Round Singapore Paddle 27-30 August 2021

151km later (or 145km if you were a more experienced / efficient paddler and didn’t zig-zag like we did), we did it: a circumnavigation of Singapore and 28 of her islands, to raise funds for the Children Cancer Foundation. As of this moment (donations close end September), we’ve raised north of $30k, including pledges from our sponsors!

We are deeply grateful to have been included in this expedition. Conceived by our friend Shirley only just a short couple of months ago, it’s astonishing how she and a core group supported by Sea Ops, managed to push through all the naysayers and endless regulatory red tape to put together an event that was professionally run: We had the coast guards and maritime port authority vessels helping manage traffic at crucial junctures of our journey; we had fellow kayaking enthusiasts volunteering their time to help with logistics on land and photography; teammates helping patch the 35-year old kayaks Sea Ops had given a second life; companies stepping in to sponsor or match our donations; and a generous donor at the end who sponsored our delicious seafood dinner at our end point at SAF Yacht Club. Really huge hats off.

We also feel extremely privileged to have been introduced into this community of kayaking enthusiasts in Singapore – there are so many folks in the group that have vast and deep experiences to share. We learnt a lot paddling with them these past four days: How to lead an expedition; how to help out as port, starboard, and stern sweepers; how to read the winds and tides and plan our trips around these; that even if the tide is against us, it’s possible to find lines of localised eddies that are in our direction of travel. That this was a community organised event made it all the more special, as we weren’t just participants, but all teammates working in concert.

That last point was a lesson that didn’t really resonate till right before the event started. Initially, I’d wondered why we couldn’t procure newer and more sea-worthy kayaks for use, instead of having us macgyver modifications to the boats: sourcing and sawing off PVC pipes for use as footrests, removing seats (and then paddling with the exposed screws jutting out of the floor), drilling holes in the kayaks to attach rivets and decklines, and endless patching of holes and cracks in these old boats. But a lot of the folks didn’t complain, but just got down to doing what needed to be done. They weren’t running this as a professional charity event, but really as a ragtag team of enthusiasts to raise funds for a charity. I think, at the end of the day, that it made the event that much more meaningful.

And it was really beautiful to see how we all started to work together as a team by the end of the four days. We appreciated the debriefs we held each day, where everyone had the to chance to reflect on the day’s expedition. Everyone internalised the feedback, such that by the end, we were paddling in tight formation, and helped looked out for one another especially during the storms.

We also learnt that our bodies can take the distances and the long hours on the water, and that we can comfortably keep pace with the more experienced kayakers. We made sure to stretch religiously after each day, and refuelled with delicious hot meals my mum sent over each night – steak, salmon, and juicy roast chicken with hearty portions of salad. Though our bodies, especially shoulders and upper back, felt sore, we never hit a wall where we just had to stop. In fact, two days later, as I write this, I feel charged to go for another round… and gauging from the chat in our WhatsApp group, the consensus is pretty much the same! We definitely feel more seasoned and comfortable as kayakers now, able to tackle the varied conditions on the water, and able to appreciate a bit more what the kayak-authors write about of their expeditions.

Day 1 – Shortest, but not the easiest day

Route: Kranji Dam to Raffles Marina, distance: 21 km

Islands hit:

  1. Buloh Island
  2. Sarimbun Island
  3. Pergam Island
  4. Island of Bajau

We did not backtrack to the Woodlands Causeway in the end, because it proved too much of a hassle to negotiate permissions from the coast guard. That led to our shaving 6km off the pre-planned route, though the strong headwinds and chop made up for the energy we might have saved. What would have usually taken us 3.5 hours to cover took 5.5 hours.

