The deep breath before the plunge


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April 7th 2013
Published: April 7th 2013
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Island-hopping in Palawan


My return to the UK is very short-lived - just enough time to catch up with family and friends over Christmas and the New Year before the lure of foreign lands call us once again. A few weeks before the start of our epic South American odyssey, Alex and I submitted our applications - a decision several years in the thinking and planning - for skilled migration visas to Australia, a place we have dreamt of living and working in for a long time. After a rather shorter than expected wait of ten months, we were granted our visas in May 2012 while we were on the road in Ecuador...on the condition that we enter Australia before April 2013. Loads of time!

Thoroughly distracted by the wonders of South America, it turned out to be no time at all: we barely noticed it pass. And before either of us knew it, it was time to leave the UK, our home for the past 31 years - give or take a couple of years out to go gallivanting across the globe - and launch ourselves into a new adventure on the other side of the world.

Preparing for such a big move - finding a place to live, arranging for all one's worldly possessions to be shipped around the globe - is mentally and physically exhausting. Saying goodbye to friends and family is, of course, even harder. What is more, having spent four months apart between August and December (Alex having returned home from South America a little sooner than I did) we also felt in need of a bit of a break together. Since Alex has been working hard in London since her return, that's not quite as shameful as it sounds (come to think of it, so what if it is?). And, since our flight to Australia passes through Singapore, it would be a bit silly – it would, really, wouldn't it? - not to take advantage of our proximity to the intoxicating place that is southeast Asia. On this particular occasion, the Philippines.

After a whirlwind visit of Singapore – enough time to indulge in some Singaporean bak kwa, Chinese dim sum, Malaysian laksa, Indonesian rendang and Indian dosas (for two people like us Singapore is one massive food-filled playground) – we set our sights on Palawan. Long, spindly Palawan is the westernmost island in the Philippines, its southwestern tip almost touching Malaysian Borneo. It also happens to be one of this huge archipelago's most beautiful. Relatively sparsely populated, Palawan is swathed in forest and ringed with palm-fringed, white sand beaches. The most famous of these are to be found at the top end of the island around the tiny settlement (“town” is too generous) of El Nido – a place that any self-respecting fan of idyllic tropical getaways has, or should have, heard of. We’ve been drooling over photos of Palawan for years – this short trip is a long-held dream come true.

El Nido itself is nothing special. On the contrary, it’s a rather dusty, hot, noisy, down-at-heel place where any romantic tropical atmosphere is completely drowned out by the twin cacophony of spluttering motorised tricycles and, even worse, legions of roosters that just can’t shut up. Fortunately, the place just happens to be a stone’s throw from one of southeast Asia’s most gorgeous locations: the Bacuit archipelago. Bacuit, like Ha Long Bay in Viet Nam and Krabi in southern Thailand, is a karst archipelago – a geological landscape formed by the action of acidic water on soft carbonate rock. The archipelago’s tall, sheer-sided islands rising suddenly out of the sea are instantly recognisable. Many dozen such islands of all shapes and sizes are scattered off north Palawan’s coast. Seeing them is the focal point of any visit to the province.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – first we need to get to Palawan. A midnight departure from Singapore gets us into the Philippines' second largest city, Cebu, at an ungodly four in the morning. Helpfully, our connecting flight to Puerto Princesa – Palawan’s capital – is at nine, so after having missed out completely on the previous night’s sleep we have a five-hour wait in Cebu’s no-frills airport (where, if I remember correctly, we also had an excruciating middle-of-the-night wait five years ago on our way to go diving in Leyte...Cebu airport is not a happy place). We take it in turns to (sort of) nap, sprawled on metal benches, and nine o’clock comes soon enough. The things you do for a bit of tropical paradise…

By the time we’ve flown over the Sulu Sea and arrived in Puerto Princesa, it’s past midday and we haven’t properly slept in something like twenty-eight hours. Our first destination is Port Barton, a small village on Palawan’s northwest coast famed for its idyllic setting and chilled-out atmosphere (which, in the Philippines, is saying something). It’s another three hours by road from Puerto Princesa but fortunately I’ve managed to arrange for a van to come and pick us up directly from the airport – I don’t think either of us is in a fit state to attempt a jeepney ride right now. We load our bags – the bulk of our 100 kilos of luggage having been left with a very generous friend in Singapore – and slump in the back seats. Bliss awaits.

