Tag Archives: Philippines

Full Fathom Five…

13 May

Imperial Japanese Navy ship AkutsishimaThere is a sepulchral magic to a shipwreck. Viewed from underwater, with russet filigrees of sea ferns flourishing on the fractured edges of a shell hole in the side, lettuce corals unfurling from a rusting crane, the gossamer fins of lionfish undulating like silken flags outside a propshaft, a wreck is one of the most awe-inspiring sights the planet has to offer.

The battle of Coron Bay might have faded into history. Just another skirmish in the closing throes of the Second World War in Asia, where US Helldiver pilots annihilated a Japanese supply convoy hiding in the Calamian Islands.

After the raid, in September 1944, it took weeks for some of these monsters to sink. They drifted, crippled, on the currents for many miles. Others went down almost instantly, taking many of their crew with them. Some have never been found.

Z and I visited three of the ones that have. Continue reading

Learning to Dive

9 May

View of Barracuda Lake in the Calamian Islands, Philippines

40 degrees centigrade below the surface!

We are still in Coron. That’s Coron Town, the meandering if unbeautiful little port of Busuanga Island, not Coron, the island, across the way. As is the thing to do in the Calamians, we’ve been diving.

There are many amazing things about scuba. There is the feeling of weightlessness — neutral buoyancy — whereby you move through the water in whichever direction you like, slow and lazy as an astronaut.

Then there’s the closeness to nature. You will, and do, see more of nature on a coral reef in a 30-minute dive than anywhere on land bar, say, the Serengeti or the Arctic during one of their great migration.

And, in coral, you are right among the life. Fish (and sea snakes) swim up to you, past you, around you, without the slightest fear, amid coral gardens picked out in technicolour.

It’s extraordinary. Not just coral reef. But lakes, rivers, quarries, kelp forests too. And a world that you have to experience. And I’m so, so glad that Z loves it too. We just need to get him qualified… Continue reading

Kirche Kuche Kinder

9 May

Every so often, while eavesdropping — or, perhaps, a more polite term is, err, “people-watching” — one comes across conversations that one, quite literally, couldn’t make up.

Ever since we met Klaus in Marinduque, I’ve been interested in those mutually advantageous marriages that a certain type of gentleman procures in the Philippines, and elsewhere in South-East Asia. I’d interpreted them, essentially, as an extension of sex tourism.

But the chap at the next table to us at our diving place the other night was looking for something rather different. Very much, in fact, the traditional kirche, kuche, kinder, with a little nostalgie de la boue, the desire for a primitive, Gauguinesque life among the natives. Or, as we say in English, unreconstructed sexist oaf seeks compliant light-brown slave.

I zoned into their conversation at a tricky juncture. “No, no,” the chap was saying. “You won’t like Norway. Let me tell you. All the Norwegian women will be jealous of you.”

Like any decent eavesdropper, my head turned to assess this self-described paragon of male beauty. Continue reading

Cargo Boats and Commandos

8 May

I’m a great fan of authenticity in travel. Travelling, where possible, as the locals do, which, given the wealth divide in the Philippines, means either with the driver(s) in the chauffeur’s seat(s), and the maid(s) and/or nanny(s) looking after the nippers, or (on our budget) by a spectacular range of public transportation.

Now, cargo boats are a mode of transport that are rapidly disappearing. Many of the big boats on the most popular worldwide routes now function as exclusive, floating hotels for baby boomers who still retain their 60s fantasies of tramp steamers, with a la carte dinners at the captain’s table, marble en suites, and the whole shebang.

So I was really excited to be taking a bona fide cargo boat from El Nido, Palawan, to Coron, in the Calamian Islands, which cluster a hundred miles or so north-east. So was the young master.

Well, he was until we boarded.

It would be fair to say that, for Z, there is such a thing as too much authenticity, and that that thing could be best expressed by reference to the good boat Josille. Continue reading

A Serpent in Paradise

3 May

Black banded sea krait rising from the base of the sea

Not, honestly, the best thing to see while snorkelling

The labyrinth of reef-fringed karsts around El Nido, Palawan, must be one of the best island-hopping destinations in the world. Whether above water or under it, we’ve had the most amazing couple of days.

A little too amazing for the camera I bought in Vientiane, making that two cameras down in under four months, so you’ll have to take the ensuing purple passages on trust…

We’ve spent the last two days island-hopping, first on kayaks, then on a bangka, with Z’s new friend Dima, from the Ukraine, but based in Manila, and his ma, Natasha. It’s been absolutely idyllic.

Take Secret Beach, for example. You snorkel through a foot high crevice in a jagged grey limestone cliff, above a dramatic, turquoise underwater drop off where shoals of angelfish clog the water, into a lost world: white sand beach, shallow coral lagoon, all fringed by these surreal volcanic shards of dark grey cliffs, with crabs scuttling boldly vertical towards the swifts’ nest up above. And you, your companions and your boat, have the place all to yourself. Continue reading

El Nido

2 May

view of bangkas and islands in El Nido bay.

A good way to wake up...

