Perfection, adventure and the absence of words in the Philippines

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien, en français. And click here for the photos of there! (or here, and also here)

As I sit here at my glass-topped table looking out my rain-streaked windows, the Philippines seem like a million miles away. Words slip away from me, like water through my fingers. It feels like a place I’ve imagined into being. The strangest thing is that it felt like that when I was there, the sun on my face and the warm, soft sand between my toes. Am I, was I dreaming?

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El Nido, Palawan

We landed in Peurto Princessa, a town that felt like it had been hoovered up in South America and lightly deposited in Asia. Statutes of Catholic saints leaning out of nooks in buildings, the jangle and sway of holy medal tangles and rosary beads from rearview mirrors, biblical quotations emblazoned on the back of three-wheelers and, subtly, the booming daily prayer broadcast when everybody freezes and stares at the sky – or towards God?

There, we hopped into a minibus held together with string and hope. Rationing out our shared bottle of water and a sad wilted donut, the exact texture of polystyrene, Damien and I were unprepared! Then another 12 people crammed and squeezed their way into the tiny rusted space, the clang of footsteps announced the arrival of yet more passengers on the roof and the absolutely enormous man, whose armpit Damien was nestled into, produced his selection of power ballads, the karaoke began and we were off. For 8 hours. No preparation would ever have been possible! After what felt like a lifetime, we finally arrived in El Nido. We were unprepared for that too. El Nido is gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

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We stayed in the town of El Nido, drank in the views and feasted on the incredible French meals served by Le Salangan – I know, eating French food while in the Philippines is wrong, so wrong but it was just so good. Damien was in raptures. It was the dream again – that delicious deep muscle exhaustion after a day of snorkling, sunshine warmed skin, long conversations of life and happiness and nothing, rich red wine and dark chocolate, and drifts of cloud catching on jagged karst islands.

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We also choose to go island hopping with Le Salangan. It was a day of drinking in the scenery and dipping into the different, impossibly blue snorkling spots. Our crew also cobbled together an incredible beach barbeque for our lunch. It was a day of pure joy and beauty.

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All too soon it was time to leave this quiet, perfect place in search of Coron, our ears filled with tales of its spectacular dive sites. Transport is not particular speedy or easy in the Philippines and our chosen form of transport to “whisk” us along to Coron was a greasy, blue cargo boat. Surprisingly, those eight hours aboard were incredible. Damien swung contentedly in his hammock and I lay on the deck, soaking up the greens, the greys and the blues.

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Coron, Palawan

Coron isn’t a particularly pretty town. It really doesn’t need to be. Not when you realise that it’s a functional place perched above some of the most amazing dive spots in the world. The world that makes your heart speed up is underwater here. Our first dive was at Barracuda Lake, a volcanic lake high up a limestone mountain.  Though, aside from some whiskery catfish, there isn’t much life in the lake, the dive still captured all of my attention. Wetsuit free, it’s a dive lived through the skin. Diving past the oily thermocline, the lake’s freshwater gets hotter and murkier the deeper you go until the water burns and the visiblity is next to nothing.  Diving in a volcanic lake? Sure, why not?!

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The next dive spot we explored were some Japanese wrecks that had been torpedoed during the Second World War. They lay deep in the dark at 30 metres and as we finned our way through the cargo hold, boiler rooms and cabins, torch in hand and the dark closing in around me, I thought I might be mad! Finning carefully so as not to kick up the silt, we followed our guide through the maze of tunnels, through the darkness, lionfish sometimes passing through the weak yellow of our torchbeams. They were facinating dives and a huge rush!

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On land, adreneline still pumping, we partied with our dive group, watched a blood red sunset and planned our next wreck dives.

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It was not to be though. A typhoon blew in the following morning, the hatches were well and truly battened and all boats confined to the port!

We were off again and this time to Cebu!

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While we were trekking in Myanmar, our friends, Coralie & Stefan, wove tales of the Philippines, of the dives and of whale sharks. We were entranced … and basically, moulded the rest of our itinerary to allow us the opportunity to dive with giants. We’re generally pretty rabid on subjects like reef destruction and avoid artificial feeding sites like the plague but having researched Oslob, we decided to visit and we weren’t disappointed. The set up is very good – a “do and don’ts” talk beforehand and marine biologists on site to protect the sharks from people. We were rowed out in a little canoe and the shapes and shadows of the huge sharks were already visible on the surface. Diving with these creatures was probably the most magical 45 minutes of the entire trip. They are incredibly beautiful, curious and enormous beings. Here is where words really do fail me. I can’t say any more than I loved this experience absolutely.

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Before we could leave the Philippines (and it was always going to be too soon!), there was one more gorgeous creature we dreamt of seeing – a tarsier. These gorgeous, big-eyed endangered primates are incredibly shy and fragile – so much so that they are known to commit suicide by holding their breath in captivity. It is vastly important to support official sancturaries in the Philippines as there is a big problem with tarsiers being poached for the tourists. We found the two day journey to see them to be completely worth it!

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Handsome divil!

So the Philippines – we barely managed even managed a glimpse of the Philippines, a facinating archipelago made up of some 7,107 islands nestled between the South China Sea to the East and the Philippine Sea to the West. It’s a place of heartbeats and wonder and a place we long to return to!

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