South Cotabato Part 1: Lake Holon (Solo DIY)

Lake Holon

(FEEL FREE TO SKIP THE LONG STORY AND PROCEED TO THE SUMMARY BELOW FOR IMPORTANT DETAILS ABOUT LAKE HOLON)

A few months back, I saw an Instagram post from one of my high school classmate’s recent travels. She was standing beside a lake. At ang ganda ng lake. I was nabighani agad so I PMed her and asked for some (actually a lot of) details about the location. I told myself, I will definitely go there.  Sakto naman, I have been planning to go on another solo travel some time in October, so this lake would be perfect. I learned that the lake is located pala in South Cotabato, OMG. It’s malayo. Medyo kinabahan ako. Pero at the same time, I felt challenged. This would be my farthest hike and farthest solo travel. Pikit-mata, I booked for a flight. At habang papalit nang papalit ang date ng alis ko, I became more nervous, but at the same time excited. The last 3 months since I went home from Batanes have been jam-packed and this solo trip is a great thing to look forward.

My flight is scheduled at 4AM and I still found myself finishing errands for my freelance job at 1AM. Walang tulog, I hopped on to Grab at pass 2AM and for the first time, stepped into NAIA Terminal 3. Wala nang atrasan.

THE TRAVEL | How To Get There

Walk-in visitors are discouraged. You have to make reservation muna in the tourism office via the lake’s Facebook page or by texting them at 09976091773. I have read several blogs about how to get to Lake Holon. Iba-iba ng sinasabi, pero sa tingin ko, heto pinakamadali, that is, if you are coming from General Santos airport. I arrived at General Santos airport around 6:55AM. Just beside the airport paglabas mo sa exit, on your left, you’ll find a terminal of vans going to Surallah, a municipality of South Cotabato. My initial plan was to get to Koronadal City (Marbel), pero one local passenger told me na magpababa nalang sa Surallah terminal mismo. Doon may another van going to T’boli. That’s what I did. Sa Surallah terminal, you can tell the driver to drop you off at T’boli Tourism Office. Alam na nila yun. From airport to T’boli, it will take you around 3 hours of land travel.

T'boli Tourism Office

At the Tourism Office, you just need to pay the fees and they will assign you to a habal-habal driver. Here you will also meet guests na most likely makakasabay mo paakyat sa lake. Beforehand, I was told already na pangmalakasan ang byahe sa habal-habal dahil mahabang rough road daw ito. So mentally I have prepared myself na. After settling my fees, one of the manongs took my bag at itinali nang mahigpit ang bag ko sa motor. Hindi basta mahigpit, kundi mahigpit na mahigpit. Nagbabadya nang matinding byahe. At dahil I haven’t taken my breakfast yet, I asked kuya driver na idaan muna ako sa karinderya sa palengke. Doon na rin ako bumili ng konting kakainin sa lake.

Sitio Kule

All this time, I thought the habal-habal travel would only take half an hour so nang lumipas ang 30 minutes, I asked kuya driver  mga what time kami makakarating sa jump off (Sitio Kule). I was surprised when he told me mga bandang alas dose daw. And it was only around past 1030AM that time! Kaloka. Bale isa’t-kalahating oras umaalog alog ang buong katawan ko. It was the bumpiest ride of my life. Tipong napapatayo pa ‘ko at tumatalbog sa kinauupuan. Kuya driver got one tough motorcycle. And it’s understandable because no other means of transportation would survive their road. I swear, pagdating sa Sitio Kule, which is the jump off for the Kule Trail, I felt like my eggs got scrambled off.

Sitio Kule

It was lunchtime when we arrived at the jump off. Lake Holon has 2 trails: 1) Kule Trail and 2) Salacafe. I recommend Kule Trail. My high school friend told me that it’s the difficult trail between the two but it has the view deck where I can stare at the lake from a higher ground. And she was right. Personally, I would also say, you NEED to choose Kule Trail. At the reception hut, I was welcomed by a local tourism officer. He gave me a brief orientation about Lake Holon and assigned me to a tour guide. I was assigned to Jessie, a 19 year old T’boli who will be my guide for the next 3 days. I also requested for a porter to carry my bag. Jessie volunteered. Dagdag kita rin daw. I also asked saan makakabili ng pagkain. Jessie said may dala na siya for us.

Sitio Kule is one of the small communities under Brgy Salacafe where residents are all native T’boli. Walang network reception sa Kule at wala ring kuryente. Payak ang pamumuhay.

