ROCK ISLAND DAYS

SEV­ERAL HUN­DRED KILO­ME­TRES SOUTH OF TAI­WAN ACROSS THE SOUTH CHINA SEA,THE PHILIP­PINES AR­CHI­PEL­AGO IS A JIG­SAW PUZ­ZLE OF CHARM AND BEAUTY, THE SHEER DI­VER­SITY OF LAND­SCAPES ONLY EQUALLED BY THE WARMTH AND KIND­NESS OF THE LO­CALS.

Carve - - CONTENTS - WORDS AND PHO­TOS BY L. NEVAREZ

The Philip­pines may have a sketchy pres­i­dent but the waves are sweet as.

Se­duced by the prospect, and in need of get­ting away from it all, Alexis De­niel and his girl­friend Me­lanie flew them­selves off to the island of Siar­gao and the count­less lit­tle is­lands around it for a trop­i­cal es­cape with waves as beautiful as they are un­pre­dictable and the most breath­tak­ingly stun­ning scenery imag­in­able.

A heavy grey sky and tor­ren­tial rain greet us as our tiny twin-prop plane makes its bumpy de­scent to­wards the tar­mac of Siar­gao air­port. Af­ter more than a day and a half’s travel and four sep­a­rate flights to get to this small trop­i­cal island lost on the other side of the world, we’d been hop­ing for a slightly warmer wel­come but that’s one of the joys of trop­ics.

With all our bags and boards crammed into a taxi van, we hit the road head­ing to­wards to south-east coast of the island where we will stay for the next fort­night. De­spite the in­ces­sant rain, we spend the whole jour­ney star­ing out of the win­dows, filled with cu­rios­ity and amazed at the lux­u­ri­ous trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion and oc­ca­sional vil­lages we drive through, ev­ery one dif­fer­ent from ev­ery other, our eyes widen­ing with ev­ery bend in the road, and all of us ea­ger for more. The mo­tor­bikes with fam­i­lies crammed onto the sad­dle, the smil­ing faces of the kids, the kindly ex­pres­sions of peo­ple… ev­ery el­e­ment plunges us fast and deep into ex­actly the kind of dis­con­nec­tion we needed, one that comes filled with a sense of calm and hap­pi­ness as we quickly for­get how tired we are from the long jour­ney.

A few min­utes af­ter reach­ing our bun­ga­low, we’re rent­ing our­selves some mo­tor­bikes (in­dis­pens­able for get­ting around the island), and then we’re off for a quick spin to check out the fa­mous Cloud 9, a few min­utes ride away. The feel­ing of free­dom from two wheels and the spirit of dis­cov­ery of our new sur­round­ings, push us even deeper into the arms and charms of the island men­tal­ity. Af­ter walk­ing the 150 me­tres of fa­mous board­walk link­ing the spot to the shore, we start chat­ting to one of the lo­cals there. But the sea is to­tally chaotic and the huge amounts of foam com­ing off the break on the reef make it im­pos­si­ble to see how the spot is set up.

“How long have the con­di­tions been like that ?” asks Alexis, clearly a lit­tle con­cerned !

“Few days now,” says the lo­cal, “we caught the tail of a ty­phoon, but don’t worry, this is def­i­nitely the end of it. To­mor­row morn­ing it’ll all be back to nor­mal. Good surf ev­ery­where, in here or out there !”

We have no idea how re­li­able this pre­dic­tion might be, but just in case, we carry on a bit fur­ther north to see where all the boats leave from that could take us to some of the off­shore spots. We meet a boat­man called Glenn who gives us ex­actly the same fore­cast, so we agree to come back at sun­rise the next day if it turns out to be the case. The sun is go­ing down on Siar­gao and the storm is still bat­ter­ing the palm trees sur­round­ing our bun­ga­low, but we’re trust­ing in the lo­cals as we slide and slip down into the realms of Mor­pheus.

Rock Island

The first birds are only just start­ing to sing out­side but my eyes are al­ready wide open, be­cause of the jet lag, and the ex­cite­ment of our first proper day. I open my bed­room door and meet Alexis, who’s al­ready been to have a look at the la­goon. It’s not even 5.30am, still mostly dark, but we can al­ready see that, to our joy, the sky is clear and the wind has com­pletely dropped dur­ing the night. The fore­casts of the lo­cals were rights! We quickly gather to­gether a few es­sen­tials, strap the boards on the bike racks and go to meet Glenn, who seems as awake as we are.

“I have to stay here, but my un­cle will take you on the boat to Rock Island, it could be pretty good out there this morn­ing !”

