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Travel and Tourism

Making it to Masungi

Ivan Man Dy - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – The province of Rizal, on the eastern edge of Metropolitan Manila, is a paradox. On one hand, it presents a bucolic surface – think of Morong and Angono, pastoral towns still centered around their colonial-era churches – but contrast this with the  heavily built-up commercial municipalities of Taytay and San Mateo, which are practically Metro Manila suburbs.

One thing most people do not associate Rizal with is the great outdoors, which is why Masungi Georeserve in the town of Baras came as a very pleasant surprise. For the tired and weary city dweller living in the concrete jungle, this new sanctuary an hour’s drive from Metro Manila will take you to a different world.  One that is towered by the Sierra Madre mountain range, cooled by breezes from Laguna de Ba-e, soothed by lush tropical greenery, sculpted by limestone karsts and shaped by rolling hills.

Situated on kilometer 45 along the Marcos Highway, this 1,600-hectare forest reserve is operated as public-private joint venture with the Blue Star Development Corp., which manages a 300-hectare portion of the site. Since 1996, the company has initiated a major reforestation effort and began developing eco-tourism facilities two years ago to further its sustainability. Now, Masungi has quietly opened her doors to the public.

Arriving at 5:30 a.m. one fine summer day, our media group was greeted by project officer Ann Dumaliang, who explained that Masungi takes its name from the Tagalog word sungki meaning spiked, in reference to the limestone karsts found within the area.

The tag “georeserve” reflects this eco-tourism venture’s objective, which is framed within  UNESCO’s definition of a geopark where sites and landscapes of geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, conservation, education and sustainable development. This bottom-up approach of combining these various concepts while involving the local Dumagat community from the local barangay is reflected in the overall interpretation of the place.

For one thing, access is regulated and visitors have to book a tour prior to visiting. There are only limited runs each day, with groups of at least seven and no more than ten. All tours are accompanied by a park ranger and independent exploration is not allowed. 

Our tour commenced with a detailed introduction that provided an overview of the place. The whole area was originally intended to be a housing development but because of its uneven geography and remote location, the plan was shelved and the management decided to turn it into a geological conservation leisure destination. A portion of the area was then developed as a rock and concrete eco-trail leading visitors up and down the terrain. This is a non-stop hike to a summit but one that is clearly designed to make jaded urbanites see and appreciate the diversity of local flora and fauna.

As we started our climb, our guide was quick to highlight nature’s little details. We spot interesting flora such as pea-sized tomatoes, local cactus and a rare purple-coloured jade vine in bloom. Similar to the sakura (cherry blossoms) of Japan, this plant flowers only once a year for a limited time. In between steps, we are regaled with  inspiring stories of how the area regained its vegetation through manual tree planting. We also hear of its operational challenges, including recent malicious land grabbing intents from corrupt elements of the community.

From an initial survey, the trail seemed like an easy, straight-forward path, but we were surprised at the various twists and turns which involved hiking up steep stairways and through tight passes and rolling terrain. As challenging as some of the portions were, the magic of the Masungi hike was how the whole trail is punctuated with creatively engineered rest stops which open up to magnificent views of the reserve.

There is Sapot, an amazing web-like metal platform built over a set of stone karsts that  overlooks the  hills and Laguna de Ba-e.  In Patak, we made our way through a suspended bridge onto a hanging air house that is shaped like a tear drop.

Over at Duyan, we descended down a cliff of dizzying heights to this ingenious 80-meter long bridge which is like a giant hammock that seems to hang precariously over two cliffs. “It’s very safe,” our guide Billie assured us. After all, the whole span is made of white rope on cable wires, the same as those used in suspension bridges. Reassured, we found this spot to be the perfect rest stop to appreciate the surrounding forest before climbing up to the highest peak, the aptly named Nanay and Tatay. From these two vantage points, we were again rewarded with fantastic views of the deep valley and its limestone karsts.

All in all, our four-hour hike turned out to be not your ordinary mountaineering workout but one that ultimately became a lively, living lesson on natural biodiversity as well as the travails of local efforts towards environmental conservation.

In spite of its current challenges, Masungi welcomes visitors ready to appreciate a little known aspect of Rizal province’s heritage, at the same time gain a deeper insight into man’s never-ending struggle to co-exist with the natural environment.

To book tours, email [email protected] or log on to www.masungigeoreserve.com

 

 

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