After a few weeks in the Philippines, one becomes almost inured to beauty.

Almost, but not quite, for El Nido, in the north of Palawan, really does take your breath away. It’s named for the swifts’ nests which snuggle within the gothic cliffs that cast a shade so deep the backstreets need streetlights of an afternoon.

A little place, about three streets deep and three streets wide, El Nido sits on a shallow, deeply indented bay, dominated by jagged shards of the cliffs and studded with deep green karst islands, forced from the bay by primeval forces, whose surrealist precipices, humps and angles resemble nothing more than a child’s first sketch of islands.

The first amazing glimpse of the sea in all its glory as you wind through crazy chocolate drop hills, past lazing caribao and palm-thatch villages, is utterly gobsmacking.

I’ve posted before about the beauty of serendipity in travel. And in El Nido, serendipity has really struck. I could never, in my wildest dreams, have imagined that five hours on the top of an overloaded bus over bad roads could be a beautiful thing.

Buses, and for that matter jeepneys, function in the rural Philippines as a form of FedEx, delivering unaccompanied goods from sacks of rice and boxes of chicks through to fridges and air conditioners. The bus we took, amongst other things, was carrying furniture. Result! Continue reading

Sweet Madeleines

30 Apr

Z up palm treeIt’s a wonderful thing, being a child. Who would have thought a palm tree could have provided pretty much an entire day’s amusement? Scaling it. Monkey-climbing it. Swinging from it. Jumping from it. Building fires under it…

I had planned to leave Port Barton today, which, given we hadn’t planned on being here in the first place, is understandable. My pocket pyromaniac, however, had other plans. And one of the joys of extending our trip was that I was able to say yes.

It was, of course, the palm tree wot done it. Dead-centre on the flawless crescent of white beach framed by viridian hills, it offers just about the perfect gradient. The slant is sufficiently slight to clamber up with ease, yet sufficiently steep for said activity to provide a challenge, with soft, white sand below it to cushion any fall.

It offers a pirate’s lookout over the tranquil bay, a place to watch the sheet lightning which has been flashing and crashing over the hills for much of the afternoon.

And, after a slight bout of homesickness yesterday, prompted in the most Proustian of fashions by the least Proustian of items – a packet of orange-flavoured chewy sweets — Z has been as happy as, well, as happy as a small boy up a palm tree.

Homesickness, I think, goes with the territory of long-term travel, whether as an individual or as a family. Continue reading

Maritime Woes

29 Apr

Fishing bangka with extra outrigging, off Palawan, the Philippines

You can find the bloody fish, though, can't you, chaps?

There are many things unique and wonderful about the Philippines. But the boatmen here are phenomenal in many of the wrong ways.

Right now, sat in utter serenity on a perfect crescent of a beach (me) and scaling a coconut palm (Z), the various unpleasantnesses of the morning feel like serendipity in action.

All the same, Filipino mariners are quite the phenomenon. I’ve traveled in heading for forty countries. This is the only nation I have ever visited where boats routinely deposit one in the wrong bloody place. Continue reading

Here Comes the Rain…

28 Apr

View from the Puerto Princesa Underground River, Palawan, Philippines: jagged rock and turquoise water.

Not, actually, a waterfall. Just the rain beginning....

Maybe it’s El Nino. Maybe it’s climate change. Maybe we’ve brought the English summer with us. But it feels like the rains have come early this year. And Z is overjoyed.

We walked to the Puerto Princesa underground river yesterday — supposedly the world’s longest navigable river — under heavy skies and dripping leaves. And as we emerged from the darkness of the cathedral cave into the green of the coastal forest where the river meets the sea, the rain fell in great sheets, ruffling the waters and throwing up spray. It felt, for a moment, as if we were paddling out into a waterfall.

There was a thunderstorm last night. There is a thunderstorm now, with bugs sheltering from the raindrops and flooding the lights, the grass a vivid green, the streams swelling already, gouts of water pouring from the nipa thatch, and a blessed coolness in the air. There will be thunderstorms tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that.

Three days ago, this was the view from our beach hut. Continue reading

Desert Island Caveboy

28 Apr

View of caves on Lipuun Point, Palawan, the Philippines

Home sweet home for almost 50,000 years

Even with my spawn noisily constructing a hand-axe from fossil coral and driftwood and a six-year-old channelling his inner T-Rex, there’s something about caves that speak irresistibly of mortality.

More than 200 limestone caverns burrow deep into the rock of Lipuun Point, a protected peninsula of mangroves and scrubby dipterocarp forests half an hour’s boat ride from the little town of Quezon, Palawan. 90% or so remain unexplored, and excavations continue, apparently at random, exposing deep layers of peach, cream and dusty bronze.

In one of the largest, a tumble-down cathedral over 40 metres long and perhaps half that in height, they found the skull of Tabon “Man”, which some date to as old as 47,000 years.

It was hard not to wonder, as small modern children played noisily in the shafts of light between waterfall stalactites and tumbling vines, how different they are from the kids who played before them, almost 50,000 years ago, and the unknown man or woman whose bones miraculously survived that long. Continue reading