Published: January 13th 2012January 12th 2012
Well. I’ve been sitting here drinking icy cold beers for the last few hours just trying to work out how I could possibly describe the last five days. Pictures will barely do it justice, let alone my feeble attempt at putting the experience into words. My fellow travellers and I ran out of superlatives in the first few hours of our five day trip and resorted to ecstatic grins, satisfied sighs and genial shrugs of the shoulders for the rest of our journey. I mean, I couldn't even come up with an interesting and creative title. But here goes anyway…
I flew out of Dumaguete at sunrise and after two flights and a cramped and knee-shattering van ride, I arrived in the little village of El Nido sixteen hours later. The real delights of El Nido lie in the offshore Bacuit Archipelago – roughly fifty stunning limestone karst islands that jut out of the ocean in the most spectacular formations. For anyone who has read (or seen the film) The Beach
, this is where Alex Garland lived for a few months while writing the story and he has admitted that even though he set it in Thailand, this region was
the true inspiration for his remote hideaway islands. I spent a day island hopping and languidly drifitng in and out of some beautiful lagoons as well as some snorkelling which was a lovely way to spend a day. Although much of the coral has been destroyed due to the wonderfully efficient method of fishing and using dynamite for bait.
However, the real reason for my trip to this northern stretch of Palawan was to join a five day expedition with a company called Tao Philippines. Brought into being by a Filipino called Eddie and an Englishman, Jack (who met while working as waiters in a restaurant in Edinburgh of all places) Tao is a truly remarkable little company. Besides being the sole provider of expeditions from El Nido to Coron through the Linapacan Islands, they invest their profits into the villages along the way; building schools, funding health initiatives and providing massage training to the wives of local fishermen. Because fish stocks have dwindled over recent years due to the invasive presence of massive trawlers from Manila, such traditional work has been harder to make a living from and now these ladies are bringing home the proverbial bacon via
rubbing down us travellers, while the fellas sit idly twidling their thumbs. Such wonderful involvement in the local communities also meant that we were warmly received wherever we stopped by exceedingly friendly villagers and gaggles of the most beautiful kids.
I admit to harbouring a little trepidation prior to the trip as I had no idea whether I was going to be lumbered with a busload of loud and obnoxious Yanks (apologies Dinali – you are most certainly not one of them!), or even worse the nouveau-riche Russians with their time honoured cultural insensitivities or being the odd man out with a bunch of honeymooning couples. However, as we all gathered for the briefing the night before over beers, my fears were rapidly allayed. Besides myself, there was a Swiss couple, Rachel and Sebastien who I'ds met on the van north, Abner and Liesette from the Netherlands, Jan another Dutchman and Julia from Germany, a couple of Kiwis, Jeanette and Warren, Kay from Switzerland and last but most certainly not least, our afore-mentioned resident American, Denali. We all just clicked right away over a few beers and eagerly anticipated casting off on our adventure the following morning.
then there was the crew. Our expedition leader Olie, the captains Dodong and Onyo, the extemely talented masterchef Jimboy (speaking of which, I had no idea that Australian Masterchef was such a hit in the Netherlands) and then the wonderful boys, Dodong, Mike and JR. I really can’t praise these amazing guys enough – they worked ceaselessly cleaning the boat, lugging bags, washing dishes, setting up mozzie nets and basically waiting on us hand and foot. At least they did stop to share a few drinks in the evenings or I reckon I would have started feeling just a little bit guilty.
We were housed on a sixty foot bangka, the Araw, by day and slept at one of Tao's eleven base camps by night. There was no set itinerary which meant we basically meandered the one hundred and fifty odd kilometres and two hundred odd islands and depending on the weather and the prevailing winds, slept at whichever one was closest. These consisted of some lovely, simple nipa huts where we (or I should say the boys) would set us up with a mattress, pillow, sheet and mozzie net. There were beautiful little fresh water showers, a la
bucket anbd scoop, established where you languishly washed off the accumulated salt from the days adventures and were fresh and ready to sit around by candlelight to eat, drink and discuss anything and everything.
Oh, and the food. Each day was met with yet another culinary delight whipped up by Jimboy and which absolutely surpassed all of my wildest expectations. I had been anticipating maybe a bit of fish and bowl of rice for each meal but instead we gorged on such wonders as soft-shelled crab curries, beautiful grilled snapper, bream and tuna, small squid cooked in its own ink and the piece de resistance, a whole suckling pig spit roasted on the beach. I had been informed prior to coming to the Philippines that Filipino cooking wasn't all that flash so I wasn’t really expecting to be putting on weight on this trip but between these delicious culinary delights and the ever-so-frequent beers (downed to cries of tagai
, which literally translates as drink
) every day, that that now seems to be the obvious and inevitable outcome.
So our days on the boat were spent doing very little besides chatting, reading, fishing off the back of the bangka
with a hand reel and staring idly at the absolutely stunning scenery that slowly passed us by. Occasionally we’d chuck down the anchor at some truly isolated Robinson Crusoe-like islands and deserted beaches for a refreshing coconut and a body surf amongst the crashing waves. The dozens of shades of blues and greens of the ocean defy adequate description so I trust that the photos sort-of accurately reflect at least some of the shades on offer, and needless to say it was all just so bloody remarkably beautiful. (I apologise again, as mentioned it’s getting truly difficult to come up with new superlatives.) One early stop consisted of snorkelling through a small opening in the limestone to emerge on a glorious secret little beach where we basked in the shallow waters while the boys followed with an esky and cracked open ice cold beers for everyone to yet more cries of tagai!
Or if we could possibly muster up enough energy, we'd head off for a leisurely kayak around the coastline or a wander to a waterfall to jump off of rocks into the deep waters below. A few of us even kayaked out to a fishing trawler one
evening and spent the night fishing and watching as they hauled in their catch of little squid, sharing beers with the local fishermen until late into the night and who seemed mightily pleased to join us with our toasts of tagai!
We even had a remarkable swim through a shallow, little channel hidden among the mangroves, to quote Abner it felt like we were Navy Seals on a mission of great importance, to a hidden hot spring (okay, so the mission wasn't that important) where we sat in the warm water and shared the obligatory beers yet again. Tagai!
As I said, this is truly paradise.
The further north we went, the more the scenery changed and gradually the stunning sights moved from above the water to under it. Our final day was spent snorkelling the pristine reefs near Coron and admiring the fishies, giant colourful clams and the odd turtle. There are dozens of Japanese shipwrecks around here from World War II and we floated serenely over and around one, checking out the different corals that have slowly claimed the warship over the past sixty odd years.
And then it was over. I don’t think I’ve ever
seen such a forlorn bunch of faces as those of ours in that last hour as we slowly chugged our way in to Coron. There was even a surreal sense of culture shock as we were suddenly thrust into the relative chaos of motorbikes, electricity and the concept of using money again. It’s really quite unbelievable that five days can change your outlook so much.
So a truly huge and heartfelt salamat
to the wonderful crew and fantastic travellers alike for such an amazing experience. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet some really great people, to see some absolutely stunning places and to have had so many amazing experiences. It’s a trip that I’ll never forget and I’ve already promised Jane that I’ll bring her back here sometime in the not-too-distant future. So I'll raise this final bottle of San Miguel tonight and cry a last tagai!
to this paradise of northern Palawan
There are more photos below