Banaue Rice Terraces

The Philippines

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Day 1 Hapao

Well, it's been tough getting here, so this had better be good.

An early flight from Hong Kong, some complicated shenanigans at Manila airport before we found Ric, our delightful driver- and careful too, a quality that is apparently in short supply around here. 8 hours later, we slid through thick cloud into the rather unprepossessing town square of Banaue. It was actually an interesting drive, a couple of hours of endless charmless Manila, then another couple crossing the lush rice basket of northern Luzon. Then long windy mountain roads, busy little towns, now negotiated in the dark in the company of traffic without lights. Warnings not to travel in the dark are sensible. We weren't.

This morning has been a couple of hours of spectacular but very slow dirt track winding around steep hillsides, rewarded by occasional glimpses of strikingly beautiful terraced valleys far below. It is the end of March and it all looks quite lush.

We're off at last, hopping down steep steps by an unappealing half done concrete house by the road – the journey has been marred by suchlike for much of the way.

Then we are on the irrigation channel immediately above the Hapao rice terraces, and it is so gorgeous. The wide valley is lined with terraces up to the forested rim where the mountainsides get too steep. The colours – the bright pale green of the young rice the rich dark forest, the weathered grey of the retaining walls - are muted on this dark day, but, with tatters of mist lingering around the high broken ridges, it is intensely atmospheric.

This is a marvellous area, and deservedly a World Heritage Site. These terraces are spread across a number of valleys in the Cordilleria of northern Luzon, where plentiful water and fertile soil have combined to create good rice-growing conditions. The local Ifugao people were fierce warriors (and head hunters), who kept the Spanish at bay, so the culture and customs of this remote area has survived remarkably intact. Lets hope it holds out against that soft invader, the tourist.

It is not known how the cultivation or the terracing got here. There are theories about refugee Miao minorities form China. But what is clear is that the terraces are very ancient- said to date back 2,000 years, although rice cultivation probably goes back earlier. When you consider the tools available- or lack of them- the terraces are remarkable feats of engineering and ingenuity. The courses the water is taken on, and the clever bamboo piping and other devices used, will delight you.

It takes a while to get used to tottering along the rims of the terraces, frequently along narrow concrete paths, but sometimes hopping from rock to rock, always with the deep mud of the paddies on one side and a drop – up to 20ft.- on the other.

This is the home patch of Elvis, our interesting and entrepreneurial guide, who skips ahead of the lumbering foreigners in his flip-flops. He knows every house line this intricate pattern, telling stories, then digging up mussels and edible snails. Every possibility of this land is exploited: fish live in the paddies, onions, taro and grapefruit are planted on the terrace walls. Mango, coffee and guava bushes grow on the banks near the villages. They get two harvests a year here.

We wind up a side valley to a hidden hamlet of old wooden houses and sit to listen to a sung service which is under way.

Above the village is a rushing watercourse and small hydroelectric set-up. We turn back towards the main valley, contouring the hillside delightfully beside the channel. We eventually drop, through another hamlet, to the valley floor. Across a creaky iron suspension bridge is a prosperous steading from which laughter issues. It is Elvis' parents' house and there is a party in progress for his brother's school graduation: a gaggle of smiling women and children, and a few token men are noshing noodles, snugly huddled out of the drizzle that has started to patter down.

Around the back are some tables, and a French group brought by Elvis' cousin. Clever boys. We tuck into delicious local noodles while Elvis and his cousin sing (no escape in the Philippines) and hear stories. The final lair of the Japanese General Yamashita was in the mountains above Banaune. Elvis says that Japanese now come with a covert intention of digging for the treasure buried by the beleaguered troops. Not specially popular with locals, as it will have been looted from their parents.

The afternoon takes us up the beautiful valley towards a hot spring, which turns out to be full. The terraces are particularly fine here, with high walls which we have to climb a few times on stones which protrude a foot or so – a slightly precarious business.

We swing back to chez Elvis for tea, then head back up to the road, gorged into the hillside high above the productive land. It is now raining gently and we pass a shy girl who hides her entire self under her bright red umbrella. Wonderful.