Highlights:

  • We had a representative from the Children Cancer Foundation see us off at the start. Mr Khoo Siew Chiow, Singapore’s premier adventurer, also came and gave us some words of encouragement and helped us carry our kayaks down the rocks.
  • The start of the paddle was glorious: we kayaked past Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, where sea eagles soared overhead, and egrets and herons eyed us watchfully from the water edge. Some in the group even passed by a 2m long crocodile, though we only saw its startled dive down by the time we heard their excited yells.
  • We paddled to the drumbeat of the army live firing practice, stretching from Surimbun all the way up to the Tuas causeway to Malaysia

Not so much of a highlight: fighting the aforementioned wind and chop. That was draining!

Day 2

Route: Raffles Marina to Sentosa; distance: 49 km

Islands hit:

  1. Jurong Island
  2. Salu Island
  3. Sudong Island
  4. Island of Bukom
  5. Ghost Island
  6. Semakau Island
  7. Jong Island
  8. Sebarok Island
  9. Sisters Island
  10. Sentosa

This was a long day, made longer by the fact that we’d been mentally prepared to paddle 42km based on our pre-departure briefing, but with added islands enroute, we ended up paddling 49km.

It started excitingly enough though: a 5am push off in the dark. With currents assisting, we flew down the south western edge of Singapore, and passed Tuas at sunrise. We also got to surf some big waves when we made the crossing to Jurong Island, which was mighty fun. Major props to Sea Ops for coordinating with the coast guard to help manage traffic in the busy channel!

Rounding the southern tip of Singapore at sunrise

The paddle in between the islands of Sudong, Bukom and Semakau saw many of us flag though. We’d been on the water for 6 hours by that point, and were starting to get hungry. The sun came out overhead in full force, and the protection of the islands meant that we had no waves, no surf, and no wind to distract ourselves with. By the time we hit Pulau Hantu, our lunch point, everyone was exhausted. While some sought the shade, some of us just soaked in the sun-warmed water, where we rehydrated and scarfed down lunch.

Happily, at least we’d covered the bulk of the distance by then, though it was a tiring stretch back to Sentosa from the Southern Islands, where we had to fight a strong drift to the southwest. Some folks decided to camp overnight at Sea Ops’ facility on Sentosa; Jeff and I elected to head back home for the comfort of our own bed.

Day 3

Route: Sentosa to East Coast; distance: 31 km

Islands hit:

  1. Palawan Island
  2. Tekukor Island
  3. St John Island
  4. Lazarus Island
  5. Kusu Island
  6. Seringat Island

We got lucky with the weather and made it to our end point at Constant Wind in beautiful conditions.

It was a super fun 31km day. We set off just after 6am from Tanjong Beach in Sentosa, and paddled to the Southern Islands for a gorgeous sunrise. The Maritime Port of Authority vessel accompanied us for the crossing towards the Tanjong Pagar Terminal, the beautiful skyline of the central business district in front of us the whole way.

Some nice waves to surf north towards the city on

Though we were supposedly against the current along the long East Coast stretch, the downwind created lots of lovely waves for us to surf back on. Compared to the prior two days, day 3 felt like a breeze! We ended 1.5 hours ahead of schedule, and felt like we still had a full store of energy.

Not all kayakers chose to be on the water. We had kayaking enthusiasts helping out in all sorts of land roles. Joe, our photographer, met us by the Bedok Jetty for photo opps
Thanks to a nice down wind, we ended the day 1.5 hours earlier than estimated, and so celebrated with a cheeky cocktail lunch at Constant Wind, where we beached up for the day

Day 4 – The Longest Day

Route: East Coast to SAF Yacht Club; distance: 51 km

Islands hit:

  1. Tekong Island
  2. Frog Island
  3. Pulau Ubin
  4. Pulau Ketam
  5. Coney Island
  6. Punggol Timor Island
  7. West Punggol Island
  8. Seletar Island

Long in terms of both time and distance. 12 hours on the water, and 51km.

Technically, we launched by 6am, but actually floated in the bay for 45 minutes waiting for our safety boat to show up.

