In ‘In the End Everybody Sings’, Simon Madden goes slow-paced jungle cragging in the Philippines
‘Glasses off!’ I squealed having just awkwardly smeared my sweaty face up the rock and sent my specs tumbling to the ground 20m below. Despite being the self declared weakest-climber-anybody-knows, I had flashed through the campus roof of Blackfoot (7a+/24) looking hilarious and ungainly, and was awkwardly pulling up/whaling onto the headwall huffing and puffing and pouring with sweat. The 100% humidity made it feel more like swimming than climbing, still that’s no excuse, the face-smear is graceless and should be punished.
Glasses off! It sounds like a superhero’s mighty call to transform into his powerful alter ego. Yep, if superhero-me is Mole Man – the shittiest superhero of all time. I was squinty, blinded and immediately nauseous at the loss of depth perception, fumbling and pawing for holds to make the final insecure moves to the chain. Do I lob off emasculated but with the excuse of being struck blind? I don’t want to have to campus again, it’s against my religion. Is it slabby? How far is the chain? Are there more bolts? Use The Force. ‘Luke. You’ve switched off your targeting computer, what’s wrong?’ Glasses off! Fuck, being a nerd is the worst.
This incoherent shout is one of my strongest memories from the Philippines – a place that seems to be shouting at you all the time.
Cacophony in the cities, cacophony in the jungle. A million roosters, a thousand motorbikes, a hundred hellos and the occasional report of handgun fire. The crag was no distant wilderness and so even there there was lots of sound, always. There were so many roosters that for the first few days I thought someone nearby was endlessly watching old cowboy films on TV, the blur of a thousand roosters crowing sounded exactly like every cowboy film’s crescendo where the evil Indians are hootin’ and hollerin’ as they close in on the circled wagons. The one upside to the cacophony was that it distracted me from my accursed tinnitus; ringing in the ears is to me what bloodied hands were to Lady Macbeth. The milieu wasn’t all being shouted at though and there were some delightful sounds. Every afternoon at the crag as the shadows deepened under the thick canopy, the most beautiful bird would start a mournful song. I never saw it and I never did find out what it was.
The worst sound of them all was the karaoke. Everywhere you went people were singing at an uncomfortable volume that was violent enough to singe your ear hairs. I hate karaoke.
When I told a mate I was heading to the Philippines on a ‘holiday climbing’ – not a ‘climbing holiday’ – he said it would be like going to Tonsai in ’95. The Philippines will never be Tonsai, but I think he was being allegorical anyway, referring less to the climbing and more to the spiritual essence of the place, the general vibe or whatever, allegory can be hard to untangle.
We dropped into Manila, a city famed for its ability to overwhelm but which on New Years Day was well short of hectic. It was hot and muggy and there’s no sky and the city presses down on you and it smells like the sort of progress that has dragged a few billion out of extreme poverty in the last 100 years. We jetted south to the big island of Cebu and made directly for a tiny village in the central highlands, Cantabaco.
It feels like there’s only one road on Cebu, mostly because there is only one. A single road hugging the coast that occasionally forces its ways through the thick jungle – no side streets, no byways criss-crossing the island – and everyone living pressed up right on the blacktop.
Cantabaco is a very little joint, a settlement of houses clinging to a sliver of road. Coming from the dry, open spaces of southern Australia the wet jungle can feel as if it’s threatening to take back stolen ground. If you were to sit still you’d see it happening: rotting, the organic consumed by bugs and fungi, built things losing to the seeping tide, motorbikes and steel and roads and bridges being retaken. Cantabaco feels impermanent. It’s not that it doesn’t feel like the home of people, just that if all the people left for a few months the jungle would swallow it again.
There are no restaurants and few sleeping options. When we arrived we bedded down at Spring Park Resort. It was not that resorty, being little more than a few charming huts and a couple of pools. It’s not as if the place had already seen its glory days, I am not even sure it’s that old, rather it’s like one of those babies that comes out and already looks 40. Still the bed was comfy, the staff excellent and the AC functioning.
On a hillside above the town, slashing through the thick smear of deep green, is a wall of bright white limestone. In the end, we would spend all the climbing part of our holiday at this little crag.
There was no furiousness about our attack on the crag, no hunger driving us to climbing insanity. We were laconic, damp, jungle-addled and heavy-legged. There is serenity in taking four hours to get ready in the morning – stretching and magic potions and coffee and breakfast and coffee, staring into the jungle and waiting for the rain to stop. The late monsoonal rains surprised everybody when they poured down well into January, but we were also unhurried because the best part of the cliff is in the sun until late afternoon. Sections of the cliff were shaded in the morning and you could still climb the easier stuff in the sun, but after a few days of ticking off warm ups before lunch our pace slowed even further. Holiday-climbing – it’s okay to dial back your motivation and chill the fuck out.
