A week paddling in the Calamian Islands – Linapacan and Palawan, Part 1

Second last night of our weeklong trip: We just had a final 15 km to go – easy peasy, compared to the other 25-30 km days we’ve had in some epic conditions. However, our rash guards were starting to smell ripe, despite our best attempts to rinse them out to dry every night. And most of us were suffering from awful itches from sandfly bites. On top of that, I’d just experienced my first jellyfish sting across my right shin, which left a souvenir of a couple horizontal lashes. And my abrasion from where my spray skirt and back rest rubbed against my lower back burnt, and hurt every time I so much moved my back.

Maybe Chelsea had the right idea after all, to opt out that last leg of kayaking and enjoy a leisurely boat ride to El Nido.

But, as we begun reminiscing about the highlights, TS commented, once those itches and sores fade away, you’ll just remember the good bits. Never truer words.

Day one: The day we travelled

Our day started at midnight essentially, at Changi Airport, where we gathered to fly the first leg over to Clark. Here’s a tip – if you’ve never traveled to the Philippines before, you need to show a return ticket; otherwise the airline would not let you fly. We did have return fare, but our guide Huey, who was already in the Philippines, hadn’t provided us the details, and they were on a separate airline. We also couldn’t reach Huey, due to his wifi connection issues, and so at the last minute, bought a throwaway one way ticket back from Manila for one of our crew, who had not yet been to the Philippines on her new passport. At least the fares were cheap.

Anyway, long day. We got a bit of shuteye on the flight and landed bright and early in Clark at 6am. Met up with our guides Huey and Rey, then caught another flight out to Coron. There, we had lunch before we embarked on a long tail boat for what the boatman optimistically called a 4-hour ride to our starting point, Bongalisian Island.

It ended up being a 6-hour journey on hard wooden benches. We were soaked by the spray within minutes of pushing off. But the long travel had worn us down, and we all napped most of that time away.

We sputtered into view of the island right at sunset, but the tide was low and getting lower, and 100m from shore, the bow struck reef. The storage compartment below started to take in water, but given that we were grounded on the reef, there wasn’t a need to panic. The chef continued to cook our dinner at the stern, while we lowered our kayaks into the water and ferried our gear across to land.

We arrived at our first night of camping at dusk, and pitched our tents in the dark
It’s so nice to sit and stare up at the night sky again, although we didn’t linger too long by the beach, no thanks to the relentless sandflies.

Camping – I awoke in the middle of the night to scratching by my head, which was positioned by the tent door so I could get the maximum breeze. Shone my flashlight out, and I let out a small, involuntary yelp when I saw a rat. Ugh. Ok I get that we got plenty of rodents in Australia when we camped too – but they were the cute pademelons and wallaby varieties! Just as I started to drift off again, I heard more scratching at the corner of the tent and saw my camp mug fall. This time I let out a blood curling scream that woke up the entire camp. Oops! But the rat was still only outside, thank goodness.

Day two: The day I got scared of the waves

The sky was a deep azure blue when we pushed off, a beautiful day. There was a strong steady wind in the air though, 20-30 km/h. Huey pointed at an island in the distance and bade us towards it. My hat soon flew off though, and I spent a precious few minutes paddling in circles, trying to retrieve it in the ever steepening waves. By the time I had it firmly stuffed back onto my head, the others in their single kayaks were already small specks in the distance.

The waves got progressively larger. They were parallel to my boat and I stubbornly stuck to course since it provided the shortest distance to the tip of the island we were going to round. But they made me nervous, and my blood pounded when several smacked me in the shoulder, sending my laden craft wobbling. Jeff gave up the route decided to tack closer to shore, which might have been a smarter idea – except that it meant a longer time in those churning waters.

Eventually, I made it unscathed to Huey, who calmed my nerves by promising me that these boats were long enough to withstand waves up to 5 feet. As it turned out, the others, even though they had had more sea kayaking experience, were also similarly somewhat unnerved; that comforted me. 🙂

Exploring a quiet channel out of the winds. Photo credit: Jeff
Photo credit: Huey

The rest of the day’s paddling was calmer; in fact, that first crossing was still the singular most nerve-wracking experience I had on the water, ever. But it was a long day getting to our camping spot of the night, for we had to battle strong headwinds to get there.

Photo credit: Rey

We made it with light to spare though, and leisurely put up our tents right on the soft sand to enjoy the maximum breeze. We’d chosen this island because, although it was a pain getting to because of the headwinds, had no sandflies, vs. our option B, which was downwind but had a reputation for sandflies.