We finally pushed off at 645am, but within 15 minutes, the thunderstorm that we had seen billowing and thundering in the distance caught up to us. Given that we had the huge traverse around the Changi Naval Base ahead, we beached up to wait for the visibility to improve a tad before setting back off.

It rained most of the day. But since we were wet already, we actually didn’t mind and found it quite refreshing and fun, especially since the currents were light. It was a bit of a relief from the scorching sun the previous three days, and the early morning light filtered through the clouds made the whole seascape very surreal.

The approaching squall
We pulled up to Changi Beach for an early lunch break and to wait out the worst of the storm so we could safely make the crossing to Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin

And then, it seemed that we were suddenly almost at the finish line. With 15km to go as we crossed over to Coney Island from Pulau Ubin, we alternately felt excited at the prospect of stretching out and checking off this big adventure, to feeling wistful already that the expedition was almost at the end.

Nearing SAF Yacht Club
At the finish line!

But a last surprise was in store when we pulled up to SAF Yacht Club! We’d been diligently tracking and recording the islands that we’d passed on our route, and the official from the Singapore Book of Records was waiting for us at the finish line to award us with certificates for the largest island hopping kayaking expedition around Singapore! We’d covered 28 islands in our journey. 🙂

Jeff receiving his certificate from an official representing the Singapore Book of Records
An anonymous donor from the SAF Yacht Club sponsored our dinner ❤

It’s been a super fun ride. So grateful to have been a part of this expedition, especially in a time when we’re still stuck on Singapore unable to go anywhere else. And the charity drive continues through the end of the month too. Hopefully we can hit our stretch goal of $40,000!

*Feature drone image credit: KC Kwa

Kayaking: Training weekend

We got in three training days this weekend. A dawn paddle around Ubin on Thursday, a paddle to Yishun Dam on Sunday, and a paddle to Changi Village and Coney Island on Monday. 20+km per trip. Feeling stronger and faster that’s for sure!

The round Ubin trip felt leisurely, for the weather was mild, the water glassy, and the currents on our side. A far cry from the whiteout conditions we met the week before!

A garfish jumped straight into Jeff’s boat
Kayaking round Ubin, enjoying a quick breakfast of waffles

On Sunday, we joined the expedition group for a training paddle to Yishun Dam, where Singapore’s Last Fishing Village is. A hodepodge of blue plastic barrels, zinc sheeting, and wooden stakes tied together to form a series of floating platforms, juxtaposed against the modern buildings in the background.

Got back to Pasir Ris right before the storms hit

Monday morning, National Day, we got up for another early morning paddle. The tide was the lowest we’ve seen. Just past Api Api River, the waters were so shallow that we got stuck near the blue buoy barriers, about 100m from shore. We had to carry the kayak over the barrier in order to continue to Changi Village.

Stuck in the muddy bottoms at low tide
Sun rises over Changi Sailing Club

The hawker center at Changi Village was bustling, never mind that safe distancing measures were still place, such that we had to check in to enter the hawker, and could only buy food for takeaway but not dine in. No matter. I bought two packets of nasi lemak and lime juice, and brought it back to the beach for a leisurely breakfast.

Enjoying a very Singaporean breakfast

At Coney Island, we watched the fighter jets zoom past in formation, then the slower chinooks bearing the Singapore flag fly past. It’s a lovely gesture, these helicopters, going around the island with the flag, since we don’t have a proper parade this year due to the heightened measures.

Kayaking: Round Ubin Training

We’ve been training for a 4-day 150km round Singapore island paddle at the end of August, to raise money for the Children Cancer Foundation.

Some in our group have taken the trainings very to heart, organising epic 50+k days on the water! We joined the group for a 40km paddle last week, and had really sore bums for a few days afterwards.

Consequently, we weren’t in the least tempted to join the group for a 58km paddle on Sunday, preferring to wait until we’d managed to properly equip the old kayaks we’d be using with proper foot rests. Instead, we decided on our own mini-by-comparison training paddle, a 21km loop around Pulau Ubin.

