Sitting at home despondent with Covid after catching the dreaded virus on my homebound flight from Europe. I thought…. Gee it’s a few months till Christmas I wonder what’s out there. An organised tour with Spiceroads https://www.spiceroads.com/tours teased me. The Philippines… I haven’t been there. I’ll be back before nobody knows and still have time to buy Christmas gifts.
I was sitting at home with Covid six weeks ago and thought, hmm, why not one last escape before the year is done ? So I signed up for an Island hopping tour of the Philippines. Never been there.
Pristine, air conditioned Singapore welcomes me like an old friend but before I can get comfortable I am departing for Cebu, Philippines where it won’t be so predictable. I shoulder my bag and step from the plane. I immediately sense the heat permeating through the cracks in the passenger boarding bridge feeding me towards the customs area. Yep, it’s going to be a sticky three weeks. The customs hall is full of locals returning home with a smattering of tourists. Covid, earthquakes and typhoons have forced travellers to put a line through this country of seven and a half thousand islands.
We wait in a long line masked up with proof of vaccination and a certain nervousness because I’m aware that all is not straightforward in this country. My nervousness is unnecessary and I am soon out in the heat, my shirt immediately wet and sticking to my back. The car horns, the bravado and the chaotic driving quickly takes me back to many earlier arrivals anywhere in Asia. There is a different set of rules in this jungle and I don’t know them, chaos is king.
Later that evening in the cool calm of a modern city hotel I meet my travel buddies for the next two weeks of our Island hopping cycle tour. Our little group of cyclists sounds like the start of a bad joke. Gerald and Linda from Calgary, Canada, Valorie from San Diego, America, Trevor from Cape Town, South African and Pia and Hannu from Finland. And me, the token Aussie. We have one common interest we love to travel and we love cycling and that is what will hold us together.
With thousands of islands ferry rides are as common as bus trips. We scramble aboard our ferry to Bohol island and away from the hustle of city life. Two hours later we are wheeling our bikes off the jetty and lifting them onto the roof of an old school local Philippine bus.
Our driver strokes and caresses this old beast of a bus up and down hills and at times wrestling and grunting as he tries to turn this monster with no power steering. His son rides shotgun with us in the back with the important task of halting traffic when his father barks orders that we need more space to manoeuvre. We all become very fond of our bus which brings a smile to your face just to see it arrive.
It can carry nine bikes on the roof, eleven of us inside plus baggage. There is so a monster styrene box filled with ice, water bottles, no melting chocolate and bananas. It doesn’t go fast but we will never lose sight of it steadily following us around Bohol island.
Once safely away from the port we unload the bikes and head towards the Chocolate mountains via a sanctuary for Tarziers, the worlds smallest monkeys. They are tiny and to increase the difficulty of seeing them they sleep monger the leaves in the trees only venturing out after dark. Getting a photograph is tricky getting a good shot is even more difficult.
Our day finishes at the Loboc river and a small resort along the riverbank. Early this year the whole resort was under water as a Typhoon swept unprecedented water through this low lying area. It took three months to clear the mud from all of the buildings and rebuild bridges, reception and the wharf. It is hard to see where the devastation was other than the gardens which are slowly recovering.
There is an offer of a boat trip to see fire flies in the river at nightfall. I’m really only along for the chance of enjoying some cool evening draft on the river and some serenity after the hustle of the travel. The night sky lights up the minute our small boat leaves the resort. It’s inky black then the sky begins to twinkle. Half an hour later as we round a bend the fireflies begin blinking brightly in the trees like Christmas is just round the corner. We sit and take in this magical treat of nature. You are never too old to be spellbound.
The chocolate mountains had been on my wish list for a few years. A weird formation when this region had been under the sea. The tides had formed these patterned mounds which are deposits of shell and coral. They have only a light layer of topsoil covering them and can only grow native grasses. Each wet season the old grass flattens and new vibrant green grass replaces it. So you see rolling mounds of vibrant green as far as the eye can see. It wasn’t quite as bright for our visit but the mounds re not dissimilar to the Bungle Bungle formation in Australia’s Kimberly area.