As luck would have it though, by the time we settled in for the night, the wind had picked up even more, and as we drifted off the sleep, it started to pull out our tent pegs, sending the fly sheets slapping ferociously against the tents. It was impossible to sleep. One by one, we gave up and moved our tents inland to the shelter of trees. Initially, Jeff and I resisted, and I reinforced the tent pegs by weighting them down with piles of coral and rock. No matter. The wind was so gusty and strong that it ripped them all out. We’d the front flap of the fly pulled back to get some breeze, but the wind blasted us with sand through the tent netting. I zipped the fly back down, and sweltered in the heat until a particularly strong gust of wind flattened the front of the tent, and then the sides down. It was impossible. We fled then for the safety of the trees, and there, with the fly cover completely off, I fell asleep immediately.

Day three: The day of the long crossing

Sunrise the next morning – TS’s tent was the only one standing on the beach, but note how the winds lift the fly sheet.

This was a mixed accommodation trip – meaning we camped out some nights, and slept at resorts the other nights. To maximize our time on the water, and guarantee good meals, our guides Huey and Rey arranged for caterers across the islands to cook our meals. Typically, a caterer would provide our dinner – sumptuous fresh dishes of seafood (fish / prawns / squid), vegetables (stir fried or pickled cucumber and tomato salads), meat (chick / pork adobe or beef redang), fruit (mango / orange / pineapple / watermelon). The same caterer, if not staying on the same island as us, would then return at breakfast to provide us hot breakfast and packed lunch to go.

It was a great arrangement, and we always looked forward to each meal. Our group favorite – eggplant omelette with pancakes this particular morning. Totally hit the spot.

Huey displaying our lunch of grilled fish. Photo credit: Jeff

Today was our longest day so far. 30km – some of it against the wind, but most of it downwind this time. And initially, I struggled going downwind. It was absolutely exhausting and frustrating to try to keep my kayak pointed at the same direction, and I felt I was braking and steering my boat more than I was paddling.

Photo credit: Rey
Photo credit: Rey

In fact, I struggled most of the entire day, and only as we neared our final destination of the day – Dryft, our glamping accomodation – that the winds shifted against us, and for once I welcomed the headwinds. At least I didn’t feel like I was fighting the boat the entire time.

That evening though, the more seasoned pros let me in on the secret of how to surf waves. Rule number one: don’t fight the boat. Let it point in the direction where the wind is pushing it. As long as I can kind of keep it perpendicular to the waves, I won’t capsize. Rule number two: don’t fight the waves. Feel it lift the boat, then let it carry the boat down. Rule number three: this is the time to conserve your energy. There’s less of a need to paddle, but instead use the strokes to guide the boat down the face of the wave. I could not wait to try out these tips.

Dryft – only a 3-month old eco-glamping site. The place felt like paradise, and we felt so clean and refreshed after our cold showers, having not managed to rinse off the salt crusts for 3 days

Day four: The day of surf landings

Before we pushed off the next day, Chelsea, Jeff and I crossed the island to explore a shipwreck right off the tip. The general manager of our glamping resort, Andrew, assured us it was well worth the detour. And indeed it was! Not quite 50 m offshore and in shallow waters, the old fishing vessel was covered in corals and teeming with fish.

The winds had finally died down – but I was actually a little disappointed because I really wanted to put to practice the tips I’d learnt about surfing! Nonetheless, there were still lots of itty bitty waves to practice on, and I soon found myself grinning, as I glided and slid my way down one wave to the next. It felt so commonsensical, I couldn’t understand why I’d fought against the waves so much in the first place!

But we had other types of surfing to learn today too Рthe dreaded surf landings. These are tougher, and everyone got nervous when the normally blas̩ Huey had us raft up so he could properly brief us on what to do. Remove our spray skirt cover; put one leg outside the kayak; watch for a big set to go by first, then quickly paddle toward shore with a defensive brace. Right as the boat glides towards the sand, jump clear of the boat then drag it in before the next set of waves come.

Easier said than done. I got to shore with no hitch, but couldn’t quite manage to jump clear of the boat before a particularly nasty wave knocked me over and washed the kayak right over me. Oh well. Luckily, I’d secured my gear and didn’t lose anything, except my sponge.

Waiting for our lunch at the surf beach
Jeff getting ready to launch into the surf. Photo credit: Huey

At least getting out was easier. We had to punch our way out a series of waves, but we could see the waves and face them head on. I did get quite drenched though, and had to pump quite a bit of water out of my kayak.

Me punching out of the surf zone. Photo credit: Huey
TS taking a breather and enjoying the calm waves. Photo credit: Jeff

Coming into Nacpan Beach for our accommodation for the night at Huei’s Resort, Huey warned us to expect another surf landing. Happily though, the waves were teeny tiny, and the only troublesome bit was having to drag the heavy kayaks up a couple hundred meters to our huts.

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