Scary afternoon at As Matmos Fishing Cliff

Panic gripped me. I had made sure that I stood on dry rocks not reached by the water and that one single wave got me.

IMG_0182 (2)       ROTA, Northern Mariana Islands—There was no debate when I saw that sign by the roadside, a temptation too strong to resist, and I knew I was not going to have peace of mind until I get to the As Matmos Cliff. “As Matmos Fishing Cliff, 4 miles.”

With the sun beating relentlessly down from the skies, I turned the car aircon on and started following the road that resembled like a dried up river bed, driving deep into the jungle and emerging again into a hot open area, assured that the ocean was not far and it was still high noon.

The path I was following ended in a fork—one with a fence with a “No Trespassing” sign on it, one that I had no plans of violating no matter how tempting it was, and one leading to more rocks and rough road ahead. Still I drove on, seeing no other car in the road or anywhere around.IMG_0329

Another fork in the road showed a sign that the As Matmos Fishing Cliff was 1.8 miles away and I drove with renewed spirits. The thicket thinned out and I was heading into rocky plains and a looming cliff up ahead. Every 50 meters or so, a huge splash of water sprayed the air and I was prompted to stop and snap photos.IMG_0254

From behind some bushes, I saw the final sign loom into view and the rocky road ended in more rocks and crevices. Tuning in to my surroundings for a few minutes, I opened the car and tentatively took a step toward the menacing cliffs, snapping photos and taking video clips like I was on a race with time.

Everything was so overwhelming. It was as if I stepped at the edge of the world and I felt so small and alone with the giant stone mountains behind me, the sharp steep cliffs before me. Waves were furiously crashing against the cliffs every few seconds, and it was a nightmare watching from the cliff lines. I stayed as far away as I can from the edge but close enough to capture the terrifying yet magnetic whirl of water in the rocks below.IMG_0194

The giant splashes that goes up like a hundred feet or so way above the cliff lines was mesmerizing to watch, as if luring one to step on to the very the edge and go with its flow to the ocean. I didn’t realize I had been staring mesmerized at the water from my nervous perch about a dozen feet or so away from the edge, until one exceptionally huge foaming wave landed at my feet, pulling back with a magnetic force so strong I was almost tempted to go with it.IMG_0249

Panic gripped me. I had made sure that I stood on dry rocks not reached by the water and that one single wave got me. Hugging my camera to my chest, I made a mad dash toward the car and leaned on the door to catch my breath, not minding the droplets of blood in my foot when I stepped on a sharp rock.IMG_0192 (2)

Warnings came flooding back when I was able to breathe normally again. Stories and warnings to be careful because As Matmos Cliffs cliffs claim lives of people who come close to the edge, especially if you are alone. I guess I never believed in the stories before, until that one scary moment.IMG_0337

As Matmos Fishing Cliff is one of the must-never-miss attractions on Rota, but go with a group if you want peace of mind and want to enjoy the enchanting view. You can also explore other popular fishing sites on Rota are Malilok and and Pona Point.

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Coconut Kingdom by the Sea in Rota

DSC_5306ROTA — One of my favorite spots here is the abandoned Coconut Village, a row of wooden cottages facing the Pacific Ocean. Driving from Sinapalo to Songsong, you can see a signboard by the road side directing you to the Rota Coconut Village Hotel about a third of a mile away.
If you are new to the island and not that daring, you might think twice before taking the right turn past the signboard. It’s one of those rough and rugged side roads that looks rarely, if ever, used. I took that right turn during my first trip to the island a couple of years back. I was a bit scared, not knowing what to expect. I drove my rented car slowly, trying to avoid tricky potholes that were covered with fallen leaves.

But the spot just before the Coconut Village was stunning. It was a little forest of moss-covered trees and a carpet of orange and red fallen leaves. It was like stepping into a fairy tale and I was scared to breathe lest the magic spell be broken.

A few feet away, the rolling waves of the blue ocean crashed onto the rocky shores. It was in March, the perfect time to shoot photos or videos of gigantic waves from a cliff if that’s what you’re after.

