Waking up in a freezing Saturday morning at the summit of the Cleopatra’s Needle, the third highest mountain in my home, Palawan, hot chocolate in hand, indescribably beautiful sunrise peeking through the hills towards Sulu Sea and a surreal pink moon hovering down towards the St. Paul Mountain and the Ulugan Bay, with friends that became family for me, is a once in a lifetime privilege – one of the mountain memories that I will treasure the most. The Cleopatra’s needle and it’s mossy canopy, the enchanting rivers, the ravines, those pretty little sunbirds, the fiery orange water striders, the cliffs and boulders, the Almaciga’s and all other towering lush trees, the ridges, and the little honey bees at the riverside – is a beauty everyone must protect – I cannot imagine Puerto Princesa’s wonderful future without it.
Here’s my narrative of our climb, the guides on how to prepare, the suggested itinerary and costing.
The trail story
When hiking up the Puyos or Cleopatra’s needle Critical Habitat (1,593 MaSL, 9/9 difficulty level) hikers have a choice of doing it for three or four days, back trail or traverse – as for our team composed of my friends Judd, Omo, Riz, Kuya IJ and Joan and my cousin, Chicoi, we opted for a 4-day back trail to this protected critical habitat.
Our day zero was spent in a Batak village, an hour hike away from the Batak Visitor Center in Tagnaya, Puerto Princesa City, where our kind and happy Batak and Tagbanua fellows reside, where, also, a village dog took our pre-cooked chicken good for two dinner meals as his forage for the night. Fortunately, I slept well, prepping me for a long day ahead.
Morning came for our day one and after preparing and eating a simple hearty breakfast, our team, led by our guides turned very good friends, Kuya Arnel and Kuya Lusito, set for a day full of river crossings towards the foot of the Puyos to gain an elevation of almost 400 MaSL.
The team threaded through rivers locals call Amanturunon, Riandakan, Silpan, Buragat, and Nagbidok, passing by small and big clear river lagoons, tugging protruding roots along deep cliffs, and jumping from rocks and boulders.
Each of us is carrying heavy hiking bags, the weight is getting unbearable as the day wears off and I personally look forward to every take fives and rest turning into short deep sleep below the canopy or beside the river.
Eight hours of walking, or more like jumping and running, took us to our emergency campsite near the river, where we safely sheltered during our first night of the jungle in the Mt. Cleopatra.
Our second day was the hardest climb of my life so far. Our hike began on a sunny morning afoot the first of the three assault area of Puyos. Without any gradual slope, we faced the 80 degrees assault past the loose soil, moving rocks sans roots to pull our body up – we crawled our way up until breathing seems impossible and rest was the only choice.
Upon reaching the area of thick and imposing almacigas, we steady hiked up and slowly went down again the second camp by 11:00 AM where the team cooked lunch and dinner and left at approximately 1:00 PM to tackle the second assault.
Second assault is a short intensive hike towards the last river where our team gathered our last share of water for the next 20 hours and upon loading so, we then braved the last, the steepest and the longest of the three assaults, the one leading to the peak of Puyos, a three and a half hour battle of leg muscle, shoulder strength, deep breaths and sheer will to not sleep along the trail that day.
We passed by other Palaweño hikers along the trail from the other side of the mountain and gave them our portion of water enough for them to reach the next source and continued our goal towards the summit. I intentionally walked far from my teammates to just be with the forest during the last hour of the hike – to be alone in my thoughts in the middle of my dream climb, to immerse with nature and appreciate everything that we Palaweños are gifted with. It was worth it, I also realized how blessed we are for having leaders and local advocates who protect our island to the best that they can that we can still enjoy and cherish this man and biosphere reserve. Plus, I also realized that I can read trails now, not to brag though.
After 9 hours and 30 minutes of walking, running, crawling and cursing (kinda), we reached mossy trees hovering above gesturing the peak, the fog then silently covered the canopy and we were welcomed by the small peak of Puyos, Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat, sea of clouds hiding everything down below, sunset peeking through the west, cold air sweeping playing tug with our sweat-drenched hair – it was a glorious summit encounter.
We built a camp and spent a sleepless cold night right at the peak, moon visible from where I slept, fog creeping through our makeshift shelter – but then the morning came and the sun rose as the moon set, the mountains of Puerto Princesa from east to west, north, and south, peacefully spread before our eyes – what a sight, what a delightful dream.
Our day three and four were spent with slow, knee testing descent towards the river, camping, enjoying the cold clear waters, chanting songs from Fraulein to Hawak Kamay with Kuya Arnel, deep psychology and life talks, hitchhiking a truck back to the city, halo-halo and chill dinner with Kuya Marvin.
How to get there
As I previously mentioned, this mountain can be traversed via Cabayugan and back trailed via Tagnaya, Concepcion, Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. This is the third highest mountain the can be hiked in Palawan, the first in Puerto Princesa. Buses (PHP 60) and vans (PHP 130) travels from San Jose Terminal on hourly basis daily to Northern Palawan passing by the Batak Visitor Center. Going back to Puerto Princesa is easy if you do not have hired transportation too. If you are planning to hike, kindly coordinate and clarify regulatory permits with Ms. Rosal Fe at +639489796154.
Total individual cost, if you are composed of seven climbers in the team, is PHP 1600 (Guide – 800, food – 500 and transportation – 300)
What to wear and what to bring (as copied from the Mt. Victoria blog)
Guys, please follow the principle of LEAVE NO TRACE, also avoid the SINGLE USE PLASTICS, not only in the mountains but in our daily choices. This blog is published in the hope that we all come together to protect the CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLE CRITICAL HABITAT.
Thank you, Judd, Mo, Riz, Kuya IJ, Joan, and Chicoi – I cannot imagine going on this climb without you and most importantly – Thank you Ma, for convincing Papa to allow me to climb this on Holy Week.
Happy trails, everyone!