet clothes.
- Overloading our bags; hanging little extra bags outside our bags. As much as possible, put everything inside the bag. That’s why they have all those compartments.
- Limiting trail food to Presto Creams. I love Presto Creams, but sticky peanut buttery goodness is not ideal for long walks and limited water. We should have brought real granola bars and trail mix as well.
- Not buying good quality batteries. In the dead of night in treacherous terrain, you really don’t want your headlamps faltering.
On the bright side, other extra precautions turned out to be helpful. Here are the things we were very thankful to have:
- Extra batteries (even if they were cheap)
- 30,000mAh powerbank
- Water bladders
- Extra footwear
2. We have really good friends.
I don’t have to elaborate much on this, because that says it all. But R and CJ totally left us water on the summit, made food, and whistled for us when we got a little lost in the mist by the bunkhouse. We’re a great team! Or would be, after I go to the gym for a while and maybe deal with the panic attacks (sorry guys haha).
3. The body is easy to take for granted.
In the city, it can often feel like sleep, exercise, and regular meals are optional. Our sedentary jobs and lifestyles are A-OK with, you know, killing us slowly and comfortably. But on a trek, you need your body and it needs you. Skip a meal, lose some sleep, have a weak knee or ankle, and you’ll be feeling it within hours.
Notes for those who want to try
Pinoy Mountaineer has rated Tapulao Traverse 8/9 difficulty-wise. This seems accurate considering it was pretty challenging, but I don’t find it hard to imagine that there are harder mountains to climb in the country.
CJ, however, has climbed Mt. Apo, Mt. Kalatungan, and Mt. Pinatubo via Delta V, all of which are also rated 8/9. He says that, of the four, Tapulao proved to be the most difficult. However, this is extremely subjective.
I’m sure that if we were to do it again, we would know what to expect; therefore we’d be able to pack better and find the trail a little easier. But no matter what, I’d say the length of the traverse makes it an absolute requirement to do some physical conditioning before the climb.
A good practice climb for TapTrav would be MakTrav — the Mt. Makiling Traverse. TapTrav involves hours and hours on end trekking through stifling mossy forests, which can be disorienting and claustrophobic. Makiling’s thick tropical rainforest and abundance of fierce limatik can help make Tapulao’s mossy forests feel like a walk in the park.
Is it dayhikable? (For climbers)
For avid mountaineers (like CJ), it’s possible to do Tapulao Traverse as a dayhike or overnight trip, with only one rest stop by the Zambales River. If you’re an athlete or senior mountaineer in training for highly advanced treks, I can understand rushing it purely for the physical challenge. The diverse terrain makes TapTrav an ideal training ground.
However, with all due respect, if you’re doing TapTrav for the first time, I would like to discourage dayhiking for two reasons. Firstly, this scenery is too good to pass up! And secondly, out of consideration for the guides. Though hale and hearty, the fact is they’re simply locals who know their way around. If you’re gearing up for a hardcore experience, that’s awesome, but remember that you’ll be putting them through it too.
Some very experienced mountaineers are willing to continue hiking on their own, separating with their guides on Mt. Kinaulaman. However, this is absolutely discouraged for first-timers on the trail. While the trail is an easy read, there can be a few confusing spots. If you’d like to take your guide with you on a dayhike traverse, we gently suggest considering adding a premium to their fee, because they can be too shy to ask — the distance is no joke, and they’re there to be sure you’re safe, so asking them to speed up is asking a lot.
Is it good for camping? (For campers)
Yes, double, triple, quadruple yes. For lazier, more camp-minded people (like us), this mountain range is paradise. Our guide even told us about this one guy who’d spend fifteen days at a time on the trail, with multiple guides and porters. If you’re planning a Tapulao Traverse, multiple days are ideal. But keep in mind that more days means heavier supplies.
How to get there
- Transportation (from Pasay, Metro Manila)
- At Five Star Bus terminal in Pasay, get on a bus headed for Alaminos; tell the conductor you plan to get down at Mayantoc. You will be dropped off here in Camiling, past Tarlac Agricultural University.
- Ride a tricycle to the Mayantoc town center here. The driver can tell you where to find the Elf truck to Labney.
- Catch the Elf truck to Labney! It only makes one trip a day, before noon, so be early. (I think it’s also possible to charter a jeepney, which would be a bit more expensive, and also needs to be done ahead of time)
- Finish the traverse!
- Ride a tricycle from Dampay Salaza in Palauig to the Victory Liner bus terminal in Iba, Zambales
- Get on a bus back to Pasay
- Who to contact
- Other preparations
- Cash. Withdraw enough cash to last you for the entire trip; ATMs are not in abundance outside of Metro Manila.
The main objective of this traverse was to immerse ourselves in the outdoors. We were glad to discover TapTrav’s many enjoyable watering holes. For happy campers like us, four days here felt like pretty much a minimum.
In theory, we were aware that there would be multiple environments, but even so, this trail’s diversity exceeded our expectations. We were able to set up camp by a rushing river, in mossy forests, and in the mist by the pines.
Dreams came true and beyond; challenges were faced and overcome; overall, it was a successful trip. ★