Thursday, 21 April 2011

Pretty Palawan

After two forced days of bed rest, I was determined not to miss any more time, and we booked a day trip to the nearby subterranean river. Another famous Philippine sight, the river runs through a cave complex not far from Puerto Princesa.

The area surrounding the river is worth a visit too – we came across a number of monitor lizards on a nearby trail whilst waiting for our permit time, and lots of cheeky monkeys swung on overhead branches and wandered onto the trail to say hello. Unfortunately, this was where we began to lose patience with our guide.

We were in a group with Filipino tourists, some of whom were afraid of the monkeys. Instead of encouraging them to wait at the start (it was called ‘monkey trail’ after all…), or telling them to walk calmly through, he decided to scare the monkeys away instead for them. Using a big branch for poking, making a huge amount of noise and jumping around. I was really cross, particularly as this was a protected area for animals, which he found highly hilarious. His tip flew swiftly out the window…

Soon our group was called, and we settled into our boat before floating off into the cave system. The underground river is a fantastic trip, with bright yet milky turquoise water contrasting with the marbled walls, fading to black as we entered the mouth of the cave. Inside, it opened up into huge caverns, high ceilinged and full of bats napping happily. Our boatman clearly loved his job, and every formation looked like something to him (well, mostly variations on Jesus to be more precise). We travelled about one and a half kilometres into the system – the maximum possible for the 45 minute slot allocated to each boat, and the peaceful drifting, with just a small light to highlight interesting features, was really enjoyable.

The following day we finally got to do some island hopping. Heading to Honda Bay, we took a boat to two of the main islands, soft sand melting into clear cool water. Although the reefs had been partially damaged, there were some amazing fish barely metres from the shore, and we spent hours happily snorkeling, surrounded by huge shoals of fish and trying (rather unsuccessfully…!) to snap some pictures.

The islands themselves were equally gorgeous, fringed with palm trees with whole sections being covered/uncovered by water as the tides changed. Our final stop of the day was a coral reef in the middle of the island group, and this was less damaged, with some beautiful coral colours, and many fantastic fish, urchins and starfish swimming all around us. Exhausted by the end by swimming through and against the current, we were happy to fall into bed when we returned, but it was a wonderful time.

We spent our final day in town, looking around the city museum, which we had entirely to ourselves, and finding ways to avoid the hot sun.

Although it hadn’t originally been on our itinerary, spending some time on Palawan was hugely enjoyable, and we could easily have had another week there, travelling around a little. Accommodation was the cheapest of all the places we visited in the Philippines, there was a wealth of restaurants and plenty of day trips.

But all too soon our time was up, and after killing a final day in Manila, we said goodbye to the Philippines.

An unexpected complication...

The island of Palawan is a beautiful part of the Philippines. Gorgeous beaches and reefs surround the mainland, with more tiny islands dotted around. Unfortunately, plans for jumping aboard a boat were somewhat scuppered almost immediately upon arrival.

I’d had a bit of a sore throat for a couple of days, but put it down to the start of a cold – a common reaction to hopping between air con and hot exteriors. Other symptoms didn’t emerge however, and after a sleepless first night in Palawan, and a throat that felt as though I was swallowing razors, I admitted defeat and realised I needed antibiotics. Not being the kind of country where I could pop to a pharmacy to pick up some tablets (not that I’d ever do that of course…), a trip to the hospital was necessary. Obviously this was a last resort – I didn’t fancy the potential wait and the cost, but painkillers weren’t working and I could see my week in Palawan (and all ideas of island hopping) slowly disappearing before my eyes.

So, off to the hospital it was. We were led through to a doctors/A & E area, and as a guard gestured to some free seats, F grabbed my arm. ‘I think there’s someone having an operation there – I can see organs in that bowl’. I looked to my left, and sure enough, on a bed next to us, only partially surrounded by a curtain, were doctors gathered around a patient and a bloody bowl on the side. We tried to look away, and a few seconds later heard the weak cry of a newborn baby. Not organs then, just a placenta, and from the complete lack of any noise from the mother, we guessed a C-section had taken place. Right next to us.