We stayed in a small local backpacker place run by a Canadian and his Pilipino wife. I can hear the mozzies circling in my room and kill eight before dusk. Late afternoon I head out for a ride around the region as the farmers return from the fields, the school children spending the last of their energy and the street stall beginning to fire up there stalls. This is when these bustling main roads come alive. Small lights, the enticing smell of grilled meats and pans frying food. Washed and clean the locals all enjoy this cooler part of the day. Although it’s still 28c and way to warm for me.
We wake to light rain the following morning and discuss the pros and cons of wearing a raincoat in tropical drizzle and decided that it was better just to get wet. Right choice. We were soon covered in shitty road grime which would later fill the bathroom sink at our next hotel. The rain soon stopped, the climbing started as we worked our way to the top of the range separating us from the coast. It was a steady, sweaty slog and the gearing on my hired bike slipped and groaned. For sure the bike has been sitting idle for the past two years. Finally at the top, it’s a thirty km roll to the coast with a slight bump each 3 metres at the joints in the concrete road. My elbows ached from the jolting but my legs were glad for the rest. A lovely onshore breeze meant that for the first time we could all enjoy a reprieve from the heat as we rolled into Anda and Ocean View beach resort for a couple of nights. Complete with three pools and a swim up bar it was easy to forget the bikes for a day.
We leave Bohol island for Siquijor a day later. At the ferry terminal three blind boys run through a well rehearsed rang of English pop songs to a captive audience. Our ferry takes longer and longer to load and the young local female passengers begin singing with the band. Their sweet voices getting progressively louder and more confident. Whole rows begin swaying and singing like they are home in their bedroom belting out songs to their hairbrush. The familiar pop anthems melt away their shyness as they sing in unison drowning out the band. Pure harmonies come easily to these Pilipino girls.
Siquijar island is a small dot of an island in the thousands of islands that make up the Philippines. It’s size and distance from the more touristy places revealed the general innocence and happy nature of the Pilipino people. We were only ever met with smiles and a sincere hello, nowhere did I ever see rage or a bad word spoken. Our eighty km circumnavigation of the island is the perfect day on the bikes. A zephyr of a morning headwind and a sighting of my first black Madonna in a colonial church surrounded by far more impressive ancient acacia trees. After lunch it’s smooth roads and a tail wind to finish the day. Broad smiles all-round.
We left our traditional bus behind on Bohol. Siquijor has supplied us with a much small technicolor party bus. It struggles to carry us all. Young Harold, the guides assistant clambers onto the roof. He sits there cross legged clutching his bike for fear it will be scratched against the others. For a minute I feel like I’ve been transported back to India.
More drama when we caught an early ferry to Negros island. You are not allowed to ride there without a permit so three bikes were lashed to three tuk tuk for the short trip to the next ferry port. The poor old tuk tuks were wheezing under the load of three passengers, three bikes, our bags and a skinny driver. Off we went in our little convoy only to have our driver pulled over. Overloaded or dangerous loading was our guess but no. He had an even number plate on a day for odd numbers. Another new rule. He copped a small fine but not without a lengthy plea. We paid his fine but it didn’t stop him mumbling under his breathe. It’s late morning before we start our 75 kms to Moalboal and I am sure we will arrive in darkness but our guide Diego has got it right again.
By now our group has got it down like clockwork. Besides, today is our last day of riding. Everyone arrives at the breakfast table full of enthusiasm and some built up level of fitness. There is a mountain range which separates the West coast of Bohol from the East and our final destination back in Cebu City. Diego, not for the first time tries to walk us through todays terrain politely tempering the gradient without drowning the enthusiasm. The reality is we follow the coast for a while before turning up and then grinding away for most of the morning. There is no getting away with it, you’ve gotta climb. He keeps us inspired with short stops and tiny bottles of Coca-Cola. Not my thing but they are cold, wet and fizzy. At least the road is free of any real traffic and the villages come out to wave or maybe wonder why ? Finally the top, our second mini coke and then it’s wee, down the other side to Sibonga and traffic pandemonium. We manage to get to Carcar City before loading the bikes and escaping the gridlock back to Cebu City.
The following morning, the tour over we all head to other parts of the Philippines to unwind. I head back to Bohol island and Loboc river for two nights. I’d thought I’d spend more time on the Chocolate mountains but when I get there I’m happy to simply swim and lounge about with no deadlines. Although I do sign up to revisit the fire flies and yes they were as amazing as the first visit. Nature always astounds me.
