Of all the expressways in Luzon, my favorite just has to be the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway or SCTEX.
Other than having smooth and well-maintained roads, it is probably one of the few highways that provide people with a spectacular view of the countryside.
I remember seeing one of the best sunsets as I was travelling home on the SCTEX. Slowly coming down behind high mountains, the sun and clouds were brought out the perfect sunset.
During that trip I had my trusty old point-and-shoot camera with me and I hurriedly asked my wife to snap a few shots of the scene to our left. Then reality set in.
By the time she got the camera powered on, we had lost the angle. And from then on, I vowed to be ready the next time I went through the expressway.
[Ya hear me SCTEX! I'm gonna get ya someday!]
So when my friends and I weren't available to go out last December 30th, my wife and I found ourselves again on the SCTEX as we headed to Las Casas Filipinas de Azucar.
This time around, my wife had the camera switched on, the lens cover off, and the whole thing sitting on her lap. This time around, we were determined to take pictures.
[I have you now!]
The SCTEX is named for it major access points connecting it to Subic Bay, Clark Airbase, and Tarlac.
Construction on the expressway began on April 5, 2005 at a total cost of 34.9 Billion Pesos. The first section was officially opened to the public on April 28, 2008, with other sections following soon after.
At 94 Kilometers, the SCTEX is the second longest expressway in the Philippines. It is second only to the 97-kilometer South Luzon Expressway, or SLEX.
[No wonder it feels like it goes on forever at night...
The SCTEX has four lanes, two going in each direction. It has 13 exits, with one of them connecting directly to the North Luzon Expressway, or NLEX.
The thing that makes the SCTEX unique is that it goes through and around mountains. And because of this route, many parts are raised high over the ground to keep the inclines and declines at a comfortable angle. By contrast, majority of the SLEX and NLEX are built at ground level.
And it is the raised portions of the SCTEX that provide some of the more spectacular sights of the Philippines' Northern countryside.
As I mentioned earlier, I was keeping an eye out for a spectacular sunset, just like the one I saw the last time I was on the SCTEX. Sadly, that moment did not come even after adjusting our schedule.
However, our morning drive to Las Casas Filipinas de Azucar did provide us with other sites. And since my wife had the camera in her hands this time around, she was ready this time around.
Before I go on, I must say that taking pictures on a car travelling on a highway is challenging, to say the least.
Though the expressway was free of potholes or rough patches, there is still enough vibration for the camera to pick up. So to help limit all that the shaking, I ran most of the SCTEX at the minimum speed, making it a first for me on an expressway.
Well, if you think I rocket through expressways I'm doing The Cannonball Run, you may be surprised. I actually maintain an average speed of 80 kilometers per hour because I get the most mileage at that speed.
[Yup, wanderlust can get expensive.]
It's not been easy, I'll tell you. Today's cars are built so well that travelling at 100 kilometers per hour doesn't feel any different from, say, 60 kilometers per hour.
Advances in tire treads, suspension systems, aerodynamics, and even cabin silence are so amazing they make ten to fifteen year old cars look like wooden go-karts.
But then the slower speeds have been worth it because even if I don't get to my destinations sooner, I enjoy the journeys themselves.
And the journey through the SCTEX was something I enjoyed quite a bit.
So what do you get on the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway that you can't find on the NLEX or SLEX?
Well the answer to that is perspective.
If you've ever travelled on the NLEX and SLEX, everything you see will be from the ground level. And with more and more of our badly needed farm lands being converted into subdivisions, you just don't have a good perspective from a moving vehicle anymore.
But on the SCTEX, you get the opportunity to rise above all of that.
If you happened to accompany us through the SCTEX, you would have seen old Carabaos and new farm equipment side by side on the farm. The former would have been grazing while the latter would have been lying idly, as if they were both waiting for the next round of planting.
A few kilometers down, you would have been treated to a pair of huge Herons gracefully landing on some rice paddies. And if you twisted your head back, you would have seen them drinking water, tilting their heads up to swallow the liquid collected in their beaks.
Still a bit further down the road, you might have noticed a cow lazily grazing on the grass, oblivious to all the cars whizzing by. And if you happened to grow up on Sesame Street back in the 70s, â€œHow now, brown cowâ€, might have popped in your head.
A few seconds later, the vast fields of farmland will be replaced by several mountains and hills. In the foreground you would have seen a non-traditional Bahay Kubo at the edge of a rice paddy. You'll wonder why it was non-traditional and you would realize that the Bahay Kubo is made of a mixture of cement an wood.
And just when you though they were extinct, you then come across a traditional Bahay Kubo, completely made of wood and a Cogon roof.
Your next site will be several farmers tending to their fields. A few meters from a farmer, you will witness a puppy playing with a few children, oblivious to the heat of the sun or of the work their parents are putting into tending their crops.
Then up a nearby hill from the Bahay Kubo, you will see a family of goats struggling to tug at stubborn bushes.
And just when you felt the greens would never end, you happen to cross a bridge over a river of gray sand. It was probably once a teeming place of blue water and white froth, but now it holds part of what Pinatubo spewed out during its eruption.
You then decide to turn off your air conditioner and roll down your windows so you can feel the wind as it crisscrosses your vehicle. This is the same wind that blows on the hills of tall grass to make them look like a soft breeze on a carpet of green.
And though you keep snapping away with your camera, none of the pictures you take will ever do justice to the magnificent sights Mother Nature has provided to you while on the SCTEX.
[Arrgh! Ya got me again!]
Well, we exited at Dinalupihan and continued on for a day at Las Casas Filipinas de Azucar. After taking pictures of 18th and 19th century homes, we returned to the SCTEX and headed over to Subic Bay.
We grabbed Shrimp and Garlic Pizza dinner at S&R then loaded up on gasoline before making our way back to Manila.
It was too bad that darkness had come upon us. We would have loved to take more pictures, this time on the other side of the expressway.
Having gotten used to the NLEX and SLEX, I expected to be presented with mass housing, power lines, and gasoline stations.
But with the SCTEX being farther up North and built high off the ground, I was treated to a wealth of beauty only Mother Nature could offer.
My only hope is that the people running the expressway keep it the way it is. Don't add gasoline stations, don't add convenience stores, and don't add any more rest room stops.
The SCTEX is perfect just the way it is and no one should mess with perfection.
Till our next trip, make sure to keep your memory cards free and batteries charged. You never know when that next photo opportunity will come!
We would like to thank Anything Under the Sun for contributing pictures and videos for this article.