Bohol threatened to blow my budget, so the moment I arrived I went on the hunt for a roof that wasn’t too upmarket. I found a set of quaint looking, two storey nipa huts that my inquiries had assured me were the cheapest option in town. The place was virtually deserted, and with no running water and a kitchen well serviced by ants and cockroaches, it quickly became clear as to why. The hostel proprietor was a chain-smoking, batik-wearing, Marley-loving, Canadian relic of the sixties. I had many orientating questions, but his standard response was scratch of his balding head through his garish bandana, a deep draught on his cigarette and a nonchalant shoulder shrug. After a minute or two of suspenseful contemplation, he would launch into a very long and very boring anecdote about something completely irrelevant, before vaguely wandering off mid-sentence in a cloud of blue smoke. I began to doubt that tobacco was his only weed of choice. Despite the third-world-equivalent living standards, my days were busy and I fell asleep exhausted every night. I wasn’t bothered in the least by the Tanduay rhum fuelled fights and karaoke, or serenading roosters directly outside my window.
On my first full day, I managed to get him to concentrate for long enough to hire me out a tiny scooter. The brakes and throttle and electrics were all about as vague as their owner, and would occasionally forget their assigned task. But provided that I gave enough prior warning, all were functional enough to carry me to the centre of the island and to bring me home safely. The trip was interesting and varied, distracting me from the discomfort of contorting myself onto a child’s toy, and I passed through villages, rice terraces, oodles of waving children, and along the banks of the meandering, green Loboc river. In every town was a several hundred year old Spanish church, shrouded in scaffolding and dotted with workman. These were being pieced back together after the damage caused to them by devastating earthquake that rocked the island in 2013. They looked all the more ancient for their disrepair.
I arrived at the Chocolate Hills with a cramping right thigh and a bright red, sunburnt nose, but early enough to beat the onslaught of Chinese tour buses. Romantic legend states that these unusual 1200 or so 100m high conical hills are the tears rained down to earth by a heartbroken giant. Strangely enough, geologists rebuke this theory, insisting that the hills are a geological quirk formed from the combined effects of uplifting coral deposits and erosion. The earthquake had made it’s presence felt here too, with the subsequent erosion washing the hills of their iconic brown colour, and leaving them more like a mottled, jaundiced yellow. Ten minutes was enough time to limp with one unbending leg, up the steps to the viewpoint, snap off some pictures, and limp down again. On a whim I decided to get a 15 minute massage from a blind man in a plastic chair before getting myself back on the bike. He needed a bit of persuasion not to stray too far north from my cramping thigh, but once he found the knots, he worked them with a fury that made my eyes roll and had me screaming on the inside. I’m almost glad that he couldn’t see my face red enough to camouflage my nose.
Moving better after fifteen minutes of sanctioned torture, I folded myself back onto my scale model scooter and headed back the way I had come, aiming for the tarsier sanctuary. A collection of disreputable locals keep captured individuals in cages in Loboc, charging tourists on a pay per view basis, like a nefarious primate peepshow. I wanted to see them in their natural (albeit shrinking) habitat, and the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary proved to be a very good option for this. In the process I learnt all sorts of little factoids that as a veterinarian, I had to puff myself up and pretend that I already knew. For instance, they are the planet’s smallest primate (about half the size of one of my fists), and they are named for their elongated tarsal bones. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets, such that they must move their heads owl-like to survey their environment. They are nocturnal and territorial, and although active in the night time, rarely stray far from their ‘nest’. I felt a bit guilty about my day-time intrusion on their night-time lifestyle and they made their own feelings known by glaring at my camera lens with eyes like overcoat buttons. Given my occupation, my working life inundates me with ‘cute’, and I find that I’m much harder to impress these days. But these little relatives, each looking like a startled, hairy frog with squirrel fingers, did the trick.
My last port of call on the way back to my peasant accommodation was the man-made forest. The original forest that stood at this location was decimated by subsistence farming practices of local refugees, displaced from their villages by the conflicts on the island during WWII. A push for rehabilitation in the 1950’s, led to the planting out of primarily mahogany. The result is a strikingly beautiful forest of dappled light, tangled rattan, giant ferns, buttressed roots and moss. At the hour that I arrived it was deserted, and I spent a fascinating solitary hour exploring it’s trails with my camera – every shot a winner in the early morning light. A handful of caves on the trail edges beckoned with their craggy mouths, offering entry into their rarely visited insides. But, being the only human in miles, I decided not to push my luck.
South of Bohol, tiny Balicasag island is a diving Mecca, and the main reason why I had come. But my last diving experience at Apo island, Negros, had left me nervous about getting back in the water. There on a drift dive, our guide knowingly split our group and abandoned my buddy pair. I ran out of air still 15m down and in unfamiliar territory, and breathing on my buddy’s almost empty tank we surfaced more than 200m from the boat, in a strong current and high swell. I have heard of more experienced divers drowning, or being swept away in such scenarios. When exhausted, we made it back to the boat, I made my feelings known in loud, clear, Australian terms, much to the surprise and embarrassment of the twenty or thirty snorkelers that had parasitised the trip. The situation definitely rattled me and made me nervous to don the neoprene again.
As luck would have it, the dive guide at GoScuba was the best that I have experienced in the Philippines. And the diving at Balicasag Island was incredible, with its coral cathedrals, typhoons of fish, turtles, barracudas, and adrenaline-pumping, swim-through wall caves. The remainder of my time on Bohol was spent beating a path to the dive centre, dodging and weaving past my Canadian host, with his plumes of second hand smoke and confused ramblings.
Despite the recent market bombing in Davao, on nearby Mindanao, I decided to take my chances and edge a few steps further south, and closer to the danger, at Camiguin Island. To this end, I left the weevils and nicotine ambience of my hostel behind, and boarded a frighteningly primitive bus for a bone-rattling two hour trip to the port town of Jagna.