What makes a trip? The scenery, the weather, of course. But gorgeous scenery abound. At the end of the day though, it’s the fuzzy, warm feeling that you get when you look back. Feelings borne from the company we keep.
There’s TS, a grandfather of four, but more fit and strong than I could ever be. He’s always the first ready in the mornings to push off, having packed away his gear and stashed his tent back into his kayak when everyone else is still struggling to get back into damp clothes. There’s Shoe, kind hearted and generous, and always with a ready laugh. There’s Chelsea, a casual kayaker by her own reckoning but who chose to come on this expedition as her one crazy thing to do a year (her previous adventures include joining a whale shark research program in the Maldives for two weeks, learning free diving, and running the NYC marathon). There’s Scott, a contract teacher at one of the top secondary schools in Singapore but who also spends half of the year kayaking the lakes in his native Canada. Then there are the guides Huey and Rey, cool as cucumbers and super chill with their laid back attitudes. Nonetheless, they run an efficient operation – even as we kick back at the end of the day to rest our tired bodies from the day’s kayaking, they are in the background quietly ensuring that our meals get delivered, along with treats such as bottles of Filipino brandy, rum, and beer.
So it was we laughed through a lovely week with this crew.
Day five: The day we hit the famous El Nido Islands
Ever since we went diving in Tubbataha Reef in 2017, the Palawan islands held my attention. At the Puerto Princessa airport where we landed, billboards touting the crystal green waters of these karst islands captivated me. So when we found out that Kayak Asia was organizing a week long kayaking and camping trip here, we did not hesitate to sign up.
The scenery did not disappoint. There’s a magical beauty to these imposing limestone monoliths that rise vertically from the ocean floor. Over millenia, the waves have eroded away the bottoms, so we could seek shelter from the sun under their overhanging roofs.
After a long day on the water, we were looking forward to land and stretch our legs. But first, another surf landing. A milder one, but it’s all about the timing, and this time, the waves got the better of Jeff.
Most of the beaches this side of Palawan are owned by private families. So private, it’s impossible to contact them beforehand to ask for permission to camp. But they’re usually looked after by solitary caretakers in tidy little shacks on the island, and these caretakers are usually willing to let us beach for a night. Otherwise, it can be quite a lonely existence. One caretaker we met subsisted on instant noodles and sardines nearly every meal, and sometimes went without speaking to anyone else for months at a time.
Day six: Another day exploring the Palawan Islands
The sun was back out today, which was awesome since the light cut right through the waters all the way to the bottom of the sea bed. The coral reefs in Palawan are very healthy, which is heartening to see, though we expected to see much more fish. Still, we did spot turtles along our paddles, and in the water, I did see a sting ray, and a banded sea snake, amongst the usual colorful reef fish. No sharks, though Shoe thought she might have spotted a dugong on the surface.
Day seven: Last full day on the water
I slept so well with the fly sheet propped open. The air was crisp and cool, with a gentle breeze, and we awoke to another stunning sunrise. Our last day of camping, and our last full day on the water.
We passed the so called Secret Lagoon today, one of the dozens of must-see tourist attractions in El Nido. There must have been at least a dozen long tail boats parked at the entrance of the lagoon, and a few dozen people snorkeling in the water in their bright orange vests. We steered well clear of them, but happily gravitated to the boat man peddling ice cream in his kayak. What a treat on such a warm day, and right before we squared our shoulders and braced ourselves navigating a narrow passage out of the circle of monoliths into the wind.
It took us a while to find our accommodation of the evening, because it was tucked away around the lip of the peninsula. From the outside, the place looked rustic, unassuming. And my comfort level wasn’t boosted when we pulled up into the swampy beach and had to get out of the kayak into murky waters. Almost immediately, I let out a yelp. I’d gotten stung by a jellyfish. It hurt. To their credit, the elderly lady of the establishment heard my groans of pain and rushed over with a liter bottle of vinegar water that she proceeded to generously pour down my shin. Scott joined me – he’d also gotten stung.
But the place was in fact lovely, with beautifully polished teak floors and doors (that TS wanted to buy and ship home!). And the rooms were palatial. We took up all their available rooms and had the entire place to ourselves. It was a beautiful spot to lounge around after we’d all cleaned up to drink some rum and watch the sun set.
Day eight: the day we powered without stopping to the end
And then, it was the last day already. The last 15 km stretch. If we thought we’d take it easy, Huey had other plans. He decided to power through the entire distance without stopping. I had trouble keeping up with the front pack the first half hour, until my right shoulder warmed up and I got into the rhythm. But by then, Huey and TS were mere specks in the distance. I had hustle to keep Scott and Shoe in my sights, lest I lose visual of them as well. We’d given all our bags for Chelsea to take with her via boat back to El Nido, as day was technically an optional paddling day, so I had no phone or compass with me. Jeff and Rey hung back, content to enjoy their last times on the water. But it was a fun paddle, after I’d properly warmed up, and I kept marveling at how clear the waters were.
Before we knew it, and way before Chelsea and the boat with our luggage arrived, we’d already reached our resort. Time to get properly cleaned up and plunge back into the connected world with our phones.