‘Forbidden’ angles

IMG_5983The Forbidden Island is just one spectacular plateau that looks like it was sliced it off from the main island and pushed a bit off the shore but there is more to this slab of a rock than meets the eye.

I have seen the Forbidden Island from the overview and close from the base of the island before. The chance to see it from above and from the other side came last month when I was invited to an aerial tour of the island, and that was the first time I saw the top of the island from above. It was looking at this landscape from a whole new perspective.IMG_4028

I asked our pilot if he can maneuver the four-seater plane above the Forbidden Island as low and as close as we can get while I took photos of this popular piece of rock that jutted out like a crouching reptile.

The top of the plateau is rocky but some portions are flat and covered with green and it looks like you could spend a night camping there, but getting up to the top of this island is a whole new difficult story. It is almost next to impossible, especially if you are not that daring and you don’t have the right equipment.

The Forbidden Island is one of Saipan’s must-not-miss sites if you want to say you’ve been to Saipan. A trek down to the island itself requires at least 45 minutes, a sturdy pair of shoes, comfortable clothing and lots of guts. The jungle trail going down is easy, the trees providing shade from the heat and the only challenge you meet are the pine needles that make the pathway slippery. IF

When you emerge into the clearing where the jungle ends, that’s when the real challenge begins and it’s already too late and too far to go back. If you are scared of heights, just proceed with caution and focus on the road. If you can avoid it, try not to look the sides of the path where you will see yawning cliffs or you’ll get dizzy and give the adventure up.

Don’t underestimate this small slab of rock. It isn’t named Forbidden for nothing. It has claimed numerous lives in the past.

I’ve tried climbing halfway around the island and had to go back minus the soles of my shoes with numerous cuts and scratches in my arms and legs. I didn’t take the option of climbing straight up aided by a rope because it looked so hard and steep but the group I was with had to come back when our trek ended in a dead end. Fighting the strong currents of water when the tide is coming in is another challenge you have to consider when you go to the island.IMG_5989

The challenge actually starts when the paved road in Kagman ends and you take the rough road that answers more to the description of a river bed gone dry. The road is only ideal for four wheel drive vehicles and most parts of the road are like giant potholes, with elbow-sharp turns that could send you hurtling down deep ravines if you’re not careful but it’s worth the trip.

This article was also printed at the Marianas Variety


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Stopover on Tinian’s Overlook

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THE first thing that you will think of when you land on Tinian is that there’s nothing in the small island that can entertain you.

From above, the island is just a short stretch of trees and forests bounded by, dotted by a few dilapidated structures.

Looking out from the plane window, the beaches and the giant waves sending huge sprays on the cliffs bordering the island provide a spectacular view from above, but    aside from that, you may think Tinian is devoid of life and activities.IMG_9098

And no one will blame you for thinking that way, until you go out and dare to explore.

Only then will you discover that the island houses a hundred and one scenic spots and a treasure of historical sites that continues to draw visitors from all over the world, the remembrance of a bloody war that took place 70 years ago.

A few miles up from Taga and Tachogna Beach, Tinian’s most popular beaches is a certain spot that you will find refreshingly attractive if you care to go beyond your comfort zones and explore.

IMG_9094Just before reaching Tachogna Beach, take the paved road going left and follow it until you reach the first intersection and follow the paved road to the right. There used to be a sign somewhere on the roadside telling you it leads to the Suicide Cliff but sometimes it is covered with tall grasses and sometimes, you could be busy deciding which way to go you will miss it.

About a couple of miles from the intersection, you will come to a small clearing with a row of empty hollow drums lined up like a fence on the roadside. Walk over to the small clearing protected by a wooden fence and be prepared to take in your fill of a spectacular panorama.

IMG_9097Far below the valley the village of San Jose spread out gracefully. You can even see the old tower of the San Jose Church. The blue skies merged with the blue waters and the gently rolling waves on the far beaches present a very idyllic paradise, contrary to the angry waves you can see from the other side of the island.

The last time I was there was over a couple of months ago when the trees and grass were dry and withered, and the farms were brown waiting for the next planting season. What would have completed the overlook would be a small cottage with benches so people can sit there and watch the sunset, or where runners/joggers and bikers can take a short break to enjoy the panorama.

The overlook is just the beginning of your exploration in that part of the island. Go further and you will discover more breathtaking hiking trails, shrines, World War 11 remnants, historical sites like the Korean and Japanese monuments at the Suicide Cliff.IMG_9073

Tinian has more to offer than you would expect. The island holds its share of more adventures waiting to be tapped. There are more to the jungles, underwater wonders and historic sites and you only need to go out to change your perspective of this island.