I drove on and saw the Coconut Village sign in front of a cluster of wooden cottages. The place lived up to its name, with tall coconut trees lined up along the shoreline and adding a spectacular touch to the whole view.

I took a couple of steps away from the car and took dozens of images of the resort that had seen better times. The cottages facing the sea had individual balconies where guests could sit and relax, enjoy the view and breathe in the ocean breeze.DSC_5300

I passed by a huge wooden umbrella installed on top of a pile of stones, a perfect spot to have a drink or pass the time away. Although it’s no longer in business, it’s obviously maintained.

The second time I visited the place, I saw somebody cutting and raking the grass. The lawns were maintained and there were blooming flowers all around. The cottages were not falling apart, unlike most of the abandoned resorts and structures on the island.DSC_5281

If you dare to continue driving along the rough road, you will arrive at another popular spot —the Swimming Hole Beach Park.

I dared to take that drive, comforted by the thought that I could hear the ocean so I couldn’t became lost.

DSC_5311Rota has more treasures waiting to be discovered, undeveloped sites that contribute to its name as an untouched gem in the Pacific.

First published at the Marianas Variety here DSC_5294

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60514-coconut-kingdom-by-the-sea

Panoramic Stopover in Sinapalo, Rota

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ROTA — A few miles past the Sunset Hotel in the village of Sinapalo, there is a spot by the roadside you must not miss. There is nothing spectacular about it — a couple of unused benches covered by leaves and twigs and a pile of stones bordering the edge of the cliff.
I’ve driven by this same spot alone a couple of times in the past but I didn’t pay attention to it or take the time to stop and check it out. But recently, I was again on Rota, this time with photographer buddy Pat. Our host Jackie from the Sunset Hotel recommended that we check the place out.IMG_9883

Driving on the paved road, we found the spot without any trouble at all. As expected, the place was deserted and a few birds were the only signs of life. With cameras ready, we picked our way through dead leaves and headed to the pile of stones that served as some kind of a fence. Thick vegetation protruded from below the edge of the cliff beyond the stone fence.

I was unprepared for the spectacular panoramic scenery that met my eyes when I emerged into the small clearing near the stone fence. Hundreds of feet below us, the blue ocean stretched forever, merging with the blue horizon. It was a bright sunny day and gentle waves lapped along the coast that snaked its way along beautiful rocky shores, forming a kind of a cove.IMG_9888

The different shades of blue in the water and the sky merged with the green foliage, which made the scene look like a work of art.

Down on the rocky shores, small formations created islets topped with vegetation, adding to the beauty of it all.

The view was postcard-perfect, and I then understood why Rota was known as the “untouched gem of a paradise” in the Pacific.

The world seemed to come to a standstill and, for a moment, I forgot I was there to take photos and video clips. I was mesmerized with the splendor of the scene before me.IMG_9887

Lost in another world, my finger connected with the shutter in an attempt to capture the beauty of nature on camera. A few yards away, Pat was as lost as I was taking video footage.

Climbing atop of a pile of stones, I got a much better view, but keeping my balance while trying to shoot photos was too much of a challenge. One wrong step and I could be history. We didn’t have much time to stay at the lookout. We still had so much to see. Watching the sunset from the lookout would be something else, something to look forward to. Another time.IMG_9909

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60305-panoramic-stopover-in-sinapalo

‘Enchanted’ wood on a mystical island

IMG_0043The first time I stumbled into this particular “enchanted” spot was during my first trip to the island in 2011. I returned to the same site the next day, and again last March, and then again and again when I was here in May. –
It’s as enchanting as ever every time I go there, regardless of what day and what time. Everything about Rota is enchanting, but there is something about this place that makes you want to stay and flee at the same time.If you keep driving past the zoo in Songsong and follow the road, you will arrive at this spot just before you emerged from the woodland and stare into the barrel of the Japanese canon by the roadside.I remember the first time I saw the place. It was almost sunset and I was curious as to where the road would end. The road was so narrow it looked like someone just carved a passage in the middle of a mountain. It was like a page from a fairy tale or a scene from a mystery film. I was excited and fearful.P1030522

The road was obscured by thick foliage and long vines hanging from huge trees, and in the deepening twilight they looked like arms reaching out to ensnare me. I was too scared to go on, not knowing what was at the other side of that cave-like aperture. By some miracle I managed to find space on the narrow road to turn the car back and drive away from the place as fast as I could.