Once the doctors had finished, they came over to see me, singing pop songs, and quickly told me I had tonsillitis. Waiting for the prescription to be written up, people started arriving to see the new baby, chatting happily with the doctors, who were lovely, cracking jokes, singing and very relaxed. We eventually got the prescription and some lovely drugs, and were sent off.

Two days in bed and some very strong painkillers later, I was ready to see what Palawan was made of. The hospital experience was nowhere near as bad as I’d feared – we didn’t queue at all, the people were friendly and helpful (just like all Filipinos), and apart from my serious concern that I was going to give the newborn baby an infection, simple and straightforward.

An F got to see a placenta. So an exciting day for all...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Tarsiers, chocolate hills and diving in Bohol

Our first stop upon arrival on the island of Bohol was Panglao, a short drive from the airport and home to some lovely coral reefs. We spent a lovely few days scuba diving during the day, and enjoying the beach side BBQ's in the evening.

The visibility underwater was pretty good, and along with a huge variety of fish, starfish and corals, we found some cute baby clownfish and an even-cuter baby lionfish.

After all that messing about in the water we went back inland, to hit two of the most touristy destinations in the Philippines - the Tarsier sanctuary and the chocolate hills. Some time in the past someone sitting on the tourist board must have decided that those two deserved a top spot, and one or the other (or often a photoshopped combination of the two!) are on most posters we had seen.

We hired a driver for the day to show us some of the highlights, and the tarsiers were our first stop. Tiny, docile little primates, they really are cuteness personified. Looking down at us though big, sleepy eyes, no bigger than the palm of my hand, I could have happily whisked a few away in my pocket. Gorgeous.

Next up were the chocolate hills, named so because of the brown appearance they take on during the dry season. They were still green when we visited, just turning, but it was difficult not to be impressed - hundreds of identically sized and shaped mounds rising all around us. We had a hot, sweaty climb up to the viewing platform under the blazing sun, but it was worth it to see the hills stretch out in front of us as far as we could see.

We finished off the day with a short stop at the nearby butterfly sanctuary, and a drive through the man-made mahogany forest. The driver was incredibly surprised that we didn't want to get out and take pictures of the forest 'but it's a forest, a man-made one. The trees are big!'. We tried to explain that large forests were normal to us, and the jungle environment all around Bohol far more unusual and appealing. We carried on, driving through bus loads of Filipino tourists posing up against the trees...

All too soon it was time to leave Bohol. We had originally planned to go to Cebu, an island a short distance away, then travel to more diving sites, but fate intervened and before we knew it, we were indeed on a ferry to Cebu city, but armed with a couple of cheap plane tickets to the island of Palawan instead for our final week.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Bright lights in the darkness

Donsol is primarily known for whale sharks, but it’s not the only reason to visit. Evening and darkness bring a different kind of water experience, as thousands of fireflies illuminate the river. Living in the mangrove trees surrounding the water, they come out to mate at night, glowing in and around their homes like strings of fairy lights.

We boarded a boat just as darkness cloaked the banks, and scooted away from any artificial lights to better see the glow. It had just stopped raining, so initially the flies stuck to the trees, making them seem to pulsate with eerie light. As the time went on though, they began leaving the shelter of the leaves and hovered around us, flying around our boat and landing everywhere. At one point I had one land in my hand, a male according to our guide, and was able to examine it in closer detail and see the source of its bright light shining underneath.

(Nope, those little streaks are not a dirty camera lens, but fireflies...)

We drifted along the banks looking for new groups of lovely light, and were amazed to see the whole area glow. As we were the only passengers on our boat, the whole experience was peaceful and relaxed, and very much enjoyable. Our guide explained the life cycle of fireflies, their habitats and the chemicals that caused their light, and watching the tiny pinpricks of movement against the otherwise black background was magical.

