What It's Like Exploring and Scaling Mt. Balabag in Idio, Sebaste, Antique Traverse to Yawan, Ibajay, Aklan | rich'nritch.com

What It's Like Exploring and Scaling Mt. Balabag in Idio, Sebaste, Antique Traverse to Yawan, Ibajay, Aklan

The breathtaking sight from the view deck of Mt. Balabag at sunrise
The breathtaking sight from the view deck of Mt. Balabag at sunrise

"Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it." -Confucius

Blessed with plethora of stunning natural landscapes and seascapes, it’s not surprising that the province of Antique located in the Island of Panay is one of the new eco-adventure destinations in the country. With its pristine mountains, largely untouched forests and unique biodiversity, it is also becoming a favorite destination of hikers as well as local and international researchers. In fact, the three highest and toughest mountains in the island popularly tagged as the ‘Panay Trilogy’ comprised of Mt. Madjaas, Mt. Nangtud and Mt. Baloy are generally located in Antique. While hiking activities are concentrated in the trilogy mountains, there are still many ranges in the northwest part of the province that are left unexplored by mountaineers and one of them is located in Barangay Idio, town of Sebaste.

Mt. Balabag with it’s peak blanketed by clouds
Mt. Balabag with it’s peak blanketed by clouds

Every time I’m traveling to and from Antique, I’m always seeing this majestic mountain that lies just north of Mt. Madjaas. I haven’t seen any documentation or photos featuring it and whenever I look up to its rocky exposed peak, the desire of exploring it grows stronger. Like its peak that is always covered by clouds, it seems covered by mystery. I was first fascinated by this mountain when I hiked Mt. Ma-eon-dong in Bagong Baryo, Makato, Aklan via Osman Trail in March 2017. I got to view it from the Aklan side and the idea of climbing it started. 

The view of Mt. Balabag from Mt. Ma-eon-dong’s summit captured in March 2017
The view of Mt. Balabag from Mt. Ma-eon-dong’s summit captured in March 2017.

Preparing for the Hike

In August 2018, I made a few trips to Sebaste, Antique to see this mountain up close and to gather more data. I found out the name of the mountain differs from its name in the open street map and it has long been a center of study for local and foreign biologists and researchers. Locals from Idio, Sebaste, Antique called the mountain Mt. Balabag and the locals from Ibajay, Aklan called it Mt. Sakpaw. It’s located in Idio, Sebaste, Antique and its ranges on the eastern side extend to Yawan, Ibajay, Aklan. From there, we started an idea of traversing it from Sebaste to Ibajay and crossing two provinces. 

Closer view of Mt. Balabag with its summit covered by clouds and scars on its slopes
Closer view of Mt. Balabag with its summit covered by clouds and scars on its slopes
The dense forests of Mt. Balabag and Mt. Usigan are homes to very rich and diverse flora and fauna making them centers for study of local and international researchers in the past.
The dense forests of Mt. Balabag and Mt. Usigan are homes to very rich and diverse flora and fauna making them centers for study of local and international researchers in the past.
The towering trees provides sanctuary for large number of endemic species in the area.
The towering trees provide sanctuary for large number of endemic species in the area.
The lines of unique-looking pine trees form a natural canopy on the mountain slope
The lines of unique-looking pine trees form a natural canopy on the mountain slope

It was followed by a two-day and one night exploratory climb in August 16, 2018 with the help of my legendary guide, Tay Lucrito. We were unable to get a view from the top and reach its true summit because of the strong winds and the entire peak was blanketed by clouds. Despite missing the view and the true summit, it was an amazing hike. The trail was enjoyable and it was my first overnight hammock camping experience in the forest. We also passed by a beautiful three-layer waterfall known as Nabaraw Falls near the junction of Calacala river and Nabaraw river where I dipped in for around two hours. The hike was more like a preparation for the second phase of our exploration which is the Antique to Aklan traverse.

Atop Mt. Balabag during our hike in August 17, 2018; the views are hampered by clouds.
Atop Mt. Balabag during our hike in August 17, 2018; the views are hampered by clouds.
Nabaraw Falls is a three-layer waterfall found deep in the interior of Barangay Idio, Sebaste, Antique which requires 2 hours of walking from the village proper.
Nabaraw Falls is a three-layer waterfall found deep in the interior of Barangay Idio, Sebaste, Antique which requires 2 hours of walking from the village proper.

