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August 14-17, 2006

by Allen Yu and James Kevin Ty

What do amateur astronomers do, in times of rainy days and nights, with no useful observations on the sky, other than read a good book, sip a good cup of coffee, puff a good smoke, and a distant volcano acting up? Mount an expedition to see the volcano instead! And that’s what a couple of ALPers exactly did last August 14 to 17, one hoping and another crossing his fingers, to glimpse the glowing top of Mayon Volcano if the sky permits.

Volcanoes share a significant portion on the hearts of amateur astronomers, as nature lovers, I myself regard it as exciting as observing the Sun in Hydrogen-Alpha light, where similar eruptions occur and changes within minutes are well noticed. Astronomer Stephen James O’Meara shares the same passion for volcanoes, and authored a book "Volcanoes, Passion and Fury". Kevin Kichinka, meteorite hunter and collector, and author of the book "The Art of Collecting Meteorites" personally related to me that he once climbed Mt. Mayon in the 1970’s upon reading from an email exchange that I am from the Philippines. There were suspicions that Mt. Mayon would climatically erupt on August 9, the day of the full Moon, and calls flooded the PAGASA Planetarium for verification of the guess. The news even stung some professional astronomers, more evident when some Filipinos reacted on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy website debunking the connection of the full Moon to the eruption.

Well, my usual plans to rendezvous with ALP President James Kevin Ty in Legaspi City went on smoothly. Nowhere was the ghost of my Baguio trip last February dented my morale, and as day broke, I am settled it was really a good and safe relaxing ride of only 9 hours, and no traffic.

Arriving at Daraga by 5:00 am, I received a text from Kevin that a crew of ABC 5 covering the Mayon eruption all lost their lives on a fatal vehicular crash. Oh, oh, was this supposed to be a premonition? I wouldn’t think about it, until the tricycle driver who brought me to the hotel further shared he himself brought the crew to some favorable viewing sites around Mayon. Kevin greeted me saying the crew just got off the same hotel we are staying! That is a piece of bad news I wouldn’t want to hear, since danger has not completely eluded me on long trips like this. Three years ago, I broke my heel bone running away from a dog, just to save my life. Last February (also going to Baguio) my bus almost went down the overpass after avoiding a collision with a car. This time, we will face again a certain calculated danger, but I assured myself, and my over confident (cocky? LOL) partner as well, that we will come back to Manila well alive and not frozen by pyroclastic flows.

Mt. Mayon, was said to be of the shy type or "mahiyain". On normal days, it is shrouded by clouds and would reveal itself only at unpredictable times. My comments may be inaccurate, Kevin related to me that this is the normal Mt. Mayon, elusive, and not to be taken granted for. I was led to understand Mt. Mayon is not visible 90% of the year! Let us see this, Mt. Mayon towers 11 degrees on altitude from the horizon of Legaspi City, a big thing in fact, and on normal cloudy days, like the monsoon seasons of Manila, Mt. Mayon blends with the color of the clouds never to be visible. Lucky if I only see the "foot" base, since clouds won’t hug the ground too much. I would be happy just to see it and feel its presence.


Day One - August 14

And that is exactly the good development that happened on the first day, August 14. It was kind of drizzling in the morning, as usual overcast, and I expect the ground to heat up adequately by 3pm, hoping to drive off some clouds so we can see the volcano. Kevin and I rented tricycle to bring us to Lingnon Hills, the PhiVolcs observatory 060814-s.jpg (95324 bytes)where spectators have vantage point of monitoring the volcano day in day out. It was halfway upstairs when our tricycle could push no further, so it remains to us to negotiate the zigzag road by foot. Some folks going downwards greeted us: "Hey you wanna see Mayon Volcano?" thinking we were foreigners. Kevin was asking for a break every 10 to 20 steps, and I wonder why. To my surprise, he was carrying along his work load of more than 20 pounds on his backpack! I too shared a burden, albeit a lighter one of camera and binocular, but one year of absence from heavy exercise (Wushu that is) made me an old man. So, it was a big relief to finally see ABS-CBN, GMA 7 and ABC 5 atop enjoying the hilltop winds with the sole job of waiting for something to happen (how difficult there job is!). .