No-where near as crowded as the whale shark experience (we saw just two other boats, and only as we were heading back), firefly watching was a great way to spend an hour and I would very much recommend it.

Our final day in Donsol was a relaxing one. We wandered around the small town and down to the beach, which unfortunately was filthy and strewn with litter, so we didn’t stay long. After the early start of the previous morning, it was lovely to have some time without much to do, before leaving and heading to our next destination, the island of Bohol.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Whale shark tips

Arriving in Donsol, we were excited and hopeful that we would have the opportunity to encounter whale sharks, but were pretty ignorant of the procedure. Worries about obtaining permits, how long to stay and how to increase our chances were at the forefront of our mind. Having now been through the process, here’s my advice for making the most of it, and what I wish I’d known beforehand.

- You’ll probably never ever hear me say this again, but here we go: leave the camera behind. I’m the kind who regularly takes hundreds of photos in a day whilst travelling (to compensate for my poor long term memory!), but the decision to leave the camera in the boat was one of the best I’ve made. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, encounters can be brief, and you don’t want to spend most of the time fiddling with the camera and trying to line up a shot. Secondly, the visibility isn’t great anyway, and the water dark, so photos probably won’t come out very well without specialised underwater equipment. Lastly, there are lots of other people desperately attempting to take pictures. Without the need for this, we were able to move between people and actually swim alongside the sharks for longer, focusing on their beauty and grace. However, we aren’t completely without record. We did take our video camera down for a couple of the encounters, just letting it run and not worrying about focus or whether we actually got anything in shot, just in case. In one case, F got lucky – he managed to capture a few glimpses of a shark swimming by.

- Don’t worry about getting onto a boat. Visiting during peak season, with only 30 boats allowed out (and a maximum of 6 people in each), we were concerned that we might struggle to get a space. However, we needn’t have worried – we arrived in Donsol after 4pm, and were able to secure a boat for the following morning.

- Along the same vein, there’s no need to panic about filling your boat either. We booked and paid for a whole boat, then hung around the visitors centre for a few minutes until we found a group of four to fill the remaining spaces and pay us directly. Even if there is no-one else around at the time of booking, there were a number of people hanging around at the meet place in the morning hoping to get on a boat at the last minute.

- Don’t judge a guide by their cover! There were some guides (or BIOs – Butanding interaction officers) we saw greeting their groups with perfect English, chatting away happily. Our guide on the other hand, didn’t have much English and wasn’t too keen to crack a smile. In the water however, he was incredible. He knew where the sharks would surface, and helped me to swim alongside when everyone else around was trying to kick me out of the way. He was superb in every way.

- If you can, bring your own snorkel and mask. We rented locally, and whilst generally okay, the equipment was worn and the snorkel not very flexible, allowing a little too much saltwater to get down my throat for my liking! Renting is cheap and easy though if you can‘t bring your own.

- There is no ‘average’ number of encounters. One interaction where you can really see the shark, even swim alongside it is better than many frantic events where you spend most of the time eating other people’s bubbles. During our boat slot, there were some groups who had only one encounter, others many more. It’s the quality that counts.

- Do try to stick to the recommended distances from sharks, and respect its habitat. Sometimes its just impossible - if a shark suddenly emerges underneath you you may not have a choice, but the distances are there for a reason, and stop the shark feeling intimidated and diving down. If there are already a number of people in the water, chances are you won’t see much except their bubbles and flippers kicking you in the face anyway. Better to wait for a quieter encounter.

So that’s about it! Encountering the whale sharks was an amazing opportunity and well worth the trip to Donsol, and was an easy activity to organise and do.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The mightiest fish in all the oceans - swimming with Whale Sharks

*Important disclaimer - not one of the pictures in this post were taken by me. They are all courtesy of google images to break up the bulk of writing a little!*

After arriving back in Manila, and a short flight, we touched down in Legaspi in South Luxon. Finally the time had arrived – our main reason for coming to the Philippines – the chance to potentially swim with Whale sharks. The bay in Donsol is rich in plankton, and every year a number of these gentle giants invade the waters to feast. The peak months are March and April, so we were hopeful that our chances were good.