Sitio Kule

After a few minutes of preparation, we finally started the hike at around 12:15PM. The Kule Trail is 7 Kms long divided into 5 stations. From one station to another is 1.5Km to 2Km. I was told that Kule is a difficult trail pero hindi naman sa pagmamaganda and since I’m a slow hiker, the trail isn’t as hard as I have expected. There are steep parts, but every steep part has corresponding resting area after. Like ang daming upuan ng trail. Nakakatuwa. Parang pampered ang feeling. Hehe. The steep parts even have man-made wooden rails so going up is much easier. Nagugulat na nga lang ako, station 1 na, or station 2 na, etc. The first part of the trail is mostly grassland with overlooking view of the houses of Sitio Kule.

Lake Holon Kule Trail

Sitio Kule Lake Holon

Kule Trail Lake Holon

I think the most difficult part of Kule Trail is the last few minutes prior to view deck and from view deck down to the campsite. And after 2 and a half hours, we finally reached the famous view deck where all guests probably got their Instagram photos. Heto talaga yun eh. For the first time, I saw the lake, not from my digital screen but right in front of me, with all its glory. The lake is stunning. It was effin beautiful. Mapapamura ka sa ganda.

Lake Holon

At this point, I’ve been awake for 28 hours already. Pero nakalimutan kong puyat pala ako. Straight from the airport, to van travel to nakakawindang na habal-habal ride to almost 4 hours na hike, everything is so worth it after I finally saw Lake Holon with my bare eyes.

Lake Holon is the crater of the stratovolcano locally known as Mt. Belibingoy which is the highest peak among 15 mountain ranges with 1,824masl. According to Jessie, the growth of tourists coming in to visit Lake Holon began sometime around 2014 and 2015. Since then, it became a popular tourist destination in Southern Mindanao for adventure seekers and nature lovers. The boom of travelers also provided their community a sustainable livelihood. Before the popularity of the lake, Jessie and his family used to plant and harvest corns as a means of earning. Most T’boli still manages cornfields as tourists usually arrive on weekends only.

I stayed in the view deck for like 45 minutes, flew my drone to get shots from a higher angle and nagpictorial with Jessie as my photographer. Syempre sinulit ko na. Hindi na ko makakadaan ulit dito sa view deck because we will be taking the Salacafe trail pababa going back.

THE LAKE | A Close Encounter

We arrived at the camp site past 4PM. Walang tao. Walang ibang hikers. Ang sarap ng weekdays sabi ko sa sarili. The place is very peaceful and quiet. It’s like I was quickly transported to a western country. Imagine being surrounded by mountain ranges, a calming turquoise body of water and a sweet breeze of cold air. It is everything I hope to see.

Lake Holon

After I have pitched my tent, nakaramdam na ko ng antok. I fell asleep for a while and woke up with the group of young people I saw in the Tourism Office. Since kami lang ang tao sa lake, I chose to mingle with their group. It was a nice social night. Meeting new friends in a new place is always fascinating. Most of them are from GenSan and I learned a few things from them. Like dun ko narealize (and naalala) that Mindanao pala is currently on Martial Law. Nagulat ako because like many of us, we were raised with a painted picture in mind that Martial Law is automatically cruel. But it is not naman pala. Tho it is my first day yet, I can say that life in South Cotabato is peaceful and the locals are very kind. This group of millennials made me further realized that many people of Manila are so wrong about Martial Law in Mindanao. How they mock the anti-martial law protesters from UP or Anakbayan made me laugh.

Lake Holon

We went into our tent at around 10PM. Lights out na. And hell, the night was very cold. Hindi ako nakatulog nang maayos because my fat ass forgot to bring my jacket or even a blanket. Magdamag akong namaluktot. Tho nakatulog ako ng ilang saglit.

Then I woke up with a beautiful scenery in front of me.

Lake Holon

I decided to take a walk and explore the lake habang wala pa ang araw. It was one of the most solemn mornings of my life. Moments later, nagising narin ang mga kasama ko sa campsite. They took a dip in the water and seize the moments while in the lake.

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Around 9AM, medyo mataas na ang araw when I went back to the tent and finally got the chance to sleep longer since may araw na. Nagpaalam sa kin si Jomar, one of the team since they’ll be descending na. Sobra ang antok that I never got the chance to say goodbye to their company. I woke up at bandang 2PM na. Lumabas ako ng tent at nakita kong walang bagong tent na naka-pitch. Wala pang new hikers na dumarating. I thought, I would probably spend the night alone, which is fine naman, tho a little scary deep inside.