TV cameras aim at the volcano 24 hours, GMA 7 was using an all too familiar set-up, and we found ourselves extremely uneasy not to drop a name: Mr. Raymund Sarmiento! See what the crew’s got: a very practical and economical set-up of 80mm Nexstar refractor attached with a Lumenera webcam, all for a fraction of a cost the way we saw it from the rest.

I generally felt the depth of the volcano, and the 060814-i.jpg (39023 bytes)distance from out site to it. I was appreciating very much to foot of Mt. Mayon, with its lush green farmlands embracing the base. Thick-forested trees from the bottom made their way up (yeah, I though I couldn’t see the middle and top portion). There were some areas of barren lands, colored brown and Kevin said they were the pathways of the lava flow before, where the ground is unable to foster any vegetation anymore. It is also evidently clear that Bonga Gulley, the path of the recent lava flow has obliterated everything black on its path. We have to take some pictures, but three-fourths of the mountain is still covered by clouds. One-fourth from the bottom is visible, and we fear this may be the best shot we got, so we shot anyway. I noticed too, the sky from the zenith all the way to the east is starting to clear up, patches of blue peeking out and for the moment it looks promising. But clouds continue to adorn the mountain, and I felt so unfair if not cheated. Mountains are generally cloud magnets because of its orographical status, but I saw the other mountains farther behind or the north and south, they are now free of clouds, why Mayon? Why?

That was a 40 minutes stay on top of the hill then we 060814-w.jpg (113751 bytes)decided to go down, also by foot. We started to leave when Captain Barbell Richard Gutierrez arrived for a shoot (though I still wished it was Darna so we could have stayed longer). Going down, we were "stopped" by a millipede look-alike creature, where Kevin took a pic or two, then I have the convenience of emptying my bottled water then allow the creature to crawl inside the bottle. I thought it would be interesting to bring it home. But Kevin’s "be kind to animals" overwhelmed me and managed to allow the creature live a normal life.  Later Kevin's customer told us that we were lucky not to have hold on to it as one can get "burn" by holding on to that worm!   You see, this creature has a hard shell on top but has a soft abdominal layer that is easy prey for any insect to attack it.  So nature give this poor fellow some sort of a fair defense by letting the worm secrete some sort of an acid fluid that can repel would be attackers.

So that was it in Lingnon Hills, a hard climb, a breathtaking view of Mayon’s "waistline and below", then another ride going deeper to Bonga Gulley.

The whole trip from Legaspi City proper to Lingnon Hills then to Bonga Gulley cost us 400 bucks, and we thought it was an overcharge, until we realized the distance we have to go to reach some deeper places. We negotiated some very provincial streets, passed through rice fields, and some rice or grains being dried at the road at the same time bottle necking the space.

At the end of this trip was a checkpoint or a "Stop" 060814_yu-c.jpg (94028 bytes)manned by army soldiers. Kevin and I were always given an interesting look as we appeared to be Japanese scientists appreciating the volcano. Kevin engaged the soldier to a conversation, trying to make his way into the gulley where it was off-limits. The soldier looks menacing to me, but in reality was as meek as a lamb. Masking tape was attached to the tip of their machine guns, to make sure they don’t fire their arms to hard-headed spectators like us. Soon the soldier allowed a few more steps inside, then a few more steps, and another permission was granted from his superior who was passing by, gave us a go-signal right into the gulley. Now, we were at the tip end of the extent the lava has flowed since 2004. At least, that is what we thought, we were right at the tip end of the Bonga Gulley.

