Friday, August 20, 2010

Biking Samal

I found this in the dark recesses of my hard drive while spring cleaning my files.  I think I wrote this for a magazine but it never really saw the light of day.  Here it is in full.

As I imagine it would be with most other writers, I am sometimes afflicted by bouts of procrastination.  Such was the case in writing this article.  I originally proposed the topic in early May, after which it got accepted.  The editors gave me a deadline of May 15, a Friday.  Since I was saddled with teaching a Masteral class for Ateneo de Davao on that day, I put the deadline off.  "I'll send it in on Monday," I said to myself.  In the meantime, I would refresh my memory and expand my scope by biking Samal again with a group of friends.

Little did I know the scope would take me in a direction I didn't intend: I crashed my bike, took the return trip in an ambulance, and stayed a night in the hospital just to be certain.

Does that change how I feel about Samal?  Not at all.  In fact, I think that gives me a bit more perspective to writing about it.

Now I've been biking for the past five years.  Though I'm not what you'd call a strong biker by any means, I'm persistent and adventurous enough to have gone through many scenic routes.  I've biked Siquijor (off Negros Oriental) and Panglao (off Bohol) back when I lived in Dumaguete.  When I moved to Davao, I cut back on my biking trips because I felt the highways were far too congested with unruly trucks and jeepneys to be safe.  And then I discovered Samal.

Samal, which also goes by the names of Samal Island and more impressively, the Island Garden City of Samal, or IGaCoS, is a 2nd class city of Davao del Norte.  However, it's actually closer to Davao del Sur, and is considered to be part of Metropolitan Davao.  It's home to around 80,000 residents, many of whom travel to Davao City for school or for work.

Samal is easily accessible from Davao City through regular passenger ferry services.  Depending on your starting point and destination, the trip can take anywhere from under ten minutes to half an hour.

My crash notwithstanding, Samal is a haven that offers various challenges to bikers of all skill levels.  Samal is a mid-sized island of around 300 square kilometers of largely unspoilt mountains, foliage, and beachfront.  Development is coming rapidly on Samal, particularly through aggressive paving of its intra-island highway, but by and large, laid-back farming barangays dominate the island.

On bike, the best way to get to Samal from Davao City is by way of Sasa (pronounced Sa-sa), the industrial shipping center of Davao.  There are several ferry services, but the most popular one is within a wet market along Km. 11, known locally as "onse."  Correspondingly, it's an 11 km. ride from the heart of Davao City to the port.

The Onse port is really nothing more than a haphazardly constructed wooden pier.  It is quite wide, though, and accommodates up to five passenger ferry boats at any one time.  Like the port, these wooden boats are nothing much to look at: around twenty to forty feet in length, about ten to twelve feet wide, powered by noisy diesel engines.  With their seating arrangements, they're closer to jeepneys and mini-buses than fast craft.  Fare is P13 for passengers, and an extra P13 for a bicycle.  On weekends, it's not uncommon to ride with groups of biking enthusiasts from the city.

Why Onse instead of the other ferry services?  A kilometer before Onse is a modern ro-ro ferry that transports the motorcycles, cars, buses, and trucks to Samal.  Unfortunately, they charge P60 for rider and bike, the same rate as for motorcycles.  The P34 difference is enough to drive most bikers on to the cheaper service.  There are other ferries on the way to Onse, but they all seem to be dedicated to the many resorts that dot the western coast of Samal.  Hence, Onse remains the favorite.

From Onse, the landing point on Samal is the port town of Babak, up in the northwestern coast of the island.  Babak's pier is much better than Onse's, consisting now of concrete and quite accommodating of the tides.  The Babak pier opens up to a large port area that's still very much in development.  There's nothing more than a rock-covered ground and a few buildings.  Neither does the town of Babak itself offer much other than the few sari-sari stores, carenderias, gasoline stations, and hardware supplies.

When you exit Babak's port, you could follow the road left towards the main highway, the route buses take  the next town of Penaplata.  If you're biking, however, you'll want to take the highway to the right.  This will still lead you to Penaplata, but through a slightly rougher and more scenic trail.

Babak to Penaplata qualifies as an easy ride.  The asphalt highway eventually gives way to hard-packed dirt roads, but these are wide and navigable.  Moreover, the terrain is largely flat, with a few gently rolling sections.  If at any time you want to take a break, you can pause at one of the many beachside resorts that dot Samal, the more popular and affordable ones being Blue Jaz, Paradise Island, and Costa Marina.  The distance from Babak to Penaplata is 8km.  All told, it's safe, gentle, and suitable for novice riders.

From Penaplata onwards, it becomes more challenging.  Penaplata is the largest and busiest town in Samal, home to the main bus terminal, a large warehouse store, a hospital, restaurants, convenience shops, and a fishing port.  It's still not the ritz by any means, but it's a good place for a stopover to rest and resupply.  Travelling to the next two major destinations, Kaputian or Canibad, the supply stops dwindle down to the occasional roadside sari-sari store.