I dreamed about the place that night, and I knew I just had to go back, which I did. It was early afternoon but the place was still enchanted. I had goose bumps again. I could not shake off the feeling that someone or something would just jump out of the bushes and lunge at me. I was able to summon enough courage to drive through the aperture and into the other side while looking in the rearview mirror again and again. There was that unexplainable feeling that someone was looking at me.P1030547

Last May, I took my buddy Pat there without telling him anything about the place or what I felt about it.

The minute he got out of the car, he stared, fished out his camera and took photos without saying anything. Later, when we were having lunch at As Paris restaurant, he seemed to be deep in thought. Suddenly he started talking animatedly about that spot. I can see his videographer’s mind reeling, imagining all sorts of possible movies he could shoot there.

We went back the next day, and the next, and the enchanted spot still had the same effect on me, and on him. The goose bumps were always there.IMG_9874

To most people, the spot is just a regular curve with vines and thick foliage and nothing else, but to my active imagination there is more to the place than meets the eye. It is enchanted, and has become my most favorite spot on Rota.

If you happen to be here, check out this place, and be prepared for a surprise.

For more articles about Rota, Tinian and Saipan please visit https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/.

First published at the Marianas Variety

The bell by the fire pit

P1030449ROTA–A few yards behind the swimming pool at the Rota Resort & Country Club is a lovely spot that’s perfect for outdoor parties at sundown or at night.
We discovered it at noontime a few months back after an hour at the Swimming Hole when my buddy Pat decided to rinse off the salt water with a dip in the swimming pool.The pool was deserted but I did not goin and instead ventured off beyond the fence, snapping photos of everything that caught my attention until I came to “the spot” hidden behind some flowering trees.
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Crudely built wooden benches surrounded a circular pit bordered by stones and I could see remnants of half-burned firewood from a previous bonfire. There were logs and polished tree stumps on which guests could sit. Then I remembered hearing the receptionist say something about a fireside party which was an option for guests who didn’t want to have barbeque at Tiki Tiki Bar or drinks at the hotel’s Blue Bar.A few feet away from the fire pit was a circular open hut which was just perfect for wedding photography. My finger was itching to press the shutter but I lacked a bride and groom posing under the bell. And there was no one around.P1030468

A rope hung from the roof of the hut and I couldn’t resist pulling it. That’s when I heard a loud clanging which echoed throughout the whole place and beyond. Scared, I stood frozen for a few seconds, expecting someone to come running from the hotel to ask me why I rang the bell.

Thankfully, the noise did not alarm anyone, except Pat who stopped swimming.

I walked over to the sign that read “Yama’s Bell” and learned that it was dedicated to Hidekazu Yamaguchi, manager of the Rota Resort & Country Club for his love of the island and his efforts to ensure that the resort would be appreciated by guests.P1030469

I went back to haul Pat out of the pool. Our flight back to Saipan was in a couple of hours and we had to get our stuff from the hotel room.

If ever you visit Rota Resort & Country Club, make sure to head to the fire pit and Yama’s Bell for a fireside party. That’s one thing we missed, one of the treasures that Rota has to offer. For more articles about Rota and the CNMI, please visit http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links.

