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.
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.
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.