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Asia » Philippines » Southern Leyte
April 12th 2008
Published: May 29th 2008
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Hong Kong to Padre Burgos

A twelve hour marathon - bus, plane, taxi, boat, car.

CuttlefishCuttlefishCuttlefish

Medicare Site, Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte - Credit Richard and Simone Haas
I can think of worse places to spend a few hours than Hong Kong's airport. Although it opened ten years ago - replacing the infamous Kai Tak Airport with its hair-raising approach and relatively frequent instances of planes taking a dip in Victoria Harbour after overshooting the runway - it looks barely a day old and is an extremely impressive structure. Unfortunately, our flight is at half past midnight and by the time we arrive most of the airport's fancy shops are shutting for the night. We're not short of time, however, so have a tasty bowl of noodles at one of the terminal's umpteen restaurants and loiter there until check-in time reading our trashy airport novels.

We're just about ready to call it a day and fall asleep when it's time to check-in. It's not far from midnight by now but the airport still seems remarkably busy. I'd have thought ours was the last flight of the day, but no, there are at least half a dozen more after it. As we sit at the gate waiting to board, too tired to read yet somehow too tired to snooze, a frisson of excitement runs through me as our flight
AnemonefishAnemonefishAnemonefish

Medicare Site, Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte - Credit Richard and Simone Haas
number and destination pop up on the TV screens. Cebu.

The Philippines feel like the final frontier of South-East Asia to me. We've visited nearly every other country in the region - Burma and East Timor being the only exceptions - and there is definitely something a bit mysterious about the Philippines. Something different, something unusual. It's a bit out of the way, perched on the very edge of Asia - "neither here nor there", according to the irrepressible Imelda Marcos. I've always imagined it as being quite similar to Indonesia, perhaps a miniature version of that huge, exhilarating archipelago. The Philippines' colonial past is a little more chequered than that of its neighbours: colonised by the Spanish in the sixteeth century, the archipelago was ceded to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century following the Spanish-American War. It remained an American possession until 1946, save for the war years during which the country was occupied, as was much of South East Asia, by the Japanese. Not Buddhist, not Muslim, but mostly Catholic - and fervently so - the Philippines are somewhat set apart from their regional neighbours.

The Philippines are an archipelago of over
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Medicare Site, Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte - Credit Richard and Simone Haas
seven thousand islands scattered in the deep waters of the Western Pacific Ocean. Unlike neighbouring Indonesia, the Philippine archipelago is compact and tightly bunched, spanning two thousand kilometres against Indonesia's five. The city of Cebu - the country's second largest city after Manila - is slap bang in the centre of it, on the island which shares its name. Cebu is the most economically important of the Visayas, the exotically-named band of islands that occupy the middle of the archipelago from Panay in the west, through Negros, Cebu, Bohol and Leyte, ending with Samar in the east.

We arrive in darkness, landing at about three o'clock in the morning. Unsurprisingly the airport is nearly deserted: we have a few hours to kill before making our next connection, and spend these comatose on a couple of loungers that happen to be lying around in the terminal. We're repeatedly approached by one of the airport security guards, who insists on waking us up and on heaping information leaflets and offers of a taxi ride on us. Contrary to much of the rest of South East Asia, the "hard sell" tactic seems pretty much absent here so far, and we are genuinely
FrogfishFrogfishFrogfish

Medicare Site, Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte - Credit Richard and Simone Haas
surprised to be address almost universally as "Sir" and "Madam", and not simply "hey you!" - the Vietnamese favourite.

At about five in the morning it's time to finally take up the guard on his offer of a taxi ride. He leaves the terminal building at a run to go and call his friend the taxi driver. We get into the car and I smile as he takes a fifty peso note from the driver - "sir" or no "sir", the commission culture is alive and well! Cebu airport is actually located on a neighbouring island, Mactan (much smaller but perhaps more famous than its neighbour Cebu as the place where Ferdinand Magellan met his sticky end at the hands of chief Lapu-Lapu), and the streets are deserted at this ungodly hour of the morning - things are no livelier across the bridge in Cebu. It is a short ride to Cebu's docks, a huge expanse of passenger and freight terminals and piers which make Cebu by far the country's busiest port, no insignificant title for a country with the exceptional geography of the Philippines! The cab driver drops us off at Pier 4, where a small crowd of
Unidentified strange fish...Unidentified strange fish...Unidentified strange fish...

