Stephanie Dychiu BBC Top Gear - Pinatubo Crater Ascent

Dale Abenojar figures in this 2004 story as the first person to drive a vehicle up the crater of Mount Pinatubo. Two years later, he caused a national controversy by claiming to be the REAL first Filipino to summit Mount Everest, a title Philippine media had already given Leo Oracion.

Click here to view ABS-CBN's coverage of Abenojar's Pinatubo crater rim ascent mentioned in this story.

by Stephanie Dychiu

Remember Joe vs. the Volcano with a young Tom Hanks and even younger Meg Ryan? The movie’s premise is something most Pinatubo-bound Juans can relate to: world-weary Joe Banks (Hanks) is stuck in a dead-end job, hates his boss, has a hopeless office crush (Ryan), then suddenly discovers he is dying of an incurable disease. A rich businessman contacts him with an unusual offer. In exchange for living his final days in the lap of luxury, Joe must sail to an isolated island and throw himself into a live volcano to appease the island’s gods, saving thousands of inhabitants from certain doom.

Must you, the average Juan, wait for similar incurable disease, rich businessman, and vexed island gods before planning to trek up the mouth of a volcano?

Not when Mount Pinatubo is only a few hours’ drive away.

Since its spectacular eruption in 1991 drove the Americans out of Clark Air Base, Pinatubo has been wriggling back to the public’s good graces by reinventing itself as an adventure destination. “Reinventing” is the operative word—Pinatubo to this day continues to reshape and redesign its landscape like a fickle colegiala. Well-trodden trails are washed away by flood waters overnight, and large boulders go on frequent landslides to rearrange themselves. Even the crater lake’s waters have been known to turn from sky-blue to inky black over a short period of time. Such unpredictable behavior often frustrates four-wheelers who lose their makeshift parking hideaways whenever Pinatubo decides to move furniture around. Map makers also grudgingly admit that any successful attempt to plot the area’s terrain is bound to be short-lived.

But perhaps it is these very foibles that make Mount Pinatubo so irresistible to adventure-seekers. Earlier this year, it basked in the limelight once more as the star of the Shell-Mt. Pinatubo Crater Rim 4x4 Ascent. Leading the expedition was seasoned four-wheeler Dale Abenojar and his “ReoRover”, a mutant contraption the mere sight of which can send Land Rover purists into paroxysms of shock. Aptly christened “Frankenstein’s Monster”, Abenojar’s handiwork consisted of a 100-inch wheelbase Land Rover double chassis, Reo 2.5-ton military truck axles and transfer case, custom drive shafts, and, yes, air brakes that puffed and seethed like an overheating bus on EDSA. The ReoRover had a Ford 460-cubic-inch (7.5-liter) big block V8 gasoline engine with 460bhp, mated to an automatic transmission, and a custom radiator placed behind the driver’s seat.

How Abenojar survived the drive to Pinatubo’s crater rim is an epic tale spanning seventeen days and ten kegs of beer. But for the average Juan who simply wants a break from the usual badminton-cum-Ice Monster weekend, here’s a quick guide to planning a basic Pinatubo expedition.


Day 1:

5:00 am
Depart from Metro Manila via the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) and head for Barangay Sta. Juliana, which is about an hour from Capas, Tarlac.

9:00 am
Arrive in Barangay Sta. Juliana. Register for the Pinatubo climb at the Sta. Juliana Tourism Council (climbing fee is about P20 per person).

9:30 am
Drive from Barangay Sta. Juliana to the end of Crow Valley, where you will find an Aeta village called Bangan Tungol. Bangan Tungol is the place to hire Aeta porter/guides (about P500 per day for each guide).

10:00 am
Eat pre-packed breakfast in Bangan Tungol.

10:30 am
Begin the hike to Pinatubo’s crater rim.

2:30 pm
Arrive at crater rim. Collapse only to get up again and set up camp. Stay overnight.

Day 2:

7:00 am
Wake up and have heavy breakfast.

8:00 am
Do last-minute frolicking at crater before preparing to descend.

10:30 am
Pack up and begin descent from volcano.

2:30 pm
Arrive back in Bangan Tungol. Rest. Have heavy late lunch.

3:30 pm
Depart for Metro Manila.

7:30 pm
Arrive in Metro Manila.

How to get there
The usual route from Metro Manila to Pinatubo is a 120km drive on the NLEX to Capas, Tarlac. From Capas, it’s another 20km to Barangay Sta. Juliana. From Sta. Juliana, it’s another 5-6km to Bangan Tungol. The circuitous route from Bangan Tungol to Pinatubo’s crater rim stretches about 10-12km.

Vehicle care
Where to park in Pinatubo depends on weather conditions and the water level on the river channel. When the weather is bad and the water levels are high, it is advisable to leave your vehicle at Bangan Tungol. But when the weather is good and the river is behaving itself, you can park your vehicle several kilometers further. Ask your porter/guide to recommend a good spot. This can cut down your hiking time by as much as half (two hours instead of four). Regardless of where you park, hire a local to keep watch on your vehicle while you are out hiking. Leave some food with your “guard” so he won’t abandon your vehicle to hunt for lunch. And in case you haven’t noticed, this terrain is strictly for 4x4s only.

When to go

November to May are the best months to go. The rainy season from June to October can cause dangerous flash floods and lahar flows, so climbing is not recommended during this time.

Where to stay
A tent. This is the mouth of a volcano. There are no charming bed-and-breakfasts around.

Where to eat
Last time we checked, McDonald’s had no outlets in Pinatubo. It’s campsite grub all the way.

Activities and sightseeing
Crow Valley. Crow Valley used to be the gunnery and bombing range of the US Air Force. Fighter planes practiced their bombing skills here. These days, the Philippine Air Force tries to do the same with the five or so planes that make up the entire air defense fleet. Needless to say, happy hikers should avoid this area when RP-US joint military exercises are ongoing.

Bangan Tungol. Spending a few hours in this traditional Aeta village is a worthwhile experience. At Bangan Tungol, time seems to have stood still, because there is pretty much nothing urgent to do and nowhere to go. There is little use for money, because there is nothing to buy. There are no fixed meal times, the Aetas eat only when they are hungry. Immerse yourself in this ancient lifestyle to exorcise the urban existential angst that brought you to Pinatubo in the first place.

Hiking. The other-worldly terrain going up to the crater rim is the main attraction of this trip. On the first hour of hiking, you will be trudging along the O’Donnell River channel in shallow water. This river is named after an Irish priest (not Chris O’Donnell) who used to live in the area. On the second hour, you will be walking on a sandy lahar desert. On the third hour, the sand turns into large boulders.

Pinatubo crater. The crater rim is a great place to meditate, eat, sleep, and generally forget about the rest of the world. Over the past ten years since Pinatubo’s eruption, the flora and fauna in the area has regenerated, thanks in part to the efforts of environmentalists who plant trees yearly and bring quail, chickens, cats, and rabbits up the mountain to revive the wildlife. The famous Pinatubo crater lake, which is about two to two-and-a-half kilometers in diameter, is a good place to try out your inflatable rubber boat, but don’t even think about swimming. The water is contaminated with dangerous chemicals.

Dale Abenojar is a veteran offroader and hiking guide. To inquire about guided 4x4 trips to Pinatubo, call him at 09176673765. The Department of Tourism-Region III holds an annual Pinatubo trek every November 30. You can tag along for a minimal fee. The Angeles City 4-Wheelers Club (AC4W) transports registered participants as part of the club’s community service. Contact Region III Department of Tourism Director Ronnie Tiotuico to sign up.

(This article originally appeared in BBC Top Gear, September 2004.)