Text and Images by Ronald de Jong
The best way to explore the island of Mindanao is behind the wheel, and the best road to drive is the Mother of all Highways in the Philippines, the Maharlika Highway. Better known as the Pan-Philippine Highway, this expressway is a 3517 km network of long roads, many bridges, and ferry services that begins in Laoag City on the Northern island of Luzon, going through the Visayan Islands of Samar, Leyte and further to the city of Zamboanga on the Southern island of Mindanao.
The Davao-General Santos-Koronadal National Highway, is just a short part of this highway, it is connecting the provinces of Davao and Sarangani to South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and other parts of Mindanao. Over the years, this mostly 4-lane main street of the Philippines underwent many improvements and realignments, changing its path and overall length, moving its endpoint farther into the hinterlands of this tropical island. The island's principal transport backbone is considered as one of the best and smoothest road networks in the Philippines, driving this long and straight stretch of highway offers a scenic drive, passing many towns and fantastic natural setting. The island's rich flora and fauna with an unequalled biodiversity, extensive coastlines with exquisite beaches, deep blue waters with teeming sea- life, vast pastoral lands with many natural attractions and picturesque spots make this region in Mindanao one of the world's best and most exciting eco-tourism destinations in Southeast Asia.
Even those who only have time to pull off this road for a moment or so will have the experience of a lifetime, but travelling is supposed to be fun, this main artery has many points of interest along the way and the journey is just as important as your end destination. If you want to make the most of your travel it is worthwhile to get off the asphalt and take time to visit some of these sites. It will be a great, green happening, full of rugged mountain scenery's, pictorial places and pleasant surprises. When traversing this toll free part of the Pan Philippine Highway, you will drive down small town roads, big city streets, steep mountain passes, breath taking rice fields, beguiling plantations and other mesmeric country side delights. Cruising this freeway also means coping with a multi fold of road hazards which will keep your speed down, like the persevering nature of jeepney drivers, the not very road-friendly motorcycles overtaking on the right and left side, impatient taxi-drivers that are cutting you off without warning, being bogged down by an overloaded truck that is having troubles increasing speed uphill, playful stray dogs mating in the middle of the road, irresponsible tricycle drivers suddenly stopping, turning and pulling out just in front of you, a wandering carabao always moving in the same direction as you. Tailgating behind dump trucks running on crude oil that is pouring out more black smoke than a burning stack of rubber tires, slowly moving bull- or horse carts, swirling bicycle riders, "palay" or rice harvest that is left on the road to dry, traffic on the wrong side and unwary pedestrians that are unexpectedly crossing. You may want to take your time, but others may not, be aware of motorists holding their mobile phones in one hand and carelessly steering their vehicles, putting the pedal to the metal, as if they were on the race track. Or the people who think they can drive any speed in any lane, being deluded into believing that by going slow on the fast lane the world would be a much safer place. The most common culprits are over speeding and over packed private busses, whose drivers are having the idea they are the kings of the road, the text "keep distance", painted in curly characters on the back of these vehicles is a constant reminder not to come too close anyway. Some parts of the highway are narrow and curvy, lacking centre lines and guardrail, you have to watch out for sudden loose-gravel breaks where the lane is under repair and the frequent traffic signs, sometimes placed in the centre of the road, bearing the text "slow down", a phrase that is somewhat characteristic for the overall pace of daily life in Mindanao. The many construction sites are guarded by apparently disinterested road workers in make shift shelters, waving barely noticeable with green and red flags to let you move on or stop, sometimes you might wonder if they know the right meaning of the two colours.