After a very early start, we jumped on a tricycle to the meet point and waited anxiously for our boat’s turn to head out onto the water. The spotters on each boat are incredible – with the very limited visibility and dark-ish water, I couldn’t see more than a few inches below the surface from the boat, yet they were able to spot sharks from a distance and lead us in the right direction.

We began to get excited after glimpsing a fin breaking the surface of the water, and just a few minutes later our guide gave the call to gear up. Cue frantic pulling on of flippers and masks before jumping off the boat into the blue below. Spitting the salt water out of my mouth (and probably a lot of plankton too - sorry sharks!), I put my face below the surface, just in time to see a huge body swim underneath us. Our first whale shark – gracefully drifting past, barely a metre below. It was beautiful, with vivid silver-grey spots and huge head, tapering out into a powerful tail and fins. Huge and alien, and more than I had ever hoped for.

After swimming alongside it for a few metres (struggling to keep up – they move fast!), it dove deeper, and we found our boat and climbed back aboard. We were just catching our breath when one of our spotters excitedly called once more, and it was back in again in time to catch another shark gliding past. The scale of them never failed to awe me, particularly when they swam underneath and the width of the head was most apparent. Absolutely huge, they were never intimidating, as everything about their manner was gentle.

Our next couple of encounters were brief, and although equally amazing, the number of people had increased, and some guides were happy to ignore the ‘one boat per shark’ rule, allowing more groups to enter the water around one shark. We were kicked in the face and body by flippers, shoved out of the way by people trying to get a good picture or hoping to get closer, and it was more difficult to keep a reasonable distance from the sharks.

F managed to swim alongside one for a while, but I received a bit of a bashing and struggled to keep up. It’s not surprising they swam deeper quicker. In fact, on a couple of occasions our spotters found a shark, but our guide didn’t allow us to go in as there were already too many people around. If only all guides were as considerate, the number of encounters might decrease, but they’d probably last longer.

The fifth encounter was by far the most incredible for me. Entering the water, a shark swam underneath, and I was able to follow it until another group came in and the bubbles/debris kicked up made it difficult. It looked as though there was going to be too many people again, and the shark was moving away too quickly. Like a flash, our guide was suddenly beside me, and grabbing my hand, led me off quickly, his powerful swimming guiding me away from the group. I could only see murk ahead, and was begin to wonder where we were going.

Suddenly, a shark entered my vision, swimming towards us. It passed underneath, but began to rise closer to the surface. We tried to move away, but of course the shark was quicker, and at one point its fin was merely inches below me, and all I could see was shark filling the entirety of my vision. We got out of its way, and the guide led me alongside it, keeping a good pace and allowing me to really observe the shark in its full glory closely, without other people around and at a respectful distance. How the guide predicted the direction the shark would swim I don’t know, but those minutes were amazing and I was so grateful for his help.

We spent the last twenty minutes on the boat completely exhilarated, feeling incredibly privileged to have seen so many sharks and to have had some amazing encounters with these graceful creatures (and my new favourite fish…).

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Have I mentioned before how much I dislike steps?? Exploring the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad

For our first stop in the Philippines, we decided to head to the North of Luzon, to see what has been dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ (although trying not to be cynical, I wonder how many other ‘eighth wonders’ there are!), the 2000 year old rice terraces of Banaue and Batad. The only (affordable for us) way to make the nine hour journey was by overnight bus, which, in retrospect, barely a day after getting off a plane, wasn’t the most sensible plan.

The bus, although perfectly nice and clean, was uncomfortable. The air con was set to what I can only describe as a perfect imitation of the arctic, and even with continuous shifting throughout the night every part of my body ached upon arrival. We hadn’t had any sleep, but there was no time to waste – we only had time for a couple of days in and around Banaue and we were determined to see as many rice terraces as possible to justify the journey!

