After a few hours of meditative breathing, trying to recover from the trauma of Manila’s Bureau of Immigration, I flew into Puerto Princesa, Palawan. I checked into a home-stay small enough to have no name, and spent an uncomfortable night trying not to fall through the face-hole of the massage table that they had disguised as a bed. At the crack of dawn the next morning I contorted myself into a mini-van, and spent the next few hours trying not to get flung out of my seat as the driver zig-zagged a group of us to the famous Underground River.
Yet another one of the Philippine’s UNESCO world-heritage listed landmarks, this incredible river system was declared as one of the new seven natural wonders of the world in 2012. The cave entrance sits in the calm waters of a deep cove, protecting it from the swells of the open seas. Access is gained by boarding a large canoe with eight or ten other eager-eyed people, all themed in flimsy orange safety gear. The canoe is powered gondolier-style by a superbly muscled local fellow at the rear, who alternates between paddling furiously and gasping out cave information as he pauses to catch his breath.
The river system itself is over 8km long, but for reasons of safety, conservation and air quality, access to the paying public is restricted to the first 1500m. The cave through which it flows is impressive, as wide as a two-laned road and branching out in a reticulum of side passages and dead-ends. One enormous cavern connects to the next – the largest we accessed being a monster 60m high, well beyond the limits of our torchlight. The guide informed us that much deeper in was a cavern amongst the largest of any cave system on the planet, crowned by a domed ceiling 300m high. He also said that the river flowed on several levels, connected by a complicated system of locks and waterfalls. A research group recently discovered the fossil of a dugong from the Miocene, thought to be 20 million years old. Given the sheer size and complexity of this cave system, it begs the question how many more startling discoveries await science. Huddled in the canoe with my flimsy orange life-jacket and helmet, I couldn’t help but wonder how much a mountain can be undermined before it collapses in on itself, and said a silent prayer that it wouldn’t choose this particular hour. It is difficult not to stare open-mouthed at the size and grandeur of the cave, but the populations of overhead bats and swiftlets (famous for their saliva nests that the Chinese favour in soup), doing so invites something unfortunate to happen.
Puerto Princesa didn’t have many other things to occupy my time, but it did have a very lively water-side night market. So, the few days of down time that I spent there gave me the chance to concentrate on catching up with sleep, and food. After months of vigorous exercise out of proportion with a lean diet, my body had dropped more than 10kg that it didn’t have in surplus to start with. Unfortunately, there is currently more fat on a butcher’s pencil. The markets in PP are cheap and have an impressive variety of stall food. The list of local delicacies that I put to the tooth includes a skewer of char-grilled chicken hearts, fried pig’s ears and pork stewed black in blood. Apart from having my sleep punctuated by the occasional intestinal exclamation mark (and semi-colon), there haven’t been any more serious side effects of an adventurous diet. Despite this, the frequent offers of chicken bowel kebabs, feet and tripes have been replied to with a clear, raised, stop-sign hand. The absolute extreme of the Filipino street food o offer, is balut. This local delicacy is a fertilised duck egg incubated for several weeks. The egg is hard-boiled or roasted on coals, from which the embryonic duckling is seasoned with vinegar and eaten straight from the shell. The idea of eating an embryonic anything makes me gag, but out of respect to the local culture I feel that at some point I should swallow my offense, and some balut.
After a languid few days in Puerto Princesa, I headed to El Nido, on the northern tip of Palawan. While the geography of PP is unremarkable, El Nido is astounding. From the flat ground, spires of jagged, grey limestone karst shoot upwards several hundred metres. The cliff walls look precarious at best, as though at any moment millions of tons of rocks may just shear away, burying the huts that are ironically built for protection at their base. It’s a landscape that defies logic and made me question my depth perception. But it makes for dramatic sunsets and a spectacular backdrop for swimming and diving. It also made for a conveniently nice place to get stranded for a week as two typhoons waged war on the Philippines’ north east coast.
I have never been caught in tropical storms before. At least, not proper ones. As if my journeying up mountains, through caves, along rivers and under the oceans of SE Asia hadn’t done the job well enough, living through a week of typhoons was the most potent lesson yet of my insignificance against the enormous size and power of nature. In a matter of minutes, a placid, blue-skied afternoon would turn to twilight beneath bruised, malevolent clouds. Dazzling branches of lightning would marble their way against the black backdrop, followed by booming thunder that shook the foundations of my accommodation and made me question the sense in having second storey room. And typhoon rain needs a name other than rain. It is a fierce, pelting deluge of water that floods the streets in seconds and brings any productivity to a standstill. I got caught once or twice swimming when one of these downpours came through. As nervous as I was about being in water with lightning striking all around, it still seemed a better option than taking on the rain with a naked back, feeling as though it was being blasted from above with gravel.
I was lucky enough to strike a good day before the typhoons hit, on which I boarded an almost seaworthy boat to see the much proclaimed lagoons on El Nido’s satellite islands. It was a fantastic day, spent gawping at some simply beautiful places, swimming my way to the quieter corners and deeper water, away from the clusters of hydrophobic, life-jacketed tourists and their selfie sticks. The grand finale of this day trip was a visit to the hidden lagoon – a basketball court sized pool of still water completely encased within sheer limestone walls, and only accessible through a small jagged window facing the open ocean. Entry had to be carefully timed as the high swell pounded the opening, and quite a volume of hydrophobic tourist blood and skin was left behind by those that moved too slowly.
The inclement weather brought boat travel to a stand-still. Although the island of Coron is a relatively easy ferry ride from El Nido, the coast guard repeatedly foiled my efforts to get there. I had been desperate to get underwater in Coron to dive around the looming wrecks of Japanese war ships, sunk towards the end of WWII by American air offensives. For three consecutive days I packed my bags, checked out of my hotel and waited for a tricycle to take me to the pier, only to get a last minute phone call from an indifferent official, telling me that the ferry had been cancelled. Although he probably saved me from the same ending as the Japanese wrecks that I wanted to see, it didn’t stop me cursing the coast guard on daily basis. Eventually, despite being so frustratingly close, I had to give up on the idea of getting to Coron. Instead, I flew disappointed back to Manila to strike out again in search of better weather in Mindorro.