The soldier expressed desire to allow us "in" by 060814_yu-e.jpg (106606 bytes)nighttime, since the superiors would have retired to their building posts by then. He said journalists, scientists both local and international came to them asking for such permission. Normally soldiers are kind but are wary on their safety too, so they don’t allow such abuses on favors. The soldier was asking me if we were there for our "project" back in Manila, and I was tempted to say we were members of MVFC, Mayon Volcano Fans Club (I know it sounds "corny").

One can’t help but notice the soldiers’ amazement to the volcano’s phenomena. By "inviting" us in during nighttime, he actually wanted us to see how the fireworks of the mountain dazzle them, and speaks of the boulders raining down from its slope. It is like us amateur astronomers sharing the beauty of the night sky to "normal" people.

We parted ways with the soldier, and another old local folk who really thought we were Japs approached us on our tricycle and spoke his best English possible. He told me his name was Boni, as in Bonifacio, and I told him I’m Andres, and he gave a good hearty laugh. I pointed to Kevin and told him his name was Jose Rizal. Another skinny man without shirts approached us, introduced himself as Tommy Perez and offered services, saying he can bring us right into the hardened lava where Mayon spewed out just about 2 weeks ago. He said he can lit cigarettes just by touching it to the hardened lava. Of course we will be taking another route, to avoid military checkpoints, and we will be going/walking deeper into the woods by about 2 kilometers more. All for the price of 500 bucks. We exchanged contact numbers to be sure we don’t lose the chance, and settled for an appointment tomorrow afternoon at 4pm. This trip, if everything went on smoothly, has indications of becoming bloodily successful. We just hope the weather permits, but as we rode the trike, heavy rains poured in and I’m a bit soaked since I sat on the doorstep.


Day Two - August 15

My gauge for this trip to become successful is three-folds: 1)  to see the complete volcano during daytime ; 2) to image the volcano at nighttime with all the lava spewing out; and 3) to get close to a lava field and experience its heat and see how it glows in the dark. All at the mercy of the weather. This is like a punch hurled at the Moon, looks impossible in a span of just 3 days. So far, it has been rough sailing. Noting what happened in Day One, that might just be the best view I’ll every get.

Excitement was brewing in our veins, even though Kevin has to attend to his clients the whole morning while I patiently accompany him. I am also conserving energy, I tried not to walk too much, and while sitting beside Kevin on one of the clients’ office, stole some quick naps. Lunch time and the weather looked fine, but the volcano has not shown up from the city. While chowing in Alibar’s Food Shop, Tommy the secret tour guide texted Kevin to call off the afternoon’s appointment, since army personnel were seen deep into the woods and might see us trekking there. He asked if we can postpone it the next day, which we cannot decline since it was the only option. Kevin, I know, was just too disappointed, the afternoon seemed to perfect to pass, and he could hardly speak. Suddenly the expectations were halted, and Kevin managed to convince me to extend our Legazpi stay to at least one more day.

The day would not end totally dry however, as Kevin 060815-b.jpg (72633 bytes)has earlier booked a date with his client to take us back to Lingnon Hills for a nighttime view of the mountain. So, we were spending the hot afternoon waiting for his client to issue check payments and order list, and at about 4 pm, after waking up from a sitting nap, looked outside to see the summit slowly clearing up. The first sign of good things to come, some folks there were exclaiming the luck we had this week as there were so many foreigners leaving Legazpi City so disappointed for seeing nothing. Somebody pointed to me saying the puff of smoke sliding down from atop was actually lava cascading its slope, and it will only glow at night. I took a few shots, knowing again with vigilance, that this peek of the peak may be my only chance, so I have to bring back memories to Manila. Perhaps in a few hours or so, the clouds would once again claim property of the summit.

We went back to the hotel, when from the jeepney I spotted the volcano’s summit faintly glowed by the lava it was spewing. A smile, and a hidden impatience was inside me, Kevin remained cool, and I was uncertain what he was thinking. I wonder why he won’t scamper to get to the hotel immediately and take some exposure shots, doesn’t he realized the risk we are up to now? Anyway, I stayed composed, business has to come first before recreation, and I say this so he won’t pester me to go home at the middle of any business day to take HA shots of the Sun! Ha!

