x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Still only one way to see the rice terraces of Batad and Banaue

John Henzell discovers that the journey through the Philippine rainforest is nearly as rewarding as the site often called the eighth wonder of the world.

It is believed that the Ifuago people built these rice terraces in the northern part of the Philippines more than 2,000 years ago, but no oral history of how they were built remains.
It is believed that the Ifuago people built these rice terraces in the northern part of the Philippines more than 2,000 years ago, but no oral history of how they were built remains.

Two thousand years after the Batad rice terraces were hewn out of the Philippine rainforest, there's still only one way to reach them. But as we hike along a muddy jungle trail that has been used by countless generations of Ifugao tribespeople, I can't help thinking that this is the perfect way to experience a destination often described as the eighth wonder of the world.

If we'd been able to reach Batad in the back of a Jeepney, the ubiquitous Filipino public transport, we would have missed the unmistakable cadence that comes from using a trail that dates from an era when walking was the only means of getting around. Going faster than walking pace would also have completely nullified the opportunity to admire the drops of precipitation hanging off the trailside vegetation. And without the hike in, we wouldn't have been able to appreciate the irony that 2,000 years after the Ifugao used human power to create the intricate yet resilient network of terraces on steep jungle-clad slopes, recent mechanised attempts to build a road across these same hills ended in failure.

It seems appropriate that Batad remains a destination that has to be earned rather than being just another sight on a tourist bus itinerary. In truth, effort is required even to get to the Cordillera, the mountainous region at the centre of Luzon. The steep and heavily forested hills that make this such a picturesque area preclude the construction of an airport within a useful distance, and that means access from Manila involves a long journey north by road.

Our journey, on a night bus, has turned into something of an ordeal: the bus has seats that seem scaled for tarsiers, the Philippines' famously diminutive primate, and then the bus breaks down. After two hours, we are shepherded onto another bus with not enough seats for everyone, leaving us to sleep on the rubbish-strewn floor. Then around dawn that bus also breaks down and it is mid-morning by the time we finally limp into Banaue, the gateway town for the rice terrace area.

From there we have the option of hiking from Banaue to Batad, using a route that requires a guide and an overnight stay in a village en route. Although we might be forgiven for having a visceral aversion to any further use of public transport, a combination of summer heat, cloying humidity, low clouds and persistent drizzle sees us opting instead to charter a Jeepney to reach a closer point, from which it is only a 40-minute hike into Batad.

It's a testament to the charms of the Cordillera jungle that once we set off on foot down the steep trail leading into the hanging valley that shelters Batad, the rigours of the bus journey are quickly forgotten. After a few minutes we hike past an abandoned mechanical digger and soon after that we cross an unstable part of the hillside where the ground has slipped away, seemingly taking with it the road-builders' aspirations and enthusiasm.

Rainforests always look their best in the rain and so it is here, with tall broad-leafed trees, rendered shiny and dark green by the precipitation, competing against each other to dominate the forest canopy far above. At ground level, a series of tall grasses do their best to take back the trail; at the end of each drooping blade is a drop of moisture slowly building to the point when it will fall.

The rice terraces themselves are still hidden by the clouds even as we begin to reach the outskirts of the village, and the trail begins to splinter into routes heading towards individual clusters of homes.

As we emerge from the forest and onto the terrace outside a family home, the cloud begins to lift. The experience is a little like watching a photo develop in an old-fashioned darkroom or, for denizens of the digital age, watching a high-res image load via a slow internet connection.

We can just make out the stepped profile of a ridge and realise we are looking at terraces, then the entire valley of Batad emerges from the mist. The terraces themselves are impressive enough to warrant the eighth-wonder-of-the-world appellation but the biggest impression, especially for someone accustomed to the relentless dusty browns of the unirrigated Arabian landscape, is that the rice is green. Not just green but green of a hue that almost seems as if it's glowing.

Perhaps the best confirmation is that my two travelling companions are from Ireland, a nation famed both as being the Emerald Isle and for the verbal proclivities of its citizens. But like me, they are left briefly speechless by the luminosity of the green in front of them.

Once we adjust, we descend into the rice terraces. This is a process that resembles navigating on an inclined chessboard because our route varies between traversing across the top of the embankments that form the rice terraces and then having to descend straight down the embankments themselves, only occasionally with the benefit of a concrete staircase.

The ancestors of the Ifugao - the word is derived from "i" (the people) and "pugo" (the hill), thus "the people of the hills" - built the terraces about 2,000 years ago but construction halted long ago. Now the villagers of Batad, like the current residents of Nabatean-built Petra, retain effectively no oral history of the origin of the terraces.

It seems likely the terracing was the direct result of attempting to improve food production to match population growth, with the paddies starting on the gently graded lower slopes and then marching up the increasingly steep hillside.

The law of diminishing returns applies because the upper terraces feature embankments higher than the width of the rice terrace they created. The upper terraces are clearly also less stable and some, located in a natural drainage in the middle of the slope, have collapsed.

We make our way down to a waterfall below the village then back up through the maze of trails towards a cluster of rustic huts that includes, we hope, the homestay where we intend to spend the night.

Ramon's Homestay has been recommended to us because it offers the chance to stay in a traditional Ifugao thatched hut. But we aren't sure exactly where it is.

We begin to suspect that the residents take pleasure from messing with tourists, possibly to compensate for the lack of other entertainment or even to punish our decision not to hire a local guide.

We ask someone: "Ramon Homestay?", and we are told: "Up" so we go up. Then the next person we ask says: "Down" so we go down.

We are soaked with sweat and repeatedly discover the trail we've been directed to disappears into a private home, leaving us to continue on via goat tracks.

Our theories about the locals' nefarious directions become more entrenched at one point when we are just 50 metres from the sign - as yet unseen by us - at the gate of Ramon's Homestay. A local sees us descending and tells us: "Up", so we spend another 15 minutes of sweaty frustration before reaching our intended destination.

Ramon is away but his family are wonderfully welcoming to the stressed and sweaty trio who arrive on their doorstep. Soon we have cups of tea in front of us and we begin to regain human qualities.

The main building of the homestay is the most basic of shacks but having sweated up and down what seems like every trail in Batad, we are determined to sleep in one of the traditional thatched huts.

Having secured a place in a hut, I climb inside via a short ladder and collapse, only to have an odd sensation that I am being watched. Sure enough, when I lift my head I can see a row of skulls gazing back at me.

It doesn't take long for that repository of useless trivia I call my brain to dig out the factoid that the Ifugao were once as famous for their headhunting skills as they are for their rice terraces.

Then I realise the skulls, tied into the eaves of the hut and blackened by the smoke of a gazillion cooking fires, belong to various kinds of primates that inhabited the forests nearby.

The decision to find Ramon's Homestay seems worth every drop of sweat as we gain an insight into Batad village life through his family.

Although there is government funding to keep the Unesco-listed terraces in good shape, they are clearly still used for food production rather than as some hokey tourist magnet.

As we eat a dinner that includes purple-hued rice grown within sight of our table, we are told that the population of the village has stabilised. Income from tourism augments the subsistence existence enough to get by and the natural brain drain to easier and more civilised life in the cities keeps pace with population growth. Electricity arrived a few years ago but I hope - for Batad's sake - the road builders will keep being thwarted for a few more years yet.

Sometimes you need to earn something to really appreciate it.