Revisiting Mt. Balabag

In August 26, 2018, I returned to Idio, Sebaste, Antique with Ritch. We arrived at the house of Tay Lucrito at noon after registering at the Municipal Police Station. Tay Lucrito welcomed us in his house for a lunch before we set-out to hike Mt. Balabag. “We will not take the Calacala river trail because we are short of time. We will go via the ridge instead,” Tay Lucrito said. “Ritch won’t see the beautiful Nabaraw falls but we can always come back for it,” I replied. The Calacala river trail is shorter than the ridge with lots of shades to cover you from the sun but its very rocky, slippery and dense. On the other hand, most of the ridge trail is open and exposed to the scorching heat of the sun. It was 1:40 PM when we started our hike. We left the main road and walked along the Calacala river bank and into rice paddies. We made our way through lush cogon grasses and hiked over hills with green meadows and grazing cows. The sun was up and there were only few trees to get a shade from. Sweats were all over my face and my heart was pounding as I reach the top of the hill but there was still a long way to go. We took a short rest and enjoyed the picturesque scenery before continuing our trek along the ridge of Mt. Balabag.

With our guide Tay Lucrito at his residence in Barangay Idio, Sebaste, Antique
With our guide Tay Lucrito at his residence in Barangay Idio, Sebaste, Antique
A verdant rolling hill that serves as a pasture for cows
A verdant rolling hill that serves as a pasture for cows
A breathtaking view of the farmlands and mountains as seen from the hilltop
A breathtaking view of the farmlands and mountains as seen from the hilltop
The view of Mt. Balabag from the rolling hills
The view of Mt. Balabag from the rolling hills
Cows grazing in the meadow with Mt. Balabag in the background
Cows grazing in the meadow with Mt. Balabag in the background
Ritch walks towards the fence in the middle of a wide grassland
Ritch walks towards the fence in the middle of a wide grassland
Cows in the meadow
Cows in the meadow
Cows enjoying the vast grassland
Cows enjoying the vast grassland
The laid-back town of Sebaste, Antique
The laid-back town of Sebaste, Antique
Scenic views of hills and farmlands with Pandan Bay in the background
Scenic views of hills and farmlands with Pandan Bay in the background
The view of Pandan Bay
The view of Pandan Bay
A beautiful view of Abiera mountain ranges, east of Sebaste
A beautiful view of Abiera mountain ranges, east of Sebaste

While walking and picking guavas along the trail, Tay Lucrito unstoppably tell stories about his experiences in the mountains. For more than a decade in the past, he was the main guide of the local and foreign researchers who came to study the biodiversity of the Sebaste mountain ranges. He said that he worked with them for 9 years and even stayed in the mountains for weeks and months. In fact, he and Rene “Panoy” Ibon were the ones who discovered the Rafflesia in Sebaste, Antique. In between our talks, we ate our collected guavas as our trail food. We noticed there were plenty of them in the area.

A bunch of ripe guavas we picked along the trail
A bunch of ripe guavas we picked along the trail

Soon the trail left the clearing and entered the forest. My shoulders began to ache from the full pack I was carrying as the ground under my feet began to rise. It was time for a take 5. We dropped our packs down on the leafy ground and found nearby exposed tree roots and logs to sit on for a quick rest. We heard nothing but the sound of the forest and I sat in peace and reflected on how lucky I was to be in such a beautiful place.

A clear view of Mt. Balabag’s summit as we approach the campsite
A clear view of Mt. Balabag’s summit as we approach the campsite

We continued our hike further up the steep mountain slope, slashing our way through dense forest. Just when I thought that the climbing would never end, we finally reached a point where the trail began to head downhill. I knew that we’re now heading into the saddle between the peaks of Mt. Balabag and Mt. Usigan and we were close to the campsite. We reached the camp site on the foot of Mt. Balabag before it got too dark. Already cooled down and hungry, we decided not to continue our plan to camp at view deck. We quickly set-up our tarp and ground sheet to prepare for dinner. While waiting, we pitched our tent while our guide hanged his hammock. Shortly after, we feasted over our dinner and prepared to hit the hay. We agreed to wake up at 3 AM and start hiking at 4 AM the next day. 

Arriving at the campsite, we quickly unpack our cooking gears and cook our meals while we pitch our tents and hammock.
Arriving at the campsite, we quickly unpack our cooking gears and cook our meals while we pitch our tents and hammock.