At the hotel, the faintly visible (yes, not obvious as 060815-l.jpg (43275 bytes)Legazpi City has its share of light pollution and fog) summit was an invitation to any photographer. We went straight to the room, Kevin grabbed his tripod, me a thick book, proceeded to the window, where an extension of the window served us my platform for the camera for exposure shots. The book would serve us my shim to elevate the angle of my camera pointing to some 10 degrees altitude. Galit-galit muna, not a word uttered in our mouth except when I asked for some advice on focusing problems, and Kevin was still gracious to give short answers. This is how amateur astronomers and photographers work at an event, serious and focused. No time for kidding. It is not entertaining to receive calls from cellphones or texts. Though I did receive a call but luckily this was not the bloodiest of all events and I don’t blame the guy, since he has no idea of what I was up to that time. Later through text, I apologized for not talking with him too much.

At this time, the images we acquired would be very, very valuable if the remaining days turned sour. Just after we were done imaging, Kevin’s clients/friends were ready to pick us up for a dinner. I agreed with Kevin that both of us would share the expense of this, since the friends had already committed to bring us to Lignon Hills and that’s quite an effort.

It was a sweet dinner alright, with typical rich Filipino dishes served that was so good and I can’t help but compare it with our Barrio Fiesta. Kevin engaged the hosts to spine-chilling moments as he related his ghostly experience from Vigan then right to his home. By about 10:00pm, we were all set to proceed to Lingnon Hills, and the sky was still forgiving. Again the gremlins struck as one of our two 4x4 vehicle convoy almost failed to reach the top of the hill. It turned out the battery was loose so after the expertise of the host, we finally reached the hilltop to enjoy the view of Mayon away from city lights.

Now, this should be the second time around that I felt 060815-z3.jpg (38476 bytes)really blessed. Taking each chance of a clear view of the volcano is like counting pennies falling out from heaven. Amidst the thin haze, we were blessed with a visible lava-streaking atop the volcano, and at some times, there were bursts of lava coming out of the peak. Kevin set up his tripod near the cliff, I looked for a structure that would serve a good platform for long exposures. I managed to share a table with an ABS-CBN crew, and while I do my stuff, the guy shared his stories of how active the mountain was only a week back. Tonight, he rated the peak as "clean" meaning not much of a mess. So went the 45 minutes of our long exposure imaging and we captured some outbursts or "abnormal" flowing as I want to say, since I never really got the experience to rate it as a minor explosion. Kevin seemed to have a hint on this, saying some of them could really be counted as minor eruptions. The night was so dark that one cannot visually see the profile shape of the volcano. Rocks and blowing boulders rain down on the slopes, on the camera they appeared as streaks due to trailing. It was right here that I realized I was experiencing nature in a grander scale, more dynamic than the Sun in HA, since the volcano is so much nearer and changes are rated in seconds, 060815-z3_closeup.jpg (49530 bytes)not minutes or hours. There seemed to be a permanent lava depot on the bottom quarter of Mayon, and has been reluctant to change since we started imaging early that night.

1:00 am and I felt a sense of completeness. Lets call it a day, and I felt I can go back to Manila smiling even if the next days turned salty. I have everything to thank to, Kevin, his clients and siblings, and a friend, all made this possible. I can sense the excitement of Kevin’s Malaysian astronomer friend,Uncle Beng, went we brought him up to the caldera of Taal Volcano 5 years ago. It was simply the best gift to offer to a guest, and I am simply overwhelmed.


