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.

Birthday Sunrise Paddle

We joined Sydney by Kayak for a sunrise paddle today. It’s been months since we went out with Laura; it was still summer the last time we did so, for kayak netball. She’s gotten brand new kayaks now, all bold and cheerful colors, with cut-out glass bottoms and coffee holders!

Not much cloud cover – but the water was really nice and glassy, which was awesome for quietly drinking in the pastel sunrise, and our coffees. Adding to our wonder, was the seal playing by Blues Point, although it’d pop right back underwater as soon as we raised our cameras!

Birthday boy Jeff enjoying an early start to his morning. And Laura, bless her heart, baked muffins as a birthday surprise. She even managed to light candles in her boat!

Beautiful way to kick off spring. 🙂 And after packing up the kayaks and heading home for a quick breakfast of champions, we rounded off the morning with a long swim from Manly to Shelly and back. The dozens of baby dusky whaler sharks that we’d seen circling the waters earlier in winter had now graduated into the open waters, but in their place we spied Port Jackson sharks and a couple of Guitar sharks. Super cool stuff!

Short Getaway to Hamilton Island

We were looking forward to breaking out our skis for a weekend in Queenstown, New Zealand, but couldn’t quite justify the cost for a short trip. So instead we looked northwards, to Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays, where we could go snorkeling in the midst of winter without fear of jellyfish stings.

Great long weekend getaway. Our chalet rental came with a golf buggy, which we used to explore around the island. We were definitely grateful to drive it up and down the steep One Tree Hill peak multiple times over the course of our stay for the cheap $10 cocktails and the beautiful sunsets on the peak.

Puttering around Hamilton Island in our golf buggy

 

Moonlight over Passage Peak - Hamilton Island
Moonlight over Passage Peak – Hamilton Island

Our one grouse about staying on a resort island – limited and overly strict regulations on sport rental. There was a single kayak rental on the island (!!!), on the long Catseye Beach, but we were restricted to paddling within a 1km perimeter. Same with the catamaran rental. Gah. So we rented a dinghy instead to explore the nearby islands. Even then, we weren’t allowed to wander too far off, or even circumnavigate Hamilton Island. On hindsight, we should have brought our own kayaks. But hey, it was fun driving our own little dinghy.

 

 

 

Unfortunately, the snorkeling leaves much to be desired around Hamilton Island. We’re not sure how much of that is due to Cyclone Debbie that ravaged the area in April, but there were barely any coral around, nor much fish to see. So we booked ourselves on a snorkeling tour to the Outer Barrier Reefs on a day trip. Happy to report that the reefs there are still really healthy and abundant, if not the most colorful. Tons of fishes.

Enjoying a stunning sunset atop One Tree Hill - Hamilton Island
Enjoying a stunning sunset atop One Tree Hill – Hamilton Island

 

Sunrise over Catseye Beach - Hamilton Island
Sunrise over Catseye Beach – Hamilton Island

Sunrise over Catseye Beach - Hamilton Island
Wading in the shallow waters at Catseye Beach, hoping to catch glimpse of turtles heading out for their early morning swim. Didn’t spy any, but we did spot plenty of crabs, an octopus, and some fish.

 

View atop Passage Peak - Hamilton Island
View atop Passage Peak

Full moon weekend in Kiama

We were supposed to go camping in Kiama a couple of weeks ago with a bunch of friends. It was a new-moon weekend, perfect for astrophotography. Alas, I caught a cold at the last minute, so Jeff and I regrettably had to drop out. From the pictures, everyone else looked like they had a blast, so we had a huge case of FOMO. So this past weekend, we loaded our car with snorkel gear and kayaks, and drove down the coast.

It was swell. Although it was quite chilly out, snorkeling at Bushrangers Bay in Shellharbour was awesome. Right at the start of our snorkel, we spotted a giant cuttlefish – maybe a foot long. We followed it for quite a while, taking our fill of photographs and videos, then spied another resting by a clump of sea grass. We spotted 3 more cuttlefish by the time we got too cold to continue – plus a humongous Australian Short Tail Stingray gliding by below us.