Medicare Site, Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte - Credit Richard and Simone Haas
people is beginning to gather - this is terminal for the SuperCat service to Ormoc City in Leyte. Which is precisely where we're going, as it so happens.

Some readers may remember my account of a trip aboard a PELNI ferry in Indonesia. Compared to PELNI, a trip on the SuperCat was like a cruise on the QE2. After queueing up and paying for our tickets with minimal shoving and staring, we jump through a complex and - on the surface at least - thorough set of security hoops to the ferry. The Philippines have had their fair share of trouble with terrorism - mostly courtesy of the acronymically unfortunate Moro Islamic Liberation Front - and the terminal crawls with armed policemen, metal detectors and sniffer dogs. Rather bizarrely the boarding lounge (yes, boarding lounge!) has its own Dunkin' Donuts stand which provides a satisfying if not healthy breakfast ahead of our sailing. We board the ferry - a large, single deck catamaran not unlike some cross-Channel vessels - whereupon we are shown to our pre-assigned seats and our luggage stowed for us out of the way. I'm liking the Philippines.

There's something about docks and ports and shipping and containers and ferries that I find utterly mesmerising. The port of Cebu is no different, and as we pull away from the pier and accelerate into the busy channel that separates Cebu and Mactan islands a multitude of passenger and merchant vessels fills the view from our window. Small fishing canoes as well, sidling up to the massive hulls of inter-island ferries, just as we saw them do in Bandaneira some eighteen months ago. Small commuter ferries dart across the channel, carrying workers from the slums and towns of Mactan Island to the big city. I can only guess at what the countless cargo ships - flying Vietnamese, Maltese, Panamanian flags - are carrying. I am strongly reminded of my very favourite poem, Cargoes, by John Masefield.

The journey across the Camotes Sea to Leyte is short, a couple of hours, and I barely have the time to nod off before Alex nudges me awake as we approach Ormoc. We step off the boat into the blistering heat - fortunately there is a pick-up waiting to take us to our home for the next fortnight.

Leyte is not a massive island, less than 200km long and
Fast ferry from Cebu to OrmocFast ferry from Cebu to OrmocFast ferry from Cebu to Ormoc

Compare and contrast with an Indonesian PELNI ferry...
65km across at its widest point. Economically it is not particularly significant, heavily mountainous as it is, but, amazingly, the waters surrounding it were the site of one of the largest battles of World War II, and one of the largest naval battles in history. In late October 1944 the United States invaded Japanese-occupied Leyte, and in the weeks that followed destroyed much of the Japanese navy and marked the beginning of the end for Japan. There's not much to suggest the island's arguably pivotal role in history as we travel south from Ormoc, attempting to sleep after our marathon day but thwarted by the potholes...only paddy fields, endless, emerald-green paddy fields.

Padre Burgos is a small town at the very tip of Leyte, not a lot more than a modest collection of buildings hugging the road on either side. On the western side of the headland on which the town sits is the Bohol Sea - another of the Philippines' countless inland seas - and on the eastern is Sogod Bay, a deep bay over 10km wide that is to be the focus of our visit to the Philippines. For Sogod Bay is - according to our guidebook
Mactan ChannelMactan ChannelMactan Channel

Cebu is the busiest port in the Philippines, the hub of a vast network of ferries connecting the islands of the archipelago.
- "stocked like an aquarium".

Our ten days at Peter's Dive Resort prove that the bay is indeed a giant, clear, extraordinary aquarium of huge proportions. We rapidly settle down into a regular rhythm: wake up, dive, have a snack, dive, have lunch, collapse in a hammock, read a book, have a beer, have dinner, have another beer. Pure bliss, nothing more, nothing less. Sogod Bay's most famous residents, a group of ihotiki or whale sharks, are unfortunately on holidays elsewhere, but even in their absence the diving is nothing short of spectacular. The corals are quite unlike anything we have ever seen before: vast expanses of intact coral - spared the devastation of dynamite and cyanide fishing which have destroyed so many reefs in Asia - swarming, and I mean swarming with thousands upon thousands of fish. Precipitous drop-offs with magnificent walls make for unforgettable dives. Best of all - as far as I am concerned at least - is the profusion of brightly coloured invertebrates, what diving nerds call "macro" life, that thrive in the bay: shrimps of every imaginable colour, and more species of sea slug (look up "nudibranch" on Google and you'll see the name "sea slug" does the poor creatures no justice at all) than you can shake a regulator at. Having not won the lottery yet (I'm working towards it), I cannot afford proper underwater photography equipment without a second mortgage, but the sea life in Sogod Bay would certainly justify the expense. We were, however, lucky enough to dive with some wonderful people equipped with the proper gear - I include some of their photos: they are true works of art. Credit for these pictures goes to Richard and Simone Haas.