My last two days are back at Moalboal not difficult I figure until I find that the only ferry in daylight leaves at 6am and tickets are only available at the terminal. So it’s a 4am taxi to the terminal at Loom then buy my foot traffic ticket. Seven of us wait in the waiting area from 5am till 7.30am before a growing number of passengers (who knew more about the timetable than the ferry company) boarded. Immediately everyone fell asleep, I hope the captain didn’t.
Back on dry land I walk towards the terminal exit and a long line of slouching tuk tuk drivers. My request to Moalboal is met with an assortment of prices which reduce the further I walk from the port. Eventually a lone scooter rider asks where I am going “Moalboal” I reply. He is unsure then meekly asks for 1000 pesos, much less than the others. The minute I am on the back a forthright tuk tuk driver stops I imagine to ask what price he agreed. The eyes say it all… off we chug. And chug it is. Poor Edwin my driver weights 45 kgs, I’m. almost double that plus my 10 kg bag.
Edwin’s scooter is struggling each time he tries to accelerate. He signals he has no petrol, I figure no money to buy it either. We stop and the attendant dribbles a few litres into the tank, I give him half his money as he fumbles in his pockets for some coins.
We have 40 kms to travel and I’ve quickly come to the conclusion that I have put my life at risk for a paltry A$28 ! The road is either steep up, steep down or damaged from the typhoon. I know because I rode this same road less than a week ago. I have time to peer at the scooter controls and not only does nothing work but tape and wire are holding most things together. We reach the damaged road which I remember being close to the middle of the range. Edwin starts to slow as we descend using his gears as the brakes squeak and squawk. As we descend into Moalboal he reaches down and slips a helmet onto his head. It has no chin strap and no I haven’t a helmet either. After only a few kms he removes it again until we are right in the town.
I signal for him to pull up outside the local 7/11. He stops, I go to get off but my legs won’t budge, they have seized up. I walk for a few minutes looking like John Wayne. If I could bend down I would kiss the ground. Edwin’s hand comes out. Then cheekily he asks for an extra hundred. How could I deny him. Fifteen minutes later I am far away, floating in my pristine hotel pool reliving the stupidity in my head. Did I think I was eighteen again ? Will I go canyoning tomorrow ? Maybe bungy jump ?No… The most dangerous thing I did the following day was allow a master in Thai massage to immerse me in oil then bend and fold me till I cried in submission.
Last day and I rise early. I have found an alternative to the whale shark swimming. I have issues with the whale sharks being fed causing them not to migrate as they always have. I boycott… My alternative is the complete opposite of the biggest fish in the world, it’s swimming with sardines…. Millions of them or so I’m told.
I tip toe gingerly through the shallows with my rubber thongs sliding awkwardly over the rocks and coral reef. Finally I slip the flippers on, stretch a face mask over my head before testing the snorkel. All good and with my guide nearby we plunge out into deeper water. Immediately I spot a turtle wafting fine sand in a hollow between the coral. Small schools of reef fish and a few Nemo’s dart about but the coral is a sad beige colour with little colour.
My guide gives me the sign to head out into deeper water. It happens quickly, one minute it’s two meters deep then drops away to over ten metres and the bottom becomes less clear. Suddenly there is a whirlpool of silver flashes. Masses of sardines forming into a block as their synchronised swimming has them darting this way then that. A mesmerising thing to see. My guide swims down amongst them as the fish part obligingly before swirling around and around him. He is lost from sight so dense is the school of sardines. Evidently they find safety in appearing as a solid form better than being seen as bite size morsels. I like their thinking…
Sure enough on the outskirts of this swirling mass lay a handful of predatory tuna fish taking any stragglers who don’t keep up with the main school. I suddenly get a flash back memory to an article on these sardine schools in Western Australia ten years ago. They was filmed news footage of these massive sardine schools being driven hard to shore by frenzied sharks. They who were attacking, mouths open and taking what they could, time and time again. Much like when I eat white bait and it takes a lot to feel full but without the squeeze of lemon. I admit to looking beyond the swirling school of sardines now, a searching eye looking for something larger beyond the tuna and the hypnotic sardines. How phenomenal is nature, how luck am I to view this sight.
Time to head home, I’ve had a blast.