Giant cuttlefish in Bushranger Bay, Shellharbour (photo by Jeff Fung)

We caught the sunset by the famed Cathedral Rock, where I crouched down in a teeny tiny nook between huge boulders, with the tide fast lapping at my feet. A couple was watching the colours (a bit too muted, alas) near us too, and Jeff ended up helping film the guy’s proposal. 🙂

In the deepening twilight, we spotted a pod of dolphins swimming the length of the beach just offshore.

After dinner, under the full moonlight, we ventured down to Bombo Quarry for a bit of exploration. Our mind was blown by how much light the camera could pick up. Even with just a couple of seconds’ exposure, everyone was lit up, almost as bright as day. Initially, I’d been a tad disappointed at not being able to take pictures of the milky way, but I think I’m a full moon convert now. Granted, the milky way isn’t as prominent under the full moon, but I love how everything else just jumps out.

And before heading back to Sydney and real life the next morning, we went for a bit of a paddle up the coast, squinting out in the horizon for those tell tale spots. No luck alas, even though we’d spied two active pods the day before. Can’t complain though, it was still a very awesome weekend. 😀

Weekend in Batemans Bay

My mum came to visit, so we went for a long weekend down in Batemans Bay. It’s a gorgeous location – very chill, much more low key than Jervis Bay, an hour to the north.

We got an AirBnB down by Surf Beach, where we went to one morning to catch the sunrise. The storm clouds from the day before still hung low above the horizon, but as the sun started to rise, the clouds dissipated.

Perfect for a leisurely kayaking trip along the coast. Since we had my mum with us, we didn’t bring our foldable kayaks, but joined a tour with Region X Kayak. It took some persuading for my mum to agree to go on the tour, but in the end, she said it was the highlight of her Sydney trip. 🙂 She was in a double kayak with Josh, the guide, and had an enjoyable time keeping her eyes peeled for the pods of dolphins playing in the waters in the bays.

We also checked out Guerrilla Bay, which lies in Batemans Bay Marine Park. It’s a picturesque location with a small rocky island that separates the bay by a narrow strip of sand which is accessible even at high tide. Jeff and I donned on our wetsuits one late morning, and slipped into the waters for a bit of snorkel. Not a bad swim – there were quite a few schools of fish, and even more sea urchins – but the current was buffeting and the waters very bracing. Maybe better in summer, and with gloves to pick the sea urchins.

We also checked out the Boat Ramp by Mossy Bay, where our kayak guide Josh had promised sightings of those gigantic Australian Short Tail Sting Ray. Indeed, we spotted a few swimming to and fro by the pier.

Australia’s largest sting ray, the Short Tail Sting Ray (photo credit: my mum)

We also managed to squeeze in an astroshoot by the beach Sunday evening. The clear skies meant for a lousy sunset, but we had about a 45-minute window between dusk and the full moon rise, enough time to get in some shots of the milky way overhead.

All in all, a most relaxing weekend down the coast.

How is it winter already?

2017 is zooming us by. I can’t believe it’s just a few days more before winter arrives in the Southern hemisphere.

Looking at the number of photographs I’ve taken so far this year, my output has fallen quite a bit. Indeed, I haven’t felt that driven to go out for sunrise shoots, or just shoots in general.

I could probably point to more than half a dozen reasons why this is the case, but I think part of it is due to my lousy sleep patterns. I just haven’t been sleeping that well. Most nights, I wake up at three and either just toss and turn for the next couple of hours or just give up and read in bed. By the time I’m feeling drowsy again, it’s almost time to get ready for sunrise – but I’m not in a safe state to drive.