Lake Holon

Jessie called me out and said luto na ang tilapia. Remember when Jessie told me na may dala daw siyang pagkain naming dalawa? It turned out na bigas lang pala ang dala niya. Kaloka. Fortunately, I was able to buy a some noodles and a couple of canned food sa bayan yesterday. Early a while ago, I asked him to cook fish nalang for us since the lake is filled with so many tilapia. Tilapia is priced P50 for 6 pieces. And they are not just ordinary tilapia but big tilapias. Si Jessie narin mismo ang humuli.

Lake Holon

Just beside the lake, you can find the water source. It’s connected to the other side of the lake where a family of locals and guests staying in the lake gets drinking water. Fan ako ng mga mountain water because it said to have all the natural minerals our body need to actually replenish, untap, unfiltered.

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Mabagal ang oras sa lake. Or sadya yatang bumabagal ang oras kapag walang internet. Ýung isang kanta, parang ang tagal matapos. Ang dami mo nang nagawa na feeling mo isang oras na, 10 minutes lang pala. Pero I’m not complaining. This is my 2nd day in the lake, the time to spend time thinking and contemplating. With no internet and social media to distract me, I found myself in a deep sense of contemplation.

Lake Holon

When pooping in the lake, may maayos na banyo naman sa di kalayuan. Near the rest rooms is a little store where you can buy some supplies or drinks.

Lake Holon

I spent the afternoon of Day 2 boating. It’s time to get in the middle of the lake. Kahit kinakabahan na baka hindi lumanding ng eksakto sa boat, pinalipad ko pa rin ang drone to get some nice aerial shots. Getting into the middle of the water gave me a different perspective of the lake. Mas makakapag muni-muni ka. Parang narerestore yung lakas mo na ilang taong nang naubos. If you want total relaxation, get a boat and row your way in the middle of the lake. Walang mangingialam sayo.

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Pass 5PM when I returned to the campsite. There are 2 groups who just arrived, isang magpartner na foreigner at pinay at another group of 3 na magpipinsan. Both groups came from Davao and Gensan. May isa pang group na dumating din pero bandang 9PM na. They occupied the vacant cottage. I think they are mountaineers dahil kumpleto sila sa gamit at maiingay. At may dala ding duyan. Mountaineer starter pack. Mag Mt Apo din daw ang iba sa kanila after dito sa Lake.

While preparing our dinner, I asked Jessie if we can have a bonfire for tonight. I told both groups pero nakatulog na yata ang magpipinsan kaya yung couple (na hindi daw couple) ang nag-join sa kin sa bonfire. I had a nice second and last night with them. I learned that the foreigner pala have been traveling Asia for 2 years already. He’s like saving money then travelling for a long period of time. I actually forgot their names na but hopefully they can find me on Facebook since I gave my full name.

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

It was a starry night at the lake. All we can hear are the sound of crickets from the grass and some laughter of happy travelers occupying the cottage. It’s nice to just stare at the bonfire while realizing you are on top of a mountain. I can say that when you are faced with a personal struggle, overcoming a huge challenge, recently experience loss or separation or simply want to take time for yourself, Lake Holon is so friendly for solo travelers.

Nang maubos na ang kahoy sa bonfire, its time to call it a night. Syempre hirap na naman ako matulog dahil sa lamig. Nakadilat lang ako magdamag. At nanood ng mga nadownload kong series sa Netflix app sa loob ng tent. Nakatulog nalang ako bandang 5AM to 7AM since may araw na.

THE FINAL DAY AT THE LAKE 

Lake Holon

When the 3rd day came, it’s time for me to take a swim! Yes, hindi ako naligo since I arrived here. So heto na ang pagkakataon ko. After mag almusal with Jessie, umalis na rin ang magpipinsan at ang couple. Naiwan nalang ulit ako and the group occupying the cottage. I grabbed a salbabida at dahan dahang lumusong sa tubig. Ang hirap lang mag steady sa tubig kase kukuyugin ka ng maliliit na tilapia sa katawan. Nakakakiliti. Haha.

Lake Holon

I finished my dip at 9AM and started packing up after maligo and changing my clothes. Whew finally. Jessie sits quietly from the tour guide house waiting for me to complete my packing. Pass 10AM when I got completely all set to begin the journey to traverse. Parang mabagal na mabilis ang oras. Mabagal dahil parang ang dami mo nang nagawa or naisip sa maikling oras, pero mabilis dahil heto paalis ka na.

