A WHIM AND A PRAYER

A TROP­I­CAL PAR­ADISE AWAITS THOSE WHO ARE PRE­PARED TO BRAVE MANILA ON THE WAY TO THE PHILIP­PINES’ SE­CLUDED IS­LANDS

Life & Style Weekend - - MAGAZINE | ESCAPE - WORDS: SHAYLA BULLOCH

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.

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