Day Three - August 16

We only had two hours to sleep, as we have to 060816-g.jpg (29787 bytes)wake up at 4:30 am to prepare our trip to Sorsogon. Kevin has to attend to some chores there, and of course, I was with him all the time. Luckily, we stole precious sleep time on the bus, and when we reached Sorsogon in 2 hours, we were all recharged. Time seemed to challenge us all throughout, since all matters have to be settled on the last minute. We managed to go back to Legazpi City, to our hotel by 3:00pm, refreshed a bit, then prepared ourselves physically and mentally for an expected tiring walk deep into the woods, guided by Tommy, the local folk.



Traveling light is important, to conserve energy and 060816-i.jpg (112676 bytes)to be able to escape physically the hazards of the area. Our tricycle brought us to the Bonga Chapel, where we were stopped by a barricade of fallen trees and branches. Local folks approached us to say the area was off-limits. But the vigilant Tommy sighted us from a distance, and we waved back in return. Now everybody knew we had an appointment, and graciously allowed us to enter after all. There was no briefing whatsoever, upon alighting from the trike, the journey simply started. We walk the main street, inside to the houses, then from their backyards, the pigpens and the chickens, to the woods, and deeper and deeper, and Kevin felt this was indeed a place of isolation, there was no way the army could see us here.


Twenty minutes of unhampered walk, this could 060816mayon_map.jpg (953875 bytes)mean a kilometer and a half of walking on a concrete street, there was still no sign of lava deposits. Not a smell of sulfur either. We crossed gulley that looked all too familiar, the same gulley that the army personnel stopped us before, so we knew the checkpoint was not far behind. Tommy and two other guides on their slippers and sandos told us this was a natural floodway, where rain waters make their way out to the sea from the volcano. To me, it was a lava path carved several eruptions ago, only to serve as waterway to the sea just recently. I know because it was black, and igneous rocks abound. Perhaps the soldier was right after all, and I confirmed it when I checked by map back in Manila with GPS coordinates taken at each site. (click the map at the right  to get an enlarge picture of where we were at the lava site.)

The forest was a virgin, saved only by a trail that farmers and local residents negotiate. If it rained we would be soaking wet, with no shelter other than the trees. Ten minutes before reaching destination, Kevin and I asked for a break, we need to catch our breath and drink a few gulps. The sky was blue, so there was no danger of rains. It has been a 45 minute walk (2.5km), a bit uphill at about 240 feet , but not noticeable. Just our legs sweating profusely and asking for mercy.


Sure after ten minutes, the lava structure some 15 to 20 feet high made its presence felt.

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It was amazing to see lava pouring out to reach this site. Tommy’s rest hut was buried by the same lava here. Mt. Mayon was still a distance away, but now towers 15 degrees of altitude. I took a few images with Kevin, as we approached 060816_yu-e.jpg (120796 bytes)the structure, we heard some occasional "landslides" where stones standing uncomfortably collapse downwards, creating small pillars of steam, smoke and ash.. We were warned not to get too close since it was still hot. Kevin would call it "lavalanche". It was very tempting to get close to feel the warmth and Kevin did just that, which made me very nervous. One instances did happen that Kevin was almost caught by one of the "lavalanche" when he get very close to the lava pile. Luckily, he was able to run off fast and away from it :) LOL  Below  is a   mp4 video clip that shows how hot magma looks like from our site. It was taken using Kevin's Nokia N70 video phone. Please note that you need a program that can run MP4 video files to see the clip below.  Also, it average   around 3MB  so please be patient.   Latest version of Quicktime and Nokia N70 Data Suite can play them without any problem.  A MP4 capable phone can also play it as well.  Enjoy!

Allen getting nervous when Kevin get real close to the lava pile after sunset.

The surrounding shrubs were without leaves and were thorny, so if one is not careful, some branches may prick one’s eyes. This made escape very complicated in case a medium size lavalanche happened.



