Bud Bongao: The sacred mountain of Tawi-Tawi

TAWI-TAWI, Philippines – Gruff and grizzled, the guardian stared with steely orbs the color of flame – gauging our character and purity. Baring his yellow teeth, he held out an upturned palm, barring us from going further. 

“We should give offerings,” cautioned a sweating Munir Hamsaji, one of my climbing teammates. Having climbed this mountain many times before, Munir cautiously untied a knotted plastic bag, took a crusty piece of bread, and tossed it to the waiting warden.

Delighted, the long-tailed macaque snatched the treat and hooted off into the forest. Relieved, we trekked on. Bud Bongao’s guardians had allowed us passage.

Tawi-Tawi's most famous mountain

Cloaking its secrets with verdure and mist, Bud Bongao is Tawi-Tawi’s most famous mountain, sprouting 340 meters above the sea. It’s a revered pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims, who come in droves to brave slippery rocks and the snarl of undergrowth to visit one of 3 carefully-tended Tampat or shrines.

Over 630 years ago, Arab merchant Karim ul-Makhdum landed in the Philippines to spread Islam, establishing the country’s first mosque – Sheik Karimal Makdum Masjid – in Simunul, a small island off the coast of Tawi-Tawi. Legend has it that one of his original followers – a preacher – was buried atop Bud Bongao.

Today the mountain is a 250-hectare treasure trove of biodiversity and one of the last remaining moist forests in the Sulu archipelago. It is also the first site in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to be administered completely by the local government.


A long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) blocks the authoru2019s path midway up Bud Bongao

“It’s one of the model sites under the New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project or NEWCAPP, which protects 12 key biodiversity areas across the nation,” says DENR protected areas specialist Ariel Erasga.

“We wish to highlight novel ways of protecting biodiversity hubs – particularly if their management plans were developed by communities, indigenous groups and local government units.” (READ: PH natural parks management rated 'poor' to 'fair')

NEWCAPP aims to expand and strengthen the terrestrial protected area (PA) system of the Philippines by developing new PA models and building capacities for effective management. (READ: 5 ways to improve how we protect our parks)

The expanded PA system will have comprehensive ecological coverage plus strong links to  both local  communities  and  indigenous  lands through the development and integration of new conservation zones.

Now, it seems, all the people of Tawi-Tawi shall become guardians of Bud Bongao.

“All that we see and experience now, we hope to preserve for the future,” said Governor Sahali at the turnover.

Prayers on trees

Following the spine of Bud Bongao, we passed an enormous Molave tree said to be the largest of its kind in the country. We finally broke free of the forest’s dappled gloom to reach the sunbathed summit.

Savoring a few breaths, plus the breath-taking view of the Celebes Sea, I looked south – squinting at the faint outline of Malaysian Borneo. Around us, branches were adorned with knotted strips of plastic, cloth, and foil – prayers for safe passage. Overhead were lazy ribbons of cloud.


Plastic, foil and cloth strips representing pilgrim wishes adorn branches and tree trunks

I wondered how they could stand the heat – bearing umbrellas and basketfuls of food to boot. We stopped and talked with an Imam, a religious leader.

“The preacher wished to be buried atop the highest point in Bongao so his followers can prove their sincerity,” explained Ishmael Uto. “This weeds out the unworthy, ensuring that pilgrims work hard to turn wishes into reality.”

My sole wish is for the mountain’s guardians – humans, spirits, and monkeys alike – to continue protecting one of the last bastions of terrestrial biodiversity in Sulu.

As the venerable Imam and I – both pilgrims to the same God – parted ways, I said, “Salaam alaiukum.” He smiled and shook my hand warmly. “And peace be with you, brother.” – Rappler.com