February 27, 2018 By Angel S. Rivero Images by Juanito Vinluan

Toyota Prius to Masungi – A bird’s eye view

There is a joke that if you manage to throw in buzzwords such as ‘sustainable’, ‘alternative’, ‘fossil fuel’, and ‘carbon footprint’ in any conversation, you can likely get away with your bluff of positioning to be a knowledgeable environmentalist. While I can fondly imagine a hundred different scenarios where this may indeed be the case… the sad truth is, it was never easy for any commercial institution to start being green and sustainable (buzzwords – check!).

Take the case of the Toyota Prius. The Prius was first manufactured as a hybrid production car in Japan as early as 1997, yet only came to the Philippine market in 2009. Despite its wide acceptance and commercial success across many first-world markets, Toyota Philippines’ spokesman Atty. Rommel Gutierrez was spot-on when he pointed out (during the 2017 ASEAN Electric and Hybrid Vehicles Summit at the World Trade Center last June) that “Toyota has introduced the Prius to the Philippine market since 2009… but until this time, the sale has only been about 100 units.” This figure shouts contrary to its success in other foreign markets clearly due to our lack of government incentives… The Philippines has yet to ever have a government that would put a premium on environmentalism.

And yet the latest Prius has so much to offer – generous space, a comfortable, quiet ride, even better aerodynamics, and amazing fuel efficiency – all in a more attractive (less spaceship-looking) body. I think that even if you drive with a heavy foot, it would not sufficiently water down its commendable fuel economy. The car’s graphic display remains ever so fascinating to watch (I am referring to the graphic illustration of energy transfer between the electric motor & mechanical block) especially for the closet geek; and the technology interface, easy to use. Oh, and it no longer has that earlier-gen, ridiculously bulky center console that I once teased as alienating between driver and front passenger.

It is a shame that all this goodness is not rewarded the right conditions to foster its success – at least not in the Philippines, and not yet. Nevertheless, there remains that niche of local consumers who continue to choose the Prius and its new-age mojo – and hence, the bunch of car journos who are more than curious to test it.

What I thought was a fitting parallelism was to drive the 2017 Prius to a nature reserve that was in its own way, fighting its own battles against consumerism and lack of appropriate legislation – the Masungi Georeserve. You may have already heard of it – as the lucky few who have had the chance to discover it early and pay it a visit, have not been shy to post their very unique landscapes on Instagram.

The name Masungi comes from the adjective masungki, which means jagged – and describes the reserve’s characteristically pointy rocks. The property is a 300-hectare natural forest bestowed with massive limestone formations dating back to the early Paleocene epoch (about 66 million years ago). Consequently, much of this forest’s limestone is exposed as karst – a type of landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rock (such as limestone), that is characterized by a network of underground drainage systems, that create sinkholes and caves.

Masungi is also home to hundreds of animal and plant species, which include the Luzon cloud rat, cave bats, balinsasayaw bird (pygmy swiftlet), jade vine, wisteria, and (pygmy) titan arum – also known as the corpse flower, due to its stench similar to that of a decaying animal.

For many years (especially during the 1990’s), the area fell victim to illegal logging, quarrying, and deforestation. Loggers were drawn by the valuable hardwood that is indigenous to the forest; and the exposed limestone formations looked irresistible to quarrymen, who sold them for industrial use. It was only since 15 years ago, that a privately funded organization began the gargantuan task of protecting it. And despite many legal battles (also involving land-grabbers) and all-too-frequent cases of trespassers, the reserve opened to the public by 2015.

Today, Masungi Georeserve offers the pleasure of a 10-kilometer adventure trail to small groups who make a time-bound reservation, and fully settle payment a few days in advance. The managing group is extremely strict with their rules, and does not fail to emphasize their philosophy of running a geo-site that is high-value and low impact.

Getting to the Georeserve was an easy 1.5-hour drive from Makati – the entire route was completely paved, and accessible via Marcos Highway. The Prius blazed through the entire course considerably quiet and hassle-free, as we took on some of Rizal’s uphill and twisty roads, without experiencing any notable shortage of power. Needless to say, our fuel consumption was meager; and our camera equipment and duffel bags  (for 4) fitted comfortably in the trunk and the cabin, with much room to spare. My passengers were equally fascinated with the modern science-inspired controls and display panel; and expressed their delight that the workmanship and quality of materials used in the interior did not feel cheap or flimsy.

Upon our arrival at Kilometer 45, parking was abundant albeit over flattened turf. We were then led through a short walk that brought us to a waiting area where our group was briefed by park rangers – locals from the nearby communities of Pinugay, Cuyambay, and Tandang Kutyo, who are commissioned to guide visitors through the adventure trail.

I was initially surprised that we were required to wear helmets at all – after all, I don’t ever wear them during hikes, and this trail offered no rides. Nevertheless, I later understood its value… as I occasionally found myself slightly brushing my head against low-headroom rocky arches and pointy extensions of low-lying caves.

And let me make one thing clear – this adventure trail is not for someone with Acrophobia! Perhaps, if one would like to overcome it, then this would be one of the more enjoyable – and fulfilling – ways to do so. It includes a succession of physical challenges – with each point aptly given a Filipino name – many of which, involve some substantial climbing of cargo nets, and braving of high-altitude canopy walks that reward you with magnificent views.

No – you do not need to be athletic to partake in this course. All you need are the right shoes, unrestricted mobility, the proper mindset, and a strong heart (by this, I mean courage and determination; although cardiovascular fitness is always an advantage).

I feel that the suspense of discovering the different ‘physical challenges’ should be left for the trekkers – after all, it constitutes part of the thrill. So I suggest going there with an open mind and without much knowledge of the observation points, except for some of their names: Lambat, Duyan, Nanay, Tatay, and Yungib ni Ruben.

But perhaps the most iconic shot in Masungi Georeserve (which is no secret) is the one taken at Sapot – a 20-foot metallic platform made of industrial cable wire, designed to resemble a highly perched spiderweb! It is an artsy form of bio-mimickry that was built to reward tree-hugging guests with spectacular views of the Sierra Madre mountain range – one of Luzon’s last forests – and Laguna de Bay.

The inner circumference of the web is laden with flat wooden planks that serve as optional seats or even headrests for that perfect money shot, that by itself, already makes this entire journey worthwhile. All of a sudden, this towering, momentary respite from the hustle and bustle of the city seems to justify your weak-kneed venture over the ominous, toothy and scabrous rocks waiting to stab you below, like a fallen hero in a 64-bit video game.

Only 10% of the Philippines is made of these limestone karsts – and between the ones found within El Nido, the Puerto Princesa Underground River, and the Calbiga Caves in Samar Island, the ones at Masungi seem to be the most accessible for scientific research. After all, they are thought to have emerged sometime within the late Cretaceous period and early Paleocene epoch. Sadly, they are also the most accessible to sneaky quarrymen – who constantly keep the Georeserve administrators on their toes, trying to shoo them.

Like the Prius (and other hybrid and electric vehicles for that matter), this Georeserve enjoys no Philippine legislation aimed to protect and promote it. There are no laws to protect karst landscapes here – and no legislature to help defend privately owned, protected areas. The Geopark administration’s hope is to someday be awarded a membership into the Global Geoparks Network (GGN) – a UNESCO-assisted network of geographical areas that are deemed as ‘National Geoparks’ after they are affirmed as areas of significant geological heritage. Until then, all they have is us – the support we can give, and awareness we can share. Who knows, perhaps the Philippines still has hope for some green consumerism.

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