We woke up the other morning to the sound of heavy rain outside. As we stared from our bedroom window at the sight of grey clouds disgorging copious sheets of rain we realized it has been almost 5 months that our city has been placed under continuous quarantine with no end in sight. As the hot, dry summer months turned into the wet monsoon season, even the thought of traveling in December is now becoming a distant probability.
December. Our thoughts turned to a cold but sunlit December morning years ago as we waited for breakfast to be served at a hut along the shores of a tranquil lake. We were just witnessing the golden rays of the morning sun reflecting off the serene waters of Lake Sebu, revealing the bright magenta blossoms of lotus plants. As if to celebrate the birth of a new day, white herons materialized from nowhere, coming to rest majestically on bamboo poles staked out to mark the fish pens on this placid body of water.
Situated about 1,000 meters above sea level, Lake Sebu is a picturesque town in the province of South Cotabato. It is known as the “Summer Capital of Mindanao” because of its relatively cool climate. The town is home to 3 lakes, the largest of which is Lake Sebu – the body of water that gave its name to the town.
But there’s more besides the lake that attracted us to Lake Sebu. In and around the highland town are several majestic waterfalls, lush forests, pristine streams and the rich and distinctive T’boli culture.
The centerpiece of Lake Sebu town is naturally the lake. Early mornings and sunsets are perfect for a stroll along this body of water. We chose a resort right along Lake Sebu’s shores so we could also enjoy breakfast and dinner while feasting our eyes on the lake’s changing moods.
Lotus plants are scattered about the lake; we realized that the magenta blossoms of these water plants open in response to sunlight during the morning and close up later in the afternoon. Used as ornamentals, these unique plants are edible but they aren’t eaten here. Instead, Lake Sebu has become famous for its tilapia, raised in various fish pens and prepared in many creative ways by resorts here. (Unfortunately, too many fish pens have posed a serious threat to Lake Sebu’s ecology and the local government has been taking steps to control their proliferation.)
Many of the resorts offer boat cruises for touring Lake Sebu. We decided instead to hire habal-habals or motorbikes to tour us around the shores of the lake, stopping at a few vantage points. Several of these vantage points are located right on the resorts (Punta Isla Lake Resort is considered to have the best view of the lake). As with other bodies of water, this lake possesses an ability to change photographic moods depending on the weather, the time of day and the point of view and we had a field day shooting it.
Lake Sebu is not the only lake here. On our way to the town from Surallah we passed by the first one: Lake Lahit, the smallest of the three lakes. Lake Seloton, the second largest of the three lakes is known as the “Sunrise Lake” for its magnificent sunrise views. It is said to be the deepest lake among the three with a maximum depth of 200 feet. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see Lake Seloton.
Probably the most fascinating thing about Lake Sebu town, and indeed in this part of Cotabato province, is the cultural heritage of the T’boli, the indigenous tribe that calls Lake Sebu home. The T’boli are known for their intricate beadwork, brass ornaments, bracelets and earrings and the colorful tinalak cloth. The latter is made of intricately woven abaca fiber.
During our second day of touring we visited then National Living Treasure awardee Lang Dulay at her Manlilikha ng Bayan Center where she trains younger T’boli women in the art of tinalak weaving. Lang Dulay was 97 when we visited her, still looking sprite and pretty agile for her age. Unfortunately she would pass away suddenly a year after.
Lake Sebu probably has the one of the biggest concentration of waterfalls in the country. In Barangay Seloton alone are seven waterfalls ranging in height from 35 to 70 feet. An onrushing stream originating from Lake Seloton cascades down a series of sudden drop-offs resulting in some pretty spectacular cataracts.
The first waterfall travelers usually encounter on a tour of the Seven Falls is named Hikong Alu in the T’boli dialect. The most accessible of all seven falls, it is also the shortest at 35 feet high. Hikong Alu, however is the widest. It is already visible within a few steps from the entrance gate to the Seven Falls needing no strenuous hike to reach.
The second falls – Hikong Bente – may be accessed by descending a stairway of 774 steps from Hikong Alu. The descent is not all that bad but climbing back to the main entrance could be a problem for some visitors – and for Leo who was just recovering from lower back pain at the time. Fortunately we didn’t have to. Our habal-habal drivers took us on a route that led all the way to a second entrance from where we did a short walk to Hikong Bente.
The 5 remaining waterfalls all require some pretty serious trekking and climbing. However, a zipline was opened to give tourists a bird’s eye view of these falls. This zipline consists of two legs – the first at 740 meters long and the second at 400 meters – for a total of more than a kilometer. At almost 200 meters above the ground at its highest elevation, this zipline is the second tallest in the country.
Somewhat off the beaten tourist path but increasingly popular is the T’daan Kini Falls in Barangay Lamlahak. While it used to take 45 minutes of brisk walking, the trek to these falls was made shorter again thanks to our intrepid habal-habal drivers. Our guys drove the bikes right on the trail up to a point where the trek to T’daan Kini was reduced to 10-15 minutes.
T’daan Kini Falls is small compared to the Seven Falls but no less beautiful. It consists of 5 or 6 small cascades arranged in two tiers. Although we were initially reluctant to visit this waterfall, T’daan Kini proved to be a pleasant surprise for us. The refreshing coolness of the clear waters, the lush forest vegetation and the pristine surrounding environment made us thankful that our habal-habal drivers refused to give in to our vacillation in visiting this place.
With still wide swaths of relatively untouched forest, Lake Sebu has more waterfalls just waiting to be discovered. Some of these are beginning to show up on blogs such as Mahel Falls which requires a long uphill trek to Sitio Kangko, a far-flung community located at the foothills of the Saranggani mountain range, and afterwards a forest hike including fording streams on the way. There’s also multi-cascade Barrio Siete Falls situated at 3,300 feet above sea level, requiring rigorous trekking through virgin forests and leech-infested streams, and picturesque K’nalum Falls which is surrounded by a rock wall and reachable via a roller-coaster habal-habal ride through grassy hills.
Would we visit Lake Sebu again? This is probably one place we need to add to a previous bucket list. We didn’t spend as much time here as we would have liked and ended up at a beach in the nearby province of Saranggani. Exactly when – now that this pandemic has changed the nature of travel – remains a big question.