Day 2: Batad

We're off to Batad, today, described-hyperbolically, it turns out - as “widely considered as the world's most striking rice terraces”. An hour's bone shaking along a spectacular road - often carved into cliffs and today boasting fine views - glimpsed between the dreary half-built concretery - onto cascading, sky-reflecting terraces and across to the rough Cordillera receding to the horizon. After an hour, we reach Batad Junction, and labour up a really steep, really rough track to the Batad Saddle, with its meagre stalls blocking a wonderful view.

The trail winds for an hour or so, through attractive secondary forest, down round the steep hillside on the far side of the saddle. Quite soon before the Batad viewpoint, we start to glimpse some fine terracing below to our right. The viewpoint is as one should perhaps have expected, a row of shacks selling drinks, a couple of resthouses below.

The view, below the ridge to the north, does not disappoint. A huge bowl in the hillside has been carved into terracing that descends at least a thousand feet, I would guess, to the river in its gorge far below. What is startling is the uniformity of it all. It looks like the same green and grey stripes run around the entire hillside, smaller colonies of cultivation clambering up towards the high ridge and way down into the gorge. We are here at quite a good time: many of the terraces are a verdant light green that couldn't be reproduced in paint - or would be mocked if it were. The grey stone walls, it is said, go back up to 2,000 years, and you can believe it: their mellow patina doesn't come overnight. Glorious, an amazing achievement, but also very slightly disappointing: they are not, actually, quite as thrilling as, say, the extraordinary hillsides to be found in Sulawesi's Torajaland.

In the middle of the terraces sits, somewhat smugly, Batad village, a pleasing collection of traditional huts, some with now- rare comical grass roofing, intermingled with newer efforts. There is quite a bit of shiny metal roofing, which you [programme] out.

We clamber down a ridge with some drama: an awkward scramble down to a little paddy perched above steep drops. A couple of children skip nonchalantly down (in flip-flops, of course) shortly after our clumsy slitherings.

Our trail turns south, and we contour the hillside along precarious paddy-rims above at times mildly queasy drops. This is gorgeous walking.

Some attractive forest follows, then a “real” village- basic huts, scruffy but cheerful children scrambling alongside pigs and dogs, no signs of tourist-prosperity. It is obviously a tough life. The trail continues through alternating rice terraces and forest, then traverses a long slope of grass. The view is fine: a perfect-looking hamlet among its luscious terraces the other side of the deepening gorge - almost perfectly peaceful in the afternoon sun: the Batad ridge behind us and the valley receding into the rough hillsides ahead.

We reach a ridge-top, where a sweet pair of clear-skinned woman - one so immersed in a novel that she hardly raises her eyes – and a tiny girl wait with a crate of drinks. We break for a leisurely lunch and view – contemplation.

The post-lunch walk continues well. Rounding a corner, we see our road contouring the hillside ahead, in the valley between us another beautiful series of terraces. We trek around the mountainside, then enjoy our last careful [potter] through the terraces we had seen from afar. Some are dry here, with depressed-looking rice: victims of the drought (a relative term- we see water everywhere) that has afflicted the area.

Back in the car, we get stuck at some road-widening. We wait for a lorry to move, in mild unease as a bag of powder (dynamite, according to Elvis) is funnelled into a bore-hole in the rock right beside us, tamped down by a long rod. No sparks, please.

We eat delicious local noodles in a restaurant just up the road, owned, we suspect, by some Elvis relative. We hear a couple of muffled explosions as the rock face is gnawed away. The lorry tips the product-large lumps of it-over the cliff just below us. Tranquil it is not. Discussion ranges onto religion, and we admit to being Protestant. They ask what it is about. Ric, our driver asks, in a spirit of diffident enquiry, if it is right that we follow the Antichrist. I tell Elvis of a friend who heard, when, at the end of a walk round Palmyra, the guide asked his group if there were any questions, a Japanese tourist ask how many donkeys there are in Syria. None of our questions had reached that height, Elvis assured me, although I have my doubts.

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