Hurrying or not, it always takes me a while to come to terms with limestone, not as long as making friends with granite again, but for the first few days I suffer from a weird incarnation of imposter syndrome – the self-conscious, debilitating feeling that you don’t belong and are about to get found out as a fraud. The crag at Cantabaco is sweetly vertical to slightly overhung on rock that is for the most part solid-as-a-rock, bullet hard and only slightly stained by the scuffing of unsure climbing shoes. The polish is not too bad because the climbers who visit are not so many; but that lack of traffic means some of the less popular routes are too filthy for comfort. Still, the rock is great and the moves are great.
To continue with the beguiled-by-limestone theme, the 6bs (21s) were hard and some of the 7bs (25s) were easy. Maybe the profusion of options on the easy routes makes you move without confidence, whereas on harder routes the options peter out and all you have to do is move between the obvious ones. Apart from one day where we visited another crag, Po’og, a heavily featured wall with easier routes that is in the shade all day, we did the same thing every climbing day. We would wander up the road in Cantabaco, dodge swarms of motorbikes, say hi to everyone, pick up some very sweet ‘bread’, some sweet rice and bananas, fill our water at the same water station, cross the river on the bamboo footbridge, walk intrusively right through the front yards and backyards of a few houses, past the fattening pig that must be almost ready for slaughter, sign the climber’s book, pay our 20c to the landowner and hike up the rusting stairs to the cliff.
Considering the climbing is relatively limited, the crag has a wide diversity in routes and styles. Techy faces, insecure smearing, ooze-inducing tufas, pockets that were both sharp and shallow as well as comforting sinkers, jug-halls and even jamming. About the only thing Cantabaco lacks is hard-out thugging, though there are a couple of steep routes through a rooflet that fit into the thug-lite category, including Blackfoot, the glasses-loosening campus problem that I somehow managed to flash despite being blind as a bat. Must be soft.
The best routes we did required more technique than yarding, routes like the beautiful corner, Juicy (7a/23); Unsa Mani Mikko (7a+/24), a powerful line on which long moves connected two bloated tufas; and the steep and stylish Lust For Chiki (7b/25). All of these are at the right hand end of the cliff and are in the sun for most of the day. Heading leftward along the cliffline you descend into the jungle and though it might be a little more humid, a little damper and a little more buggy, the routes are in more shade. There are some cracking warmups down here, including a triptych of low 6s that arc out from the same start each taking in diverse features – there is even a rising jam crack in those depths. The money, though, is on the right hand end, where the rock is clean, the moves enticing and the sun bright. Add in a couple of very thin 7c+s (28s), White Flower, a brilliant if a little painful 8a/29, and even an 8b+/32, Jack Sparrow, and there is enough climbing to keep you engaged for a few weeks, so long as you are not too strong, or too furious with desire.
The holiday part of a Filipino sojourn is excellent. Rest days turned into rest-long-weekends and we headed for the coast – never too far from where you are in a archipelago nation of 7641 islands. It’s nice to replace the pull of gravity with the buoyancy of saltwater, to feel air stirred by a sea breeze, snorkle with hawksbill turtles, dive with sardines and swim with whale sharks. One turtle we tracked for 20 minutes as he glided off the reef and into the deep, snatching a fish as he went and swallowing it down. Diving along the ocean floor as schools of sardines flocked above us like murmurating birds was hypnotically surreal. But the whale shark experience was horrible. We knew it was a mistake but we did it anyway, and that probably made our mistake worse. A zoo of human chaos thrashing in the water, some unable to swim or writhing for a camera rather than looking at the sea giants, who were only there for the free plankton feed. The thing that it reminded me of was going to the strippers, only the sharks are not pretending to be into you. It’s hard to go if you’re not lying to yourself, and the two share the same fetishised physicality, the same confected ‘realness’, governed by transaction, leaving you with the same dirty feeling that something is wrong. If you go the Philippines don’t do what Mole Man did. If you do you can always scurry back and hide your shame under the broad leaves of the jungle and go climbing.
On our last night in Cantabaco, after we had moved from the resort to the climber’s accommodation in a family residence called Glenda’s, the family invited us to a birthday party they were throwing. Relatives rolled in, a whole pig was wheeled out, fish, beef, salads, the works, and in a country where the cuisine is only average this was the best meal we had all trip. As the women sang karaoke the men watched on and inflated their confidence by necking agwa de pataranta, a kind of brandy poison that they chase down with coconut water. The night got rowdier, the singing got worse but more impassioned. ‘We call your hair “fuckboy hair”,’ one of the cousins said as she handed me the mic and I didn’t know if it was a compliment or a criticism.
The words of the song bounced across the screen laid over the top of stock footage in the incongruous way they do with karaoke machines. And I sang so very loudly.