Between Borneo and Manila, there is an archipelago with a biodiversity that is virtually unmatched, both underwater and above. Robinson Crusoe would feel right at home here on this final frontier called Palawan. With a kayak, snorkel and hiking shoes, I cross this boundary and enter paradise.
Words and Photography: Daan Vermeer
If you’ve ever paddled in the waters around Bali or Ko Phuket, you would know the overwhelming feeling you get from ocean kayaking. Sitting in my canary yellow kayak,I make my way around the northern islands of Palawan. Filipino kayaks actually require you to sit on top of them, rather than inside them, so with every little wave, I brace myself, hoping not to fall off.
Playing in the waves, I see a wooden bangka (outrigger canoe) a hundred metres to my left. The boat, with floats on both sides to keep it stable, is coming from the direction of Whale Island and heading to the mainland with three dark men, probably from the local Tagbanua tribe, paddling in unison. Whale Island is just one of hundreds of islands here and it’s not very familiar to anyone. It’s a true last frontier.
A moment ago, I had an inviting sandy beach with palm trees to my right, now, all I see are rugged rock formations, hardly 10 metres from my boat. Where the waves crash against the rocks, I notice fossilised shells and sea urchins. To avoid being thrown onto the rocks, I paddle hard to get to the island of Miniloc.
My timing is perfect; high tide is coming in and the pathway filled with sea urchins slowly becomes submerged. Seated on my kayak, the water carries me through, onwards to the big lagoon of Miniloc. It’s an emerald green lake, and in some places, the coral has grown up to the surface of the water. I really need to be careful where I place my paddle. The cliffs that surround the lake and disappear into the water are overgrown with tropical rainforest. Even if I were to succeed in climbing onto the rocks, the density of the forest would simply make a hike an impossible undertaking.
The lake itself is a true underwater zoo with coral, turtles and even small sharks living here. “These sharks will only bite off your hand, not a whole arm,” the receptionist at my resort on the other side of the island had joked.
Still, I don’t even come close to thinking of jumping into the water. I’m just fine bobbing about above the water. Getting out of the lagoon is a lot trickier as it turns out. I feel the force of the current and even before I reach the mouth of the lagoon, I can feel my arms becoming heavier. When I get back to my resort, a couple of hundred metres of paddling away, I do nothing else but enjoy the sunset and a coconut.
FACE TO FACE WITH THE MACAQUES
The next day, I board a bangka that has been painted white. The boat takes me to the island of Lagen, about an hour away. At noon, with a map in my hand, I’m at the starting point of a jungle trail. It takes just fifty steps to completely disappear into the island’s lush rainforest.
The sounds of the surf make way for unfamiliar jungle sounds, and I wonder if they are made by birds or other animals. The cool sea breeze does not reach as far as this place. Here, the heat and humidity have the upper hand and there is not much light. The first kilometre of the path is a steep uphill climb, past hanging lianas. The effort causes me to break into a serious sweat. Then, I hear the rain splattering the dense foliage above me. Although the rainforest lives up to its name, down here everything remains dry.
A sudden scuffling sound comes from the shrubbery. I see an animal, slowly crawling on the ground, but the many shrubs prevent me from distinguishing what kind of animal it is at first. Then, I see a long tail and grey fur and I immediately know this is a macaque. Macaques don’t usually attack humans, but I’m still somewhat worried. After all, this is their territory. I fumble with my camera, but the monkeys are too fast. They climb into the trees, swinging from one liana to another and look at me from a distance as I look back through my camera lens.
For a second, I think of a conversation I had with my doctor. She told me that a bite or scratch from a Java-monkey can transmit deadly diseases. So here I am, in the middle of the jungle, hours away from the nearest hospital. Should I really try to take this picture, or should I just get out of here? While I’m pondering the question, somewhere from the upper left, a small branch is thrown at me. A large monkey is growling at me. I don’t speak their language, but this is enough to tell me they are not very happy to see me. I take the cue and retreat.
