A WHIM AND A PRAYER
A TROPICAL PARADISE AWAITS THOSE WHO ARE PREPARED TO BRAVE MANILA ON THE WAY TO THE PHILIPPINES’ SECLUDED ISLANDS
I suppose I should have warned Ben. While I was no stranger to the tight budget, sore feet and cultural diversity of a backpacking journey, it was his first time overseas when I booked us a trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
With a few weeks’ annual leave under my belt, my feet got their biannual itch and we braved the chaos of Manila for a Filipino oasis I could have never expected.
Waking up to the local dogs playing outside our hut, the smell of the ocean and adventure ahead, I was content, and the four-hour delay to Moalboal in Cebu had washed away.
We’d been welcomed to the south-west town by the singlet-clad American owner of our Airbnb with a litre of beer to wash down at our backyard “sundowners”. The perks of privately renting a home always outweigh any commercial hotel for me, especially the resident dogs.
After consecutive snorkelling days spotting starfish off the front of our oceanside property, some jungle adventure was calling, and we crammed into a typical open-back ute and headed for Kawasan Falls.
You couldn’t wipe the smile off our faces – except maybe when I jumped 14 metres off the highest waterfall from a crumbling cliff edge.
I’ve always had a love for the path less travelled kind of destinations. The ones where not seeing another tourist for days made my travel partner feel a little uneasy.
We soaked up what days were left in the quiet part of the Philippines, learning from locals and scooting through the back roads, before braving the airport system again for the popular island Palawan.
Airport security confiscated my trusty charging dock but I stopped sulking as the familiar smell of a summer thunderstorm rolled across Puerto Princesa skies – the rain always makes this Aquarian a little happier.
For the next few days, we put down our phones and relished the limited reception and sea of fishing boats dotted along the bay of Port Barton.
The small fishing village is about a seven-hour drive from Puerto Princesa, the island’s capital, but worth the trip for some seclusion, sun and spectacular beaches.
Simplicity is key here and restaurants are limited, but we declared banana pancakes made fresh at a little cafe in the village streets our favourite meal.
From complete seclusion to the pumping heart of the Philippines, El Nido’s scaling limestone cliffs and bay of dotted islands and islets had me captivated from first glance.
Scooting just metres from the base of the iconic cliff, I craned my head up with the wind on my neck and studied every inch of its dark exterior contrasted with vivid green foliage. I’d never seen anything more beautiful. The mainland was stunning, but the true beauty lay in and around the 45 islands in Bacuit Bay.
We splurged the budget and decided to leave our lives in the hands of a French scuba dive instructor for our first free-dive. It was on that day I seriously contemplated quitting my job and moving to El Nido to be her assistant.
Despite reading my air tank gauge completely wrong and dealing with the guilt of hitting some coral with my huge flipper, swimming vertically surrounded by walls of coral and tropical fish at North Rock was life-changing.
It was teeming with wildlife and 45 minutes down wasn’t enough.
My favourite mango and rice dish was
“SWIMMING VERTICALLY SURROUNDED BY WALLS OF CORAL AND TROPICAL FISH AT NORTH ROCK WAS LIFE-CHANGING.”
waiting as we emerged from our second dive and the local boat men sang us songs and tried their best Spanish.
We could have spent days on the sea, but two island-hopping adventures, a crowd of equally excited tourists and some serious food poisoning left us exhausted and fulfilled.
On land, I made the trip interesting by convincing Ben we needed to scooter north to Nacpan Beach – in the pouring rain. Water pierced our eyes like needles, we ran out of fuel and never made it to the famous beach, but I think crying from both pain and laughter on the roadside was better.
Nursing our sicknesses and waiting for yet another flight at El Nido airport, I thought of how I hadn’t warned my love of the many tribulations that are travel.
But as we soared above the clouds, he grabbed my hand in a moment between sleeping and reaching for the sick bag, and I knew the only warning warranted was that of the stories of his first trip we’d be telling for years to come.