First published at the Marianas Variety

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/59225-the-bell-by-the-fire-pit

Rota: Visiting a prayer mountain

It was a place I never knew existed here and we reached it by taking the first left turn off the highway on the way up to Mt. Sabana one hot afternoon.
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We were on the rough, bumpy road w  hen our tour guide, Jack, instructed my buddy photographer, Pat. to take the grassy path on the left for “a surprise.” I looked at Jack and then at the road doubtfully. There was no sign that cars had been on that road for some time as it was almost completely covered with grass, but he was our guide and he knew the island like the back of his hand, or so he said.There were portions of the road where we had to slow down and listen to the creaking and groaning of the car as Pat maneuvered around deep potholes and kept going. After several minutes, there was a fork in the road and Jack pointed to the right.IMG_7156 The road became grassy and less rough as we headed to a clearing with coconut trees on the roadsides. From a distance, I saw objects that looked like white crosses and asked Jack if it was a cemetery but he shook his head. I decided not to ask any more questions and just waited to see where the road would lead us.

Soon, the road ended and then we saw it. A long flight of steep stairs painted bright pink and white leading to a grotto where three huge crosses were erected. The grotto was a natural enclosure in the mountain wall.

The bright paint stood out among the green shrubs and flowering plants. If it was late in the afternoon or early in the morning, I might have been tempted to climb the stairs up to the top, but not in the sweltering heat of the mid day.

IMG_7190There was no one around, but Jack said that during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday, the place was filled with people from Songsong and Sinapalo. He said people camp out on Thursday night and make the trek up to the crosses along with other Catholic devotees.

The place is Rota’s equivalent to Saipan’s Mt. Tapochau where people go on Good Friday. The only difference is that here, you get to the top by climbing comfortable and well-maintained stairs.

The drive to this place of prayer is rough but the view along the way is worth it. Far to the other end of the cliff wall were more enclosures similar to the one where the grotto was located. These were caused by bombs during the war.

If you want to visit this place when there are a lot of people, do it during Holy Week, but if you want silence, you can go at any other time of the year and have it all to yourself.IMG_7188

First published at the Marianas Variety HERE

I stepped on a ‘wedding cake’

The first time I saw the flat-top mountain everybody referred to as the Wedding Cake, it did not look like a layer of cake to me at all. It was just like any other elevated piece of land.
I later learned that it got the name because it resembled a tiered cake. When I drove up to the Songsong overlook, I saw a different angle to the mountain. This time, it resembled a cake whose top had been sliced.But I still couldn’t see the “wedding cake” — until a couple of months ago when I drove to the other side of the mountain where the Japanese cannon is located.There, you will see that the “cake” is almost perfectly shaped, with several elaborate tiers.IMG_7463The Wedding Cake is actually the nickname for Mt. Taipingot and is one of the post-card attractions of this island which is often referred to as a pocket-sized paradise in the Pacific.I tried all the existing roads at the foot of the Wedding Cake, hoping I could find access to the top, but there was none. All roads ended up at the foot of the mountain.According to those who have tried it, the Wedding Cake is 470 feet above sea level and is an ideal place for hiking. However, crawling up through a dense jungle and rocky mountainside with my cameras dangling from my neck wasn’t for me. I preferred to admire the mountain from a distance.IMG_7015

At the foot of the Wedding Cake, just past the commercial seaport in Songsong is the Coconut Plantation, a beachside resort more popular for its shady coconut trees than the beach itself which is so rocky no one should wade into the waters.

Parking our rented car under a coconut tree, my photographer buddy Pat and I took advantage of the coolness of an open cottage by the seaside. We had about four hours to spare before our flight back to Saipan and we spent the time watching several episodes of Dr. Who on his laptop until the batteries ran out. We also enjoyed the sweet potato chips and venison given to us by our friend, Rota entrepreneur Ali Badilles, and the cool breeze from the ocean.Songsong

When it was time to go, we drove onto a rugged trail leading into the preservation area which was bordered with a high cliff wall on one side, and the sea on the other. Cargo ships and other boats were docked near the cliff. The trail going up to the top of the Wedding Cake could have been somewhere around but we didn’t bother to search for it. Maybe some other time when we had more leisure to do so.