Having crossed over the mountain, I hear the surf breaking again. The path opens up to an empty bay, boxed in between the mountains I just navigated. The rain shower that I heard earlier is a complete mystery to me, as there is nothing but sunlight and clear skies here. I put on my flippers and snorkel gear and head into the water. Yesterday, while kayaking, I marvelled at the abundance of underwater life and it is no different here. Quite often, you need to squeeze into a wetsuit and follow a diving course to be able to view stunning coral, but a diving mask will suffice here as the coral is just a meter below the surface.
The day after, I sail over to the nearby island of Busuanga. After a breakfast of mango-cinnamon pancakes and some fresh pineapple, I decide to follow a local named Solomon on his bangka, as he promises to show me the deserted paradise of Coron.
On our way, we pass Siete Picaios or the Seven Tiny Islands. We tie the boat to a rock to take a dive into the seawater. “Don’t jump out of the boat, otherwise you will land on the coral!” Solomon warns me. Underwater, the islands are connected by coral gardens teeming with thousands of fish. Even when I lie still in the water, I need to be careful not to damage anything with my flippers. Table coral, sea anemones and fish in all the colours of the rainbow provide a magical sight. The fish don’t seem to be bothered by my presence; they constantly bump into me as if I’m not there.
Visiting the many historic and heritage sites in the Philippines is like travelling back in time, but on the island of Coron, it’s as if time stands still. The Tagbanuas live on wooden pile dwellings on the water, against the rocks, with a canoe by their front door. The smoky aroma of a barbecue wafts towards us; in the bay where we moor, manioc is being prepared over a wooden fire.
We choose a path that will require some stiff climbing. What I’d seen earlier from the canoe, I now see from the top of a mountain. The cliffs drop into a lagoon, its colours spanning the palette board from cobalt blue to emerald green. In between the branches, I spot the cluster of pile dwellings by the sandy beach below. It’s just as well that nothing may be built here, or this island would’ve been swallowed up by holiday resorts long ago.
The path then leads downhill towards Lake Kayangan, which is connected to the sea through a system of caves. The water is immaculately clear, smooth as glass. Just below the surface, fish shaped like nails lie motionless. Through my diving mask, I see how the rugged mountains turn into stalagmites and pointy rocks under water. Solomon swims ahead, towards a cave. When I look up through my diving mask, far above the water surface, I see a hole in the cave ceiling, where the jungle continues.
“Shall we go to a ship’s wreckage nearby, before we return? We may see some small sharks swimming around it,” Solomon suggests.
I bet these are those baby sharks that will “only bite off your hand, not the whole arm”. After the sharks at Miniloc and the wild monkeys of Lagen, I think it’s time for me to return to civilisation.
Although often touted as the last frontier island of Philippines, Palawan is quite easy to get to. Puerto Princesa, located in the middle of the 450-kilometre long island, is its main entry point. From the airport, it’s a five hour drive (USD11) by minivan to the islands of northern El Nido. Coron on the island of Busuanga is reached by ferry from El Nido (USD22, seven to nine hours). There are several ferry operators and schedules and, prices differ.
BEST TRAVEL TIME
A stable temperature of about 30 degrees Celsius makes Palawan pleasant all year around. Waves are calmest between February and June – that is also the time with the least rain.
Wherever you are on Palawan, Busuanga or Coron, coral reefs and beaches are never far. Villages and (more upscale) resorts often have dive schools and tour desks. Opt for a full day island tour where you’ll be provided a snorkelling set, lunch and multiple swimming spots for about USD15. Kayaks are rented out at some shops in El Nido and provided for free when staying in resorts like the ones at Lagen Island and Miniloc Island.
Protection against hepatitis A, diphtheria-tetanuspoliomyelitis, malaria and dengue fever is recommended.
GEMS OF PALAWAN
Palawan’s laid-back fishing village of El Nido is easy to reach, and makes a great base to spend the night, enjoy fresh seafood and take day trips to outlying islands. Down south, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, also known as the 8.2km-long Underground River, might just be the most impressive, as well as the longest underground river on earth. Since the river itself is navigable for over four kilometres, it’s easy to board a small boat and discover this natural marvel yourself. Within the national park, over 800 plant species and almost 200 bird species can be found. UNESCO granted it the status of a Natural World Heritage Site in 1999.
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