A Desert Safari-like Trip

The hum of the car sets a background to my lazy eyes poring over a map of Northern Luzon. The almost empty highway stretched before us, snaking between rolling hills and empty fields. It’d be at least more than an hour before we reach Subic and from there, we’ll veer towards our destination that day, Zoobic Safari. I glanced out the window from the back seat at the countryside view I loved so much. My little sister sat at the back with me, while Ate was right at the front seat and her fiance (then, now they are married), the one driving. The four of us embarked on one of the ongoing road trips we have unconsciously decided on.

As we entered the bay area and entered the wooded part of Subic, the road became winding and for a length of time, we all wondered if we are going the right way. The asphalt highway turned to narrow broken paved ones as we looked out for the road signs. Finally, it led us into a dirt road that wound its way to the zoo’s entrance flanked by these big wooden tribal heads with colored paint. It was a weekend so the parking lot is a bit jam packed with tour buses and family vans. Little uniformed kids were lined up by their guardian teacher while the rest of the pre-teen ones just ran around scattering. Parents mingled around looking after their offsprings. In short, just being in the parking lot alone was very noisy already.

We fell in line to pay for our entrance and get the tour package. While waiting, we took random shots of these life-sized animal boards, planted right there to lure out more kids that it’ll be a fun adventure till the end. After a while, I sidled out to an empty bench away from the crowd. I am all for having spaces.

When we got our tour tickets, we were herded to a dim nook of the entrance hall across the parking lot, where tour guides give out instructions of the dos and don’ts on their respective assigned groups. All the while, a white grown tiger sat bored on its cage a few feet away. When I looked around, one side of that shadowy area was built with a few tiger cages. The other cages are filled with the usual spotted but young tigers.

Our own tour guide was introduced and we followed him, along with a dozen more people, to the sloping tree-filled area which is a haven for birds of different kinds. Wide net and screens served as cages for a few species. There’s a time when we were encouraged to feed a flock of lovebirds lining up the several bird stands. If you try, they will fly and land on your arms and hands, even heads, to peck. I didn’t try, of course, even if I wanted to. I’m not exactly afraid of birds. All I am afraid of is to develop a rash just when we were just starting the tour.

Next, we passed fenced-in animals. Horses, boars, rats and others imported from foreign lands and cannot be seen locally. I particularly remembered this cat specie hanging on a wooden little bridge strung up high. I presumably got lost with all their rightful names. If only I have interest in Zoology as much as Herbalism, then I might have remembered a few. I pointed out miniature horses to my little sister (which I first saw in Baluarte Zoo up north and where she hasn’t been yet).

After that morning walking tour, we sat down for a little lunch of hotdog sandwiches on an open restaurant with leafy hanging vines and greenery at the entrance. There was then a call to gather for the afternoon tour which looked like we will have to ride a colorful open tram to visit the rest of the park. While we were waiting under the cogon-roofed shed by a bamboo wall along with the rest, it was found out we were placed on the wrong tour package or more likely there was a mistake during the time we paid for the entrance. The lady on the staff table managed to sort things out and we were instructed to wait for the white tram.

We watched in fascination as an orange painted tram lumbered by to park on the side of the road right by the shed while the guests who were with us on the morning tour clambered up and filled all the seats. Did I mention there were more than a dozen people? The front face of this tram seemed jolly and smiling even, like something out of the movie, Cars. I did find it cute. The orange tram started up the road and disappeared on the bend and we were left in an almost empty shed. No sign of the white tram yet. It was then we noticed another shed further on the road with a family of a few kids waiting. There was the sign for the white tram, too, where I believe we were supposed to wait. We laughed again and again at all the comedy of errors that happened and we moved there gratefully.

Finally, a white long tram arrived and, boy, it was rather large. The front face looked a little scary and sinister. I think I have had too many memories of that old movie, Trucks. A goodly number of twenty or more people could fit on the seats with extra spaces in between but we were only a handful of ten people at most. Unlike the orange tram which only consisted of seats, this one was made with a table wedged in for the free water and little snacks included on the package tour as well as extra trips on selected trails. I do love my space and found the ride ideal for everyone. There was more interaction with the jolly tour guide woman who seemed pretty good with the kids.