We spent the afternoon locally, heading up to a viewpoint high above the town, revealing a stunning landscape stretching out below. There are two different types of terraces – those around Banaue are mud built, as opposed to Batad’s which use stone to line their walls. They are incredible, dotting the surrounding hills with vivid green pools of rice plants partially submerged in chocolately water. Climbing down steps, we were able to take a closer look at the perfectly spaced shoots, and walk along the terrace walls, taking care not to fall in.

After a well-needed night’s sleep, we found some fellow travellers and hired a jeepney and guide for the day to take us to the stone-walled terraces in nearby Batad. The jeepney is a common mode of transport in the Philippines, and is exactly as it sounds – an old jeep stripped out and used to hold anywhere between about 9 and 100 people (not including those hanging off the back…). Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but they can fit an awful lot. Actually, many of the jeepneys you see around are not original, but aluminium replicas, but either way, they are a cheap and reliable means of getting around.

The ride was bone-jarring – the jeepney bouncing through mud and half-built roads, all precariously close to sheer drops as we climbed higher still and tried to avoid vehicles coming in the opposite direction. Grateful for the small amount of padding inside (both on the seats and ceiling!), we jumped out at the end of the track and looked out over miles of mountainous landscape, gorgeously decorated with steps of terraces.

We began our descent to Batad village, where there was further opportunity to walk along the stone walls. The way down was steep and filled with knee-destroying steps (oh steps, how I despise you!). The day became warmer, and we were soon sweating, the downwards momentum carrying us on. The terraces were well worth a closer inspection, watching chickens take their fill of the rice grains, and children running deftly along the narrow walls.

We couldn’t spend too long – the light fades at about 5.30pm, and without the guiding sun the jeepney would find it next to impossible to negotiate the roads back. The path we had taken was the only one out of the area, so unfortunately what came down had to go back up. Up the steep steps between terraces under the full glare of the sun. Up the winding gravel track. Up yet more steps near the top. No flats, no breaks. Just up, up and up again. I was seriously beginning to regret devouring the mountains of Belgium chocolate we’d brought back a few weeks ago... When we’d booked the guide, we had asked about the demands of the day (a long flight and an immediate overnight bus don’t do much good for the legs) and been assured it was ‘a bit of walking. Maybe a couple of hours. Really nice’. Hummm. Eventually we made it back, comforted by a cold drink from a small stall, before the return journey and a deserved night’s rest.

Oh, except the good night’s rest part isn’t true. For naturally we had booked the bus ride back to Manila for that night…

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The entrance to the Philippines...

Time for a new adventure, and although it has one of our most common main intentions – wildlife spotting, on this occasion it’s in a different habitat – the ocean! We’ve come out to the beautiful, diverse Philippines for some exploring, diving and hopefully the chance to see some incredible creatures, both above and below the surface.

First stop was Manila, to recover from a long journey and begin to set an agenda. Although with its own particular charms, the capital is like every other large city, with the added inclusion of quite a lot of smog (at least when we were there). The temperature was nice though, and encouraged us to explore on foot, which was possibly a mistake.

Whatever else the city is, it is not a pedestrian’s paradise, rather the opposite. The traffic is constant and congested, the layout difficult to decipher (a reason perhaps not to always trust the tiny and often limited maps in our lonely planet I suppose!), and the air thick. Finding a bus terminal to book tickets out of the city was a tougher task than we had imagined, even with the help of some friendly locals, and eventually we gave in and hopped in a taxi. In the meantime however we had wound our way through a bustling market and a couple of churches, seeing some of the human atmosphere of the area.

Whilst on the subjects of taxis, I would definitely recommend them as a way of getting around Manila. Cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been, they are also adept at dodging traffic and have air con for cooling down from the heat of walking.

Our bus tickets firmly in hand, we had some time to explore the large park in the centre of the city, and sample our first tastes of Filipino food, before leaving for the cooler climbs of the mountainous North Luzon area.