The other big reason though, is that increasingly, I’ve felt that my seascapes photographs, in of themselves, are lonely scenes. They are just static pictures and don’t tell a story, of life, of adventure. I’ve enjoyed my past year in learning how to read the different conditions of the clouds and tides, the myriad compositions I can take to capture a certain mood or drama. But I’m beginning to feel removed from the action. Rather than take pictures of the waves, increasingly, I want to dive between the waves. To have my senses shocked by the biting cold waters, to be knocked off my feet by it’s sudden ferocity, then embraced by the swash.

And so, this past weekend, we have chosen to do just that. Left my camera and tripod at home, and just went ocean swimming with our snorkels. It felt good. To be able to efficiently slice through the water with bare hands, and ogle at leisure the schools of fish in the clear waters. Baby dusky whalers, wobbegongs, sting rays, groupers, squids, trumpet fish, old wifes, flounders, flatheads, leatherjackets, yellowtail scads, wrasses etc.

After, we unfolded our kayaks and paddled around North Harbour, starting from the Manly Sea Life Museum and hugging the Fairlight beach to Dobroyd Head, before crossing the harbour to Quarantine Station Wharf, Store Beach and Collins Flat Beach. It was a glorious end autumn day with brilliant blue skies and a warm sun.

I did snap a couple pictures with my phone though. Just for keepsake. 😉

Checking off our first open water swims

At the end of last year, we resolved that we would try an open water swim in Sydney. The 1.5km Manly to Shelly (and back) swim seemed like the easiest bet.

Last weekend seemed a good time to check off that bucket list. Winter is fast approaching; already, the water temperature is a fresh 20 Celsius. We’d a string of sunny days too and gentle swell in the weather report, so we asked a couple other friends keen to check off that swim as well and off we went!

Our friend Nicola has done that swim hundreds of times in the past 4 years. She did it again that Saturday morning at 7am, and messaged us soon that we just had to do it today. I’ve never seen conditions like it, she said. So many fish and sharks and awesome visibility, all the way through.

That was all the encouragement we needed. And indeed, what a swim! We’d brought snorkels in anticipation of gawking at the marine life, but it still blew our minds. We could see the bottom the entire length of the 700m swim from Manly to Shelly Beach, where we saw dozens of baby dusky whaler sharks lazily swimming about, schools of SBT (shiny bright things), three wobbegongs, groupers, sting rays (including a banded stingaree). We had so much fun, we forgot we were supposed to be swimming, and instead spent minutes hovering over the coral beds staring and pointing and grinning. Why had we thought it was a scary swim???

The next morning, Sunday, Nicola messaged us again. She’d gone out to swim again, and conditions were just as stellar. Rose and Lisa had other commitments, but Jeff and I didn’t need much prodding. This time, we brought the GoPro along too.

It was glorious. And we checked off our big 2017 resolution, twice. 😀

(Addendum: We went back to swim a week later – yesterday. The visibility was still quite good, but we learnt first hand that yes, the ocean won’t always be so nice and glassy. After battling the choppy waves for a while, we abandoned the effort. Oh well, the water was still nice and refreshing though.)

Kayaking and Camping: Bay of Islands New Zealand

We didn’t know if we could actually go ahead with kayaking and camping overnight on Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands until a day and a half before – and after we had flown into Auckland, New Zealand. We packed our tent and sleeping bags anyway, and let customs run the tent under their microscope for biohazards before they let us out of the terminal. But as soon as we got confirmation that yes, the forecast looks decent, and that yes, the winds look under control, we shot to the supermarket to load up on groceries and the camping store to pick up a bottle of fuel.

So it was with much anticipation that we loaded up our kayaks – a single and double – on Long Beach at Russel, and pushed off towards Motuarohia Island, the first island on our Bay of Islands 2-day kayak/camping expedition. There was a slight breeze playing about, but the currents were light and we crossed the channel easily. This was a popular first stop for many guided kayak and sailing trips, for the cove had many good snorkeling spots and there was a trail people could hike up to for a good vantage view of the surrounding islands.