Or does it? Within an hour of leaving Puerto Princesa the van starts making strange noises. The driver repeatedly stops, looks under the bonnet with concern, pokes around and pours water into something. We catch the word “overheat”. Our eyes roll…how many times have we seen this before? The third unscheduled stop is the last one – because after that the van refuses to move. Hurrah! A full thirty hours without sleep and now we’re stuck by the roadside opposite the Palawan Mango Quarantine Checkpoint, or some such. The realisation that mangos grow on Palawan is a small consolation. By an incredible stroke of luck, another vehicle just happens to pass by, empty, also heading to Port Barton – what are the chances? Fortunately the second vehicle is a little more roadworthy than the first, and better equipped to deal with the final – unsurfaced – twenty kilometres off the main highway. The landscape is beautiful, a verdant combination of forest and paddy fields dotted with snow-white egrets. We make it to Port Barton by about four in the afternoon, some sixteen hours after taking off from Singapore. One look at the powdery, palm-fringed, snow-white sand and the turquoise waters of the bay: it was worth it. We promptly collapse in our little nipa cottage and sleep through to dinnertime.

Four blissful days pass in Port Barton – bursts of activity (namely, swinging in a hammock with a book for three hours) punctuated by ice-cold San Miguel beers. It’s the kind of sleepy, friendly little place where you could lose yourself for months. If only, if only...

By now the batteries are recharged, and rather than endure a further six hours of cramped minivan, we manage to join forces with two other couples – one French, one Australian – to hire a bangka (one of the double-outrigger motorised boats which are the backbone of transport in the Philippines) from Port Barton to El Nido. The trip is not much shorter – five hours – but infinitely more pleasant, despite our being on the receiving end of spray from every wave (for five hours). The secret weapon for anyone travelling on a bangka – also known as a pumpboat – is a pair of earplugs to tone down the appalling racket of the engine (our two boatmen resort to putting cigarettes in their ears instead). The final hour of the journey take us past some of the islands of the Bacuit archipelago, their jungle-topped cliffs looming over us as we chug past. We pull into the shallow waters off Corong-Corong beach (a little to the south of El Nido and much, much quieter I’ve been told - fewer of those roosters and videoke machines so beloved of Filipinos) and all six of us can’t hold in squeals of excitement: the water so clear, the sea so blue, the sand so white and the palm trees so perfectly positioned that the place feels like a holiday brochure. It can’t be real…can it?

The next two days see us hop around the fabulous Bacuit archipelago in bangkas, each beach more idyllic, each swimming spot more inviting than the last. The soft rock of the archipelago has been eroded in all sorts of wonderful ways by rain and sea – some islands harbour hidden lagoons at their heart, only accessible by tiny channels too narrow for even a pumpboat to get through. These crystal-clear swimming holes are an incredible sight, surrounded by sheer, razor-sharp cliffs – something straight out of The Beach. Anywhere in the archipelago, it’s nigh on impossible to resist the temptation to dive into the water at every opportunity and revel, like a fish, in its sheer transparence: you can be in water up to your chest and still see every detail of the sandy bottom. There’s some varied aquatic life to watch while snorkeling, too, although the reefs in the area have been heavily damaged for decades by that old southeast Asian favourite, dynamite fishing…

From sipping the juice of green coconuts while immersed in clear, tropical waters, to feasting on locally caught grilled squid and the most swooningly delicious mangos we've ever eaten, to watching the Sun go down over the islands of Bacuit with a Philippine rum and coke in one hand (local Tanduay brand rum, a rather shocking shade of orange but perfectly quaffable, goes for about sixty pence a bottle…whoops, there go our livers!), our ten days in Palawan are utterly, utterly relaxing. Precisely what we were looking for.

Holidays usually end with the harsh realisation that you have to go home. For us, things are a little different – Palawan has been a deep breath of sorts before we take the plunge and relocate, for the next few years at least, somewhere entirely new. Back in Singapore after our flight back from the Philippines, there’s barely enough time for us to catch our breath before we find ourselves once again in Changi Airport.

The tags on our hundred kilos of luggage read Hobart.


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7th April 2013

What a beautiful beach...
and we wish the best for you in Hobart, Tasmania!
7th April 2013

A great place to stop
We enjoyed our time in Palawan and hope to go back some day. Good luck in Tasmania! We are looking forward to the blogs.
23rd July 2013

Great photography
I enjoted your blog and wish you luck in tasmania. My wife and I loved our visit to Australia but did not get to see Tasmania. Ricky Ponting is from Tasmania. Have you any tips on how to publicize a blog? Roger
13th September 2013

Port Barton
It's a pity you didn't try diving with us (Sea Dog) while you were in Barton, we do has some beautiful coral reefs !

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