It’s a common refrain these days. Corporate leaders will say they are not in the business of whatever it is they produce. Uber says it is a digital rather than a transport company, for example. Now the Ford Motor Company is starting to seriously push the travel experiences their cars deliver rather than just focus on vehicle specs and price.
This was a key message from a Ford media trip last week to the Lahar Beds of central Luzon, the main island of the Philippines, an off-road driving phenomenon created by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history – the explosion of Mount Pinatubo in June, 1991.
While Lahar can be deadly – more than 800 people died when heavy rains combined with volcanic ash to form life-taking rivers of Lahar, a heavy grey spongy substance when wet, chalky and firm when dry – locals have done their best to turns things around.
An evolving tourism industry is emerging around the Sacobia River, near Clark International Airport (the former massive Clark Air Base), with five or six casinos catering to the domestic and Korean markets springing up and 4WD tours of the Lahar Beds a staple activity along with golf.
So when Ford decided to promote its new SUV range – Escape, Everest Eco-Sport and Explorer – this particular part of the Philippines was an easy choice because of the unique driving experience it offers.
And when it came to media, the global giant decided to target travel and lifestyle publishers rather than the usual motoring journalists. Included in our group were travel media, mummy bloggers, lifestyle sites and more.
At the initial briefing, which resembled a mini United Nations, with a small national flag denoting who should sit where (Australia, India, Taiwan, New Zealand etc) everything was quite formal until the group leader explained the rules of Philippines traffic.
There are none.
“Some drivers will be on the wrong side of the road – don’t worry this is normal in the Philippines,” he said, adding, “We’ll be sharing the road with all sorts of vehicles including some made last week in somebody’s back yard.”
These home-made vehicles are the infamous Jeepney’s, the most popular form of public transport. Crowded, individual, and always with a variation of “Praise The Lord” on the back, they are absolutely everywhere, and dominate traffic, which is insane.
To give you an idea, it can take four to five hours to travel the 80km from Manila to Clark, most of it trying to escape an urban sprawl that refuses to relent, traffic mostly static in the humid tropical air.
It’s not much better in regional centres such as Angeles City and extreme patience is required.
But there were no such problems on the Secobia River, definitely the trip highlight. We also got a taste of local life enroute, passing through Marcos Village, well-kept but with tiny houses and dusty vacant lots.
It looks poor, like so much of the Philippines, but the people were smiling and rather shocked as our random convoy of Ford Everest’s, the SUV best suited to the adventure ahead, slowly navigated the narrow streets.
It was a crazy afternoon, splashing through the river beds at speeds of up 60km to avoid sinking into the Lahar sludge.
The landscape was slightly surreal, kind of lunar with grey the dominant colour, while our efforts were viewed with bemusement for locals.
The driving was super-fun with the wet Lahar providing a spongy, flexible surface, somewhere between sand and bitumen. The sensation at times resembled powder skiing, bouncy and just on the edge of control. The Everest handled it all with ease.
Returning to our base, the Midori Hotel and Casino, we left the river behind and passed through some remnants of the accommodation provided to Clark Air Base officers.
Now overgrown, and abutting an unfinished water park, it was reminder of where the area has been, and where it is heading.
Progress is being made but slowly. Tourism in the Philippines outside the beach resorts isn’t easy but is certainly memorable, especially when you leave the city streets behind.