A week kayaking in Palawan, Part 2

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.

Our lunch spot. Photo credit: Shoe

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.

Another bit of stunningly pristine beach to camp at
Photo credit: Rey
I do love those high clouds
The long tail boat in the background was delivering our dinner. The chef’s one of the best we’ve had this entire trip, and each day we eagerly looked forward to his meals.
Dinner delivered on a surfboard

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.

Photo credit: Rey
Setting up camp right on the beach again

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.

Photo credit: Shoe
Photo credit: Rey
The waters of Palawan are stunningly clear. If we weren’t in sea kayaks, but the more accessible inflatables, we’d have jumped in and out multiple times just to get a better peak at the paradise underwater

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.

Photo credit: Shoe

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.

Our private accommodation – private because we literally took up all their available 6 rooms
Our private accommodations on our penultimate night in Palawan, Philippines. Photo credit: TSL

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.

After a week of pristine island hopping, it was a little jarring to be thrust back into “civilization”, or in this case, the town of El Nido, filled with souvenir stores, massage salons, and bars.

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 – the dreaded surf landings. These are tougher, and everyone got nervous when the normally blasé 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.

Diving in Tubbataha Reef, Philippines

We spent the past week on the Stella Maris Liveaboard, plying the remote Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Seas. Belonging to the Philippines, this 130,028 ha atoll was designated a UNESCO site in 1993, and can only be reached by liveaboards 3 months of the year (mid-March through May) owing to rough seas at other times.

Despite trying to tamper our expectations, we went with high hopes of seeing tons of pelagics. Whale sharks, hammerheads, manta rays – these were all supposed to be par for the course. In the end, we did not check any of these boxes off, due in part to light currents, and in part to strong winds and huge swells that restricted us to diving the same site 8x over the last three days (there was a 5.5 magnitude earthquake in the northern Philippines).

Nonetheless, the diving was top notch, and one of our favorites so far. The corals were mostly in pristine conditions, and there was always a ton of different fishes, rays, turtles, and sharks to feast our eyes on. Everyone’s favorite dive was, hands down, the Deslan Wreck, where, when we descended to a gap between a wall of corals, we could take a respite from the current and gawk at the dozens of circling reef sharks. This was pretty much the only site on our trip where we enjoyed a current that swept us along the coral wall, past schools of juvenile barracudas and trevally, resting turtles, yet more sharks, and tons of other reef fish.

Clown trigger fish

Devil fish

 

School of juvenile barracuda

 

Clown fish

 

Turtle

 

Diving Tubbataha Reef Philippines

 

Marble ray – Tubbataha Reef Philippines

We had good company too. Cristalle and her friend Alan from Hong Kong organized the trip for a total of 7 of us, and we were joined by a Chinese group from largely from Shanghai and a couple from Hai Nan. Our group of 7 dove with the couple from Hai Nan, and we past many happy hours in between diving and snacking and sleeping laughing together and practicing our Mandarin. That helped make the hours just fly by, especially on the unbearably long ride back from the reef to Puerto Princessa, through rough seas of up to 21 feet that sent whatever that wasn’t bolted to the floor tumbling across the boat.

Good times, happy memories.