Our Madjaas climb was a year ago, yet I can still vividly recall how tough and fun at the same time climbing the highest mountain in Panay Island.
To get to Mt. Madja-as (Madias), you can either travel by plane to Kalibo or take a ferry boat trip to Iloilo and then take a bus or van going to Culasi, Antique.
The humble town may not be a popular travel destination but there is actually a lot to see!
You can trek into the woods to hunt for rafflesias, known as the corpse flower, the largest and smelliest flower in the world. If you pass by one of the Valderrama baranggay boundaries, you’ll see the rafflesia sculpted in its welcome post. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to smell the corpse flower because our arrival was postponed for one day leaving us with limited time to explore the rest of Panay island — we missed the only ferry trip that one evening. ;(
You can also explore the white beaches of Malalison, Batbatan and Maniguin islands and of course, Mt. Madjaas at 2113 masl—the highest peak in Panay island. The mountain features a variety of flora and fauna including leeches!
Pre-Climb: Preparation & Arrangement
In preparation for this climb, a friend and I tried an uphill and downhill endurance practice to and from Mountain View at Busay, an uphill area in Cebu City where we are based.
From reading reviews, we’re convinced that we need more practice. Mt. Madjaas is a steep mountain to climb and is quite a challenge as it can be exhausting due to the extreme heat in the open fields.
Two or three weeks before the climb, we contacted the Culasi municipality information tourism officer, Mr. Johnjohn Sumanting for our climb arrangement. You need to secure three permits: from the municipal tourism office, from the police, and from the DENR station. Most of the time, arrangements are made a month before because it is a highly protected area.
When we arrived at the municipal office, the dedicated all-around officer welcomed us. He provided us an orientation about their town and what to expect, even provided us tourism brochures and arranged our transportation going to the jump-off site.
Day 1: Reaching the Trailhead and 1st Campsite
The trailhead is at Brgy. Alojipan. To get there, we took a van arranged by the municipal officer to the poblacion (town proper) to Brgy. Camansi—the point where the van is no longer good to trail the narrow and rocky road. From there, you will have to ride a habal² (motorcycle) to get to this remote part.
You will be crossing a shaky bridge with wooden floor on a motorcycle. It can be a little scary as the habal² driver mentioned that someone fell off from the bridge the other day but luckily survived. At the baranggay station, we signed their logbook that keeps a record of the climbers.
We started to hike around 4:30pm to camp for our first night in the mountain. It was a tiring first 20 min ascent, feeling the heaviness of our bags, then it gets easy with the hike in the rice fields. Afterwards, it will be a series of assault and just very few and short rolling terrain.
Day 2: Crossing Opao Knife-edge Ridge to the 2nd Campsite
On Day 2, we set our alarms for a wake-up call at 2am but snoozed it and only started the trek around 3:45am. It is recommended to start very early before daylight to avoid heat exhaustion in the open fields that might lead to dehydration. We don’t want this to slow us down as some may complain of leg cramps which may be a result of dehydration or calf muscles complaining of what seemed a forever assault.
An hour or less from our first campsite is the DENR nursery where we got some seedlings of hardwood trees such as Mahogany and planted it a little farther into the forest. Hopefully, these little seedlings will grow as strong, tall and sturdy trees.
When daylight came, we had waterfalls as a backdrop.
To make it easier for us, our guide Jelly (he is an ex-RPA, a returnee) had to lay down some tall cogon grass along the trail with his bolo. Our porter guide was Paterno, who most of the time was silent.
I’m impressed that both are fast hikers walking barefoot. I couldn’t imagine myself not wearing durable hiking shoes in a leech-laden trail but our guides are leaning towards minimalism by only needing their sturdy soles. It is not by choice. They don’t even own beanies and instead had plastic bags to wrap their heads, and had trashbags as an improvised jacket for waterproofing and insulation.
Along the trail, we saw colorful butterflies and a praying mantis that looked at first like a butterfly with its bright pink wings.
At Opao Ridge you will see lots of pitcher plants–green and red ones. They call it ‘opao’ which means ‘bald’ because no trees surround the knife-edge ridge. There are only cogon grasses for an unreliable grip in the thin pathway with steep drop-off.
There are wild orchids and the unwelcomed leeches. Yep, there are lots of small terrestrial bloodsuckers along the damp trail, so better fully cover yourself with a longsleeved dri-fit shirt/ rashguard / arm cover, and by wearing trek pants and gloves—which is also helpful in protecting yourself from the blady cogon grass.
I was wrong in not wearing gloves most of the time during the ascent, thus I suffered from small cuts on my palms from holding cogon leaves and accidentally touching some prickly plants. During our descent, I made sure to wear a pair to avoid further cuts.
The second camp site is damp and cold. You have to gather an amount of leaves to cover the wet ground before setting up the tarp and pitching tent. You will surely appreciate a soup or hot drinks up there. Because the area is moist, there are leeches that will secretly crawl into your tents as they love your warm blood. Nevertheless, it is a good place to rest with little frogs, crickets, cicadas and birds in chorus, singing you to sleep.
Day 3: Crawling and climbing on all fours to reach Mt. Madjaas Peak
Upon waking up the next morning, a fat leech was on my right ankle and was still trying to devour my nutrient-rich blood. I must have been too tired and was in deep sleep to have any clue. I didn’t even slightly feel or notice anything unusual.
If you happen to get intimate with the leeches, just twist them first before you pull them from your skin or sprinkle salt and they will shy away from sucking blood.
I’m not sure how true this is, but they said that Efficascent oil, a methyl salicylate-camphor-menthol liniment, a popular remedy for muscle aches and a counterirritant can also be used as an anti-leech potion. Perhaps its strong menthol properties are toxic to the bloodsuckers.
In the morning of Day 3, we had a hearty breakfast: tuna macaroni soup, sardines with eggs, ham, dried fish and instant coffee. We then trekked the muddy trail, gripped and crawled under roots and shrubs, climbed over tree branches and through tall grasses to get to the peak.
We left our backpacks at the campsite bringing only hydration packs with trail foods because large bags can get caught over the low tree branches or get ripped by twigs.
You can reach the peak around 2 hours from the campsite. It’s a small area and it was foggy that time that we had no view from there. If with clear skies, it has a nice overlooking view of surrounding islands of Panay. We however had fun taking pictures and climbing the mossy trees.
The same day, we trailed down back to Brgy. Alojipan. It was already dark when we arrived and we asked the motorcycle drivers for a premium to take us to the town proper so we can clean ourselves and rest. They let us stay the night at one of the municipal rooms—lucky us!