There are two ways to get to the crater lake of the volcanic mountain, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. One was fairly reliably accessible, and the other depends on whether heavy rains could make it less safe. When we discussed the plan to trek up to the Pinatubo crater lake, my Filipina friend was concerned that potential rains might cause this route to be closed. So we opted for the first one.

Setting out for Pinatubo from Manila

Mayshelle and I drove out early in the morning (super early for me – not a morning person!) to reach the place where she had arranged for a package excursion up the trail. It was just a day trip, albeit a long day counting the driving time to and from the starting location. 

We enjoyed a day’s break after our Taal expedition, in the hope that the extra time would allow my friend’s knee to further heal, and allow her to hike the whole way up to the Pinatubo crater with me. 

But alas, while it did not get worse, her knee wasn’t much better. So we arranged to be taken as close to the summit as possible by jeep. She reckoned she was up to hiking at least the rest of the way to the crater lake.

Yellow jeep | Pinatubo lahar plain crossing | the Philippines
The yellow jeep

Pinatubo’s wide lahar fields

I didn’t know what to expect for the first part of the journey. It was the first time I had ever gone to a lahar field. Mayshelle kept mentioning ‘lahar’, but while I conceptually knew what it was, it wasn’t something I could visualise. I have heard about them, from a random geography something or other that my memory retained in its vast eclectic library of all things learned. But I did not quite know what a lahar field was like

When the jeep came upon it, it was like nothing I had ever seen before. 

Pinatubo lahar plain | Pinatubo volcanic ash plain | Crossing the lahar plain in a jeep | the Philippines
Zipping across the lahar plain in a jeep

Lahar is not quite ash. Nonetheless, it was certainly what the lahar plain looked like: a flat, wide, barren, grey field of ash and dust. Vast, filling the valley space that we would traverse in the jeep. Clouds of it remain hovering in parts, stirred up by a succession of jeeps zipping across the same well-worn routes. A mimicry of the volcano’s breathing.

Contemplating the fine dust billowing and puffing in the distance, I figured that maybe it was better that we were doing this part in a jeep. Surely it couldn’t be healthy to trek the lahar plain and breathe the dust in. 

Crossing the Pinatubo lahar valley by jeep

If the jeeps had any suspension at all originally, there were no remaining traces of their existence.

Tearing along the hard packed ground, we jounced and bumped and jostled, hanging on for dear life. But not too tightly, because that’s a sure way to get smacked against the cage bars. The trick is to stay loose but firm when pushing away from being thrown to some kind of hard surface.

The jouncing was quite energetic, and you were not strapped in nor was there any padding or helmets to take any impacts. Easily distractable by curious sights (such as the sheer faces of the rock outcrops flanking the lahar field) I had fleeting images of being knocked unconscious long before the hike actually started. Which would make for a much shorter, rather ignominious hiking story. But potentially funnier, I suppose. Assuming I survived brain damage.

Rock outcrops along the Pinatubo lahar plain | Rock outcrops along the Pinatubo trek | Philippines
Rock outcrops along the journey

But it was a thrilling drive.

I bet Frodo and Sam might have appreciated a Filipino jeep on their lengthy journey. Bit conspicuous on the Mordor landscape, though. Surely Sauron would notice. 

Imagining the Lord of the Rings, and the strange attraction of wasteland

For indeed, Mordor came to mind.

A plain of utter barrenness, dry and dusty. When the wind lifts, the ashen clouds waft into your breathing.

And yet, at the start of the drive, where the plain was watered by a creek peeling a shallow meandering ribbon from the dusty flats, the sere landscape flickers to a hopeful green. I guess volcanic soil really is fertile. 

Pinatubo lahar plain | Volcanic ash plain | Philippines
The beginning of the lahar trek

Later, where the fields hold its fertility in jealous closeness in the absence of the weep of water, still I somehow found the sere and stern landscape oddly arresting.

In places, you could see where transient channels had marked the courses of a rush of water, thereafter suddenly abandoning the field like Persephone vacating Hades’ side. The channels remain, grey wounds carved on his forbidding face, stoic in his loss. Secretly yearning for the balm of water – and life – to return.

The children of the Pinatubo lahar plain

About midway across the plain the jeep stopped to let us stretch our legs. (And perhaps also check that brains have remained within skulls.)

This was a particularly wide section of the lahar field, making for incredible panoramic shots of the landscape.

I was surprised to realise that there are people living around Mt. Pinatubo. Not nearby, but still within the lahar valley itself. In fact, at this particular section of the route, there was a group of local children playing among the gullies and muds of the lahar field. If you look closely in the photo, you would see them in the left side of the panorama.

Mount Pinatubo lahar plain en route to the crater lake | Children playing in volcanic ash | Philippines
Indigenous children playing in the lahar of Mt. Pinatubo

Some of the children came over to us, when the jeeps stopped and tourists got down, all sooty and disheveled from their play. They were clearly very used to the tourists passing through. They posed like pros for the other tourists who were taking a break like us. Some of the visitors gave them money.

Something about that made me pay more attention. Was it because, for the first time in a long time, my attention was not already consumed by the burdensome demands of necessary social interactions? Was this what I could notice all the time, if I could conserve that attention span to reflect on where I was? 