A perfect starting point for your tour through the Southern part of this magnificent island is the city of Davao, often dubbed as "the window to Mindanao" The trip can be done in as little of 6 hours, but that's one heck of a drive and you'll be missing out on the real "couleur locale" of this equatorial islet. If you want to stay overnight, there are plenty of accommodations in all different categories alongside the entire route. The road follows the natural topography of the land, while driving you become both spectator and participant finding yourself soaking up all kinds of sensations along the way. There are many places to visit and a lot of things to do, the area pride itself for its white sand beaches and various facilities for different kinds of sports. For sensation seekers there is the Davao wild water experience, rafting on the Davao River with its varying degrees of rough terrain is pure excitement, literally giving you the spills and thrills. Other sites which deserve a visit are the spelunking sites in Samal and the Marilog District, the terrain of the island of Samal is a have it all for mountain bikers and the beaches are lined with palm trees and cosy bamboo cottages. The astounding Monfort caves on Samal Island are famous for being the habitat of more than 2.5 million fruit bats, known locally as Kwaknits. The Crocodile Park in Ma-a is providing visitors with encounters with one of the most-feared creature of mankind, the man-eating crocodile. Aside from these predators, you can see many other animals like parrots, monkeys, snakes, dragon lizards and birds such as doves, falcons, hawks, ostrich and eagles. Mount Apo is the highest peak in the Philippines and is one of the most famous mountaineering challenges in the country because of its slopes-forest of exotic vegetation, rainwater lakes, steaming geysers, plunging waterfalls and swift-flowing rivers. The quiescent volcano is a sanctuary for several rare birds such as the flycatcher, doves, sun birds, racket-tailed parrot's fairy blue birds, flower catchers and the "monkey eating eagle" or Philippine eagle. A prey bird with a wing-span of two meters that has become the national symbol of the Philippines.
After leaving Davao it is only a 45 minute drive to Santa Cruz, the oldest municipality in Davao del Sur, a province sprawling along the shores of South-eastern Mindanao with banks that are brimming with rock formations. Santa Cruz is a small and quaint coastal town that is well known for its excellent seafood restaurants, most of them located along the shoreline and overlooking the sea. You will be swept away by its peace and quiet, its transparent sea and dazzling scenery. These are perfect outlets for a rest stop in a beautiful setting and to taste a variety of delicious local dishes that will let you discover the goodness of the seas when the freshly caught fish is grilled and served. At a stone's throw away there are a few road side vendors selling decorative wooden handicraft and other local products. Just one kilometre away from the coast a small tropical getaway can be found on the pastoral Passig Islet, located at Sitio Bato in Santa Cruz, this man-made paradise was used before as a base for the coast guard and can be accessed by a 500-meter long wooden footbridge. This once secret hide away has crystal clear turquoise water and pristine white beaches; a barefoot walk on the soft sand will you the best relaxation experience you have ever had. The place is a pleasing hang-out for local beach goers and tourists and is considered to be one of the top tourist spots in the region.
Halfway between Davao and General Santos City, after driving an approximately 60 kilometres you will enter Digos, a suburban city that is built on seven hills, it is the capital town of Davao del Sur. This city lies on the eastern shores of the Davao Gulf and has numerous beaches, island resorts and many rivers that meet this sea inlet. It is no wonder that the city's name was derived from the word "pagdigos" meaning "to take a bath" In the city centre various restaurants serve on fresh sea foods that is available 24-hours a day. Digos also has the second longest zip line in Asia, this spine-tingling attraction has already drawn thousands of pleasure mongers. The mangrove forest in Digos City is ideal for nature lovers, the trees and its surrounding habitat are the ecological basis for the survival of the region's marine life. The branches of mangroves serve as a nesting ground for coastal and wading birds, many more animals find shelter in the roots. Additional places to visit are the Napan falls, an overwhelming gushing torrent, situated in Barangay Goma, Lumayan spring, the two-tiered Bacoco spring, Marawer hot and cold wells, Mahilak falls, a forested area with natural clear water that is named after its dramatic flow and the Dulangan falls, a water flow consisting of five marvellous, descending falls.
When arriving in Sarangani Province, passing through Malungon, rolling hills and mountains are dictating the environment. Driving this winding road with its tight curves, steep inclines and narrow drops is a wonderful and exhilarating adventure, with every bend you turn and every hill you go over, there is yet another stunning outlook. Located at the highest point, almost 230 meters above sea level, the terrace of the restaurant suitably named "Cliff hanger" offers a spectacular view of the Kalon-Barak Skyline, a perfect spot to enjoy the magnificent sight of Mount Apo, Mt. Matutum, Sarangani Bay and the Davao Golf at the same time. Looking down into the deep valley the picture is surely awesome in all directions; it truly is a humbling confrontation with nature's splendour and gives a staggering feeling of human insignificance. In the direct vicinity of the road construction sites young children are roaming the street, knocking on car windows, anxious to sell bottles of water, peanuts, eggs and small canisters of crude oil, just to make a few pesos to bring back home.