When going to Lake Holon, it is best to stay at least 3 days. Commonly people stay overnight. Pero I prefer 3 days since I came from Manila and sayang if I wouldn’t stay long enough. Also, it felt like people who stayed overnight just came there to sleep. They didn’t get the chance to really embrace the moments at the lake. Tipong they will arrive at the dark, then leave the next day morning. Sayang ang chance. Mas mahaba pa ang nilakad mo kesa ang ini-stay mo to enjoy the place. So as much as you can, go for 3 days and 2 nights, and on weekdays. Jessie said the lake is crowded during weekend.

Lake Holon

Descending, we will be using the Salacafe trail. Salacafe trail has different jump-off vs Kule. Salacafe is relatively an easier trail pero it is longer than Kule. Mas flat ang mga daanan and less steep.  You can also rent a horse for P400.

Going down, the mountain doggo named Otok went with us.

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

While traversing the Salacafe trail, I heard my phone ringing with notifications. May signal pala sa Salacafe. And yes, it is really a longer trail than Kule. The trail ends at Brgy Salacafe, also populated with native T’boli. Only half of the barangay has access to electricity.

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

Lake Holon

It’s around 2PM when I reached the Salacafe jump-off. Dito na kami naghiwalay ni Jessie.

Here in Salacafe jump-off, visitors get to log or use restrooms as well, much like the reception hut in Sitio Kule. Dito may mga naka-antabay na ring mga motor which can take you to T’boli town proper. I had my phone charged for a while since my next stop will be the Lake Sebu. One of the standby drivers approached me and offered a ride back to town proper. Syempre hayan na naman ang byaheng habal-habal.

Lake Holon

Lake Holon is one of a kind experience. I will never ever forget this. I don’t know if when or will I ever get the chance again to visit the place, because it wasn’t easy getting there. Pero among all places that I have been, this is one on my “To Return” list.

Lake Holon

SUMMARY

How to get to Lake Holon?

  • From General Santos Airport, ride van going to Surallah terminal
  • From Surallah terminal, ride another van going to T’boli and asked the driver to drop you off at Tourism Office

Fees

  • Entrance Fee P100/head/day
  • Environmental Fee P50 / head
  • Community Fee P10/head
  • Tourguide P600 good for 10 pax overnight
  • Kayak/Boating P50
  • Habal-habal from Tourism Office to Kule Jump-off P450
  • Porter P20 per kilo

Things to Remember

  • Tourism opens at 6am and closes at 1PM. They only accept hikers till 1PM.
  • You need to make reservation first by messaging tourism office at Facebook page or by texting them at 09976091773. No reservation, no entry.
  • If you go beyond 1PM, you will not be allowed to hike. But you can stay overnight at the Kule jump-off.
  • Bring jacket or blanket. Malamig sa lake kapag gabi.
  • Bring your own food. Pwede bumili sa T’boli town proper na malapit lang sa Tourism Office. Pwede rin magpaluto sa tour guide kung small group lang kayo. Add tip nalang.
  • There is no reception starting from Kule jump off. So better text or call your loved ones before sumakay ng habal-habal from Tourism Office.

A Word of Caution

  • Secure your important stuff such as gadgets and wallet. Before sleeping, put them inside your bag.

My Itinerary

DAY 1

  • 7AM – Arrival at GenSan Airport & Travel to Tboli
  • 10AM – Arrival at Tboli Tourism Office, Settle Fees and Registration
  • 1030AM – Start Habal-Habal Ride to Kule Jump Off
  • 11:45AM – Arrival at Kule Jump Off
  • 12:15PM – Start Trek
  • 2:30PM – Arrival at View Deck
  • 5:00PM – Arrival at Camp Site
  • 7:00PM – Dinner & social
  • 10:00PM – Lights Off

DAY 2

  • 5:30AM – Wake up & explore the lake side
  • 6:30AM- Bfast
  • 7:00AM – Foot Spa with Fishes & socializing
  • 8:30AM – Took Nap Again
  • 2:30PM – Wake up & Late Lunch
  • 3:30PM – Boat/Kayaking
  • 5:30PM – Return to Camp Site
  • 6:00PM – Dinner
  • 7:00PM – Bonfire & social night
  • 10:00PM – Lights Off

DAY 3

  • 7:00AM – Wake up / Bfast
  • 8:00AM – Swimming Time
  • 9:30AM – Bath Time
  • 10:00AM – Packup and Start Descend
  • 2:00PM – Arrival at Salacafe Jump Off
  • 3:00PM – Arrival at TBoli Town Proper

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