Surmounting Trail Obstacles

The next morning, I woke up to Ritchel’s alarm. It was past 3AM and I can see the moonlight piercing through the woods providing a natural light for us. I enjoyed every sip of my coffee as I sat down and began preparing a hot soup for our breakfast. The hot coffee creeped into my nerves and when the caffeine kicked-in, it re-activated my senses. Shortly after our light breakfast, we began our assault to the summit of Mt. Balabag. It was exactly 4:20 AM. We carefully walked through thick jungle and sharp limestones with our headlamps on as the thick rainforest canopy block the light from the full moon. Soon after reaching the open landslide area, the trail climbs steeply straight up the rocky slope of the mountain. We were slowly making our way up, scrambling over loose rocks and gravels. As I looked back, I saw the moon on the horizon with its soft glowing light reflecting on the sea and the plains below. Whenever we step into the rock, our feet submerge in the loose gravel and we slide back. The rocks made our ascend difficult but we managed to reach the view deck after an hour and a half.

The moon shadows the thin sheets of clouds and reflects in the sea
The moon shadows the thin sheets of clouds and reflects in the sea

Upon reaching the peak, we were greeted by a breathtaking scenery. On the west side, we saw the stunning view of Balabag mountain ranges that run from the foot of the mountain to the coast of Sebaste. The beginning of the ridge is covered with dense forest then halfway it becomes open until it reaches the coast. We saw the view of the majestic Mt. Madjaas on the south with its summit slowly rising from the covering clouds. On the east, we sighted rivers, the mountain ranges of Ibajay, Malinao, Makato and the great plains of Numancia and Kalibo, Aklan. It was quite a show. We were the only people there and the views were beyond stunning.

The breathtaking view from the view deck of Mt. Balabag at sunrise
The breathtaking sight from the view deck of Mt. Balabag at sunrise
The town of Sebaste as seen from the top of Mt. Balabag at sunrise with Batbatan Island in the picture
The town of Sebaste as seen from the top of Mt. Balabag at sunrise with Batbatan Island in the picture
Mt. Balabag ranges sloping into the shores of Sebaste
Mt. Balabag ranges sloping into the shores of Sebaste
The trees and dense vegetation that grow in the slopes of Mt. Balabag
The trees and dense vegetation that grow in the slopes of Mt. Balabag
The view of Mt. Balabag’s North Peak
The view of Mt. Balabag’s North Peak
The view of Mt. Balabag’s South Peak with Mt. Abiera adjacent to it and Mt. Igtuob at the far middle
The view of Mt. Balabag’s South Peak with Mt. Abiera adjacent to it and Mt. Igtuob at the far middle
The breathtaking view of mountain ranges south of Mt. Balabag with Mt. Madjaas rises up in the background
The breathtaking view of mountain ranges south of Mt. Balabag with Mt. Madjaas rises up in the background
Closer view of Mt. Madjaas from Mt. Balabag’s view deck
Closer view of Mt. Madjaas from Mt. Balabag’s view deck
The view of Aklan mountain ranges as seen from the view deck of Mt. Balabag
The view of Aklan mountain ranges as seen from the view deck of Mt. Balabag
Closer view of Aklan mountain ranges with Mt. Ma-eon-dong as the highest peak located in Bagong Baryo, Makato, Aklan.
Closer view of Aklan mountain ranges with Mt. Ma-eon-dong as the highest peak located in Bagong Baryo, Makato, Aklan.
Dense forest and towering limestone rocks at the south peak of Mt. Balabag
Dense forest and towering limestone rocks at the south peak of Mt. Balabag
Giant rock formations located at the south peak of Mt. Balabag
Giant rock formations located at the south peak of Mt. Balabag
The giant rock formations with the Aklan mountain ranges in the background
The giant rock formations with the Aklan mountain ranges in the background
The mountains of Osman, Malinao and the plains of Numancia and Kalibo, Aklan
The mountains of Osman, Malinao and the plains of Numancia and Kalibo, Aklan

Scaling the North Peak

After enjoying the beautiful scenery we went on to explore the true summit. With his bolo on his hip, Tay Lucrito walks ahead, leading us to the summit. There was no sign of trail at all. All we can see are dense ragiwriws same of that in Mt. Baloy, spiky plants, and sharp limestones. We crawled through entangled ragiwriws, clung onto trees and leaped from one ragiwriw to another avoiding sharp limestone rocks that are rising on the ground. The approach to the summit was slow as Tay Lucrito clears the trail using his bolo. After an hour of bushwhacking and with the GPS on my hand, we finally reached the highest point. Tay Lucrito also confirmed that it was really the summit since he had been on this place one time in the past. He also told us that we’re the first two mountaineers to reach that far. The feeling of summitting this mountain was indescribable. It was a mixture of pride, joy, relief and exhaustion. After savoring that moment, we started to descend. It was exactly 11:26 in the morning when we got back to the campsite.