Not far from Malungon is General Santos, a vibrant, historically rich city tucked away in the mouth of Sarangani Bay and near to the tuna-rich fishing grounds like the Moro Gulf, the Sulu Sea, the Mindanao Sea and the Celebes Sea, the town is a melting pot of different cultures coming from all over the Philippines. If you are looking for adventure and tantalizing outdoor activities the city features attractive sites such as monumental cataracts, untarnished caves and splendid rock formations. Standing on top of Nopol Hills, one of the highest grounds in the city, you can have an extraordinary look at Sarangani bay and its idyllic coastline that provide prime white beaches facing the serene waters of the Celebes Sea. The Sarangani Bay area is a popular scuba-diving and snorkelling destination, the bay is providing diving-sites with shipwrecks that go way back to the Spanish colonization. You can dive the same site again and again and have completely different experiences each time. The neighbouring waters are holding a great variety of bright underwater life around the reefs; they are rich fishing grounds with as many as 2,400 species of marine animals, including the yellow-fin tuna and mackerel.
Polomolok is the first town coming from General Santos City, the name of this city was derived from the native Bla-an term "Flomlok' which means hunting grounds. The municipality's most imposing landmark; the majestic Mt. Matutum is dominating the landscape and is one of the favourite climbing destinations in the area. The name of the dormant volcano means "burnt out", in the Bla-an dialect. Pure dense forest and water falls abounds at the foot of this mountain; the area's thriving fauna includes exotic birds, monkeys, deer and wild boar. A must see place is the Salkak cave, one can spent some time exploring the impressive cavern before emerging into the fresh mountain breeze outside. Taking a dip in the cool spring of Nature's Bounty and Spring Hill Resort and enjoy what nature has to offer, is just one way to end your visit to this wonderful town. Polomolok is also home to Dole Philippines, the biggest pineapple plantation in the world, ranging around 12,000 hectares of rich, volcanic soil. Endless green-red coloured fields, as far as the eye can see, filled with that juicy golden goodness will captivate your senses and exceed your expectations. The town is synonymous with "durian", a large, spiky fruit, native to the tropical rainforests of Mindanao. The flavour of durian is sweet, but the odour is nearly overwhelmingly repelling and offensive, even when the husk is intact. True durian lovers say the fruit smells like hell but it tastes like heaven. The best way to taste this "King of the fruits" yourself is a visit to the Durian Garden, located just alongside the highway. It is well known for the best Durian fruit in many different varieties, the renowned durian ice cream and home-made durian pie. The exotic garden is bountiful with rambutan and lanzones and has many durian trees and exquisite flowers. Polomolok is also the place where world's most expensive and aspired kind of coffee comes from, the Kafe' Balos or Coffee Alamid, originating from an uncommon source, the droppings of a palm civet. This nocturnal, cat-like mammal, named "balos" by the Bla-an villagers, is using its nose to choose the ripest and sweetest coffee cherries containing the beans that after fermenting in the animal's stomach, this natural process is giving the coffee its unique taste and aroma. The beans are gathered very early in the morning usually before the sun rises. As you leave this small but booming city behind, the journey continues on a straight section of this part of the Maharlika Highway, here you can actually see for miles well off into the distance ahead, giving you the impression this road will never end.
Just about halfway between Polomolok and Tupi various family owned road side work sites are situated along the highway; local craftsmen are working tirelessly from dawn to dusk, to produce the illustrative and unique Bahay Kubo. This rustic ancestral home is very popular as recreational hut in private gardens and holiday resorts. At the same spot bamboo furniture and other items made from indigenous woods are made and sold straight from the carpentry workshop, some adjacent stalls sell live poultry, eggs, soft drinks, rice cakes, prepaid recharge load for mobile phones, candy and everything else in between. Only a few meters from the road a handful of typical Sari-Sari stores with colourful, assorted items displayed on the front of the outlet are selling goods such as cigarettes, canned goods, rice and spices. These stores are a great opportunity to mingle with the easy-going, always friendly and very hospitable residents a unique chance to get a glimpse into the authentic regional culture.
