As soon as we reached the dirt road, I knew I was in trouble. I was on my way to Lake Holon in South Cotabato driving a rented motorcycle along with fellow travel blogger Louie of A Nomad’s Perspectives. While the view was nothing short of spectacular, the terrain seemed to be a few levels above my motorcycling skills. Apparently, my concept of rough roads in Manila is very different from rough roads in Mindanao.
Officially, I was in town to cover the T’nalak Festival. Unofficially, I came early so I could squeeze in some sightseeing. Thankfully Louie, whose journey I followed closely when he participated in Wrangler’s #TrueWanderer competition last year, was game for a day ride to Lake Holon.
Nestled in the town of T’boli, Lake Holon is one of the rising ecotourism attractions in the province of South Cotabato in Mindanao, Philippines. This scenic crater lake of Mt. Parker (locally known as Mt. Melibingoy) surrounded by rainforests is the home of the Tboli tribe. I read that the lake was one of the cleanest inland bodies of water in the country, so clean that tourists just drank water directly from it. Normally, hikers opt to camp out at least overnight because of the distance, but since we Louie and I both had to cover festival events the next day, he said a day trip was doable.
Motorcycle rentals are not widely available in Koronadal City, but Louie managed to borrow my ride from his barber. I drove his semi-automatic Wave 125 (renting it for P300 for the day) while Louie drove Kimmy, his trusted Kawasaki KMX 125. For most tourists, the more practical way to get to Lake Holon is to charter a habal-habal driver to take you to the jump-off point. They usually charge P150 per person or P300 per motorcycle (one way). However, I thought driving to the lake myself would be make the adventure more interesting.
We set out at around 6 in the morning. On the map, Lake Holon is roughly 70 km away from Koronadal City via the Surallah-Tboli road. The ride was supposed to be about one hour on the highway, 45 minutes on a rough road and a 3-4 hour hike from the jump-off point.
Before heading out, we made a few brief stops at the rows of bahay kubo (native huts) lining Alunan Avenue displaying products from different towns. At the Surrallah junction, we also stopped by a roundabout designed by Davao-based artist Kublai Millan and a T’boli dancing fountain near the registration area.
So far, so good. The paved road had been scenic, passing through vast pineapple plantations with a view of Mt. Matutum in the distance. It was a good warm-up to get me used to the motorcycle and the foot clutch. The last time I drove a semi-automatic was 4 years ago in Siargao. Having to consciously change gears instead of just focusing on the throttle and making use of the foot brake instead of two handbrakes took some getting used to.
Soon enough, the friendly paved highway gave way to a dirt road and our progress was hampered by my cautious driving. “What the hell did I get myself into?” I asked myself as I drove on. While the initial gravel roads were easy enough, the road just seemed to get worse as we drove further. It took every ounce of concentration to navigate over the rocky roads, gravel, stones and mud.
At one point, we passed through a muddy path where there was no choice but to power through. Louie had no problem clearing it, but it seemed pretty deep to me. My engine died halfway through and we had to let the motorcycle warm up a bit after. We noticed other motorcycles avoiding the road and navigating up the side of the dirt road through the trees. Ok, pwede pala dumaan dun.
I love this shot! Photo courtesy of Louie Pacardo
The road going to Lake Holon is not a good place for your bike to break down. You wouldn’t want to be driving in the dark either. In long stretches, there are hardly any houses. If I were driving alone, I would have probably turned back early on. But I felt more confident since I had a companion who was familiar with the terrain. Times like these, you have no choice but to drive forward, trying to dismiss the growing feeling of dread that you have to go back the same way you came from. Habal-habal drivers ferrying 2-3 hikers each overtook me easily on their sturdy motorcycles. That fee for the drivers suddenly made sense and I cursed myself for thinking this would be an easy ride.
When we finally got to Barangay Salacai Receiving area, the jump-off point where most people continue on foot, Louie suggested we ride another stretch up the mountain to Sitio Nabul to cut 30-40 minutes of walking time. But there was a section so steep that if I were on a mountain bike, I would have definitely dismounted and pushed the bike up. The motorcycle couldn’t gain enough power to climb and my tires got caught in a rut. While trying to maneuver it out, I ended up dropping the bike. Actually the bike fell on me. Ouch. The only thing wounded was my pride as Louie had to pull the bike off me.
