After a 4hr delay at Sydney airport it was a 9.10 PM arrival in Manila and a chaotic drive to our hotel. Early next morning, ACC members consisting of 2 Margarets, 2 Davids, Rob, Lee and Steve, had a briefing with Southern Sea Ventures guide Toby (resident of WA and Tasmania on his first guide of our intended location). All of us had done various trips with SSV trips before. Toby skipped the “how to paddle” and other basic aspects before our 10am flight to the elongated southwestern province of the Philippines: Palawan Island and its bustling capital of Puerto Princesa.
It was a 6hr drive on a cement road most of the way north with the last 50km on dirt. Our destination of El Nido is a budget resort town squashed along a sandy shoreline. Our Navigator fiberglass single sea kayaks were lined up on the beach and in need of some up-keep (deck lines, hatch covers, rudder adjustments). We met our local staff (provided by Blue Horizons Travel), changed gear and had a slow dusk paddle out of the bay to a camp already set up and dinner waiting. A row of bright orange dome tents complete with bamboo-framed mattresses, pillows and towels was more than adequate accommodation (until a night of rain). The dining table under a canopy had white cloth and chairs were covered in more white cloth with red sashes much like a wedding. The camp staff consisted of a cook, 2 helpers plus a bangka (local craft) captain and his helper, and our local paddling guide, Sellso, who preferred to carry his life jacket on his back deck.
It was early to bed as we were tired from two days of travel. Next morning we could appreciate our surroundings. We were on a sandy cove of Cadlao Is with a distant view of some magnificent jutting limestone islands which would be our paddling area over the next week. Behind us was a shear cliff with small caves that are harvested for bird’s nest soup (a delicacy, they say). A three-course breakfast got us going for the day’s plan to paddle the 15kms around our island. The waters were calm in front of our camp but we were in the island’s lee and the other sides had gusty winds building up to 30knots. We did explore a shallow pretty lagoon and snorkeled it before battling the winds and chop of the clapotis waves which tested balance and determination. David Snr. requested assistance from the local guide to adjust the rudder pedals and found himself being towed (and jerked) behind the support bangka. As a result he had an unexpected swim in rough water! At the lunch spot we all accepted a ride of 4km around another headland before continuing our circumnavigation. Same camp that night, where the cold freshwater dipper/shower and port-a-loo with kitty litter were appreciated.
The next morning was still windy, and faced with a long crossing of 5kms we decided to load kayaks on the outriggers of the bangka again for an easy ride across. However the little beach was too rocky. We anchored offshore and swam in followed by the job of floating kayaks into the beach to set off around the jagged length of Matinloc Is. Shortly after, some of us had the opportunity to enter Hidden Beach which involved floating over a rocky bottom with a 90˚ right turn. Inside was shallow, narrow, calm and pretty. Then it was a timing challenge to exit into the surf once again.
As we approached the northern headland we had an increase in wind and a swell up to 2.5m with lots of intimidating clapotis. In the calmer waters of the sheltered channel we rested at a residential ruin and shrine. A long paddle ensued with a brief break to peer through a hole at Secret Beach which was unfortunately inaccessible to us due to the swell. We passed around the southern point into the wind and chop again and at the first rocky beach found we were happy to load the bangka once again in reverse floating order. It was a slow trip back to our camp but we saw turtles surfacing along the way
This evening, as well as a fine dinner, we celebrated David’s 78th birthday!
Our final morning at this campsite we had a 4 course breakfast. Rice was offered at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The fresh mangos were a big hit. We packed kayaks and bags for a new destination, this time the smaller steep Miniloc Is. Tonight was to be at a resort. Our bangka however wouldn’t start. The usual squirt of fuel on the manifold didn’t do the trick. Finally Sellso applied a burning torch to the engine which worked as we all held our breath hoping the boat didn’t explode! We motored to an opening of a gorgeous lagoon, Big Lagoon. The waters were gentle enough to anchor, climb down a ladder and position ourselves into each kayak then paddle in. It was a brilliant place surrounded by cliffs, blue water, coral, sea anemones and fantastic snorkeling. It was the sort of tropical paradise we were expecting and as the tide was low the tourist boats could not yet enter. A short distance along was Small Lagoon and in contrast this was busy at the entrance. But only canoes or swimmers could enter through a small opening to a quieter haven inside. Not much coral here but lovely chambers and cliffs.
Then we had a short strenuous paddle to a boat-busy sandy beach for lunch. The snorkeling here was amazing with colourful fish, a drop-off where we spied swimming turtles and watched Toby free dive some 10m. Our resort was in the bay and looked enticingly inviting. We were welcomed with music and a necklace and then amused ourselves with hot showers, basketball, ping pong, 8-ball and cocktails. Dinner was an open-air smorgasbord in very pleasant surroundings.
At departure next morning, some went snorkeling amongst some very large fish being fed by resort staff. This morning’s boat was a faster bangka for a trip south where we paddled into the small fishing village of Liminangacong. We had a short walk around town where there were erected decorations in preparation for Valentine’s Day and some of us popped in to view a cockfight. Across the bay we beached for lunch and the cook grilled fish and chicken over a small fire. We then meandered down Endeavour Strait past authentic thatched huts and friendly residents onto the mangrove forests where we saw rattan poles being collected and a banded mangrove snake sunning itself overhead.
It was a long ride to our next campsite (for 2 days) on Pinagbuyutan Is. The staff had been busy moving the tents, kitchen and amenities so all we had to do was settle in and walk to the point to watch a lovely sunset. Dinner was accompanied with lots of rum punch which sent us to bed early only to be called out again by Toby to walk in, then kayak through, the phosphorescence which was stunning in the blackness!
Day 6 was a special day of calm waters and light rain. We passed around Lagen Is and sheltered in a fisherman’s hut for a break. The snorkeling here was also special. A short paddle brought us to Cathedral Cave on Pinsail Is which is popular viewing with the tourist boats from the outside but all 8 of our kayaks could fit inside easily. A longer paddle bought us to Cudugman Beach for lunch followed by a crawl into 2 caves, which opened into large chambers, some with bats and stalagmites. We passed through an arch, around a rock garden and past another village to Snake Is (a reference to the sandbar) and a short climb to a lookout. That night we continued our game of 3 statements: 2 truths and 1 lie. It was usually a challenge to identify the lie as we all had had interesting experiences. As soon as we retired to our tents the rain began and by early morning some were re-positioning body parts around wet spots.
The last day of paddling was to the nearby mainland into a bay and the Danat River. The mangroves here were 8-10m high. We saw another mangrove snake and a few locals in the mud collecting shellfish. Lunch was on a beach in front of a resort and the usual snorkeling followed. Onwards past small resorts, huts, private homes, anchored bangkas and boat building until we reached our 3rd campsite at a small sandy cove and, of course, another chance to snorkel. Did I mention the water temperature here is a comfortable 24-26˚? Dinner was on the beach and had to be delayed a little by the visiting masseuses!
There were windy gusts all night and, although we had heard falling coconuts from time to time, it was the one after breakfast that just missed Rob and made us all nervous. We were to paddle the final 5km back to El Nido this morning but the winds along the cliffs may have caused a delay so it was a boat ride into town and a long van ride back to Puerto Princesa with a side trip to Palawan’s largest inland freshwater lake.
That night we had a lovely meal to celebrate our trip, thank Toby for his very apt leadership and sea skills and enjoy once again the luxuries of a hotel.
Composed by us during the 8hrs layover at Manila airport en route home.