Kevin had only his guts to bring him closer, and 060816-z6.jpg (102932 bytes)I followed suit. He took good close up images of the crevices and cracks on the hardened lava where red hot molten material crept inside. He took some videos of lavalanches too, where it was fortunate that my scoldings on him did not made it to his recorder. 6:30pm and it was sufficiently dark. The crevices were demonic red, glowing like eyes watching over us. I took some 1/30s shots at ISO 1600 to get as much light as I wanted, because I operated without a tripod, so that was the maximum exposure I can get. Kevin arranged for a group picture with the "devils" behind us, a 20 second exposure and none of us should move on that duration. The result was a stunningly eerie, and the 3 guides asked us to mail them a picture.


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On the way back, it was a lot easier. Then we knew the walk earlier was an uphill climb.

Fifteen minutes later, we passed by the floodway again, and I was very tempted to look back at the volcano. The sky was clear, which is rare according to Kevin, and dark enough for the Milky Way to be obvious, but ain’t as good as Caliraya, because nearby Legazpi City spilled its light upwards. Now, if I hadn’t looked back, nobody would have taken notice of the spectacle behind us. So again, we stopped by to image a few in 20 minutes. The view was absolutely dramatic, a classic scene literally plucked out from the movie "Congo" where at the end of the film, the protagonists were escaping the wrath of an exploding volcano in their background. Here Mayon spewed out lava intensely in real time (we were too used to see recorded images that’s why) and boulders trickled down on its slope in dramatic fashion. The sides, the middle were all awashed with glowing material, and a few times, we heard "pops", like gunshot heard from afar. The guide told us they were boulders smashing themselves apart as they hit ground. Mayon was an angry dragon that night, we should be more scared than dazzled.

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Our weariness even seeing again our tricycle was extinguished by the gravity of success tonight, and at a total of P1000, which was less than U$20 (for all the foreigners reading this), it was well worth it. I was the only one a bit challenged by this, for I came here with a limited budget, so have to squeeze every expense so tightly.

Back in the hotel, we realized how dirty we were. Ashes coated our bags, cameras and pants. The smell of our shirts was terrible. Our shoes were a mess. We turned on the TV to see that Alert Level was now 4, and eruption was imminent. Channel 2 showed an active volcano the way we saw it.

Whew! Kevin and I were all talk and smiles as we relate the events that happened that day. While having dinner, we were laughing our lungs off as we reviewed the lavalanche video clips and the panic I exhibited. Tomorrow, our last day in Legazpi City, we will proceed to the Cagsawa Ruins and pay homage to the folks who perished in the most violent eruption in Mayon’s history, that was 1815.


Day Four - August 17

A good night’s sleep paid off. I have great feelings 060817-f.jpg (68974 bytes)today since tonight we are going home. Cagsawa Ruins was a ride to Daraga, and another tricycle ride inwards. The place was manned both by police and military in full automatic rifles. Vendors sell pictures of Mayon with its lava show, and it was on this rare occasion, I proudly said I have better pictures than that! What a smash on their faces! It was not that I ridiculed them, but you see, one cannot help but boast especially coming from a trip like that. I was not alone in boasting. Kevin would always pull out his cellphone and play the video clips of lavalanche whenever he heard local folks talked about Mayon and the proximity they get to it. Nothing is as close to the lava fields the way we saw it, and surprisingly, Legazpi folks never get that close. I wonder if it was wisdom on their part and foolishness in ours that led us to have a helluvah experience last week. Robert Gallant, in an expedition to the very remote and isolated Tunguska impact site in Siberia was asked by a Russian why would he venture into such inconvenient and risky trip at the age of 68, he answered if he has been younger he would be smarter not to! Now, the bottom line is, we got results, so eat your hearts out!

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The writer Allen Yu would like to thank God for this wonderful and safe trip, to James Kevin Ty for spearheading this expedition, his client friends Benson Tan and Chen Wing Yee of Legaspi Jebson Trading , hospitality of the Legazpi folks, the army soldiers, Mt. Mayon for putting up a show during our 4 day stay.


Next stop: Climbing Mt. Mayon March 2007

For more images of the expedition, click here.


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