Named after Prince Philip II of Spain in 1543 by Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos, The Philippines is a collection of over 7000 islands, situated on the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire; an area prone to earthquakes and typhoons. It was this beautiful tropical land that was chosen by Ford to showcase a variety of SUVs in a range of conditions. And last month, I had a chance to be a part of that experience.
Landing in Manila airport in the early evening, three things hit you straight away: the heat, the noise and the traffic. What should be a two-hour drive to the Clark Air Base, some 60km north of Manila, turns into a 5-hour crawl in the extended evening peak-hour traffic. Arriving at the Midori Hotel in Pamagna, the group of Australian journalists all checked in and made for bed straight away, ready for a busy day in the morning.
In 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted unexpectedly, showering the surrounding countryside with ash. It was one of the largest eruptions in the twentieth century and its effects were felt globally. It is in the shadow of this volcano that Clark Air Base sits, the location for our adventure.
After a morning briefing, we set off in a Ford Eco Sport to drive along the mega dike. This dike is built from the ash to prevent lahar (a mixture of water and ash) flowing into Pampanga towns during the monsoon season. We passed the San Guillermo Parish Church, which is one of the oldest and largest churches in Pampanga. After the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the lahar flowed and stopped at the church, only partially burying it. This is considered a miracle and people flock to this church.
The Philippines is one of the largest Christian countries in the world with around 90% of the population being of the faith. As we were in the country approaching Christmas, it was natural that we called in to one of the many lantern shops, which spring up on the sides of roads at this time of year. Here you can purchase lamps of all shapes and sizes, or even make your own.
We had the opportunity to decorate a lamp. There is something quite surreal, yet oddly satisfying, about sitting around a craft table with a group of journalists to decorate a star shaped lantern to take home to your family. A word of warning though, you can’t just brush glitter off your face.
After the lamps were collected for later display it was time to sample a popular local dessert drink called “Halo-halo” at Susie’s Cuisine. Halo-halo is made from shaved ice and evaporated milk, flavored with banana, boiled sweet beans, coconut, sago, gulaman (agar jelly), tubers and fruits. It is served in a tall glass and the locals sit and chat as they stir the fruit through the ice with a long spoon.
Our final destination in the Eco Sport was Nepo Mart, where we got to barter for trinkets to take home to the family. Pasalubong is a popular Filipino tradition of bringing home something from your travels to your loved ones. My favorite purchase was a miniature Jeepney, but there were fridge magnets, t-shirts and other assorted trinkets on sale.
Jeepney’s are everywhere on the roads. Vince Gower, Vehicle Engineering Launch leader for Ford explained that despite the name, Jeepneys are not actually made from Jeeps, but are patched together from assorted car parts and are flamboyantly decorated to reflect the owner’s personality. He adds, “In a fight between a car and a Jeepney, the Jeepney always wins.”
With that in mind, we finish our shopping and load the boot of the Eco Sport with a case of coconuts before heading to Binulo restaurant for lunch.
Binulo refers to the traditional way of preparing food in a bamboo stalk. On the menu was tasty chicken soup, rice in bamboo leaves, satay style chicken, pork belly and whole crispy fish.
Our next adventure takes us into the heart of the Lahar beds. As Mount Pinatubo rained ash, on the same day Typhoon Yunya struck the island, which caused massive lahar flows. The lahar beds remain today and are mined for their rich mineral deposits. Our challenge was to drive the Ford Everest through this lahar bed river, a mixture of sand, rock and soft flowing lahar, which was almost like quicksand. Unlike 4WDs of old, the Everest comes with fingertip controls, where sand, rock or ice conditions are simply dialed up. There are further controls to lock the diff or switch to a low gear, so despite the challenging environment, at no time did we feel that the vehicle couldn’t handle the situation.
Despite the Everest being the largest SUV in the range, with a 225mm ground clearance, it was still easy to maneuver through narrow village streets. Exterior design manager for Ford, Nima Nourian explained some of the design concepts that went into the final release. Skid trays show that it means business, air channels help keep the windows and mirrors clear during the water run and leather seats give a sense of style. Personally, I liked how much customization was available on the dash; you could choose a tachometer or a visual body angle display for example. The compass was also customizable and the car came with a full size GPS / music system.
This was a highlight of the trip, not only for the adrenaline rush of the drive, but the incredible beauty of the surreal landscape, with sections of moon-like sparseness followed by lush tropical forests.
Our next adventure was a trip down narrow winding country roads in the Ford Explorer to Green Canyon Eco Resort. Although this particular model is not available in Australia, it was interesting to compare the model to the rest of the range and see that the family of Ford SUVs share similar design cues. SUVs are a growing sector of the family car market and there is no longer a “one size fits all” mentality.
The Eco Resort was a welcome change of pace from the sometimes-busy driving conditions in the city. After being greeted with guava juice on arrival, we were pampered with massages, a dip in the refreshing wave pool and a delicious banquet of chicken, fish and salads. Before too long it was time to say goodbye.
Our final destination was The Palms Lakeshore in Pampanga, a man made lake complete with milkfish, carp and sea bass. The journey there in the Ford Escape was an adventure, passing through busy towns, with a vulcanizing shop on almost every corner. Many in our team were unaware of what these shops are for, until it was explained that they repair tyres and tubes. Driving in the Philippines is not difficult, despite the left hand drive convention, but you need to be confident and aware of your surroundings at all times.
There is a small community around the Lakeshore, with plenty of activities, such as boating, fishing and bike riding. A few of our team learned a new game, Sungka. The aim of the game is to capture as many shells as you can and to place them into your “ulo” (head). We finished the day with dinner at Matam-Ih (which means “delicious” in the local Aeta dialect. Once again we had a delicious selection of meat, fish and rice whilst being entertained by tiger skin clad performers.
So what did we learn? That since the Americans left the Clark Air Base in 1991, the area is being transformed into a modern business and tourism area with a world-class civil aviation complex. I found Filipinos to be very friendly and the country to have a big range of attractions. I gained a new appreciation of the design philosophy that goes into Ford SUVs and the attention to detail that made them such fun to drive. Finally, I gained an understanding of the culture and lifestyle of this interesting country and hope to return someday.
The writer was a part of this adventure as a guest of Ford. All photos by the author. For more details about Ford’s range of SUV’s, head to their official website.