Eyes burning with the fire of purpose, the grizzled guardian of the mountain bastion stared us down. With yellow teeth bared, he held out an upturned palm, stopping us from going further.
“Maybe we should give an offering,” advised Munir Hamsaji, one of our teammates. Having climbed the mountain many times before, Munir carefully untied a knotted plastic bag, taking a crusty piece of pan-de-regla and tossing it at the waiting warden. The long-tailed macaque delightedly snatches the treat and hoots off into the forest. Relieved, we trek on. Bud Bongao’s guardians have allowed us passage.
A big long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) blocked our path midway up Bud Bongao. It didn’t budge until we offered him bread. The mountain is home to many guardians – both natural and supernatural.
Cloaking its secrets with verdure and mist, Bud Bongao is Tawi-Tawi’s most famous mountain, sprouting 340 meters above the sea. It’s a revered pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims, who come in droves to brave slippery rocks and the snarl of undergrowth to visit one of three carefully-tended tampat or shrines.
Over 630 years ago, Arab merchant Karim ul-Makhdum landed in the Philippines to spread Islam, establishing the country’s first mosque – Sheik Karimal Makdum Masjid – in Simunul, a small island off the coast of Tawi-Tawi. Legend has it that one of his original followers – a preacher – was buried atop Bud Bongao.
One of the sacred tampat or holy shrines atop Bud Bongao.
Today the mountain is a 250-hectare treasure trove of biodiversity and one of the last remaining moist forests in the Sulu archipelago. It is also the first site in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to be administered completely by the local government.
“Bud Bongao is an icon of terrestrial biodiversity conservation and eco-tourism in Tawi-Tawi because of the wealth of its wildlife and its unique cultural importance,” said former Mindanao State University Chancellor Dr. Filemon Romero.
“It’s one of the model sites under the New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project or NEWCAPP, which protects 12 key biodiversity areas across the nation,” added DENR Protected Areas Specialist Ariel Erasga. “We wish to highlight novel ways of protecting biodiversity hubs – particularly if their management plans were developed by communities, indigenous groups and local government units.”
NEWCAPP aims to expand and strengthen the terrestrial protected area (PA) system of the Philippines by developing new PA models and building capacities for effective management. The expanded PA system will have comprehensive ecological coverage plus strong links to both local communities and indigenous lands through the development and integration of new conservation zones.
Now it seems, all the people of Tawi-Tawi shall become guardians of Bud Bongao. “All that we see and experience now, we hope to preserve for the future,” said Tawi-Tawi Governor Nurbert Sahali.
PRAYERS ON TREES
Plastic, foil and cloth strips adorn branches and tree trunks. Each strip represents a pilgrim’s wish. Bud Bongao is said to heal wounds as well as hearts.
Following the spine of Bud Bongao, we pass an enormous molave tree said to be the largest of its kind in the country. We finally break free of the forest’s dappled gloom to reach the sunbathed summit. Savouring a few breaths, plus the breath-taking view of the Celebes Sea, I look south – squinting at the faint outline of Malaysian Borneo. Around us, branches are adorned with knotted strips of plastic, cloth and foil – prayers for safe passage. Overhead float lazy ribbons of cloud.
I take a moment to pray to God – by whatever name pilgrims call him. Descending, we encounter a group of Muslim pilgrims, decked out in bright regalia, the women wholly covered in long gowns and hijab scarves. I wonder how they can stand the heat – bearing umbrellas and basketfuls of food to boot. We stop and talk with an Imam, a religious leader.
“The preacher wished to be buried atop the highest point in Bongao so his followers can prove their sincerity,” explained Ishmael Uto. “This weeds out the unworthy, ensuring that pilgrims work hard to turn wishes into reality.”
My sole wish is for the mountain’s guardians – humans, spirits and monkeys alike – to continue protecting one of the last bastions of terrestrial biodiversity in Sulu.
Parting ways as pilgrims to different deities, I turn to the venerable Imam and say, “Salaam alaiukum.” He smiles and shakes my hand warmly. “And peace be with you, brother.”
A land of tranquility and occasional hostility but never lacking in beauty, Tawi-Tawi is often tainted – perhaps unfairly – by its proximity to the battle-ridden island provinces of Basilan and Sulu, which since the 1970s have kept the military busy. Tawi-Tawi is an exquisite assortment of 307 emerald islands bursting from the iridescence of the Celebes Sea. It is home to 370,000 people from the Tausug, Sama and Badjao tribes. Its capital is Bongao, a second-class municipality of 80,000 people and a melting pot for culture and religion. To climb the mountain, simply hire a tricycle or motorcycle from the town and proceed to the base of Bud Bongao. The ride takes no more than 30 minutes, while ascending the peak takes around 45 minutes.