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

Exploring Saipan’s seldom-frequented roads

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I THOUGHT I had been everywhere on Saipan until I discovered roads I didn’t even know existed. Recently, my buddy Pat and I decided to pay a visit to the radar tower in San Roque, a site I had visited and photographed several times before so we decided to make this trip different. Bordering the radar tower on the right side was a huge stone pile with some tangan-tangan trees. The pile — or wall — of stones looked dangerous to climb but my companion was unstoppable and I was not about to stay below.
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Finding footholds and handholds while protecting my camera was a real challenge but I slowly made it to the top. And there, I gasped. We were at the very edge of a high cliff and one wrong move could send us hurtling to our deaths below. I held my breath. I was too scared to move. Spread out before us was a glorious panorama of jungle and cliffs bordering the endless blue ocean. A narrow road snaked its way through the jungle, and I was disoriented, not knowing where we were.

We decided to find out where that road below us began and ended. Ever so slowly, we picked our way down, quaking in fear when a stone just stepped on rolled down. Finally, we made it back to the radar tower and were soon inside the cool safety of our rented RAV-4.

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Driving down from the radar tower, we turned left at the fork with the sign “DPS Shooting Range” on the roadside. I’d never been on that road before but the thrill of the unknown kept us going.

The road was wide enough for one car only, but we were the only ones there. The roadsides were thick with bushes that would have made it impossible to park anywhere.

We drove on down the mountainside until we passed the DPS Firing Range, a place I hadn’t seen.IMG_8404

Past the firing range, the road got steeper and, at times, almost impossible to find, but there was no going back now. We knew we had to keep going and find out where we were headed. After several minutes, Pat decided to make a left turn at a fork in the road, expertly dodging huge boulders. It was a short road and, finally, we couldn’t go any further.

Then I looked up and stared at the gaping mouth of a huge cave. Only then did I discover we were at the Kalabera Cave. I had driven several times to the area from Bird Island but never went beyond the Kalabera Cave crossing before. The road would discourage anyone who values his car.IMG_8379

Anyway, it was an exhilarating afternoon and we got back home, memory cards loaded with new photos of this beautiful and ever surprising island.

First published at the Marianas Variety

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

Trekking on Edge

A TREK toalt Naftan Point was not on my mind when I joined a group of six others on a late Saturday afternoon. We were in the parking lot of American Memorial parking lot flipping coins to decide where to go for a shooting adventure when I remembered the Rabbit Hole in Naftan. I had only seen pictures of the place but had’t been there yet.

Without hesitation, we boarded two cars and off we went to Saipan’s southernmost tip. Turning at the intersection of Obyan Beach, we began driving on an unfamiliar rough road and ended in someone’s driveway. First try. We went back and followed another road, this time much smaller and rougher than the first one, and ended up on a small clearing with barely enough space for the cars. We tried again and finally found the right road — a tree-lined single lane grassy road that went narrow and narrower as we inched deeper into a jungle of tangan-tangan.

We reached a point where Mervin and Tony had to go down and start clearing protruding tree branches so we could drive through. It was agonizing to hear every squeak and scrape of the branches and shrubs under and on the sides of the car. I was just waiting for the final thud that would make us stuck in that jungle. It went on for the next half a mile or so as we plodded on, finally reaching a small clearing to park our cars.alt

Our trip was not over yet. Carting our heavy cameras and tripods, we slowly inched our way in the jungle — this time parting thick shrubs with our hands and ducking under roots and branches and avoiding one of the hundreds of spider webs along the way.

Emerging into the open, we followed pale pink ribbons tied to waist-high shrubs as we looked for the Rabbit Hole.

The sun was relentlessly unforgiving, beating down on us who had no shelter. Groping our way along the cliff and finding secure handholds and footholds was a real challenge. One wrong step could send us hurtling down into the rocks and the churning waters below.

We reached a cliffside where a spectacular panorama awaited us. Way down below and nestled between sharp cliffs was a cove with a small flat surface but with rugged edges resembling a stage. It was mesmerizing to watch huge waves crash on the “stage,” before rolling back to the ocean in rivulets.

I was too engrossed taking photos and video I did not notice Mervin making calls on his cellphone. We were lost. We were not supposed to be on that dangerous cliffline.

The sun was beginning to set, and we had to head back. I did not relish the idea of getting stuck in a jungle at night and share my blood with thousands of mosquitoes. None of us was prepared for that trek — we were wearing too comfortable sandals, carrying too much gear and were mentally conditioned to shoot photos in friendlier and nearer areas.

We failed to find our destination, and Tony ended up with a torn eyebrow after hitting a protruding tree branch. Our cars suffered a hundred or so minor scratches but we got the photos we wanted, and the adventure we did not plan.

The Rabbit Hole, will still be there, somewhere, next time.

First published at the Maaltrianas Variety