The tram moved on a flat road flanked with trees and tall grasses. If they needed trams to travel around, this park must be huge. We stopped by first on a large stone structure with long thick cloths covering the opening. It was sort of made into a cave and when we entered it was dark inside. The fun part was walking on a low hanging bridge with water lapping under it. Was there a crocodile down there? I really forgot. I was busy avoiding the low dry branches put there on the path.

When we rode on and neared the next place, I could hear a lot of ruckus and activity even before we cleared the path. A sudden view of a tiger standing on top of an orange safari jeep in the middle of a hilly enclosure made us all exclaim. We have reached the tiger’s den. The line on the entrance was too long like a winding lane and the sky is clear and the breeze hot. Our tour guide, however, placed us in one of the shady wood cottages to wait for our turn. Unlike the long queue for the regular tour, we were told we shan’t be delayed too long.

At first I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing. We were locked up inside this screened jeep with the kids screaming in either fear or excitement, I am not sure anymore. The curving roads are too uneven and dust is everywhere.  There’s too many tigers on the loose pouncing on you I wondered how the jeeps were able to maneuver around them. The driver actually had the gall to sit the jeep in the middle of the road, like a prized pie target, trying to beckon to the tigers. But, after the first encounter where they cling to the sides of the jeep while someone inside feeds them chicken, pretty much them flying on the top of the jeep ended up being too cool.

We were brought round the back of the enclosure where the tigers were kept in room cages while the tour guide warned us about them peeing because the smell will stay for days which sounded really nasty. Every time a tiger turns its back on us, we all ended up running away and squealing.  We all clambered back to our tram sighing in relief that we were spared. Nobody wants to smell like tiger’s piss for sure even the brave at heart. I mean, come on, I did wonder why this particular tour was necessary where things are reduced to a matter of chance. It literally is like enter-at-your-own-risk kind of thing.

Passing by an open-fenced yard with a lot of black pigs, we all bent away as a big ostrich padded by the side of the tram. I had the most ridiculous notion of it pecking at anyone of us. Even then, running away from this one would totally be a feat. We hugged a low rugged hill decked out with strange shaped stones. I think there is a little history on this one told by the guide but I could not remember anymore. It was something related to the war.

We were taken to a dark lit barn where they housed other reptiles. A variety of snakes lay unmoving on their glass enclosed holes, some huge fishes and preserved animal bones.What I only remembered most are the ostrich eggs which I found myself astounded by its sheer size. You would think baby dinosaurs will come out of it.

There was a leafy part of the park with lots of trees surrounding a trail. We walked by two stone pillars with carved faces, down a winding path to a small round courtyard where a couple or more native Aetas in their traditional garb stood. The guide shared a story about the Aetas’ family and introduced them to us. The men showed us a native dance, a different rhythm, while hollering out a song. I think that moment was the most interesting for me. It felt like another strange and unfamiliar world has opened up for me, another way of life, another lifetime spent. Before the Western civilization formed us all, that we were once like this; native Islanders with their own exotic culture. I applauded them enthusiastically as the performance ended.

Then, we were herded off to the crocodile estuary. There is an iron grilled walkway above it and walking on it, we could see the crocodiles under. One of the few kids struggled to feed one using a long stick. Although I was surrounded by too many crocodiles, they weren’t moving at all. They are frozen like statues.   It makes me shudder to think you would barely notice them should you come by swamps and then suddenly it would open its jaws and attack. We ended the tour at a souvenir stop with stalls of trinkets and shirts.

The parking lot was a short distance away and, a little tired and dusty, we all got into the car for a reprieve before driving out. As the car slid past the pillars on our way out, I read a banner about a night safari adventure. I let my mind roam and find that there is something decidedly suspenseful and exciting about it; torch lights abound, night sounds creeping in from the forest, tigers on the prowl in the darkness. Perhaps adventurers may get a little taste of African safari in the cloak of the night. But I am not ready for that yet and so I welcome the hum of the car as we sped to the highways.

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