Motuarohia Island, Bay of Islands New Zealand
View atop Motuarohia Island, Bay of Islands New Zealand

We aimed for Moturua Island next, intending to pull up along a beach for a spot of swimming. But we made good time, and felt strong, and so decided to push on instead to Waewaetorea Island. Beautiful stretch of white sandy beach filled with sea shells. While Chris lay in the sun to try to soak up the heat, Jeff and I eagerly plunged into the waters for some snorkeling. Loved how clear the waters were, and how the sun rays filtered through the water like spot light on sections of sea grass and schools of fishes.

Paddling off Waewaetorea Island, Bay of Islands New Zealand
Paddling off Waewaetorea Island

When the clouds started to roll in, we jumped back into our kayaks again and pushed off towards Urupukapuka Island, the only island in the Bay of Islands with campsites. As it was the shoulder season though, the campsite was mostly empty, save a couple tents on far ends of the huge bay and a group of rowdy septuagenarians from a rowing club in the Sunshine Coast. They had arrived at the site a couple days before us, and were planning to stay a total of five nights, using the island as a base to explore. So cool. We want to be them when we grow up. 🙂

But anyway, we had the pick of the sites, so we pitched our tent right at the edge of the beach, by the water tap and an outdoor shower. 😀

Setting up camp on Urupukapuka Island
Setting up camp on Urupukapuka Island

Urupukapuka Island is one of the larger islands in the Bay of Islands, with many walking trails we could wander up on. So we did just that, after refueling ourselves with some hot vitamin C drink and soup. It was lovely to stroll through the sheep paddock in the golden evening light.

And even lovelier, when we’d filled up our tummies with more hot food and the stars popped out of the inky blue sky. We kicked back, relaxed, and luxuriously stretched out our sore muscles as we gazed up on the milky way, listening to the waves gently lapping onto the beach. Try as we might though, we couldn’t keep our eyes open for long, and so packed it in just before 10pm.

Milky Way off Urupukapuka Island

Milky Way off Urupukapuka Island

Milky Way off Urupukapuka Island
We couldn’t ask for much more – a beautiful day out paddling around the Bay of Islands, cooling off in the crystal clear waters snorkeling, and relaxing under the stars by the beach

In the morning, we all woke up early to try to catch the sunrise. I hiked up the hill again in search of the beautiful golden light; Jeff went for a long swim in the still chilly waters in the cove, while Chris parked herself at the edge of the cliff to watch the sun’s first rays hit the water.

Seeing how invigorated Jeff was from his swim, I wanted in on the action too, and so grabbed my mask and snorkel and dove in. The water felt brisk on my skin, but my head was clear as I swam, marveling at the fishes darting in between the waving sea grass. Imagine my shock then, when all of a sudden, I swim on top of the largest sting ray I’d ever laid eyes on. It was calmly resting on the sea grass – crushing it in fact. I didn’t dare get too close to it, but from where I hovered 10 feet above it, it looked bigger than my wingspan. It was the short tail sting ray that we’d tried to no avail to spot in Jervis Bay a couple weeks ago! I yelled across the cove to Jeff who was now dressed and by the tents. He looked like he was hesitating to go back into the water again though, so I just continued on my swim. But he changed his mind and swam out to meet me. Alas, we couldn’t find the ray again. We did spot a couple other smaller species though, chasing fishes. Perfect way to start the morning.

We’d perhaps luxuriated too long in our island campsite though. By the time we packed up and pushed off, it was already 1045am. The winds had picked up from the day before too, causing larger waves to form against the eastern back of Urupukapuka Island. We’d planned to circumnavigate our way clockwise around it, but turned back soon after we saw how much rougher it was.

Probably a good thing. We needed all the time we could get to make our way back to Long Beach on Russel for the kayaks pick-up. Especially all the more so when I mis-read the map and had us fight the currents to Parekura Bay instead of Moturua Island. Ugh. Lesson learnt. Bring a compass next time. 😦 Still, that little misadventure did not damp our high spirits for what turned out to be an incredible start to our North Island adventure.

Our kayak route around the Bay of Islands
Our kayak route around the Bay of Islands