To make things easier for everyone, we decided to just leave my ride at the registration area while I rode pillion on Louie’s more powerful dirt bike which tore up the trails. I have the highest respect for the locals who live there and have to ply this route everyday. After parking at the Lake Holon Coffee house in Sitio Nabul and leaving our helmets, we proceeded on foot.
The lake has become more popular among tourists ever since it was featured in various blogs and travel articles. According to Louie, most people think going there is a walk in the park. I guess I did too until I came face to face with the terrain. Most articles I’ve read focus on the lake as a beautiful destination while glossing over the fact about how difficult it is to get there.
The hike can be tiring, but it’s doable for anyone who’s reasonably fit, determined, and is not laden by a heavy backpack. The trail, which is roughly 7 km long, has been rated by Pinoy Mountaineer with a difficulty of 4/9. The trail peak elevation is 1600+ MASL. Though the ride took longer than expected, the hike part was quicker. We got to the lake in under 2 hours instead of the usual 3-4.
There are two trails going to the Lake. Sitio Kule offers a panoramic view of the 2.9 km caldera lake of Mt. Parker, which last erupted in 1641.
Photo of view deck from Sitio Kule courtesy of Happy Trip Tours
The second trail, which we took, starts in Sitio Nabol in Brgy. Salacafe. From Gono Kemfi and Station 1, a towering tree with gnarled roots, it’s a steady uphill climb passing through a mostly forested trail. Major landmarks include a large rock known as helipad near a restricted area. You’re nearing the view deck when you see Kotang Busaw, a large wooden structure that can be used as a temporary campsite. This marks the 30+ minute knee-shattering descent to the lake.
I was expecting there to be a lot of people at the lake since it was a Saturday, but surprisingly it wasn’t crowded at all. The lake was a refreshing sight – so calm and peaceful after our action-packed ride. Kayaks and rafts lined the shores of the lake for tourists who wanted to go boating.
Louie lamented the fact that there were now stores selling goods right beside the lake. He’s hiked there more than 15 times since 2007 and seen the developments over the years. But from an outsider’s perspective seeing the lake for the first time, I found it beautiful. The placid lake surrounded by mountains was a refreshing sight. Unlike other hiking trails I’ve seen, there was no trash at all on the trail and we had the place all to ourselves, which apparently is quite rare nowadays.
After lunch, we took a leisurely ride on the lake, while our boatman shared some trivia about the place. Lake Holon (formerly known as Lake Maughan) has an area of 304 hectares and an elevation of 4,700 feet above sea level. The lake is said to have been formed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Parker in 1641. It now serves as the tributary for five rivers including Allah River. Surrounded by mountaintops and a virgin forest, Lake Holon is one of the most idyllic lakes you can find in the country because of its isolation. Interestingly, tarsiers (the smallest primate in the world which are famous in Bohol) can also be found in villages surrounding Lake Holon.
The obviously staged “tingin ng malayo, kunwari candid” shots on the boat
While I would have just loved to lounge on the raft all afternoon, time was short and we had to get back before dark. While we were out on the boat, more tourists arrived from the other trail and started pitching tents for the night. Maybe next time I visit, I can camp out.
The ride back was as challenging as expected. It had been threatening to rain the whole day and the light drizzle made the trail even more slippery. I’m not a religious person, but I was uttering prayers the whole time that it wouldn’t turn into a full-on downpour.
I lost count of the times my tires skidded on the slick dirt road. Some parts of the trail felt like quicksand. All the near slips on the road reduced me to feeling like a first-class noob. It was an exhausting ride, but I never felt so alive. Isn’t that why we ride in the first place?
While driving I thought of all the touristy trips I’ve taken where everything is arranged for our convenience. It’s not that I don’t like being shuttled in an air-conditioned van with all the comforts. I am grateful for any opportunity to travel, whether it’s for work or a sponsored trip. But there’s really a different sense of satisfaction exploring on your own. You feel more invested in a place when you get there the hard way. True, some parts were scary but at the same time, it was the most awesome ride I’ve done so far this year.
I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief once we got back to dry pavement. While Lake Holon itself was beautiful, it was the journey getting there that made the ride really special.