Dead in the Water: A Mis-Adventure Off Roading in the Philippine Jungle

Not every adventure goes according to plan.

Tanay, Rizal

During one of my trips back to the Philippines, I decided it would be a fun and good idea to do a little off-roading and camping.  In the past I had a great time on a multi-day expedition to Mount Pinatubo with the Land Rover Club of the Philippines and I wanted to do something similar.  Unfortunately due to my travel schedule, my adventure would have to be a quick 2 day expedition - a day to drive in, camp overnight, drive back the next day.  Despite that constraint, my buddy Mikey was up for it - any excuse to hit the trails was good enough for him.

We decided to head over to Jungle Base a 4x4 training centre and firing range that was formerly the training ground for 2nd Infantry Division of the Philippine Army.  It has a varied landscape of rivers, caves, jungle, hills, and rocks that would give us a lot of variety and challenges for our excursion.  Mikey was familiar with Jungle Base, and good friends with its owner we were able to show up last minute, with a few gifts of scotch and various food stuffs as our "entrance fee".  60 KM east from the city, getting there would be too quick, so we decided to take the long way around Laguna de Bay, which meant heading south, then east, then north, and then west, nearly trebling the distance we had to cover to 165 KM.  This route allowed us to pass some gorgeous scenery along the lake.  Fields of green freshly planted rice as far of the eye could see.

The drive was uneventful but enjoyable.  We took service roads when we could and avoided major highways. This allowed us to drive through small towns and villages, enjoying the the backdrop of the Seirra Madre mountains while we chatted and caught up with each other.  We finally made it to Jungle Base late in the evening.  It was too dark to do any off-roading so we set up camp, had a meal, and went to bed with the goal to start early in the morning.


Our rig for this trip was a 2014 Land Rover Defender 110.  It was less than 6 months old and was in the beginning stages of being modified to be a daily-driver overlander.  It had a light bar, exo-cage, skid plates, cb radio, and a snorkel at the time we took it out; no upgrades to the powertrain or suspension.  That being said it was quite capable and conquered the rocky shoreline of the Agos River with very little drama.


Mikey is a veteran off-roader and has completed difficult international expeditions, including the Rainforest Challenge in Malaysia.  He also regularly participates in relief missions with the Land Rover Club whenever natural disasters strike; the club leads convoys of Land Rovers to reach affected areas that have been cut off by roads rendered impassable to the majority of vehicles, save 4x4s or helicopters.  He regularly trains and drives in Jungle Base, so I asked him to take me around the property as I shot pictures of the truck.  He happily obliged!


We went through a number of trails that took us rock crawling and over a few river crossings, which also gave us a chance to cool off with a relaxing swim.  We had just finished our last trail before needing to head back to Manila, but we had a bit of extra time on our hands, so we decided to take an alternate route back to get to the exit of Jungle Base.  It was at this point our adventure turned into a mis-adventure.  I jumped in the passenger seat and we drove to the river bank.  This trail had 1 river crossing-point, which seemed just as easy, if not simpler than the others we had tackled early in the day.  Now as a rule, if you are doing a water crossing in an area you are unfamiliar with, you should walk the line you are going to take.  If you cannot cross it on foot, you cannot cross it in your vehicle, even if you have a snorkel.  That said, Jungle Base was a regular training ground for Mikey, so we opted to stay dry and not walk the line.  Unfortunately unbeknownst to us, heavy rains a week prior had flooded the river and caused the rocks in the riverbed to shift position.   


As we drove through the river, we lurched abruptly towards the left.  The riverbed was non-existent and our vehicle was going under.  I yelled out a few choice remarks which would contain the following characters "#$%^!@" if I typed them out.  The truck came to a dead stop and filled with water in a matter of seconds.  I had my camera in my hand, and was able to snap a picture as all this was happening.  Thankfully I was saved by Mikey's quick thinking.  In one swift motion, he unbuckled my harness, opened my door, and pushed me out - all while he was still strapped in the drivers side which was already completely submerged.  How he kept his cool and presence of mind while being underwater - I will never know.  I swam to shore and dropped my camera off and quickly swam back to the truck trying to remove as many of the electronics, lenses, computers before the cargo area got swamped.


We got most of our gear out with minimal losses; a couple cellphones, an iPad, and a bottle of single malt from Oban. Our adventure was, literally dead in the water.  Thankfully a Jungle Base was just a few kilometers away, and Mikey ran back to get help as I continued to fish gear out of the truck.  It wasn't long until a recovery vehicle came our way to pull us out.   We were very lucky we came out unscathed, but it goes to show how quickly things can go wrong.  Despite all the experience we had on our side, we got complacent and lazy to do a safety walk and it cost us.  It was a strong reminder that adventures are fun but can also be quite dangerous.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Gabriel Nivera

Photographer, Storyteller, Global Nomad