North peak’s summit
North peak’s summit
Views from the ridge just above the landslide area
Views from the ridge just above the landslide area
Tay Lucrito slashes entangled lagiwriws clearing our way up to the north peak’s summit.
Tay Lucrito slashes entangled lagiwriws clearing our way up to the north peak’s summit.
Our guide persistently finds his way through thick lushes as we serve as his guides from behind
Our guide persistently finds his way through thick lushes as we serve as his guides from behind
Taking a victorious pose with Ritch at the North peak’s summit
Taking a victorious pose with Ritch at the North peak’s summit
Checking our GPS to see the elevation.
Checking our GPS to see the elevation
We leave the tarp at the north peak to serve as a summit marker
We leave the tarp at the north peak to serve as a summit marker
Mountains of Pandan, Antique and Ibajay, Aklan
Mountains of Pandan, Antique and Ibajay, Aklan
View of Mt. Opao as seen from the North Peak of Mt. Balabag
View of Mt. Opao as seen from the North Peak of Mt. Balabag
Mountains and plains of Ibajay
Mountains and plains of Ibajay
Rock mountains of Pandan
Rock mountains of Pandan
These towering mountain rocks are fascinating to see
These towering mountain rocks are fascinating to see
Thick vegetations cover these mountains in Pandan
Thick vegetations cover these mountains in Pandan
Mountains of Pandan and Ibajay
Mountains of Pandan and Ibajay
Looking east at Mt. Ma-eon-dong
Looking east at Mt. Ma-eon-dong
Ritch poses for a photo atop the tree on the ridge of Mt. Balabag
Ritch poses for a photo atop the tree on the ridge of Mt. Balabag
Landslide area of Mt. Balabag
Landslide area of Mt. Balabag
Loose rocks on the slopes
Loose rocks on the slopes
The rocky trail in the landslide area
The rocky trail in the landslide area
This somehow resembles the boulder face trail of Mt. Apo except the rocks are small and unstable
This somehow resembles the boulder face trail of Mt. Apo except the rocks are small and unstable
A take-five photo in the landslide area
A take-five photo in the landslide area
Ritch poses for a photo in the landslide area
Ritch poses for a photo in the landslide area

Traversing to Yawan, Ibajay, Aklan

Shortly after eating, we packed our gears and headed south going to the direction of Usigan creek. There was no path, we only trusted the memory of our guide who used the trail 8 years ago. He told us that Typhoon Yolanda and Typhoon Frank were responsible in erasing the trail. As we see it, dead logs and bushes are all over the area and our guide only looks at the huge rocks as markers. Our guide also revealed that all the limestones we’ve stepped on and passed by were all from Mt. Balabag that rolled down during and after the earthquake 39 years ago. Tay Lucrito was originally from Yawan, Ibajay, Aklan but later, settled and lived in Idio, Sebaste, Antique. He is the only person who knows the area and the surrounding mountain ranges very well. Pushing through dense forest and sharp limestones, we continued our walk east towards Barangay Yawan, Ibajay. We were still walking on the same mountain but on Aklan side. We enjoyed the views and the stories that Tay Lucrito shared to us along the way. We also discovered a lot of new things about our province. One of them was the rafflesia that grows in the Aklan side of Mt. Balabag. Tay Lucrito showed us the vines and the buds where the rafflesia flower will sprout and bloom in March or April. It was already dark when we reached the Nalanaw River. We continued walking downstream and arrived in his relative’s house in Sitio Bugasongan at around 7PM. It was timely that his nephew was there and about to go out for night fishing. Exhausted by our trek with our feet soaked, we heated water and had coffee. We then bathed in the river, had our ready-to-eat dinner, and slept. We agreed to leave at 4:30 AM the next day.

The trail to Barangay Yawan, Ibajay, Aklan
The trail to Barangay Yawan, Ibajay, Aklan
The view of Mt. Balabag from Nalanaw River
The view of Mt. Balabag from Nalanaw River

It was past 5AM when we all got up. We didn’t waste time and headed towards Yawan proper hoping to reach Barangay Aparicio in Ibajay before the sun becomes our problem. Our walk started from Badiang and crossed Nalanaw river few times. As we trek along the riverbank, we were astonished by the unexpected views. The river is so clean and crystal clear. There are plenty of natural pools bounded by boulders on one side and mountains with misty green forest on both sides. They are very inviting and comparable to enchanted river. Not too long after, we reached the intersection of Nalanaw and Ibajay rivers where the first joined the latter and flows downstream to the villages of Ibajay and eventually into Sibuyan sea. As we walk further downstream we bumped into villagers from Yawan proper going to their farms in the mountains. Tay Lucrito greeted them one by one and often stopped for a chat. He knows everybody in the place. We found out that almost all the villagers are his and his wife’s relatives. Before we reached Yawan proper, we were surprised to see a ‘sea of white rocks’ spread on the riverbank. They were those kind of rocks people put in their garden for landscaping. But not only that, we were totally blown away when we reached a spot featuring huge white rocks that looked like fragments of a tremendously huge rock that broke into pieces and spread only in one area decorated by a flowing clean water of the river. I can compare it to Liktinon White Rocks in Maria Cristina, Madalag, Aklan. People call the spot as Pagti. It was mesmerizing.