Un­cle shows up a few min­utes later car­ry­ing a jerry can of petrol, in­vites us to fol­low him, and off we go, car­ry­ing our stuff out into the la­goon to his boat an­chored not far off.

De­spite the nar­row hull and out­rig­gers, we were im­pressed with how com­fort­able and sta­ble the boat was, more im­pressed still by the deaf­en­ing roar from the two out­board mo­tors that re­duced all con­ver­sa­tion to hand signs. Our course is set for two small is­lands that we can just about make out in the dis­tance, and as we leave the calm la­goon and its palm trees, the crys­tal clear wa­ter changes colour from one in­stant to the next, tak­ing on myr­iad shades of blue de­pend­ing on its depth which keeps us as­ton­ished dur­ing the whole jour­ney.

We’re not far from the first of the small is­lands, and we can see that there’s a mag­nif­i­cent set of righthanders break­ing, then turn­ing 90 de­grees along the side of this lump of rock plonked in the mid­dle of nowhere. The in­cred­i­bly dense, green veg­e­ta­tion hang­ing from it gives the spot a unique scenery. Our boat­man stop the en­gines and drops an­chor in the chan­nel. Ex­cited by this idyl­lic sur­round­ings, Alexis roughly slaps on some sun­cream, then launches him­self off the boat.

Af­ter say­ing hello to some lo­cal surfers, and a group of Span­ish pad­dlers al­ready there, Alexis waits his turn and then spots a few dark lines com­ing in from the north and quickly pad­dles away from the main group, to­wards the out­side. He just about makes it in time for the first wave, mas­sive and in­cred­i­bly smooth. Af­ter a late drop he man­aged to keep his bal­ance and launch a large bot­tom turn fol­lowed by a large carve to op­ti­mise the first sec­tion of the wave. Then, af­ter a slower sec­tion, the rhythm gets more ac­cel­er­ated as the wave rolls round the tip of the island. Alexis goes with ev­ery sur­prise the wave throws up, rack­ing up turns un­til he rides out 200 me­tres fur­ther on with an ear-to-ear smile split­ting his face. Af­ter a three hour non-stop ses­sion the tide is get­ting too high and we leave Rock Island, de­hy­drated, hun­gry, a lit­tle red from the sun­burn, but un­be­liev­ably happy with this first Philippine surf!

Once we’re back on the shore, we de­cided to check Cloud 9 which is sup­posed to be pump­ing with this tide but the wind has se­ri­ously get the spot un­sur­fa­ble. For the rest of the day we de­cide on a lit­tle ex­cur­sion south, ex­plor­ing a bit more around our vil­lage. As the sun is slowly sink­ing, we fol­low our noses, turn­ing left and right as the fancy takes us, enjoying the ex­cep­tional scenery, the peace and calm all around, and the friendly at­ti­tude of all the lo­cals we en­counter. We’re pleased to re­ceive such a friendly wel­come, and sur­prised at the ease of con­ver­sa­tion, peo­ple are happy to speak to us. Life is so pleas­ant here in Siar­gao and there’s no bet­ter way to fin­ish this

We’re not far from the first of the small is­lands, and we can see that there’s a mag­nif­i­cent set of righthanders break­ing

nice day than a big meal of shrimps with lo­cal San Miguel beer! The real lux­ury for a cou­ple of pe­sos.

Dou­ble or Quits

“The swell has se­ri­ously in­creased dur­ing the night, I think it’ll be too big for where we were yes­ter­day and even Cloud 9,” says Alexis af­ter a few min­utes study­ing the co­ral bar­rier in front of our bun­ga­low. Af­ter an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to surf the spot in front of an island off Gen­eral Luna that will prove to be too in­con­sis­tent, a vi­o­lent storm be­falls us at sea as we head back to­wards the har­bour by boat. The rain is blown nearly hor­i­zon­tal, the thun­der is as loud as can­non fire and the sky is as dark. De­spite the 15 min­utes of highly ex­treme weather we bat­tled through, all three of us had a kind of mad grin on our faces as we reached port and re­alised how in­sane the con­di­tions were. It seemed like the weather was de­ter­mined to trip us up, but it was go­ing to have to try much harder than that, we were al­ready think­ing about a plan B.

Talk­ing to Glenn the pre­vi­ous even­ing, we’d un­der­stood there was an­other spot, fur­ther away and not a cast iron cer­tainty, but said to be worth try­ing when there’s a big swell. We only had a rough map and some con­fused ex­pla­na­tions to guide us, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and we he jumped on our mo­tor­bikes to go and seek out this mys­te­ri­ous bay.

