The mountain range is no longer a strange place for Ariel Quiamco, who has been climbing it since he was young. The trails had given him a source of livelihood from the resin he would gather from almaciga trees in the forests of Narra.
After his wife died in 2006, he moved to Batangas to become a fisherman and support his two children. A decade went by before he decided to go back to Palawan and returned to his old job in the mountains.
One time, a group of hikers were looking for a guide who would lead them to an ascent of Mt. Victoria and help bring their drone camera in 2016. Since then, he began working as a guide assistant to mountaineers who have come to know him as “Kuya Bong.”
“Nag-almaciga muna ako bago ako nag-guide. Kinuha lang ako ng pinsan ko at simula noon ay tuloy-tuloy na. Simula noong kinuha nila ako ay tuloy-tuloy na, hinahanap na ako lagi ng mga umaakyat (I gathered almaciga resin first before becoming a guide. My cousin recruited me and since then, it has been continuous. Ever since they took me, hikers have been constantly looking for me),” he said.
Kuya Bong is one of the guide assistants from the Narra Municipal Tourism Office (MTO), assisting hikers who want to conquer the Mt. Victoria Peaks and Range, which is located at an elevation of approximately 1,726 meters above sea level (masl), or 5,663 feet.
Access to the mountain that is part of the larger Victoria-Anepahan Mountain Range is not allowed without a special permit, due to the difficulty of the ascension. There is no trail to the summit, so the journey must be made by trekking up riverbeds prone to sudden flooding during the rainy months.
The mountain not only shares its beauty but also provides an opportunity for locals to earn by assisting hikers in crossing rivers and reaching peaks.
The number of guide assistants grew to 24 as hikes resumed in 2021 after a hiatus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that break, guides shifted to farming to support their families.
A Mt. Victoria guide assistant not only accompanies mountaineers on the paths, but also helps carry their backpacks and other possessions. They can carry 18 to 20 kg on their back for a three to four-day journey using a rarong or rattan backpack.
“Laging may akyat dito. Nakikiramdam kami sa mga bisita namin, kung nahihirapan ay kukunin namin ang bag. Kasi once na hindi namin kukunin ‘yon, ang pacing ay babagal, buong grupo ay maaapektuhan. Hangga’t kaya, kakayanin namin ‘yon (There’s always hiking here. We empathize with our guests, if they’re struggling, we’ll take their bags. Because if we don’t, the pacing will slow down, and the whole group will be affected. As long as we can, we’ll manage),” he said.
Kuya Bong is not just known for his engaging disposition, but also for being one of the team’s most powerful guide assistants. As he has been guiding trekkers in the high-lands for nearly a decade, he has never lost his composure on difficult terrains.
If mountaineers opt to hike during the rainy season, they must learn to manage the risk of crossing rivers with high water levels caused by rainfall. They use ropes to avoid being swept away by the raging waters, which can sometimes reach chest level.
“Kapag nakita namin na kaya namin na mga guide, tuloy namin iyan. Alam naman namin ang kaya at hindi, kami talaga ang magdi-decide. Kapag yong kapatid ko yong kasama ko, minsan kahit baha ay papasukin namin iyon. Meron kami noon na inisa-isa namin (When we see that we are capable as guides, we push through with it. We know our capabilities and limitations, and we are the ones who make the decision. Sometimes, even if there’s flooding and my brother is with me, we still push through. We have experienced situations like that before),” he said.
They each receive P700 per day and occasionally go over and above by assisting hikers with preparing their meals. According to the local tourist bureau, a guide may make an average of P5,600 per month.
Jeh Cervancia, a mountain guide and photographer for the town’s tourism office, stated that pre-pandemic levels of foot traffic are beginning to be observed in the new normal. During the height of the dry season, a significant number of trekkers are assisted by the guides.
“Ang usual na hike, ang coordination talaga ay sa mga guides. Kasi sa kanila tayo magrere- rely sa lahat ng mangyayari,— in general, malalakas talaga ang mga guides sa Palawan (The usual hike, the coordination really relies on the guides. Because we rely on them for everything that will happen—in general, the guides in Palawan are really knowledgeable,” Cervancia explained the importance of guide assistants),” explained Cervancia on the importance of guide assistants.
Narra is planning to raise the charge from P700 to P1,000 to properly compensate for the efforts of the guides starting in the month of May. Aside from paying guides, hikers should also secure a permit amounting to P160 from the office of the municipal tourism office.
This could provide additional help to hikers like Kuya Bong, who are now joined by his siblings Bebot and Junjun in guiding hikers. Their family believes that guiding is also their way to protect the mountain through responsible mountaineering.
Mt. Victoria is known for its rich and diverse ecosystem. It is home to various species of flora and fauna, including several endemic and endangered species. The mountain is covered with dense tropical rainforest, which harbors a wide range of plant and animal species, including rare orchids, pitcher plants, and Palawan tree shrews.
The guide assistants said visiting its range and peaks can be a rewarding experience for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers, but it is important to be mindful of the conservation efforts and cultural significance of the area.
Leaving no trace is also promoted by guides when hiking Mt. Victoria to avoid trash that may pollute the mountain and water sources.