travel: the tao of promise
Revive flagging spirits by reviving ancient sailing traditions in the Philippines.
a terrible scream punctures the still tropical night. The sound is all the more jarring given its context. We are on our second night of a sailing expedition around one of the most beautiful parts of one of the last frontiers in Southeast Asia, the Philippine province of Palawan. So far, the trip has been as harmonious as an expertly drilled choir. Not any more.
As I approach the source of the noise, a tumbledown shack shrouded by towering coconut palms, things get even more worrying. The tiny building glows a satanic shade of red, and I see foreboding shapes making frenzied movements within through the small, stained windows.
Steeling myself with an additional shot of Tanduay Rum—a potent lubricant ideal for stressful situations such as these—i make my way through the door and come face to face with my discordant nemesis. Creeping gingerly into the main room, I spy one of our group’s female members gleefully murdering “Can’t Buy Me Love” by The Beatles as the rest of our collective and the crew mug erratically in drunken support.
Closer inspection of the songbook at this, possibly the most remote karaoke bar in the Philippines, reveals plenty of hoary old chestnuts by the likes of ’70s soft rock specialists like Bread and America.
There’s nothing by The Pogues or The Clash, however, which is a shame, as these are the musical reference points most in keeping with the ethos of our hosts for the trip, Tao Philippines.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of... Like the aforementioned musical collectives, the band of brothers (and a couple of honorary sisters) who make up the Tao family have more than a modicum of rebel credibility. Led by best mates Jack Footit, an Englishman, and Eddie Brock, a Filipino, who founded the company in 2005 as a means of ferrying their friends around the remote islands that lie between Coron and El Nido in the northern reaches of Palawan, Tao is a far cry from your average tour operator.
Instead of mediocre food, voyagers get a daily changing menu that combines the ocean’s bounty with the simple yet effective tenets of Filipino cuisine. Instead of predictable itineraries, the guides go to whichever gorgeous sandbar or hidden lagoon fits their whim. And instead of treating tourists like cattle to be milked mercilessly, the guys bring guests into the bosom of their collective, ensuring that every last nuance of the trip, whether it be horsing around in the boat’s kitchen or screaming like a banshee in an isolated karaoke bar, is imbued with communal joie de vivre.
It’s an intoxicating brew—enhanced even more by the fact that it all takes place in one of the most amazing spots on the planet.
Stretching from its northern tip near the island of Mindoro all the way down to the tip of Borneo, Palawan is known romantically as the “Land of the Promise”. It has certainly become a place of enticing possibilities for a growing contingent of travellers seduced by news of roughly 1,780 islands and islets clad in virgin rainforest, and fringed by sugar-white sandy beaches.
batten down the hatches At first, Footit and Brock used rented boats and temporary crew to ferry friends and select others around, but word of their odysseys soon spread among travellers eager to get off the region’s wellstamped “banana pancake” tourist trail.
A 72-foot bangka (traditional fishing boat) named Aurora was purchased, a reliable pool of boat personnel was secured through a combination of trial and error and happy accident, and the business started to expand.
From these humble beginnings, Tao has grown to become one of the biggest tourism success stories in the Philippines. The company now has five boats including the Balatik, the newest and most ambitious addition to the fleet and the one on which we are sailing, and trips sell out months in advance.
Five-day Tao expeditions—an invigorating blend of socially aware eco-tourism, laid-back lounging and rambunctious rum-fuelled evenings at remote beach camps—have become a favourite of discerning visitors looking to discover for themselves one of the few remaining undeveloped tracts of beach paradise in the region.
I’m blown away by the experience from the start. Having been based in big Asian cities for five years, Manila’s gruelling blend of traffic and noise offers little in the way of novelty factor, and the fresh sea breeze that hits me when I get to Coron Town is a tonic. The “adventurers wanted” sign on the wall outside Tao HQ is another promising indicator that the next few days will offer timely respite from Asia’s urban cacophony.
So it proves. We make an opening day pit stop at Barracuda Lake—a beautiful expanse of emerald water popular with the large contingent of divers who visit Coron—but after that, it’s just the deep blue sea, various small fishing communities and us.
Days take on a pleasantly shapeless hue. Tao
Philippines’ trips cover the 200 or so islands in the Linapacan archipelago between Coron and El Nido, 150km to the southwest, so there’s plenty of uncharted territory to explore. Every morning, our guide Zaza pulls out a battered map marked with coffee stains, and we plan a route over breakfast.
It is a thrill to get an idea of the geography of this largely uncharted area. Such is the stunning nature of the scenery, however, you could decide a route without any detrimental effect by sticking pins in the map blindfolded.