Kaputian is the major hub of southern Samal, some 20 km. from Penaplata.   It sits a few kilometers from the southern tip, and its main attraction is the public Kaputian Beach.  For P60, you can take a ferry from Kaputian to Sta. Ana Wharf in the heart of Davao City, thus saving you the trouble of the return trip.  However, the ferry trips between Kaputian and Sta. Ana are few and far between.

What makes getting to Kaputian from Penaplata especially challenging is the curving uphill climb up the spine of the range that traverses Samal.

The initial climb is gentle enough but quickly slopes upward, sometimes at angles of a little over 20 degrees.  It doesn't sound like a lot, but when you realize that it runs for several kilometers uphill, with a few hairpin turns here and there, it becomes a formidable cardiac stress test.  If you pause long enough to rest, you can appreciate the stunning view of the jungle valleys to the east and the crystalline coastline to the west.

Eventually the paved highway to Kaputian gives way to winding mountain road under construction, evidenced by carved cliffs and heavy machinery.  The downhill run starts from a small town called Anonang.  The stretch from Anonang is particularly treacherous as the path is hard packed dirt with lots of loose rock.  It's easy to slip and fall on this section, as I did some weeks ago (this isn't where my recent accident happened).

The rough road does come to an end becomes a winding highway again.  Apparently, the construction starts from both Kaputian and Penaplata, aiming to meet halfway.  The highway is smooth asphalt, but for the moment hardly sees motorized traffic.  Mountain bikers can easily hit speeds of 70kph to 80kph on this downhill run.  Once the ground levels off, it's less than a kilometer to the Kaputian town proper.  Beware, though!  It bears repeating that the road curves here and there, and it's easy to get into a fatal accident here. 

My own recent accident happened last Sunday, as I was procrastinating writing this article.  Some biker friends had invited me to travel to Canibad on the northwestern side of Samal.  Our goal was Canibad Resort, some 10km from Penaplata.

From Penaplata to Canibad is all hard-packed dirt road, and its only advantage over Anonang is that there are fewer loose rocks.  It's tough going, though, as the uphill climb is quite steep.

There is a point on the Canibad road where the mountain levels off and you can take a quick break on a makeshift shed overlooking the eastern coast of Samal.  The view is magnificent.  You can trace the curve of the coastline, where the green treetops of the mountainside meet the crystal blue waters of the sea.  

The road forks from here on.  One path leads down, presumably to the west coast.  Canibad itself lay further uphill.  This is the road my friends and I travelled.

Where I made the intimate acquaintance of the ground was on this Canibad road.  We had been going up for half an hour.  After a quick and welcome stop at a sari-sari store, we went on.  More uphill biking, and then, the welcome respite of a brief downhill run.  Or so I thought.

Unfortunately for me, the road did not slope up again as I expected it to.  It would level off a bit, and dip down again.  By the time I realized it was really going downhill, I had picked up a lot of speed.  I tapped on my rear brakes, but the worst thing that can happen on a ride like this happened: the brakes came loose.

It was a hair-raising descent.  I overtook two of my friends, one of whom looked down at his speedometer and saw he was travelling at 45kph (with brakes held tight).  I must have been going at 60kph, by his estimate.  I screamed "No brakes! No brakes!" to warn them.  

I was hoping for an eventual uphill slope to slow my descent.  It never came.  Instead, I hit a rock, or a hole, or my bike just wobbled.  Next thing I knew, I was flying off my bike and rolling on the ground.  When my friends picked me up, I glimpsed my blood-splattered shorts.  The most intense pain came from my left hand; when I held it up, I saw it had been shredded to hamburger.

Looking back, a little nudge here and a sharp rock there, and I could have ended up much worse (and unable to write this story).  Thank God it came out the way it did.  My friends lay me down and the roadside.  The locals called in an ambulance, and it came some fifteen minutes later.  I made the rest of the trip staring up the ceiling of the ambulance, pondering how lucky I had been.  Also of what a story I would be able to tell.

To cut the story short, the local hospital treated me for my wounds.  They offered to stitch me up, but I refused.  Instead, they put me on another ambulance which took me to Davao by ferry, and eventually to Davao Doctors Hospital, where I had my X-rays and my CT scan.  Apart from the aforementioned injuries, nothing minor, and after a couple of days of rest, I'm back at work.

With all that's happened, would I still be able to recommend Samal as a biking destination?  Objectively, how can I not?  There's much to recommend for Samal.  The view, the beaches, the sparse motor traffic, the varying road challenges, the immediate hopital care.  Just be careful to know your limits as a biker, and don't take on more than you can.

Oh, and check your brakes.  Definitely check your brakes.

The events here took place in the summer of last year.  I survived.  But I haven't been on a bike since.