Graceful Bangkas and Crystal Water

Time gives perspective. I started writing this blog entry as we left Manila, still smarting from the assault on my senses and sensibilities created by the most densely populated and traffic congested city on earth. It’s an ugly place. I’ve moved those thoughts to a separate document, for anyone who cares to read, click manila blog.

On this post I’ll write about the Philippines that isn’t a megacity, but is instead full of green rice fields, crystal seas, Jeepneys, blue skies, graceful bangkas, charm, beauty and spectacular diving.

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Jeepneys started out as modified ex US Army jeeps after WW2. Now they are a highly stylized gleaming chrome public transport machines.

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Bangkas use bamboo pole ‘rigging’ to give stability to a very narrow hull. It’s an efficient system, but if the poles break a capsize comes next.

Puerto Galera

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Peak hour in Puerto Galera

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Pimp my Ride – not a tricycle in any way we would know it
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Jeepney bus conductor

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Sabang bay

Our first destination was Puerto Galera, a bus ride and ferry south to Northern Mindoro. The town itself has very little of interest beyond an ATM and the Jeepneys and Trycycles that take you to and from Sabang beach. Our ferry dropped us off at Sabang jetty and I struggled and sweated with our dive bag through the narrow alleyways, sand and surf to get to our hut in Blue Ribbon Dive resort.

The diving was fabulous, most of it just a few minutes from the diveshop shoreline via the iconic bangkas, with a quick backward roll into clear water and glorious coral and abundant sea life beneath. It was soon obvious that diving was going to be a big part of our time in the Philippines, and we quickly extended our visa to two months; writing now in El Nido it looks like it will need to be longer.

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Better check social media right now …..
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Morning view from the dive shop

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Unlike some of our most recent destinations we came across a few Brits (and Australians) many of whom, come back time and again or else have made a life in the place, intending to stay a few months but finding it hard to leave. We got talking to one of the diveshop instructors, Chris, who had cycled there from England a few years back (check out his blog ‘clipped in and pedal driven’,  https://chriseaston.wordpress.com it’s quite an adventure).

With the help of Chris’s experience and care, we planned a trip to Apo Reef. A quick look at the map will show how close it is to PG, but with a road through the mountains that hasn’t been completed in fifteen years, the logistics were anything but simple. Chris planned and sorted everything and accompanied us to Sablayan (a Bangka, ferry and van to get there) along with two other divers we’d dived with in Sabang, John from Orange County and Nadia from St Petersburg.

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The trusty dive bag, off to Apo
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Chris looking out for us, all the way.

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A steep climb up with all our gear
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Driving across the island meant single file while crops like corn dried on the road. Where were the birds? The road over Living Mountain (beset by regular earthquakes and rebuilt every year) was particularly slow

The four of us set off with a boat crew and local divemaster at dawn for some wonderful diving. We were a long way from a diveshop and luckily Chris had brought a set of allen keys to convert the tanks or we would have been in trouble.

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Dawn in Sablayan

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John and Nadia, always relaxed!

As it was we had a few tank fails and I (stupidly) jumped in the water with only half a tank of air, after the boat crew had set up our gear. Lesson learnt, I set up my own gear from then on. I nearly abandoned the dive when descending, 100 bar in the tank wouldn’t get me through the dive. Instead Anne agreed to share her air with me and we managed an hour of spectacular diving with great visibility, grey reef sharks, white tips, turtles and a school of 43 bump head parrot fish chomping through the reef. We were lucky to have John and Nadia as dive buddies, good considerate divers, who like us were up for the adventure.

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Bump head Parrot fish, chewing the reef

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Two divers sharing one tank. Anne still came up with loads of air.

We spent the night camped on the white sand beach, after exploring the island – mangroves, inland lagoon, lighthouse and not much else, and were up with the dawn to dive again.

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A great trip (thanks Chris), we said goodbye to John and Nadia at the ferry and headed back to Sabang to wash the salt off our bodies before our next destination, Coron.

Coron

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Again the map will tell you that Coron is close to Apo Reef, but the absence of a ferry meant a flight back to Manila (overnight in a hotel by the airport thanks) and then a flight to the island after a row about luggage with Philippine Airlines. I could write a whole blog about the trials and tribulations of booking flights and accommodation on a mobile with unreliable internet. Sometimes it takes a day to sort, half of it has failed and it’s two days till you are back on line in time for an hour long phone call with customer service insisting on a booking reference number, when the reason you are ringing is that they didn’t send you one. No it’s not all white sand, sunsets and cold beer ….

Coron is famous for wreck diving, mostly a Japanese fleet sunk during an aerial attack on September 14th 1944 with ten major wrecks.

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Kids playing in the wreckage of 2013 Typhoon Haiyan

The town itself seems partly abandoned, with a bare central square and random collapsed buildings, presumably uncleared since Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Street vendors have set up stall in front of the wrecked buildings and at sundown the smoke and smell of BBQS and other foodstalls fill the rush hour air.

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No-one is buying pink stuff today
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Christian with the Neptune Divers dive bus

People come to Coron to dive. The wrecks are impressive with lots of penetration points, twists and turns through engine rooms and holds. We went to a recommended diveshop and we’re lucky to be guided by two great divemasters, Mimi originally from Paris and Christian, a local from Coron. Both of them had a real passion for diving and expertly guided us through wrecks as long as 130 meters, exciting stuff.

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The five WW2 wrecks we dived, plus Barracuda lake

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Thanks dive buddy Stanley, for the underwater shots
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No wetsuits, with a temperature of 35C in the lake
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Happy divers

We also dived Barracuda lake with Christian, a 30 meter dive with cool lakewater, a thermal hot spring layer of 36 degrees centigrade at twelve meters (no wetsuits) and then a heliocline of salt water below. Strange.

I’ve held back, but Coron had some stunning sunsets…

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Finally on a route that didn’t involve flights or the dreaded Manila we hopped on the four hour ferry to El Nido. One dive day in Coron had been cancelled because of rough seas caused by the North East monsoon weather front and we had heard stories of the ferry taking many hours crashing through waves or being stuck in harbour in the previous few days.

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Our journey was smooth and relaxed however and we pulled into El Nido as the sun settled down behind the limestone cliffs that surround the harbour. We had booked an Airbnb on the edge of town, but nothing is more than a ten minute walk in this busy but relaxed place.

El Nido

El Nido is the gateway to the Bacuit Archipelago in the South China Sea with over 45 limestone outcrops and islands with clear water and white sand beaches. The scenery is genuinely breathtaking, with trees clinging to the jagged karst rock topography, contrasted against blue sky and a bright clear sea. Of course El Nido is a tourist destination, struggling to keep up with demand, access to fresh water being a big problem, alongside the shortage of space with the sheer limestone cliffs limiting expansion.

We opted for a Bangkas tour boat to Miniloc island and then explored the bay and coastline in a two person Kayak – our first bit of kayaking since New Zealand in 2001. Kayaks are great for exploring this landscape with the karst rock hiding ‘secret lagoons’ and narrow inlets with bays and white sand beaches beyond. Although we used muscles that had been lying dormant for a while, we enjoyed the experience and the rest of the day was spent cruising through the sea for some snorkeling (Anne), a BBQ and even some basketball and a cold beer on a beach.

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So now we are making our way through Palawan to meet up with Oona in a week. Since our emotional departure in Heathrow Airport at the end of November, we have managed to keep in touch pretty well, though sometimes the experience of WhatsApp and Skype and time zones has been frustrating.

It’s going to be great to catch up.

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