I didn’t know it then, but I think that was the moment that seeded my first openness to solo travel.

Independent travel is a very different experience from group travel

Of course, I had already been to other tourist destinations in the region. I had already experienced being accosted by child beggars in Cambodia and Indonesia, and knew to just take it in stride. I understood the pressures of poverty and I am cognisant of the dilemma of giving in to the crowding hands.

And besides, it was not something I really thought about, when I was mostly travelling with family. You pay attention to much fewer things, when you’re travelling in a group. The group dominates your limited attention. 

But this time was different. I was doing something completely novel, and there was only Mayshelle. 

At the time, I confined myself to just observing. The children weren’t begging, but something about it roused a conflict in my mind that is different, and possibly worse than observing child beggars. Maybe the steely defiance of child beggars, or even their resignation – while it crushed me to see it in their eyes – still spoke of a pride and denial for what they had to do. I can root for that resistance, that remnant of dignity.

But accepting handouts as normal? It felt worse, even – or especially? – in the innocent. To watch them come over so readily, as if this was the expected way to interact with outsiders, possibly with the anticipation of money, seemingly unaware of the power distance in the situation – it broke my heart a little bit.

What is the ethical position on child photography?

I can’t pretend to explain this feeling, only express it. After all, theirs is probably not a well-off community, and the donations were freely given. They were just playing and interacting naturally with the tourists.

And perhaps the jeeps stopped there on purpose, precisely so that tourists would be in a position to interact with the children, and be very likely to give them money. Perhaps it was the best way they knew how, to help. The thought lurked in my mind.

I didn’t give them anything. I couldn’t. Taking a photograph of them under the circumstances felt as if I would be using them as props for my travel. They were clearly willing. But I was the adult, and what I felt was right for them, was to let them come and play around us, without taking or giving anything. My instinct then was to respond to them as I would children in my own country – after all, I would not photograph them nor randomly give them money.

I can’t tell you if that was the best choice. Just that it was my choice, the first time I had to answer this question for myself.

Fitness gauge sign | Start of trekking trail to caldera lake | Trekking to Pinatubo caldera lake | Mount Pinatubo trekking | the Philippines
Pressure much?

Leaving the plains and into the lahar trail

Near this location is a gap flanked by cliffs, where the Pinatubo lahar plain merges with a narrower trail of lahar that led up to the crater lake.

There are groups that chose to hike from here on in. It did not seem like a difficult hike. The way is rockier, and somewhat less dusty – but a bandanna or balaclava would  still be probably a good idea. But we traversed even this section by jeep, the better to nurse my friend’s knee.

The way meandered, following the curves of the valley cut by fluid flows against the rock. Though we could not see any sign of moisture on the dry plain, the lahar trail was wetter, damp in places.

The trail to Pinatubo crater could be done by jeep for much of it. Where it ended, and the hiking trail began, was where it opened into a wide vale. All of the jeeps parked here, lined up in a row as their passengers disembarked to begin hiking.

Our driver was to wait for us at the start of the hiking route, but we had a guide who came with us all the way to the caldera lake.

Trekking up to Pinatubo crater

The trail was not difficult. It looked like the same flow channel that washed wider further down the slopes, before vanishing into the gullies on the lahar plain, leaving the remainder an arid dusty grey field. Lined with cobbles and small boulders, it snaked its way up to the pinnacle. A small stream bubbled its way down the opposite way.

My friend found a stick from among the sparse shrub on the sides of the trail, which she used to assist her trek. I brought up the rear. The guide went on ahead, helping her cross or climb stretches that would strain her leg.

It must have frustrated her, to be so awkward, when she had been a mountaineer once. But she did not say a word. 

Eventually the trail ended at the foot of some steps, marking the end.

Trekking trail to Pinatubo crater lake | Last stretch to Pinatubo caldera lake | the Philippines
On foot now, to the crater lake

The crater lake of Pinatubo

We climbed the steps and came to a sort of shelf that opened to a view of the crater lake. A railing barred access down the slope to the lake shore. Apparently, you could have gone down to the water’s edge once, but there is no more swimming allowed anymore.

The viewing shelf around the crater was pleasant. There were benches beneath spreading trees, and cobbled footpaths meandered up the slopes to terraces where you could sit and enjoy the view. Rock outcrops jutted out all around, giving lovely views in the non-lake directions.

But the crater lake itself is undoubtedly the main attraction. Peeking through between the arms of the mountain, the water was a dark and deep blue-green. Ripples lightly fluttered across the surface with a slight highland breeze, eddying beneath the travelling cloud.

I guess this is why my friends are into mountaintops.

Pinatubo crater lake | Mount Pinatubo caldera | Philippines
The caldera lake of Mt. Pinatubo

Carbon offset information to the Philippines

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Manila produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,000 lbs CO2e. It costs about $10 to offset this. 

To plan a trekking trip to Pinatubo, see this article by The Sane Travel:

16 Responses

  1. Daisy says:

    These photos are absolutely gorgeous! Definitely, a beautiful place to get away from the craziness of city life!

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