We were also lucky enough to be able to go on a truly unforgettable dive under Padre Burgos' pier one evening. A large, stained and ugly concrete structure, the pier looks like the last place you'd choose to go on a dive. The waters around the pier are strewn with the town's rubbish and look less than inviting. That all changes, however, after dark, when the shallow and murky waters under the pier positively come alive with the most extraordinary variety of sea life. The dive is exhausting and unsettling, taking place as it does in the dark, under a large concrete pier and with the water an obstacle course
Aboard the SuperCatAboard the SuperCatAboard the SuperCat

Assigned seating, food served to your seat - fancy!
of discarded building blocks, jagged metal sheets and plastic sacs - to be navigated by torchlight! Care is needed to navigate between the piers as the surge pushes you back and forth. I find there is a very fine indeed between calm and all-out panic in such a setting. The pay-off, however, is simply unbelievable: octopuses, seahorses, cuttlefish and squid, shrimps and crabs, giant sea hares, moray eels and frogfish. The unlikely setting and disquieting conditions only serve to enhance the experience, which ranks among our very best. It is so amazing that I turn down the chance to dive the pier a second time, for fear it will not equal the first...

Our time out of the water is just as wonderful: our large room has its own terrace, complete with hammock, looking out onto the bay. No better place to vegetate, either gazing out over the beautiful azure water spotting turtles coming up for air, or reading a book with a San Miguel in one hand. And with a bottle costing 40 pesos, what better reason not to have another?

P.S. As for the title of this entry...three days before leaving the UK for the Philippines, I had still not shaken off the bronchitis I'd had for the previous two months. I went to see the doctor, and mentioned I was in a rush to recover as I would be diving in a few days' time. Whereupon he warned me in a rather scary doctor tone that if I went diving before the infection cleared up, I might well die of a burst lung, a tension pneumothorax. "Well, at least it's quick and painless", I responded.




Additional photos below
Photos: 60, Displayed: 30


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Waste not, want notWaste not, want not
Waste not, want not

A boy playing on a home-made raft fahioned from a piece of polystyrene.
Corals, Sogod BayCorals, Sogod Bay
Corals, Sogod Bay

A beautiful table coral.
NudibranchNudibranch
Nudibranch

We saw a huge variety of sea slugs - nudibranchs - on most dives. They are among my favourite underwater creatures. Credit Richard and Simone Haas
Giant ClamGiant Clam
Giant Clam

Medicare Site, Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte - Credit Richard and Simone Haas
Chromodorid nudibranchChromodorid nudibranch
Chromodorid nudibranch

We saw a huge variety of sea slugs - nudibranchs - on most dives. They are among my favourite underwater creatures. Credit Richard and Simone Haas
Another beautiful shrimp.Another beautiful shrimp.
Another beautiful shrimp.

Medicare Site, Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte - Credit Richard and Simone Haas
Clouds of fishClouds of fish
Clouds of fish

Sogod Bay is, in the apt words of our guidebook, "stocked like an aquarium".


29th May 2008

Such life...
Dive. Sea. Beer. Book. Lounge. Pure bliss indeed. What a great blog. Wonderful pictures, too. And yes, the Philippines is a bit far from the SEAsian trail but it does offer some surprises. And there are more islands, seas, beaches to discover.
29th August 2008

Inspiring..
Yes, nice blog indeed. I'm glad you also borrowed some photos from your new friends. Nicely done.
14th January 2013

Will repost
If you don't mind, I'd like to repost this on my FB page (Lifeisacelebration) for my blogger friends here to read. I don't dive, but they do. Even I am amazed by all those underwater creatures-- so colorful, so lovely!

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