Over the next week, we anchor off various sandbars and beaches of dazzling white, and swim and snorkel for hours in crystal clear waters, jump from waterfalls into deep forest pools and meet with the communities for whom Tao provide for with a number of social projects.
all hands on deck The philosophy of giving something back to the fishing communities in northern Palawan is central to the Tao creed. In 2007, two years after starting the company, Footit and Brock set up Tao Social Welfare Projects. Declining to give direct financial assistance to villagers—“handing over money causes complications,” Brock says—tao instead focuses on meaningful initiatives in the fields of education, nutrition, contraception and medical help. The company has built schools and day-care centres, funded college and high school places for talented youngsters, and supports food programmes to tackle malnourishment among young children in the more impoverished parts of northern Palawan.
As well as providing real and tangible assistance to communities, Tao is committed to helping promote traditional and sustainable ways of fishing in the area. Balatik, the ship on which we are sailing, is the most ambitious manifestation of these efforts.
The Balatik is a paraw, a double outrigger sailing boat native to the Philippines. Use of the boats has been in steep decline since the ’70s due to the wide availability of engines. As a result, local knowledge of sailing, natural navigation and paraw building has largely disappeared.
As a way of rekindling the proud tradition of sailing in Palawan, Footit and Brock, along with Palawan sailor Gener Paduga, decided to build a large-scale paraw. Utilising the skills of master carpenters and harnessing the design knowledge of boat historians, the project took more than two years, and the result was the Balatik, the largest known paraw in the Philippines today.
“A return to sailing makes sense,” Brock says. “Our marine environment is under threat and fuel prices are rising. Learning to sail again will help Palawenos escape dependence on gasoline and diesel while, at the same time, fostering a deeper understanding and respect for the ocean.”
The finished product is certainly a thing of beauty. The solid wood elements of the structure are indicative of the craftsmanship involved, and the way the white sails billow in the tropical breeze as the ship pilots a course over the turquoise ocean is a stirring sight to behold.
Young men and the sea On one of our daily ports of call on dry land, I hike up through lush vegetation to a rocky outcrop. From the vantage point, the Balatik, resplendent in its mooring atop the brilliant blue water, looks as magnificent as the surrounding scenery.
Activity-packed days are not really what the expeditions are all about, however. Much of the time is spent lazing on the sun deck sharing tales with other members of the group, or simply zoning out and enjoying the front row view of some of the world’s most spectacular seascapes.
Evenings are equally amenable. Giant meals of fresh barbecued fish and side dishes supply the ballast, while rum and beer provide the lubricant for several memorable conversations. The basic sleeping arrangements, meanwhile—mostly just single mattresses and a mosquito net—might not be the last word in luxury, but the soothing sound of lapping waves and chirruping creatures in the tropical night are as effective a relaxant as any duck-feather filled duvet.
Tropical travel fantasies come to life numerous times a day during the expedition, but they are especially vivid as the light starts to fade and the sun melts like a dissolving lozenge into the ocean. On our final evening as castaways, we are treated to a barbecue at “Tao Village”, a clutch of rustic wooden buildings on the island of Cadlao in the karststudded wonderland that is Bacuit Bay near El Nido. From the water, the crew emerge clutching crates laden with giant shiny fish and ice-encased bottles of San Miguel beer. On dry land, torches constructed from empty bottles of the Philippines’ favourite lager point the way to a palm-shrouded clearing where the evening’s meal is being prepared next to a long wooden table surrounded by explorers from various corners of the globe. One muscular boatman is cleaving hunks from a rosyred suckling pig, freshly salvaged from the spit. Another is dishing out servings of ginataang papaya (young papaya cooked with coconut milk) under the unwatchful eyes of a collection of animal skulls. In the midst of the travellers, meanwhile, Footit is holding court over glasses of Tanduay Rum, as the monkey draped around his shoulders attempts to thwart his conversational efforts by clawing him repeatedly in the eye.
It’s a scene that might find its literary equivalent somewhere between The Beach, Alex Garland’s modern backpacker classic, and Peter Pan.“the Lost Boys, I like that better,” laughs the simiantoting Englishman, when I put the JM Barrie comparison to him. “The Beach ended badly, so I think we’d rather be the boys that never grew up. When we started, we were just doing something that we wanted to do, but we seem to have struck a nerve.”
By the time we head towards our final stop at El Nido town, none of us want to get off the boat. As Balatik drifts towards the beach, however, the familiar sound of a karaoke bar cranking into action perks up the spirits. Money can’t buy you love maybe, and it certainly can’t buy you an acceptable singing voice, but in the case of Tao, it can buy you a completely unique travel experience.
previous spread The paraw sailboat docks in Cadlao Lagoon, El Nido.
A fisherman’s house on Darocoton Island, northern Palawan.
Captain Gener Paduga fishes off the back of the paraw.
right Good food, clear skies, great company. What’s not to like?
The paraw sailboat docks at the entrance to the Big Lagoon, El Nido.