Please check http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links for more articles about the beautiful islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota.20130517_125844

First Published in the Marianas Variety

‘Trespassers’ at Poña Point Fishing Cliff

IMG_0001 ROTA — A fork on the road leading to a small clearing with a signboard that announced “Poña Point Fishing Cliff” caught my attention the first time I went driving aimlessly here a couple of years ago. I saw the sign again while on the same road last March, but I didn’t have the guts to see it.

From the main road, the path to the fishing cliff was obscured by tall bushes and the downhill road looked soft. I was afraid I’d get stuck all alone in the jungle, but I finally s reached Poña Point Fishing Cliff when I again visited Rota two months ago.IMG_0022

I was with buddy photographer Patrick whose fascination with the island was greater than mine so I was finally able to explore places I was reluctant to visit before.

Following the sign, we drove down the short grassy trail, not knowing what was ahead until we reached a rocky area. We had to walk the remaining distance as our rented car could go no further.IMG_0023

Picking our way among the sharp rocks toward the edge of the cliff was a real challenge, and then there was the blistering heat of the sun and the strong wind that threatened to blow me away.

From a safe distance, I looked out and held my breath at the very spectacular panorama spread out before me. The tide was out and the endless blue ocean merged with the blue sky, the gentle waves rolled against the sharp rocks a hundred feet below the cliff. It was fascinatingly scary. Way down, rocks broken into several huge slabs resembled slices of cake topped with green vegetation.IMG_0003

We were atop a cliff and above the sea, and in the howling of the wind, the chirping of the birds and insects, and the crashing of the waves below, we felt like trespassers in a sacred area. It felt like it was a sin to click our camera shutters.

We were tempted to get closer to the edge of the cliff to capture better images, but the wind was too strong.

Poña Point Fishing Cliff is one of the island’s top destinations and is also one of the venues for fishing derby events each year, along with Malilok and Matmos Fishing cliffs.IMG_0010

As we were headed back to the main road, Pat suddenly stopped the car, grabbed his camera and pointed it toward a dead tree. Following his example, I grabbed my camera and was just in time to see a bird with a huge lizard wriggling and captive in its beak while another bird was about to grab the lizard from the first bird.

If you’re on Rota and want to see Poña Point Fishing Cliff, just drive past the Rota Zoo in Songsong and the Japanese cannon until you see the sign beside the road then make a right turn. Don’t be turned off by the soft-looking ground — there’s a hard road somewhere under the green grass that will lead you to the cliff.IMG_0026

For more articles and photos about Saipan, Tinian and Rota please visit https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Peace memorial on a mountaintop

IMG_7286At the island’s highest elevation stands a stone structure that few people visit: a World War II peace memorial.
I made attempts to see Sabana Peace Memorial Park on my first visits but failed. On my first try, I and a companion drove the rocky and dusty road and stopped when we reached a rusty gate. A huge board by the roadside announced “Welcome to Sabana,” but on the other side of the board obscured by tall bushes was a notice stating that the gate would be closed at 5 p.m. It was already 4 p.m. and we dared not risk getting locked in.On my second try, I decided I couldn’t do it alone so I drove back to the village.During my most recent visit to Rota I finally got the chance to reach the mountaintop because I was with two companions, and I was not doing the driving.The road past the huge billboard became narrower and the wind picked up as we passed acres of fields and vegetable gardens. We seemed to be driving on and on until suddenly, there was no more mountain to be seen, which meant we had reached its peak.IMG_7314IMG_7289The road was barely visible and was covered with thick bushes as we drove on until we reached a clearing with a well-manicured lawn leading to two man-made stone walls on Mt. Sabana.

Everything was so quiet and peaceful as we got out of the car and headed toward two jutting rocks that provided some kind of shelter. They were remnants of the rock wall which Japanese soldiers used as a shield during the war.

A marker with the paint peeling off stated that the Sabana Peace Memorial was erected on Sept. 16, 1973 by the Peace Memorial EreIMG_7241ction Committee headed by Rota Mayor Antonio Atalig and Rota Rep. Prudencio T. Manglona to honor Japanese nationals who lost their lives during World War II on Rota.