Natural swimming pools in Nalanaw River
Natural swimming pools in Nalanaw River
This river bank is just one of Tay Lucrito’s former playground when he used to live in Yawan back in his younger years.
This river bank is just one of Tay Lucrito’s former playgrounds when he used to live in Yawan back in his younger years.
The intersection of Nalanaw and Ibajay rivers where the two rivers converge and winds its way downstream and empty into Sibuyan sea.
The intersection of Nalanaw and Ibajay rivers where the two rivers converge and winds its way downstream and empty into Sibuyan sea.
A ‘sea of white rocks’ on the river bank of Ibajay River
A ‘sea of white rocks’ on the river bank of Ibajay River
Small rocks of varied colors
Small rocks of varied colors
The turquoise water of the river is decorated by these large boulders
The turquoise water of the river is decorated by these large boulders
Upon seeing this place, I remember Liktinon White Rocks in Maria Cristina, Madalag
Upon seeing this place, I remember Liktinon White Rocks in Maria Cristina, Madalag
Locals call the place as ‘Pagti’
Locals call the place as ‘Pagti’

Further downstream, we saw numerous limestone rock formations in the river called ‘Igang.’ It’s intriguing to see them there while they are commonly found in the sea. It was another revelation to us. We reached Barangay Mina-a new proper at 9:00 in the morning, took a quick rest, and continued our way to Barangay Aparicio. In the last river, I and Tay Lucrito took a quick dip to get refreshed. From there, we walked for more or less twenty minutes before reaching the motorbike’s terminal where we once took a ride when we visited Nawidwid Falls in Mina-a a month ago. We left Aparicio at 10:30 AM.

Locals call this rock as ‘Igang’ which means limestone rock commonly present in the sea but lies abundantly in the Ibajay River particulary in Yawan.
Locals call this rock as ‘Igang’ which means limestone rock commonly present in the sea but lies abundantly in the Ibajay River particulary in Yawan.
Igang is known to be a living rock that grows few inches every year as shared by locals
Igang is known to be a living rock that grows few inches every year as shared by locals
Further downstream, display of Igangs are more overwhelming
Further downstream, display of Igangs are more overwhelming
The Igangs decorating the deep clear water of the river make a unique attraction
The Igangs decorating the deep clear water of the river make a unique attraction

The Igangs decorating the deep clear water of the river make a unique attraction

Along the way, locals going to Mina-a join us
Along the way, locals going to Mina-a join us
‘Saog’ is a local term for transporting goods with the use of a bamboo raft going against the river flow.
‘Saog’ is a local term for transporting goods with the use of a bamboo raft going against the river flow.
The two folks struggle their way upstream as they haul their bamboo raft against the current of Ibajay River.
The two folks struggle their way upstream as they haul their bamboo raft against the current of Ibajay River.
Tay Lucrito seems to know everyone in Yawan as every time locals see him they gather around for a chat; he even jokingly introduces us as his children.
Tay Lucrito seems to know everyone in Yawan as every time locals see him they gather around for a chat; he even jokingly introduces us as his children.
The map of our entire hike to Mt. Balabag
The map of our entire hike to Mt. Balabag

The map of our entire hike to Mt. Balabag

As I lay on my bed and reflect on the memories of my recent hike that night, I feel fulfilled and blessed with the new exploration that I and Ritchel braved and enjoyed over the weekend. We just created another chapter of serendipity in our book of travel and discovery. It was something to be really thankful and be proud of. It was beyond compare.

September 6, 2018

About the Author

richard's picture
Rich is a former Systems Administrator who left his job abroad in 2016 and spontaneously went backpacking in Israel and all ASEAN countries for more than 7 months before he headed home back to Philippines. He loves history, culture, geography, photography, and explorations. While traveling, he keeps a digital journal of his experiences and make interesting stories out of them. Often, you can see him driving his scooter around remote areas in Panay searching for new mountains to scale. Traveling made him realized that travel writing is his passion. Now, he spends most of his time blogging and managing our website. He is a Tourism Promotion Services NCII holder and finds pleasure in supporting local eco-tourism.

 

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