Approaching the Pulau Ubin Jetty [photo credit: Jeff]

What started out as a beautiful sunrise and then flat glassy waters turned into a crazy storm.

Calm before the storm, on the backside of Ubin [Photo credit: Jeff]

The winds picked up as we approached the back north-west half of Ubin, such that the last hour was a full on battle against increasing winds and waves. We’d looked forward to finally getting current assistance when we rounded the island, but hit the full brunt of the storm then. Beached up with a skittish wild boar to wait out the worst of the whiteout conditions, given that we could barely make out the ships passing in the channel, never mind Pasir Ris on the other side.

Video still of the storm we got caught in, and that of a lone fellow paddler [Credit: Jeff]

So, training done. 21km in not our fastest time, but it was epic.

Sunrise paddle to Pulau Ubin

We were going to join our friends for a short social paddle to Pulau Ubin at 8am. Decided to sneak in a bit of training and watch the sunrise before.

Lovely paddle this morning. Nice cool breeze; felt good to get back in the water. It’s been two months!

Me vs the Evergreen (photo credit: Jeff)

Cycling the eastern half of Singapore

We’re not massive fitness people, truth be told. We exercise more to explore, than to work out. Which is why I give massive kudos to folks who can, week after week, put in miles on their kayaks and bicycles. We lose motivation after a while if we don’t get a change in scenery. 😂

This past Sunday though, we decided to try a new cycle route: from Pasir Ris to Marina Barrage, through the Ponggol-Hougang-Kallang park connector.

We set off at 5am, in the hopes of making it to town to see the sunrise. It was lovely pedaling in the dark, through quiet streets. It was cool out too – as cool as it can get in Singapore anyway – and drizzly half the section. We rode past neighborhoods we’d never visited before, and bumped into my coworker who was also out getting his cycling fix in. We hit the northern end of the Singapore river – more canal, really – and followed its curves until the lit Singapore Flyer came into view.

The sky was getting light by then. But with the low clouds, we weren’t going to get any color. No matter. It was still a lovely ride past the Indoor Stadium and across the Marina Barrage to where the glass structures of the cloud forest and flower domes were. We rode past dozens of collegian dragon boaters warming up by the riverside before they hit the water, past joggers and other cyclists who were also getting early morning starts.

When we hit the front of Marina Bay Sands, it was decision time. Back the same route, or up through East Coast Park and through the Bedok Reservoir, or should we just hug the coast and take the long way home?

Our legs felt strong, and we didn’t particularly fancy riding back along busy sidewalks that doubled up as bike paths, so we opted for the scenic route, stopping first by the MacDonalds along the park to escape the rain and sate our rumbling stomachs.

Fun route back. Brought back memories of a couple decades ago, when as teenagers with tons more energy, we’d take the same coastal ride from Pasir Ris, starting at midnight, then returning only at sunrise, stopping at different 24-hour coffee shops to refuel and shoot the breeze. Haha.

Sunrise wake surfing

It’s been quite a while honestly, since I’ve been up and out at sunrise. Back in Sydney, that was how I begun most mornings – out on the water by the break of dawn, watching the stillness of the grey night give way to light and activity.

This past Saturday, we found ourselves zooming out of the Ponggol Marina in a powerboat as the sun slowly rose in an orange-pink orb in the horizon, behind the cranes that lined the coast of Pasir Gudang in Malaysia. I remembered again that feeling of quiet joy washing away the vestiges of sleep as we reveled in the cool morning air and watched the the calm glassy waters reflect the lightening sky. Never mind tiredness; there’d be time for naps later.

Gorgeous sunrise to start our morning with

Another fun couple hours wake surfing. We’re getting the hang of it now, slowly but surely, progressing to practicing carves in the surf spun out by the boat.