The kilo­me­tres roll by, and ev­ery vil­lage we pass through and junc­tion we pass by is an op­por­tu­nity to ap­pre­ci­ate the friend­li­ness of the lo­cals, usu­ally man­i­fest­ing it­self with hand signs added with a loud, “Hello, good morn­ing!”

Dis­tracted by this warm at­mos­phere, we end up miss­ing the turn that we had to take and af­ter a few kilo­me­tres back, an old man shows us a small dirt road leav­ing dis­creetly on the right. It’s a 20 min­utes slog on the bro­ken and wa­ter­logged track, un­til ar­riv­ing at the last vil­lage, when the road stops in front of the sea. A lo­cal fish­er­man down at the tiny port points us to­wards a small island off in the dis­tance where there seems to be a de­cent wave break­ing. He pro­poses to take us there for a few pe­sos. With­out hes­i­ta­tion we load the gear in his boat and pray that our plan B, is not turn­ing into a sec­ond fi­asco like plan A.

The boat’s hull races fast over the flat calm wa­ter, smoothed by a to­tal ab­sence of wind, and the man­grove swamps all around us are a fas­ci­nat­ing con­trast to all the blue la­goons along the south-east coast were we stay. The wave be­comes more vis­i­ble as we ap­proach, and the ridges of swell com­ing in are per­fectly spaced , rolling right along the reef as reg­u­larly as a metronome. “It’s not that big, but it looks so per­fect !”says Alexis, clearly very happy with the idyl­lic set­ting. Watch­ing some of the lo­cals al­ready there enjoying the waves makes Alexis even more im­pa­tient to get out and join them. The reg­u­lar rhythm of the wave, seems like a wave pool and is a per­fect plat­form for Alexis to to­tally ex­ploit ev­ery cen­time­tre, link­ing his moves with style and flow. He squeezes ev­ery drop of fun from each wave and en­joys the suc­cess of this im­pro­vised mis­sion.

Back on dry land, as we un­load our gear onto the dock, we can hear a group of peo­ple nearby belt­ing out tunes on their karaoke kit. A string of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional hits echoes down the street. While he was cut­ting a co­conut for us, a fish­er­man tell us with laugh: “Don’t be too sur­prised, it’s Fri­day, Filipinos love to fin­ish the week round the TV singing few songs, it’s the same ev­ery­where here !”

The Cat and the Mouse

Af­ter a few days we’ve quickly got into the island way of life, filling our days (de­pend­ing on the va­garies of the weather) with long walks, meals of all the lo­cal del­i­ca­cies we can find, ex­plor­ing the la­goons, and of course, some ex­cel­lent ses­sions at all the lo­cal spots around, es­pe­cially the nice left­hander of Stymp­ies that we’re enjoying more and more with its var­ied sec­tions and its big rock in the back­ground. We are re­ally sur­prised by the lo­cal surf­ing po­ten­tial and the dif­fer­ent op­tions of­fered by the coast and the many is­lands around but we are look­ing for­ward to surf­ing de­cent Cloud 9, the most fa­mous wave in the coun­try.

It must be said that the leg­endary spot has been par­tic­u­larly capri­cious since our ar­rival. The tide is too low, the east wind is too strong, the swell di­rec­tion is off. This game of cat and mouse be­gins to play with our nerves but we con­tinue to check ev­ery day from the large tower and on a par­tic­u­larly calm late af­ter­noon, ev­ery­thing seem fi­nally to match per­fectly: the wind falls dras­ti­cally and a six-foot swell is help by the ris­ing tide. Alexis quickly grabs his board and throws him­self into the wa­ter from the end of the wooden pon­toon. The con­di­tions are not per­fect but the most beautiful sets break nicely on the reef and project the lip far ahead, re­veal­ing the im­pres­sive char­ac­ter of the beast. Some lo­cals al­ready out in the wa­ter show the ex­am­ple to fol­low and thread bar­rels with ease.

Af­ter an hour of an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ses­sion, more peo­ple jump in and the wind be­gins to blow again, mak­ing the spot more and more im­prac­ti­cal. This date was short but in­tense, the love magic has op­er­ated and Alexis is un­der the spell of the beautiful wave. A siren who did not wish to re­veal her­self too soon to let us seek the mul­ti­ple trea­sures around and be­come more and more de­sirous about her.

Noth­ing re­ally hap­pens by chance and the de­sire to come back soon to this lit­tle trop­i­cal par­adise to get to know the spot bet­ter is lit.

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