According to the marker, “May this gesture promote friendship between the people of Japan and the people of Rota.”

A Japanese translation was engraved on the marker beside the English text.

There was nobody around but we could see the place was well-maintained. We took photos and went around the rock walls to see gently rolling hillsides covered with green vegetation.

A concrete shelter with tables and benches was erected on the left side of the area, providing visitors with a place to relax and enjoy the fresh mountain breeze.

I was glad I wasn’t alone. It would be weird and scary to be the only person in that place, and if you had a car problem you would have to wait a long time before another vehicle showed up, if at all. But the long drive was worth it. It’s exhilarating standing on top of the island’s highest peak at 1,627 feet.

We didn’t stay at the peace memorial for long. We decided to try our luck in finding another road that would take us down to the other side of the island. We plowed through bushes taller than our car hoping a road existed beneath them. We had to go back several times after hitting dead ends, and had to finally give up when we saw that what used to be a road was covered with thick foliage and there was no way we could go through even if we had been using a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we were not.IMG_7211

We drove down the same road going to Sinapalo and headed for the nearest store to quench our thirst with cold water, a necessity which we failed to bring on our Sabana trip.

If you’re on Rota, you must visit the Sabana Peace Memorial.For more articles about Saipan, Tinian and Rota go to https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com.

First published at Marianas Variety

Exploring Tonga Cave

20130515_160840Right in the heart of Songsong Village on Rota is a huge cave which I tried to visit the first two times I was here but just didn’t get around to it. First, I ran out of time, and second, I was all alone and kind of scared to go in. –
My chance to go into this huge cave came last month when I finally had company and I got a bonus because he’s a photographer too.Tonga Cave is just a few meters from Rota Breakfast & Bed, beside the IT&E office, and very near the residential areas. Follow the sign on the road and the grassy drive will lead you straight to the cave.The first time I visited the cave was one late afternoon. I went up as far as the main entrance but got scared and went back down, promising myself I’d go back as soon as I had some company. A couple of kids were on their way to the cave but they were called back by their parents halfway up.

20130515_161301Just before climbing up the hundred or so rough concrete stairs to the triangular mouth of the cave, there were two small holes just big enough to let a small person in and they led down into the darkness below. I wanted to explore those holes but not when I had my heavy cameras with me.

I pulled my buddy Pat away from the small enclosures and watched him race up the steps to the entrance. I was short of breath when I finally caught up with him.

Tonga Cave is a mix of the natural and the artificial, with the concrete steps providing easier access to visitors, and with stalactites and stalagmites that made it look like a huge yawning mouth with uneven teeth.

There was no one else in the cave and our steps and voices echoed in the vast chamber. Tonga Cave is not like other caves where you go deep into the bowels of the earth. This cave is open at the other side and the entrance is covered by rocks and hanging vines casting eerie shadows.

Perched on a rock in one part of the cave, I felt like I was looking down at another planet with the small stalagmites covering the cave floor. The cave was damp but not wet. Huge vines hanging from the rocks above the cave entrance added to the charm of the cave. You can almost imagine Tarzan swinging up above.

I heard from Rota residents that the cave was turned into a hospital by the Japanese   during World War II. The residents used the cave as shelter during typhoons, and it was once home to a colony of Mariana Fruit Bats.

It was easy to imagine hundreds of people taking refuge in the huge cave. The cave’s high ceilings dwarfed us. There was hardly any air flow inside the cave and pretty soon, we were sweating despite the open air, forcing us to hurry up taking photos and go out to get a breath of fresh air.IMG_0735

I lingered for a bit longer at the entrance to the cave while Pat went to explore another crevice among the stone formations a few yards down. We met some new friends on Rota who told us there was another bigger cave somewhere on the way to the Bird Sanctuary which would require an experienced guide and flashlights. There’s always a next time.20130515_160927

The next time you’re on Rota, check out Tonga Cave, a piece of history that adds to the allure of this island.

First published at the Marianas Variety