The day I discovered unlicensed use of my photograph

On Wednesday, Laura, whose kayaking business, Sydney by Kayak, I’d guided and taken photographs for, tagged me in an article that made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Render from Zaha Hadid Architects of the Western Sydney Airport

On the rendering of the spiffy new Western Sydney Airport was a familiar picture: of three kayakers (Laura, Jeff, and a reporter from Time Out Magazine) out on the glassy pink waters of Sydney Harbour. The photograph had been flipped, so that the Opera House appeared on the left of the image, rather than on the right, as would have been the view from Lavender Bay. But it was my photograph alright.

Laura was stoked, understandably so, for the indirect publicity to her business. For her, any exposure was good. But, personally, as the photographer, I was conflicted. How did the architecture firm, who had created the rendering, gotten my picture in the first place? I’d only given Laura and Time Out Magazine permission to use that photograph. Had Time Out perhaps sold them the rights to use the picture?

Having read countless articles and blog posts about infuriated photographers finding their photos illegally used in the wild, and their often frustrating and fruitless attempts to get due credit, I didn’t think that it was worth the effort to go down that rabbit hold. Instead, I just posted the link to the article on Facebook, to wonder aloud, digitally, on the situation.

So I was quite taken by surprise when friends quickly weighed in – mostly with outrage that my IP had been stolen. I’d reasoned that because the firm had only used my photograph in a rendering and not an actual print, it wasn’t a big deal. But friends insisted that I should still reach out and demand credit and / or payment. One friend in particular, told me: “I think it’s more for the principle. U don’t need the money but there are others who do this for a living. I also only realised these few years how hard it is for freelancers.”

Feeling curious about the provenance of their photograph, in the end, I decided to reach out to the Cox Architecture team in Sydney, using the emails that a friend helpfully provided. Within minutes, I had an answer from the lead, stating that they were provided the photograph from Western Sydney Airport themselves. So I went on the airport’s site, and contacted their media relations team.

Almost just as quickly, someone from the team responded, telling me that they could confirm that the photograph and the rendering had in fact been provided by the other architecture firm of the winning team, Zaha Hadid Architects, and that they would help me reach back out to the firm to get to the bottom of the business.

Bleah. This was the rabbit hole, that I didn’t want to get into. It didn’t seem worth the effort.

Imagine my surprise, when I woke up the next morning to receive a most apologetic email from a Senior Associate at Zaha Hadid Architects, readily admitting that someone there had screwed up. They asked if they could purchase a one time retroactive license, and asked for my price and the payment method.

Wow. I had NOT expected this outcome at all, and so quickly with no excuses proffered. I pondered about what to do for a while, and weighed in suggestions from a few friends.

I also searched online for reasonable prices to ask for, but they ranged from nothing to the thousands! I didn’t want to seem greedy and overask for a simple photograph, especially when they’d been so gracious. Neither did I want to charge for too little and set the precedent for other photographers. In the end, I decided to ask them to make a one time $50 donation to Make-A-Wish Australia.

They not only readily agreed, but also raised the donation to $250! I couldn’t have asked for a happier outcome. 

Through this incident, I learnt many things:
1. That people (my friends at any rate!) care about IP and credit that should be properly accorded
2. That I should speak up and ask for my rights, if not for myself, but for others who might find themselves in my shoes
3. That there’s never any harm in asking
4. That there are good and decent people who will readily admit to erring (especially encouraging these days with a US President who models the exact opposite behavior

All’s well that ends well!

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.

Sunrise at Gardens by the Bay

Sunday – I had nothing on the schedule, so I thought, why not hit up Gardens by the Bay at sunrise, and bring my new Fujifilm X100F out for a spin?

I was surprised by the number of people up and about. Before the sun rose, there were already groups of cyclists and runners out. Even more as the sun struggled to get above the clouds. Then again, it’s a beautiful, serene spot for an early morning workout.

I’ll have to go back – perhaps with my electric scooter, to better explore the entire area. I’m looking forward already.

Ending the series with a night shot of the helix bridge – this one taken with my Canon 6D, and on a different day.