The next stop is the town of Tupi, generally named as the "fruits, flowers and vegetables basket of the South"; here you can taste the sweetest and juiciest fruits in different sizes and colours available in Mindanao. An abundance of fruit stands are strategically located along the National Highway, these stalls are a characteristic of the rural environment, providing residents the means to sell fresh fruit produced from their hometown at a very low price.. Even though the stalls and merchandise are numerous on both sides of the road, the peddlers are briskly waving their hands to motorists and other travellers, holding and flapping around the merchandise they are so eager to sell to their next customer. Nothing says beauty and elegance like fresh cut flowers, the "Blooming Petals Plantation" has it all, this 25- hectares flower farm is like a multi-coloured panorama carved deeply in the towering landscape of Mt. Matutum. This tropical garden, filled with roses and chrysanthemums, is a relaxing and peaceful floral paradise, where you can also admire many beautiful varieties of exquisite orchids. One of the most spectacular and the largest among orchids is the waling-waling, found only on the island of Mindanao and often named as the "queen" of Philippine orchids. Waling Waling" is an ethic term that stands for the graceful movement of a butterfly in flight, the flower is famous for its large size and enhanced colours. The province does not only provide a fascinating range of the freshest blossom and harvest, but also an alluring range of exotic animals, like the Tarsier. The only tarsier sanctuary of South Cotabato is located in barangay Linan. The tarsier, one of the country's most iconic animals is no larger than an adult men's hand and probably the smallest primate in the world. In the sanctuary you have the chance to see these nocturnal critters in their natural elements, a rendez- vous with these tiny creatures will make your visit an unforgettable event.
The voyage is nearly complete when driving into the city of Koronadal, less than an hour away from General Santos City, it is the main crossroad to other key points in Southern and Central Mindanao. Just before passing a lazy bend in the road an Arch spanning the highway is welcoming visitors to the city that reflects both influences of east and west and is home to many different communities. Some vivid spots are the waterfalls in Saravia and San Jose, the El Gawel wildlife sanctuary is a dense forest reservation that is a Shangri la for family excursions, the cascading waterfalls has long been a favourite travel destination for many visitors. The natural spring pools are the perfect place to cool off on a hot summer day. An alluring natural attraction located about 5 km from Koronadal city is the Mambucal Hot Springs. Heated deep within the earth, these medicinal sulphuric waters are known for their mineral content and legendary healing powers. It is clear that this untouched and unspoiled site has yet to be discovered by tourists and travellers, it is like a little gem tucked away and it almost seems to be a secret location, well hidden by the locals to keep the area unknown. The wellspring is neither terribly surprising nor spectacular but more than appealing in its own simplicity. There are many more unexplored treasures, such as the Cadidang Cave, a hidden cavern in the mountain range of Roxas; the grotto has three chambers that are connected by small, dark tunnels, the huge rock formations in Barangay Cacub and the South Cotabato Wildlife and Nature Preserve. The flowers and fruits fields are planted with groves of rambutan, durian, tropical blooms and exotic orchids. The Koronadal valley is endowed with rice fields, these lowland rice paddies are pieces of remarkable natural terrain, like a tapestry of many harmonious colours, illustrative for the mesmerizing beauty of the Southern countryside.
The Maharlika Highway does not come to an end in Koronadal city; it is heading further to Sultan Kudarat, but for another great opportunity to get to know Mother Nature up close you have to leave the highway. Lake Sebu is located about 50 km from Koronadal, this inland sea is one of the prime ecotourism spots in South Cotabato; this "bowl of forests and mountains" consists of many creeks, rivers, small streams and springs. The tranquil Lake Sebu is surrounded by ridges that are covered with closed canopy rain forests, the territory is the natural habitat to wild boars, the Philippine deer and known for its diverse species of birds, the place is a renowned haunt for fowl enthusiastic, with trails high up into the mossy forests. This south western Mindanao's summer capital conceals grandiose rapids, the Seven Falls, a series of river drops close to Lake Sebu that is the most preferred get away for outdoor devotees. This is the place to unwind and listen to the rolling sound of thunder from the rushing waters that is plunging into the deep, creating gurgling noises which are an indulgence to your ears. On top of these watercourse adrenaline junkies will have the time of their live when gliding 700 meters down the highest zip line in the Philippines, over verdant tree tops and sparkling streams, taking pleasure in eagle-eying a sensational symphony of sights, sounds and smells of this luscious woodland.
The trip finishes in the hinterlands of South Cotabato, a province with relatively high mountains, an exotic wilderness, upland lakes, lush forests and springs, inactive volcanoes and a striking blend of culture, history and tradition. A province that has something for everyone, from the lovers of art and culture to the more adventurous at heart. South Cotabato is an out-of-this-world location in the midst of the green belt, to look back and reflect on the roughly 320 kilometres journey on the Mindanao Maharlika Motorway and the many enchanting places, outdoor encounters, culinary delicacies and friendly people along the way. When beginning this trip you perhaps never imagined that this concrete track would bring you so close to nature.