Imagine you’re in the middle of a vast tea-colored swamp where an ocean of water hyacinths, lotus and water lilies stretches out like large bedspread. You are rowing your old dugout canoe lavishing your impatient eyes with a mind-blowing waterscape you only see in movies. Your thoughts are nowhere but your eyes are glued to such spectacle you never even imagine to exist. The mighty sun is up grilling you mercilessly but you couldn’t care less. You are just there on that poor old boat detaching yourself from your urban life and slowly drowning yourself to the unhurried pleasures of a world where life literally rises and ebbs with the water level. You become speechless and what keep running in your head are language of admiration and bewilderment.
This is the kind of state that the wetland paradise of northeastern Mindanao takes you – a kind of blissful experience I never even wanted to end. This is the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in the province of Agusan Del Sur.
Once dubbed as the “Enchanting Marshland of Agusan”, Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary teems with a kind of life so different from the life we all know. Here, time stands still. It is where you can escape into a world surrounded by lush aquatic foliage and tranquil tea-colored waters while the chirping of birds becomes your music and green life floating on the waters your playground. When the sun sets, you are transported to a world where deep silence wraps you even your very soul – a kind of tranquillity so contagious it’ll make you feel good about yourself and the world around you. As you wake up in the morning, you feel the freshest air embracing you while the golden sunrise in its full glory bathes this haven of pureness. Heaven on earth, I say – Mother Nature’s masterpiece.
Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary is situated at the very heart of Agusan basin. It is considered as one of the most ecologically important swamplands in the Philippines. Declared as a protected area and wildlife sanctuary, it is home to hundreds of species of birds, freshwater fish, bats, soft shell turtles, rare aquatic plants and trees, salt water and fresh water crocodiles. This enormous spread of marsh unimaginably covers an area of about 20,000 hectares – equivalent to the size of Metro Manila.
Deep into the marshland is a small floating village of the Manobo tribe whose lives and homes literally rise and fall with the tides of the swamp. This small floating community is situated in Lake Panlabuhan. Unlike the other group of Manobos who build their homes on stilts in the hinterlands of Mindanao, the Manobo of Agusan Marsh live in floating houses, pray at floating chapel, attend to classes on floating school and move around paddling their way from houses to houses. It is such strange scenery for me who live a life of comfort in the concrete jungle to witness such way of life so different from mine.
But what stunned me most is how these people live in harmony with the Marsh. They have this unfathomable connection with the water and all that comprises it. They respect it and take care of it. Clearly, they don’t have dry lands to call their own but what they have is this aquatic world that serves not only their home but a sanctuary they considered immensely sacred. And yes, the marsh provided generously everything they need.
Manobos are innately welcoming. They are very warm people they feel so delighted whenever visitors come to see them and the wonders of their marshland. And like those other guests who were welcomed by the community, our stay at the floating village commenced with a ritual performed the chieftain. The tribe is christened Christians but the ritual centered to God and to the elementals they called “Amigo”. They offered food, drinks, and cigarettes for our protection and guidance. At the end of the ritual, everyone of us joined the chieftain in partaking the some of the drinks offered to the Amigos. I stood there dumbfounded witnessing such things I never imagined being practiced even in these modern times. This is one of the perks of being a traveler; it will open your eyes to mind-boggling things around you.
Wandering deep into the waterscape of rivers, creeks, freshwater marshes connected to multiple lakes and numerous ponds transports you to an unusual world – a bizarre world that soon you’ll realized you never want to leave.
Thus I never missed the chance paddling around the floating village all by myself and that was the most uplifting feeling I ever sensed there. For years since the first time I’ve learned about this mystical place, I dreamed exactly this image of myself amid this strange beauty of flowering lotus and dried bangkal trees floating abundantly on the tea-colored waters of Agusan Marsh. An overwhelming feeling of joy wrapped me when I was paddling that dream for real. I felt more than blessed knowing that the universe connived to take me to this very place and bring that image into life.
Have you ever experienced crying for no reason because you seemed to connect yourself to a place you’ve just been for first the time but seemed to be your home for many years? That was actually what I felt – home. I was home. And bit by bit, I drown myself to that feeling – the feeling of contentment and humility. That home is where Mother Nature dwells.
I was wearing my Mindanaoan outfit that day and I wore it with great pride. But I wasn’t only wearing the colors of Mindanao, I was relishing every bit of that feeling – the sheer feeling of great pride knowing that our home, our Mindanao, is blessed with vast natural attractions and bizarre destinations of never ending quest for nature. Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary is Mindanao’s proof to that affluence of nature.
Life in Agusan Marsh despite its isolation from the modern world we know is good. There is an atmosphere of stillness and sheer bliss that awaits you there – a magical feeling that will make you feel so connected with the earth. It will make you appreciate the kindness of the world and will make you realized how blessed you are to have reached this hidden part of the planet. It will change you. It has changed me. I’ve learned the truest meaning of humility. And wherever life takes me, I will never ever forget that one fine day I journeyed to this mystical wetland of the country.
NOTABLE FACTS ABOUT AGUSAN MARSH:
Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area and wildlife sanctuary declared by the former President Fidel V. Ramos. In 1999, the area was enlisted in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, an intergovernmental treaty of different countries committed to maintain the ecological character and plan for the wise and sustainable use of their respective Wetlands of International Importance. In 2006, Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary was submitted along with other twenty-seven sites in the Philippines to the Tentative List for possible nomination as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A special shout-out of thanks to the Mindanao Tourism Council, Provincial Tourism Office of Agusan Del Sur andLGU of Loreto for organizing this trip. Same goes to the Tourism People of both Loreto and the Province. To my #ByahengMindanaw family (Jon, Louie, Leah, Madayaw, Caroline, Sarah, Dan, Claire, Kelzie Nicole, Jayvie, Matt, Jeniel, Jovic, Ida, Jea) such a great pleasure journeying with you in this wetland paradise . Until next time!
HOW TO GET TO LAKE PANLABUHAN IN LORETO, AGUSAN DEL SUR:
Perhaps the most popular entry point to Agusan Marsh is the town of Bunawan. It came to fame because it is where Lolong, then world’s largest crocodile in captivity, was captured. But Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary is more accessible passing through the town of Loreto in Agusan del Sur. In fact, Lake Panlabuhan is part of this town. If your point of entry is Davao City, you can take a bus going to Trento, Agusan Del Sur at Ecoland Bus Terminal. Bus fare is around Pgp 250.00 and will take you approximately 4 hours. First trip is 3:00AM. When you get to Trento, hire a single motorcycle or habal-habal that will take you to the town of Loreto. Travel time is about 1 hour.
Get a guide to lead you to Lake Panlabuhan via a two-ride trip on two different motorized bancas. Contact the provincial tourism office for special tour packages: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Shirley at 0910-6712797. You may also contact the community leaders at 09072324307 (Boyet), 09305287194 (Maritess), 09262053052 (Ruben). There are lodging houses in the town proper. In Lake Panlabuhan, the floating Tourism Hall will serve as you home as you romance the beauty of Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary.