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Philippines (14 islands)

 

 (3 543 km - 110days - 5 September - 24 December 2013)

 

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4 September – Borneo – The Philippines by ferry

Due to engine problems, the ferry from Borneo only reached the port of Zamboanga City at around nine p.m., and it was eleven p.m. by the time we got off the boat. The going was particularly slow, as not only did everyone want to get off first, one had to wait for transportation to the immigration office. While waiting to get off, you further had to be particularly alert as small kids hopped onboard, scavenging for whatever was going - might it be unattended luggage or leftover food. They were like monkeys, clambering up and down the side of the ferry and quite amazing to watch them operate - they were as quick as lightning, and even onboard security had no chance of catching them. They were under and over the sleeping bunks without the guards seeing them.

 

Eventually, I was off the boat and at the immigration building. A queue snaked from one end of the building to the other. People were pushing and shoving (not sure where they wanted to go, as no pushing or shoving was going to get them to the front any sooner). Inside, the building was hot and stuffy. Faces dripping with sweat were fanned with passports, all to no avail.

 

By the time all was done, and in the light of a headlamp, I set off into the deserted streets to locate accommodation. The dark streets only revealed a few homeless people, two full hotels, and one expensive one. Only on the fourth try was suitable accommodation found.

 

5 September - Zamboanga City, Mindanao, Philippines

On the boat, one could change Malaysian ringgit for Philippine pesos, but it didn’t provide sufficient local currency to see me through to the next big town. Priority was, therefore, to locate a bank. The Philippines was the world’s second-largest archipelago (after Indonesia) with 7,107 islands. Although most were uninhabited, the plan was on visiting a good few.

 

The Philippines was a small country with a fascinating history. In 1521, the islands were claimed by Spain. The British occupied it for a while but soon gave it back to Spain. Then, the U.S. came. The U.S. war officially lasted three years, but skirmishes still went on for another seven, killing 600,000 Filipinos in the process. After the U.S. eventually left, Japanese troops came and only in 1946 were the Philippines granted full independence. On top of that, Filipinos still have to deal with volcanoes and typhoons. During the time of my visit, political violence was still widespread, and there were repeated warnings to be careful and NOT to camp along the way.

 

While walking about, the heavens opened up and everyone ran for cover. Temperatures hovered around the mid 30°C and, being the wet season, it could rain at any given time. Fortunately, the rain came quick and hard and didn’t last very long.

 

After hailing a tricycle (more a bike with a sidecar), the going wasn’t much faster than walking. The driver did locate a bank but, unfortunately, no roadmap.

 

6 September - Zamboanga City – Vitali - 72km

Joining other tricycles, bicycles, Jeepneys, busses and trucks, I cycled out of town. Jeepneys were the Philippines’ most popular form of public transport, who got their start as Willys Jeeps left behind when American G.I.s departed. Filipinos recycled them as buses with benches with room for 20 (or more) passengers. They were colourful and plentiful.

 

With Filipinos driving on the right-hand side of the road, a roadside bike shop changed the mirror back to the left-hand side of the bicycle. The owner, once again, warned not to camp next to the way and advised to instead go to Vitali and check with police for a room in town.

 

With morning pollution hanging thick in the air, the route led north, out of the large and busy Zamboanga City. The countryside made stunning riding; numerous small settlements flanked both sides of the highway. Now and again, these communities made way for emerald green rice paddies. Water buffalo waddled in muddy puddles and tricycles carted small kids to and from school. Amazingly, even the smallest village had a large school.

 

As was always the case on the first day in a new country, photo stops were countless. The Philippines was an especially photogenic country, and one could quickly fill a 36GB card in no time at all. Nothing much came of the mountains warned about, and although hilly, it wasn’t steep.

 

At around 15h00, dark clouds gathered and one could see a thunderstorm approaching. Fortunately, Vitali came before the rain and consisted of a fair-sized village with plenty of roadside stalls. Police directions were to a karaoke bar with rooms above. As could be expected of a room above a karaoke bar, it was noisy, dark and dingy, with three-quarter cardboard walls. The owners were, however, super friendly. At the end of the hallway was a large drum with water, which one could scoop out to use as a shower, very refreshing.

 

Supper was a takeaway rice-meal eaten on the balcony overlooking the road, but soon three others joined and watched every morsel consumed. It was best to take myself off to my semi-private room where, at least, one could eat without being observed. The rest of the evening was spent under a fan, downloading photos and writing up the diary.

 

7 September - Vitali – Ipil - 65km

There was no need to hang around Vitali, and breakfast was a quick bite from a local restaurant. No sooner was the meal finished, and the restaurant owner led me off to view the corpse of her sister. Information received was she died of a heart attack (fortunately, not food poisoning). After being encouraged to take pictures, I politely declined, and before being escorted to the funeral, swiftly made my way out the door.

 

Although this was the coastal road, it didn’t run flush next to the ocean. Every time the road reached the top of a hill, one could see a bright blue ocean below, sprinkled with tiny islands.

 

It felt like cycling through a long, drawn-out village, and there was hardly a time one was out the public eye. Being a short ride, the larger town of Ipil soon rolled into view. A surprisingly comfortable hotel was home that night. Not only did it come with a great restaurant but it also sported a swimming pool.

 

8 September - Ipil – Buug - 75km

I set off in a drizzle and, once or twice, had to pull over with the other motorbikes until the worst had passed. Once again, the road was slightly hilly but not as bad as expected. The route past plenty of tiny settlements where their main occupation appeared was doing laundry. Palm-woven huts and sari-sari stores, selling everything from crackers to shampoo sachets, lined the road.

 

On reaching Buug, spotting a hotel was simple, as it wasn’t a large town. It, however, had a vast and interesting fish market, selling all kinds of fish - fresh and dried, as well as big and small.

 

A frequent question was whether I was an American journalist or missionary, something which most likely indicated they were the only foreigners ever visiting Mindanao. Seeing my answer to both was negative left most puzzled, and was usually followed by a polite: “What’s your purpose in the Philippines?”. “Only travelling,” was my reply, by which they appeared somewhat disappointed and repeated: “Oh, only travelling,” rubbing their chins, as if such a thing wasn’t possible.

 

Not as many pictures, as usual, were taken, for as soon as the camera came out, whispers of “journalist, journalist” could be heard. This was one part of the world where you didn’t want to be mistaken for a journalist. The reason being, through the years the island Muslims (Moros) have launched repeated attempts to establish autonomy on the island. Since the Maguindanao massacre in 2009, when fifty-seven civilians were killed, amongst them four journalists, Mindanao ranked only second to Iraq for being the deadliest country for journalists. It was best to keep the camera well hidden.

 

9-10 September - Buug – Pagadian - 63km

It turned out a rainy but scenic day as the way headed towards the mountains, mostly past more rice paddies and farmers ploughing lands with water buffalo. My route led across rivers and past waterfalls. On spotting me, small kids ran as fast as their little legs could carry them, and people in nipa huts looked up in utter amazement. So surprised was a man relaxing under a tree, guarding his stall, selling petrol in Coca-Cola bottles, he spun around at such speed he fell right out his hammock.

 

The hills felt long and steep. Some days my legs didn’t want to cooperate, and I was happy for the downhill into busy Pagadian (still laughing about the man falling out the hammock!). Roads were jam-packed with tricycles and Jeepneys, and it took weaving through them like a snake. On reaching a hotel and after a quick shower, it was off looking for a supermarket. Upon my return, it appeared I made it out of Zamboanga City by the skin of my teeth. The news was the Moros killed four people and held 20 hostages, phew!

 

Taking into account all the trouble, I thought it best to get off Mindanao island, asap. There was still a long way to go, but rumours were the north-east coast was safe, and once at Cagayan De Oro (CDO), all should be well.

 

The next day was spent in Pagadian, doing laundry and eating about anything sold on the street. (I was still giggling about the man falling out is hammock)

 

11 September - Pagadian – Tubod - 80km

The initial gentle and effortless cycle turned inland along a steep section over mountains. The route climbed the first forty kilometres but, eventually, started winding down to the ocean, which came with fantastic views. Once on the coastal plains, the good road made comfortable riding into Tubod.

 

After inquiring about accommodation, directions were to a fancy and expensive hotel, but I thought, what the heck and stayed the night. As the hotel was on the outskirts of town, supper was at their equally pricy restaurant. The food was, however, excellent and well worth the price.

 

 

12 September - Tubod – Iligan - 66km

A thoroughly enjoyable day started by meeting the friendliest bunch of people one could imagine. They were at the hotel attending a three-day conference and invited me to breakfast. Filipinos were very hospitable and kind, always ready to share a meal. They were also terribly polite, mostly greeting with a “good morning, ma’am”.

 

From Tubod to Iligan was a short sixty-six-kilometre ride, close to the ocean with excellent views. Shortly before Iligan was the Maria Cristina falls - a magnificent sight but the photos somewhat disappointing. Oh well, there was always another day.

 

13-15 September - Iligan – Cagayan De Oro (CDO) - 88km

What a stressful day - the traffic was hectic, the road narrow, and drivers seemed on a suicide mission. One had to watch both oncoming traffic and traffic coming up from behind. Vehicles headed towards one another, often occupying the same lane, with the result it took diving out of their way quite a few times to avoid becoming roadkill. In the process, a metal pin firmly lodged itself in the tyre – so tightly lodged was the pin, it took great difficulty getting it out. I didn’t fix punctures with any elegance and came away with grease all over myself.

 

On cycling into large and busy CDO, I was hot, sweaty, full of oil and in a foul mood. To make matters worse, fume-belching tricycles and Jeepneys were so tightly gridlocked one couldn’t even get through on a bicycle.

 

At least it gave plenty of opportunities to enquire about directions to a hotel, as no one was going anywhere. Directions were down a hotel-kind-of-road where one could find hotels at inexpensive rates. The air-con didn’t work, and after transferring to another room discovered the air-con only half worked. The toilet kept running, and instead of lying in bed listening to a running toilet, thought it better to get up and fix the darn thing. Crawling into bed a final time, I laughed at how bizarre things could be some days. Before finally falling asleep, a mouse ran across the floor, but I only giggled, ignored the mouse and fell   asleep.

 

The following day was laundry day and, after buying two new inner tubes, a river rafting company caught my attention. It felt exactly what was needed, and a trip booked for the following day. What a good decision it was. Being picked up by a Jeepney with the rafts strapped to the roof didn’t exactly instil confidence. It was, however, a great trip, the river was scenic and the guides professional - so good was the day, I changed my mind about CDO altogether. (The mouse was still running around the room, poor thing.) 

 


Camiguin Island


 

16 September - CDO – Balingoan – ferry to Benoni, Camiguin Island - 90km

Leaving CDO was stressful as, yet again, one needed to weave through the Jeepneys, tricycles, busses and trucks. After stopping at a sari-sari store to fill up with water, and to purchase a boiled egg for breakfast, the reality of a foreign culture became very clear. To my surprise and utter horror (and to the amusement of onlookers), it turned out to be balut - a half-boiled duck embryo in the shell. No encouragement from the locals could, however, get me to devour the soupy foetus. It was understood a person was supposed to crack open the top and drink the “soup” before devouring the embryo and its eggy surrounds.

 

On seeing places with vast piles of coconut shells, and smoke billowing from boilers or shacks, my curiosity got the better of me and I stopped to take a look at what the heck they were doing. On closer inspection, it turned out the making of charcoal from coconut shells which explained all the smoke.

 

The route continued, past more stores, selling delicious-looking food as well as the famed balut. Filipinos do like their food, and it appeared unthinkable going anywhere without it (albeit their portions were quite small). Roadside stores, therefore, sold all the local favourites. On the counters, dishes were neatly displayed, from big to small. These, usually, contain fried fish, fried chicken, pork (in various forms), veggies and noodles.

 

From the small town of Balingoan, a ferry departed for Camiguin Island. A boat was waiting, and a ticket hurriedly purchased. Although a short ferry ride, it was already half past four on reaching Camiguin Island. A nipa hut on stilts over the water lured me in and I thought life could indeed be worse.

 

Priority was to obtain a San Miguel beer, and with legs resting on the railing, I sighed and looked out over the zip-line passing right in front of me, wondering whether to do it in the morning. Soon, hunger drove me to a roadside stall for one of the local favourites. As usual, the food was tender as, in that part of the world, people only ate with a fork and spoon.

 

17 September - Benoni – Mambajao, Caves Dive Resort - 25km

The coastal road ran around the island for approximately seventy kilometres. Nothing was, therefore, very far. Cycling into the tiny city of Mambajao, the capital of the island, revealed a bank (which was off-line), a market, various stores, bakeries and eateries. Action Geckos was expensive (900 pesos), and the next-door Caves Dive Resort, slightly cheaper at 700 pesos. Being desperate to dive, Cave Dive Resort was an excellent place to stay and do the deed.

 

Booking a dive meant retrieving my diving certificate and an internet connection needed for this purpose. Although staff informed they had internet, the internet wasn’t working, and it felt like a waste of time and money. It took some getting used to the laid-back manner of the Filipinos. To me, having internet which wasn’t connected was the same as not having internet at all. Give me strength.

 

18 September - Mambajao - 20km

The next morning, there was still no internet and better to pack up and cycle to Jasmin by the Sea, which was a much better deal at 500 pesos for a large room with a bathroom, right on the water. They, at least, had a connected internet, albeit a bit on the slow side. At last, the diving certificate was retrieved with the help of my sister back home. Besides editing and uploading pictures, little was done the rest of the day.

 

 

19 September- Mambajao

 

The south-western monsoon came in during the night, and it dawned with a howling wind and bucketing rain. There was nothing quite like crawling back into bed in lousy weather. Eventually, it cleared, allowing a walk to the dive shop to arrange a dive for the following day. A tricycle ride into town revealed it being lunchtime and the supermarket, therefore, closed. At least the ATM woke from its slumber. “Pole-pole” as they say in Swahili.

 

The internet café was off-line, and the only thing left was to have a pizza. The pizza was surprisingly good, but quite substantial, and half was saved for supper. Back at Jasmin, the power was out and, therefore, not much to do but have a beer. Things could be worse, and Jasmin a comfortable place to wait out the weather.

 

 

20 September- Mambajao

The next day, the weather was much improved and time to dive. With an abundance of fish in all shapes, sizes and colours, it was like diving in an aquarium. Coral was plentiful, and of a wider variety than seen before, add to that a water temperature of 29°C, and it was truly heaven.

 

Afterwards, there was still enough time to explore the rest of the island. It truly was a remarkable island, with active volcanos, waterfalls, hot springs, a ruined church, an underwater cemetery, and even a spring that squirted soda water. The day ended with a zip-line ride - so much fun was it, I nearly went twice.

 

21 September - Mambajao

Although time to get going, it was hard to resist one more dive. Halfway back to the dive shop, I got a lift with the divemaster on his motorbike, to plenty of comments from the locals. The dive boat turned out to be one of the local bangka boats, which was a novelty in itself. A short ride took us to White Island where, once again, sea life was abundant.

 

After the dive, and back in town, it was better to use an internet café, as it was slightly better than the slow and sporadic internet at my abode. With all the money spent on diving, zip-lines and pizzas, a bank was yet again a necessity, but the ATM was still off-line and one could only hope it would be back online in the morning.

 

There was a possibility of getting a ferry from Camiguin to Bohol (the next island), instead of going back to Mindinao. Apparently, there was one daily ferry at around 10h30 from the Port of Benoni to Jagna, Bohol and plans were on doing that the following day.

 


 Bohol Island


 

22 September - Port of Benoni, Camiguin - Jagna, Bohol - 25km & ferry

There was plenty of time to cycle to the port; the ticket was 650 pesos plus 128 pesos for the bike. The boat left at around 11h00, and no sooner were we underway, and the weather took a turn for the worse. The ferry rolled and pitched, and people yelled and hung on to all conceivable posts. Seasick bags were in high demand, as the boat rocked and rolled in the high seas. The scariest part was there were no visible signs of any floating devices.

 

There wasn’t much one could do but sit tight and hope for the best. To everyone’s relief, we arrived at Jagna, Bohol two hours later. The wind was still pumping, and not being in a mood to battle a headwind, a scrappy 250 pesos abode made a good enough hiding place until the morning.

 

Bohol formed part of what was known as The Visayas, a large cluster of islands in the middle of the Philippines. The Visayas consisted of thousands of islands, but there were nine main islands, being Cebu, Bohol, Guimaras, Samar, Leyte, Panay, Negros, Romblon and Siquijor and I could see more than one visa extension coming up.

 

23 September - Jagna – Talibon - 90km

In the morning, the weather cleared and I headed to the municipality to enquire about a map of the island. While waiting for their doors to open, breakfast was at a roadside stall. Map in hand, the route led in an anti-clockwise direction around the island. A fascinating ride, and very different from Mindanao, took me past mangrove swamps, strange-looking hills, a multitude of small hamlets and sari-sari stores. There were even giant lizards along the way.

 

Talibon was steeped in history and was home to a beautiful old church built with blocks of coral rocks, and ironically built by slaves. Construction started in 1852 and was completed in 1899 (they were clearly not in a great hurry). Even more bizarre was the history of Talibon. It was said Ferdinand Magellan escaped from Lapu-Lapu’s men who were seeking revenge for the raping of fifty women in Cebu. His ship, Trinidad, sailed towards Talibon, where some of the crew disembarked and mingled with natives, educating them in Christianity. The morals of the western world never fail to amaze.

 

24 September - Talibon–Tubigon - 60km

I packed my mobile home and continued around the island. Being blistering hot, locals were convinced it was too hot to cycle and extended invitations of cold drinks under shady trees. Although blistering hot, I didn’t think one would suffer heatstroke. Tubigon allowed sightseeing and a visit to the famous Chocolate Hills.

 

Chocolate Hills consisted of 1,268 identical-looking hills, and there was a legend. The story goes the hills were the calcified tears of a giant, whose heart was broken by the death of a mortal lover. No sooner was the viewpoint reached, and it started raining, preventing the taking of any good pictures.

 

In the process of locating digs in Tubigon, a path led down a dirt road, past locals’ prized possessions, their fighting cocks, until reaching Tubigon Beach Resort. Resorts came in all shapes and sizes, from five-star to rickety huts on stilts, and I guessed this was the rickety hut on stilts. The walkway didn’t look very secure, and the floor of the room springy, to say the least, but at 350 pesos one couldn’t complain. It even had a shower and toilet. The water, however, drained straight through a hole in the floor and ran out underneath the hut. The toilet was halfway between a squat toilet and a throne, and best not to check to see where it drained – hopefully, not the same way as the shower.

 

 


 Panglao Island


 

25-27 September - Tubigon – Alona Beach, Panglao Island - 75km

A short ride brought me to Alona Beach, which gave plenty of time to stop at interesting-looking places. The road followed the coast past small villages, each with a fascinating history and past huge areas of mangrove swamps. The mangroves were the habitat of a species of crab-eating macaques. These monkeys live in matrilineal social groups with female dominance, and male members leave the group when they reach puberty. They are clever and have been seen using tools to obtain food and, while exploring, the buggers stole my water bottle. I could have sworn they were laughing as they sat high up in a tree clutching the bottle.

 

From busy Tagbilaran, a bridge connected Bohol to Panglao Island from where a good road ran the twenty-five kilometres to famous Alona Beach. With it being the first time since arriving in the Philippines that there were other European tourists, things were a bit pricier than elsewhere.

 

The following day was spent visiting the fascinating Tarsier Sanctuary. The Philippine tarsier was tiny, measuring only about 85 to 160 millimetres (3.35 to 6.30 inches) in height, making it one of the smallest primates. It was, therefore, difficult to spot and even harder to photograph. Only about the size of a human fist, it could easily fit into a person’s hand. The interesting thing is its eyes are fixed in its skull and can’t turn in their sockets. Instead, the head could rotate 180 degrees. It’s said to have the largest eye-to-body-size ratio of all mammals. The tarsier is a nocturnal animal, and the big eyes provide for excellent night vision. The tarsier may be small but has a home range of one to two hectares, a lot of ground for such a small animal. The females give birth to one thumb-sized baby per annum and carry their infants in their mouths. These little creatures are now, sadly, endangered.

 


Cebu Island


 

28 September - Alona Beach, Panglao Island - Cebu City, Cebu Island - 26km

Back at the ferry port in Tagbilaran, ferries departed nearly every hour to the island of Cebu. The ticket was only P500, and one could push the bicycle on board. The weather was perfect and the sea as smooth as anyone could wish for.

 

Two hours later, we arrived at the large and chaotic city of Cebu. After finding a room, I set off to one of the multitude of malls in the city. The purpose was to locate a GoPro camera. There were many shopping centres and I reckoned if one couldn’t find it in Cebu, then it didn’t exist at all. More money than intended was spent, and I became the proud owner of a GoPro camera. The only drawback was shops didn’t sell a handlebar mount. The local bike shop found one in Bacolod, which they promised to keep until my arrival.

 

The entire evening was spent trying to figure out how it worked and how to change the waterproof housing. Quite a nifty little thing.

 

29 September - Cebu City – Blue Pot Resort - 85 km

My late night made for a slow start. The first stop was at the Old Fort, built by the Spanish and dating back to 1738, after which a cycle ride through the old part out the city was interesting. With its narrow lanes, and what smelled like open sewerage canals, it hid a considerable amount of beautiful, old colonial buildings. My chosen route headed clockwise around the island.

 

Even on a Sunday, the going was slow as the traffic was hectic. The road was jam-packed with busses, cars, trucks (loaded to the hilt), tricycles and colourful Jeepneys and much exhaust-laden fumes were inhaled. On a bicycle, one could keep as much to the side as possible but still had to veer off to avoid oncoming traffic.

 

The many cyclists along the way indicated a cycle race. On seeing a participant pushing his bike, I thought it only polite to ask if he needed help. Fortunately, all he needed was an inner tube, and soon he could be on his way. In hindsight, he might not have been that pleased with the uncalled-for help!

 

Shortly after passing the town of Argao, it started raining, and on spotting a sign to the Blue Pot Resort, it came naturally to turn off and enquire about a room. It wasn’t much of a resort, only a few bungalows, but a good place to hide from the rain.

 

30 September - Blue Pot Resort – Moalboal - 130 km

The route to Moalboal ran for 130 km along the coast, past, the by then, familiar roadside gasoline stalls selling petrol by the litre. Amazingly enough, the price was similar to what you’d find at the gas stations. Judging by the number of motorcycles and tricycles frequenting these stalls, business was booming.

 

Crops were being dried on the tarmac, taking up the entire one lane. It wasn’t that the road was used for drying produce which surprised me, but that no one ever drove over it. Busses and trucks came to a complete halt and carefully manoeuvred around it before continuing.

 

Panagsama Beach was about four kilometres down the road from Moalboal, a real diver’s hangout with plenty of accommodation and dive shops. A couple of bars and restaurants lined the single dirt road, making for a laid-back place where the beers were cheap and dive boats eagerly waited to take divers off to the nearby Pescador Island.

 

1-3 October - Moalboal

The reason for visiting Moalboal was to dive and to try out the new camera. After the usual laundry, it was into town to draw more money; diving was an expensive business. Again, it felt as if the entire day was spent eating.

 

The following morning was the first of many dives, and what a fantastic dive it was. Nearby Pescador Island made for convenient and interesting diving. Taking pictures underwater, however, turned out more difficult than expected and apart from a flat battery, there was hardly anything to show for it. Lots to learn. The second dive was off the beach and even more amazing. It turned out the sardine run was on at the time, and we saw the most amazing formations of thousands and thousands of sardines. Unfortunately, by then, my battery was flat and I have no pictures to show for it.

 

The underwater world was amazing and incredibly rewarding. When underwater, there was a wonderful feeling of peace and calm; completely surreal. Being located in the Tañon Strait, the dives around Moalboal tend to be along steep, near-vertical walls. The strait drops to around six hundred metres (I’ve been told), yet currents were non-existent while we were there. Visibility wasn’t crystal clear, but the water was a comfortable 28ºC.

 

Together with other travellers, we set off to the whale shark diving area. Getting there was a pain, as first, it took a tricycle ride and then two busses, only arriving at the dive site at around 11h00. It was, however, quite a unique experience diving with as many as nine or ten whale sharks nearby. They lazily floated about, looking for food, sucking in every morsel floating around. With their huge mouths wide open it, from time to time, seemed they could easily suck one right in. A great opportunity to play with the GoPro, and, in the process, I learned a few things. The evening was spent at a local restaurant having a few beers and sharing photos.

 

4 October - Moalboal

 

It came as a shock to notice it had been nearly a month since arriving in the Philippines and already time to do the first visa extension. After breakfast, it was on the bus to Cebu. The bus ride was comfortable, and the bus equipped with onboard Wi-Fi. We arrived in Cebu about two and a half to three hours later.

 

In Cebu, a taxi ride made locating the immigration office uncomplicated and, once there, found a room packed full of people all needing visa extensions. As usual, it turned out a long and slow process, but the day passed quickly, and at 15h00 I was back on the bus to Moalboal, visa extension securely stamped in the passport.

 

 


Negros Island


 

5 October - Moalboal – San Carlos, Negros - 60km

With great reluctance, I left Moalboal and headed north along the coast. A mere twenty kilometres further a sign pointed to a ferry to Negros. There was no reason to venture further north along the Cebu coast (except for getting the boat to Negros), so an hour and a half later we anchored at the small village of Basak.

 

Negros seemed more rural; children carried firewood on their heads and people bathed at roadside water pumps. The route was less congested than in Cebu, making it a relaxed ride to San Carlos, where a comfortable abode at the Traveller’s Inn was home.

 

6 October - San Carlos – Cadiz - 85km

After breakfast, the route led north past sugarcane fields and small settlements. The path deteriorated considerably, which slowed the pace. Overloaded sugarcane trucks wreaked havoc with the tarmac, and it seemed all attempts by the authorities to repair it were in vain. Avoiding potholes made for a slow ride. It rained on and off during the day, making the way a slippery and muddy mess. On reaching Cadiz, the sight of a budget guesthouse in town was a welcome sight.

 

7 October - Cadiz – Bacolod - 67km

In sweltering weather, but I soldiered on past Silay and Talisay, known for The Ruins (old mansions) for which an eye was kept open, but the heat didn’t make for exploring.

 

Bacolod was at the start of its annual Masskara festival (meaning a multitude of faces). The word was a pun on mascara (Filipino for “mask”), a prominent feature of the festival. The masks worn by participants were adorned with smiling faces. Luckily, this was only the start of the festival, and accommodation still easily available.

 

My abode was in one of the side streets off the main road - a wonderful place in the middle of a residential area where bicycle rickshaws carted people up and down the narrow lanes. Dogs lay sleeping next to their owners, who sold kebabs from small fires in front of their homes. Kids ran out in the road to have a wee - good thing it frequently rained in that part of the world.

 

 

8-9 October - Bacolod

Bacolod was home to the very professional Dan’s Bike Shop which made a good place to hand the bike in for a service and to pick up the handlebar mount for the GoPro. I scooted up and down the road in Jeepneys, which ran the length of the main road while leaving the work to the professionals.

 

At a mall, a computer shop cleaned my laptop, as the keyboard got stuck from time to time. They gave it a thorough cleaning free of charge. The money saved was put to good use at a café which sold delicious slices of cheesecake.

 

The market area was hardly five minutes away, but miles apart from the mall and all its fancy lights and shops. This, however, was where most of the pictures that day were taken. At one of the stalls, I was offered a bread roll which was oven-fresh and still piping hot. Delicious. How very kind. How much could a bicycle rickshaw man make? He, most likely, needed the bread more than me.

 

That evening, the bike shop phoned to say they were still working on the bike and it would be ready the following day.

 

10 October - Bacolod – Kabankalan - 90 km

With the bike running like new, the route led further south, across massive rivers, past rice paddies and sugarcane fields. Once out of the city and back in the rural area, everyone seemed busy harvesting both sugarcane and rice. The poor old water buffalo was in high demand, pulling and tugging in both the rice paddies and the sugarcane fields. Large trucks, loaded sky-high with sugarcane, dropped bits as they drove along, leaving the road littered with pieces of sugarcane.

 

The route led past Bago, Valladolid, Pontevedra and Hinigaran, all with century-old churches. On inspecting these, the children of the Philippines, once again, impressed me. They came running along, asking intelligent questions and wanting their picture taken, all while being extremely polite.

 

One of my Project-365 friends lived in Kabankalan, and I was hoping to meet up with her. It proved, however, more difficult than expected to find a stranger in town. With no phone and intermittent internet, I was sadly unable to contact her.

 

11 October - Kabakala –Sipalay - 83 km

On a misty morning, with smoke from pre-harvest burning hanging thick in the air, I cycled the eighty-three kilometres to Sipalay. Sugarcane field burning was carried out before harvesting the cane. To make the process easier, the leaves were burned off the stalks. The pre-harvest burning of sugarcane leaves was a common practice all over the world that enabled manual pickers to collect the crop quickly and with less personal injury. It, however, was a major contributor to air pollution.

 

12 October - Sipalay

The reason for going to Sipalay was to visit the nearby beaches. The weather, however, came in and it poured with rain all day. Happy to stay put, it turned into an enjoyable day of doing nothing.

 

13 October - Sipalay – Bayawan - 79 km

My early departure was due to what looked like a mountainous area to get over, and steep it sure was. It was, however, a nice ride in the morning air, still nice and fresh from the heavy rain the night before. Once over the hilly bit, a flat ride led along the coast.

 

It felt like a real Sunday afternoon cycle, peddling along past nipa houses on stilts, sari-sari stores and buffalos lazily grazing in the rice paddies, past small settlements where joyous singing came from makeshift churches and where Sunday markets were in full swing, taking up most of the road.

 


Apo island


 

14 October - Bayawan – Malatapay - ferry to Apo Island - 77 km

Another relaxed day of cycling; the route ran flush next to the coast, offering stunning views. The heavy rain of the past few days caused substantial landslides, taking with them electrical cables and even houses. Road workers were frantically busy clearing the road. It’s quite amazing to see what big chunks could slide off a mountain.

 

Around midday, my route spat me out at the tiny settlement of Malatapay (not even indicated on the map) where a sign pointed to Apo Island. Down a narrow lane, bangka boats were ready to whisk people off to the nearby and pea-sized island of Apo. Bangka boats, or outrigger canoes, were traditional boats in the Philippines. With bike and bags loaded on the bangka, it set sail. The boat anchored at a spot straight out of a tourist brochure, complete with a beautiful beach, palm trees and turquoise water.

 

The island housed a tiny village with friendly folk, a few homestays, and the well-organised Liberty Lodge and Dive Resort. The room rate was 800 pesos (at first, it appeared expensive) but it included three meals. The best of all was dive prices were 1,000 pesos a dive (considered inexpensive). Once again, I couldn’t believe my luck, put my feet up and ordered a San Miguel beer. As they say, “It’s hell in the tropics”.

 

The food was equally glorious - freshly-caught fish was at the order of the day - and at the same time a dive was organised, as it was said Apo Island counted as one of the top dive spots in the world.

 

 

15 October - Apo Island

The eight o’clock dive made for an early start and, after a short boat ride to the dive site, we plunged happily into the lukewarm waters of the Visayan Sea. After arriving back, we learned a strong earthquake had hit the region. Although felt on Apo Island, we were unaware of it while diving. The epicentre of the quake was in Bohol, where I took the pictures of Chocolate Hills, and it left the hills badly damaged.

 

We sat around chatting for a while and then geared up for the eleven o’clock dive at Coco Point. Once again, the dive was great, with a glimpse of a coral snake; something I have never seen before, but sadly failed to capture on film.

 

 

16 October - Apo Island – Malatapay, Negros - by ferry – Dumaguete City - 25 km

 

After a breakfast of pancake and fruit, time had come to leave paradise and head back to the mainland. A short cycle ride took me into the city where Harold’s Mansion made convenient accommodation.

 

My notebook packed up, and there was nothing to do but go in search of a replacement. The shop assistant was nice and took out the old hard drive for me to use as an external hard drive. Paying proved more difficult than expected as the card machine was off-line, and so were most of the banks. In the end, a working ATM was prepared to spit out a few Filipino pesos.

 

 


Siquijor Island


 

17 October - Dumaguete – Siquijor Island (by ferry) – Sandugan Beach - 20 km

There was no need to stay in Dumaguete any longer and unsure exactly where to go next, the first stop was at an ATM. A Swedish chap, having breakfast with his girlfriend, extended an invitation for coffee. As he was a cycle tourer (when in Europe), he was quite interested in any kind of cycle touring and recommended a visit to Siquijor Island. Being only an hour by ferry from Dumaguete, my problem was solved in where to go next, and there was still more than sufficient time to get the 12h00 boat.

 

Once in Siquijor town, it came naturally to set off in a clockwise direction around the island. About twenty kilometres further was Sandugan Beach with a few bungalows. All accommodation was smack bang on the beach, and hard to resist. Soon, an ice-cold beer was being sipped while watching the sunset over the Bohol Sea, one of the most beautiful sights in all the Philippines.

 

18 October - Sandugan Beach – Siquijor Town - 57 km

After breakfast, the tour around the island continued. The interesting thing about the island was, even today, many Filipinos refuse to visit the island due to its reputation for witchcraft and black magic. I’m sure the annual Folk Healing Festival contributed to this superstition. There was, however, no sign of any such things, except for a store or two selling herbal remedies. I kept my eyes open for the magic “Lumay” (love potion - one never knows when such a potion may come in handy) and understood a mere sip or sniff by the target would have the desired effect.

 

Instead, Siquijor was a friendly island where people constantly extended invitations to join them for a rest and a drink of water. Road workers looked disappointed at my reluctance to share their lunch. Explaining that I didn’t usually eat during the day confused them even further. It appeared eating three full meals a day was considered too little for the average Filipino and one needed to nibble on smaller snacks between meals, let alone skip lunch. As one exclaimed: “You are starving!”

 

The island was smaller than expected, and after fifty-seven kilometres the road ended up back at Siquijor town. Being only midday, and not in a mood to go back to the city as yet, I kept an eye out for lodging. All kinds of accommodation were scattered along the coast and it, therefore, didn’t take long to find a nipa hut overlooking the ocean.

 

19 October - Siquijor - Dumaguete City - By ferry

A short cycle ride led to the jetty and a ferry back to Dumaguete City. Once in Dumaguete, it was back to Harold’s for the night. There was no ferry from Dumaguete to the next island, being Panay, and the only option was to cycle back to Bacolod from where there was a ferry to Iloilo on Panay Island. There was, however, a nice street party that night, and a walk to the waterfront revealed a lively festival.

 

 


Negros Island


 

20 October - Dumaguete – Hanseatic Resort - 92 km

Instead of going the same way back to Bacolod, it looked more interesting to continue in an anti-clockwise direction around the island. A surprisingly scenic ride ran next to the coast for most of the day, making for a leisurely cycle to Hanseatic Resort, right on the water. The lady was friendly, and we sat talking a while until the sun started setting. After a much-needed shower and a beer, a large plate of fried rice was consumed.

 

21 October - Hanseatic Resort – San Carlos - 82 km

While having a good cup of homegrown Robusta coffee, there was a frantic knocking on the door. The owner thought the bike had been stolen as I put it inside whenever possible. The reason for her concern was the guests, who arrived after me, left without paying. She might have thought we were all in cahoots. This was sad as she needed the money, more than her dishonest guests.

 

Effortless riding along the coast took me back to the ferry port where the boat from Cebu first arrived. There wasn’t much fun in doing the same route twice. This time, however, it started raining, and it took cycling the last forty kilometres to San Carlos in bucketing rain. Fortunately, there was no need to search for accommodation in the rain and I went straight to Amu Tourist Inn. That completed my cycle around the island of Negros.

 


Panay Island


 

22 October - San Carlos – Bacolot – Dumangas – Iloilo, Panay - 30 km

Back in Bacolod, ferries ran to Panay. The boat ride was inexpensive but went to Dumangas pier instead of Iloilo City, leaving a twenty-five-kilometre cycle into the city. On the ferry was another cyclist, Roger Gonzales Aristoki, who was planning to cycle to Ajuy the following day. We cycled into the town together and he kindly pointed out budget accommodation. There’s nothing like local knowledge, and he saved me a good few pesos.

 

23 October - Iloilo – Altavas - 120 km

Being on the road earlier than usual made great riding as there was a slight cloud cover. Feeling good, the kilometres ticked by without noticing. The path ran across large rivers and past small hamlets, past basketball-playing kids, rice paddies and grazing water buffalo.

Altavas only had one place to stay and the owner, unfortunately, out of town. Usually, people think cycling to the next town was too far to reach by bicycle but, on this day, they thought the next village (which was forty kilometres away) could be reached within an hour. The man was quite convinced cyclists travel at 45km/h.

 

Eventually, basic rooms above a hardware store had to do. Although inexpensive, it had a fan, referred to as an electric fan, and I wondered if one could get any other type of fan. The mind boggled.

 

After a quick wash, and to the delight of the villagers, the foreigner went on a walkabout in town. With just about the entire village in tow, I felt like being the Pied Piper.

 

24 October - Altivas – Caticlan - 107km – by ferry to Boracay

The ride to Boracay Island started early, making for a pleasant cycle in the early morning air. As expected, it took much longer than an hour to get to Kalibo. The last part of the day the route ran next to the coast and, although hilly, the scenery was stunning. Again, I felt good and sped up and down the hills, past more villages and roadside stalls, until reaching the small town of Caticlan.

 

Caticlan was a taste of what was to come. Bangka boats lay ready to cart the many tourists to and from idyllic Boracay Island. It felt a bit like a madhouse compared to the last few days and, like cattle being led to a slaughterhouse, we boarded a boat for the short ride to Boracay Island. The island was an over-commercialised madhouse, and there were tourists everywhere. They ate, drank, swam and shopped. Bali was nothing compared to this island.

 

Finding accommodation was easy and, in no time at all, I sat wriggling my toes in the sand, sipping a beer and ordering a pizza. Fitting in with the rest of the tourists didn’t take any time at all.

 


Boracay Island


 

25-26 October - Boracay

 

Things were expensive, and I’m sure one could have had a dorm room for much cheaper. Diving or doing any of the other nice-looking stuff on the island was out the question, as the prices were nearly double what they were elsewhere in the Philippines. Only the beers were the same price (thank goodness for that), and I had a beer or two while watching the madness. It felt odd sitting there as I wasn’t Filipino, but neither did I fit into the role of a tourist.

 

 


Mindoro Island


 

27 October - Boracay – Roxas, Mindoro Island - By ferry

Laidback as things were around Boracay, I felt like moving along. Back at the ferry port, bangka boats sailed back to Caticlan from where ferries departed for the small port of Roxas on Mindoro Island.

 

The trip took about five hours and, therefore, plenty of time to haul out the old iPod and listen to music from decades ago. Once again, it was enjoyable listening to these old albums and I went through them all: The Who, Rolling Stones, Queen, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, fantastic stuff.

 

At around five o’clock, we sailed into the sad-looking port of Roxas. A map of Mindoro would have been useful, but being Sunday, the tourist office was closed. Locals mentioned the following day was election day and the tourist office, therefore, not open. Being too late to take to the road, a local guesthouse made it easy to stay the night.

 

28 October- Roxas – Calapan - 128km

Following my nose, I headed north in the direction of Calapan, as from Calapan ferries sail to the “mainland” at Batangas City. No one could tell me exactly how far away Calapan was but, as soon as the road left the city, limit signs indicated 126 kilometres to Calapan - a map wasn’t needed after all. Being election day and a public holiday in the Philippines, even the rice mills were closed, making it an amazingly peaceful day on the road.

 

Discovering indigenous tribes still lived on Mindoro Island came as a pleasant surprise. Collectively known as Mangyans, they comprised of twelve tribes, each with its own language, culture and way of life. For centuries, they lived peacefully along the coastal areas of Oriental Mindoro, where most fished for a living. With time, others from nearby islands settled on the island, and to avoid disputes these mild-mannered and peace-loving people moved to the mountains. Sadly, they have been treated as second-class citizens, similar to other indigenous people of the world – often exploited, neglected and discriminated against.

 

It turned out less mountainous as first believed, and with that in my favour, I continued to Calapan. Although long it was a good day of cycling.

 

29-30 October - Calapan – Sabang Beach, Puerto Galera - 54km

As mentioned before, each island had a vibe of its own and Mindoro seemed more tribal/traditional than other islands. Farmers were riding water buffalo (not something you see every day) and villagers worked the fields in ways more traditional than elsewhere in the Philippines.

 

Nearby Puerto Galera was the place to go as the area’s extensive and diverse coral reefs had been declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. It sounded good, and I set off in the direction of Sabang Beach. The road to Puerto Galera was mountainous but, as always, came with stunning views. It was huffing and puffing up the hills, but on rounding a corner and seeing the most beautiful waterfall cascading down the mountain, the steep slopes were soon forgotten.

 

After more hills, the road finally reached Puerto Galera from where another six hilly kilometres led to Sabang Beach. I was blown away by the view: A tiny beach settlement geared for diving with as much as thirty dive shops, numerous restaurants and places to stay. A beautiful setting, with turquoise water, cliffs, beaches, coves and more.

 

Once again, I bedded down at a place on the water for the next few nights. To think I nearly gave the island a miss altogether.

 

The following morning was dive time and, as promised, the dive was stunning. Together with the crew from Capt’n Gregg’s, we left at around 09h00 to Sabang Point. The dive lasted sixty-five minutes, and the average depth was approximately twenty metres. A pleasant dive on the local reef, with plenty of coral and fish. The water was a comfortable 28°C, and I was happy in a three-millimetre wetsuit.

 

Surprisingly enough, I got stung on the lip again. Years ago, the same thing happened and, up until this day, I have a small scar across my lip. The most amazing thing is that every week it sheds a small piece of skin like a snake! Thank the Lord, it’s not a hair or something worse. Maybe that’s too much information for most.

 

31 October - Sabang Beach

The time had come to get another visa renewal, and a closer inspection revealed only two days were left on the current visa. Time sure flies when you’re having fun. The local tour operator acted as a visa consultant, and the passport was left with them to organise. The whole process took five days, but who would mind with that much diving to be done?

 

Like the previous day, I joined Capt’n Gregg’s for a 09h00 dive. A boat ride took us to Sabang Wrecks to do a fifty-five-minute drift dive. The depth was about twenty metres, and it was an interesting dive with plenty of fish. Hundreds of photos were taken, but with the GoPro one needed to be awfully close to your subject to get any kind of shot.

 

1 November - Sabang Beach

Shocked at the amount spent on scuba diving, I thought it best to have a day of snorkelling instead. The colours were amazing in the shallow waters. The problem with scuba diving was one loses the colours quickly. Red was the first to go at around fifteen feet, followed by orange at twenty-five feet, yellow at thirty-five to forty-five feet, and green at about seventy to seventy-five feet. (The colours disappear underwater in the same order as they appear in the colour spectrum.) Objects could look up to 25% closer underwater than they are, and up to 33% larger.

 

2 November - Sabang Beach

 

 

The dive on this day was a bit of a pain as my B.C. kept self-inflating and the dump valve didn’t want to expel the air. It did, however, work when turned on your back. Any kind of equipment malfunction makes for a stressful dive. Besides the equipment, the dive was lovely with plenty of colourful fish and coral.

 

 

 

3 November - Sabang Beach

As was, by then, the norm, we went out on an early morning dive to Dungeon Wall, a pleasant dive with loads of fish and interesting corals.

 

Cockfighting was, after basketball, the most popular hobby/sport in the Philippines. After summing up the courage, I hesitantly set off to the arena. There I found a well-organised setup with a proper “ring”, surrounded by ascending rows of concrete benches. After a while, two men entered the ring, each clasping a cock under their arms. They placed the cocks in the middle of the ring, and with neck feathers erect they suddenly hurled themselves at each other. There was a flurry of feathers and razor blades, blood squirted from open wounds, spectators cheered, money changed hands, and all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there. This was truly a fight to the death! I persevered but after the second fight left the stadium. Phew!

 

4 November - Sabang Beach

 

Yet again, it was a two-tank dive, firstly on the wreck of the Alma Jane. Scuttled in 2003, she rested upright at a depth of about thirty metres. Currents on the wreck could sometimes be strong (and the visibility not always good). Local skippers, therefore, maintained a buoy line tied to the wreck, making it easy for divers to descend along the line without floating away into the blue yonder, never to be seen again. The second dive was at the Dungeon Wall.

 

Both were wonderful dives. During the first dive, I teamed up with our divemaster, Mads, who has the best buoyancy control I have ever seen in any person.

 

 

5 November- Sabang Beach

Finally, the time had come to collect the passport from the travel agent and move on. It was, however, quite late and best to catch the ferry to Batangas City in the morning.

 

 

 

 


Luzon Island 


 

6 November – Sabang Beach – Talisay – 61km

From the tiny ferry jetty, large motorised bangka boats departed for Luzon Island, also referred to as the “Mainland” as it housed the capital city of Manila. The crossing only took about an hour and, once in Batangas City, the road headed north in the direction of Manila.

 

Unfortunately, the toll road didn’t allow bicycles (which was a pity), and there was no option but to take the much smaller and narrower path. Strange how the dangerous roads allow bikes and the safer ones, with the wide shoulder, prohibits bicycles?

 

It felt slightly uphill past Lipa City and, once at Tanauan, a road turned off to Talisay from where one could get a boat across Taal Lake to the Taal Volcano. Unfortunately, I found the price for the boat to the island too steep. Luckily, basic accommodation on the lake provided a place to watch the sunset over this peaceful lake and volcano.

 

I would have loved to walk to the top of that tiny volcano as it was a fascinating one and reputedly the world’s smallest active volcano. It (like all volcanoes in the Philippines) formed part of The Pacific Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped area of about 40,000 kilometres where many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. The Ring of Fire has four hundred and fifty-two volcanoes and is home to over 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes.

 

7 November - Talisay – Manila - 88km

Cycling back up the hill I came down the previous day wasn’t as bad as expected; far worse was the traffic into Manila. The National Highway led straight into the city centre and ran through the towns and villages along the way. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper and Jeepney-to-Jeepney, all the way into the city. It took nearly the entire day to cycle the short distance of eighty-eight kilometres into Manila with its hectic traffic.

 

Once in the town, the suburb of Melati provided a decent-looking place to stay. It felt good in a solid-looking guesthouse ahead of the forecasted typhoon. A super typhoon was forecasted, and it was predicted to be the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall in the Philippines.

 

Due to the typhoon, most flights and ferries were cancelled, and all one could do was stay put. Pension Natividad wasn’t the cheapest, but was comfortable and centrally located. The place was packed with people who missed their flights and ferries. A kind of jovial mood prevailed while everyone was waiting to see what to do next.

 

8 November - Manila

 

Although overcast and rainy, Manila was out of harm’s way, and nothing came of the predicted high winds. The islands to the south were more affected and, judging by the pictures on the internet, many islands suffered badly. Reportedly, the typhoon made landfall in Haiyan with wind speeds of up to 315 km/h, killing 6,300 people. Entire villages were wiped out. In Manila, people waited to see when flights and ferries would be back in operation. Many of the guests in the pension couldn’t make contact with family and friends as all lines were down. There wasn’t much one could do but wait it out and see what would happen next. Together with John and Matthew (both living on Coron Island and waiting for a ferry), we set off to the harbour to see if there was any other ship going to Palawan. There was none and we returned to the pension for beer instead.

 

9 November - Manila

The next day the weather was much improved, allowing a walk around town. Manila was an immensely populated city (20 million people) and, therefore, plagued by traffic and pollution. It had an extraordinarily large contingent of homeless people. They, however, seemed friendly and content living on the pavement amidst the fume-belching trucks and Jeepneys. I ventured on along the seafront, past Rizal Park, to what was known as Intramuros, the old Spanish capital. A crumbling wall still half surrounded the area and, although mostly destroyed in World War II, it was an interesting area in which to wonder about.

 

Upon my return to the guesthouse, the path led past Robertson’s Mall making convenient shopping, seeing they had a well-stocked supermarket. Back at the pension, there wasn’t much more to do but mingle with the other guests. Rumours were there would be a boat leaving for Coron Island the following Wednesday.

 

10 November - Manila

A walk with Bjorn from the guesthouse to the National Museum turned out interesting and the discovery of the Butuan boats fascinating. The boats were excavated in 1997 and dated back to 320AD. These boats are evidence early man in the Philippines was seafaring and they were relatively technologically advanced. The discovery revealed they had contact and traded with areas outside the Philippines, as shown by the artefacts found on site. Even more fascinating was the fact that the largest sailing vessel of its kind yet discovered was in the process of being unearthed in Butuan City in Mindanao. Estimated around eight hundred years old, the wooden boat may be centuries older than the ships used by European explorers in the 16th century when they first came upon the Philippines.

 

After nibbling on street food, we wandered off in the direction of the Palace to see if we could have a glimpse at the 3,000 pairs of shoes, ha-ha. Along the way, we passed a Sikh Temple celebrating the 544th birthday of Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, founder of the Sikh religion. Inside we were issued headscarves and invited to sit down and partake in the festivities and were served the best Indian food since leaving India. What a wonderful experience.

 

Our route back led past the Palace but there was nothing much to see and we continued to Chinatown, which was more interesting. Back at the pension, rumours were of another storm moving in and, as with the previous storm, all ferries and boats suspended.

 

11 November - Manila

We all waited to see what the new storm was going to do. I took to the streets and cycled around the city, trying to locate a bike shop but was unable to find the specific one looking for. It was unimportant and instead went looking for a vantage point to take pictures of the city skyline; unfortunately, it started raining, and I returned to the guesthouse with nothing to show for my efforts.

 

12 November - Manila

I braved the sea of Jeepneys and cycled (what felt like) straight into the lion’s den. This time, the bike shop was located down a small residential lane, and while the professionals worked on the bike, I set off exploring. The street was blocked off, as a TV crew was moving in the following day to record a programme. In the meantime, a choreographer gathered the locals and in no time at all had them doing a wonderful routine. Professionals could make everything look easy.

 

Once the bike was done, it was already dark and quite an experience cycling back without lights and in heavy traffic. Best was to follow a bicycle rickshaw (pedicab) as they didn’t have lights either and were pretty good at weaving in and out the traffic. I was quite pleased with myself for making it back in one piece.

 

 

13-14 November – Manila

At Robinson’s Mall, I located the ferry company, selling tickets to Palawan. Friday was only two days away, and a ticket to Puerto Princesa, on Palawan Island, purchased. The weather forecast was for better weather by the Friday, and all hoped the ferry wouldn’t be cancelled again.

 

I was a bit baffled by the large contingent of American Peace Corps staff that moved into the pension. It appeared they had been evacuated from Central Visayas after the typhoon and were in Manila indefinitely. Although staying free of charge, some were complaining they had to sleep in a dormitory. On enquiring when they will be returning, the answer was the situation was uncertain as there was no way they could be taken care of. And there I thought they were the ones taking care of the people.

 

With that much devastation around I spend the entire day trying to locate a contact to offer help on the affected islands. All to no avail as there appeared no way of communicating with the islands and impossible to reach them at that time.   

 


Palawan Island


 

15-16 November - Manila, Luzon – Puerto Princesa, Palawan

It felt good to cycle off to the pier, and the ferry came as a pleasant surprise. It was large and stable with air-con sleeping quarters, entertainment on deck, and even dancing staff as we left. The boat sailed out of Manila Bay in perfect weather; I sat outside on the deck listening to music, dressed in shorts and T-shirt, until after midnight. Fantastic.

 

The morning broke amidst hundreds of islands, quite a spectacular sight, and strangely more Mediterranean looking than tropical. Food was included in the ticket, and all lined up to receive our polystyrene container with boiled egg, rice and what appeared to be mince of some sort.

 

Arrival in Puerto Princesa was at 0h30, but unlike other ferries, all managed to get off quickly and orderly. I cycled up the road trying to locate accommodation and came upon the recommended Casa Luna. The rooms were reasonably priced and conveniently situated around a courtyard and after a quick shower I dived into bed.

 

17 November - Puerto Princesa

Arrangements were made to visit the underground river the following day, after which it was off to a bank to draw as much money as possible, as I understood it to be the only ATM on the island.

 

18 November - Puerto Princesa and the underground river

An hour or two’s drive brought us to the underground river, stopping along the way at the Ugong Cave. The Ugong Rock stood about seventy-five feet high, and one could climb through caves and crevices (with the help of ropes) right to the top. Instead of walking back, I used the zip-line. In a mere twenty seconds or so, I was back on the ground. How cool was that?

 

Located in a national park, the underground river was immensely touristy but was worth it. Turquoise, crystal-clear water disappeared into the darkness of the mountain and ran for about eight kilometres. The river wound through the cave before flowing directly into the South China Sea. We only explored one and a half kilometres of it before turning around and heading back past stalagmites, stalactites and strange limestone formations created millions of years ago.

 

19 November - Puerto Princesa – Honda Bay - 13km

I left Puerto Princesa, prepared for a long day on the road, but in the end cycled a record-breaking thirteen kilometres. Shortly after leaving, a road sign pointed to Honda Bay. After turning down to have a look I came upon a small jetty with boats departing to nearby islands and befriended Edna (who was in charge of selling the boat tickets). She had a small property with two nipa rooms (and a pig in the yard) and offered me one of the rooms at 200 pesos (R50.00), including supper.

 

The boat ticket was a bit pricy for one person and in no time at all Edna arranged for me to go to the islands with another group. A lovely family from Manila was kind enough to allow me to join them and what a wonderful day it was. They invited me to share their food and drinks, and I got to eat typical Filipino food. They were well stocked and the snacks included salted eggs, eggplant in garlic and chilli, fried fish, and loads of other things I couldn’t remember the names of. We had a wonderful time, visiting three of the nearby islands before returning to the mainland.

 

Edna was waiting at the jetty, and together we walked the short distance to her house. While she prepared rice, fresh fish and octopus for supper, the power went out, but she was unperturbed and carried the food next door to where they were having a barbeque.

 

After dark, a few visitors came to have a look at the stranger in their village, and to make matters even more interesting we took a walk to the nearby basketball court, the centre of town and all activities in the area. One half of the court was used by youngsters shooting for the net and the other half by kids doing cartwheels and jumping elastic rope. On the sideline, you could buy something to nibble on or take part in one of the many games on offer. Kids hopped, skipped and jumped in the street or did silly tricks on their bicycles while the older ones hung around, stoic-faced, trying to look cool.

 

What a wonderful village. In the short walk to and from the basketball court, I’m sure I met the entire community. I love this kind of travelling.

 

20 November - Honda Bay – Roxas - 128 km

 

What a tough day on the road! Not only was it extremely hot, but the hills steep and, for some reason, I didn’t feel well with an upset stomach and nausea. Halfway through the day, I started vomiting and soon afterwards started cramping, something that has never happened before. What a terrible day. It was pushing the bike up the steep hills, cramping, rubbing legs, pushing, cramping and rubbing.

 

What a day. It took me nearly the entire day to reach my destination where I collapsed exhausted on a bed. I had no appetite and was in no mood for stuffing food down my throat.

 

 

21-22 November - Roxas – Taytay - 80 km

I expected the day to be difficult but didn’t expect it to be quite as hard as it was. My lack of food intake didn’t help. Still feeling nauseous, I stopped at the chemist to get medication for cramps as well as nausea and in the process stocked up on vitamins (for what it was worth).

 

Depleted of all energy it was a struggle up steep hills and, once again, had to push the bike, stopping every few metres to have a rest. What an awful day and a great relief to reach Taytay, an old colonial town with a fort and historic church.

 

For the second day in a row, I flopped down in utter exhaustion. Fortunately, soup from the on-site restaurant was just the thing needed and together with rehydration salts and plenty of water, I hoped for a quick recovery.

 

The next day was also spent in Taytay to get my strength back for the road to El Nido. At least I had enough energy to visit the historic Taytay Fort, or Fuerza de Santa Isabel, built in 1667 and completed in 1738. By evening, I felt loads better and hoped to be back to normal the following day.

 

23-24 November - Taytay – El Nido - 70km

People warned about the stretch of road to El Nido and that it was gravel and hilly and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. It was, however, a pleasant surprise as it wasn’t as steep as expected, and only a dirt road in places with most of the way to El Nido paved. Once in El Nido, there was no shortage of accommodation as it was a popular place, and rightly as well. A lovely guesthouse, a street or two back from the beach at a reasonable price with welcoming owners was my pick of the bunch.

 

It rained on and off the following day, perfect for doing nothing but hanging around and exploring the tiny village of El Nido. Famed for its diving, a dive was booked for the next day. The 3,000 pesos fee included three dives, the boat trip to the islands as well as lunch. The evening was spent having supper and a beer on the beach, a perfect way to end a good day.

 

 

25 November - El Nido

Eight o’clock was dive time, and the boat left El Nido at around 8.30/9.00 a.m. The first dive was along a wall and, although beautiful, it wasn’t spectacular. I was, in fact, quite surprised at the lack of coral and life down below. The scenery above water was, however, dramatic, with limestone pinnacles and cliff faces. So spectacular was it that the area was the location of choice for a good few movies.

 

Our second dive was far more interesting, with large fish, octopus, giant shrimp and many more. Both dives were about fifty-five minutes, around twenty-five metres with a water temperature of 28°C. After the second dive, we had a lunch break at a tiny white beach with crystal-clear, turquoise water, like in a movie. The time flew by, and soon it was time to do our last dive - a wonderful dive amongst huge coral and other sea creatures.

 

Once back on the boat, the strangest thing happened - I became completely dizzy and disorientated, with blurred vision and a peculiar distant sensation. WOW, that was the weirdest thing ever. I drank plenty of water, laid down, and by the time we got ashore, I was already feeling better. How weird was that? It had to be some or other balance disorder. Having sinus infection for some time I took medication for it before leaving, which could have had something to do with it or it could have been plain dehydration.

 


Busuanga Island


 

26 November - El Nido – Coron Town, Busuanga Island

The ferry from El Nido to Busuanga Island (Coron town) was immensely scenic but a lengthy seven-hour affair. So long was the trip, we were even given lunch (a small piece of fish and a substantial amount of rice). The area around Coron town was famous for its World War II wreck-diving.

 

In September 1944, a fleet of Japanese ships hiding in the harbour was sunk in a daring raid by the U.S. Navy. The result was around ten well-preserved shipwrecks surrounded by a coral reef. There truly wasn’t much to do but dive and watch the sunset over Coron Bay. I headed over to Seadive Resort, a massive ramshackle place with rooms, a restaurant, bar and dive shop. The diving looked well organised and I booked a three-tank boat dive for the following day.

 

27-28 November - Coron Town

The first dive was to an interesting and unusual spot - a lake/hot spring. The dive, firstly, involved a boat ride, then a short swim to the shore, after which we climbed (in full diving gear) over a rocky outcrop to the lake. After descending about fifteen metres, the water temperature shot up to a boiling 38°C. The variation in temperature was so large one could see the thermo clines. We continued, followed the wall for about twenty minutes, after which we returned to the entry point, making it a forty-minute dive in total.

 

Our next dive was the Olympia Maru - a WW2 Japanese shipwreck. She was lying on her starboard side at twenty-five metres. Like all the other Japanese ships in the bay, it was sunk on 24 September 1944 by a U.S. air attack and was a one hundred and twelve-metre supply ship. We had appalling vision but penetrated the wreck and headed through the prop shaft and into the engine room past two huge boilers. We even saw a crocodile fish hiding away as we passed old kaolin bricks, used for firing up the boilers.

 

The Tangat Wreck was our third and last dive of the day, a small gunboat forty metres long. She was lying in shallow waters, making it a perfect third dive.

 

29-30 November - Coron Town

As if that wasn’t enough, the following day was another three-wreck boat dive. The wrecks were quite far out, making for a whole day affair. First up was the very interesting IJN Akitsushima, a seaplane carrier. She was lying on her port side at thirty-seven metres. This 4,724-ton ship had a length of one hundred and eighteen metres and a width of 15.7 metres. Powered by four diesel engines, it had a maximum speed of nineteen knots.

 

Akitsushima was armed with ten 25mm anti-aircraft guns, four five-inch guns and carried one large Kanwanishi flying boat. She was hit near the stern where the flying ship sat on metal tracks. The flying ship, unfortunately, disappeared; it was assumed it took off before the sinking. The crane used for lifting the seaplane out the water was still intact. The crane was lying on the sandy bottom and attracted large schools of fish. We entered the wreck and swam along on the inside until reaching a huge crack which almost split the ship in half. We manoeuvred through the crack and continued to the engine room through dark and narrow nooks and crannies. Back on the boat, it was coffee and snacks while the boat sailed off to the next dive site.

 

An hour or so later we kitted up for our next dive. The Taiei Maru, a Japanese freighter one hundred and thirty-seven metres long, lying on her starboard side. The big cargo rooms and the engine room allowed straightforward penetration of the wreck, making it a fun dive.

 

Our last dive was on the Lusong Gunboat, lying in shallow water of between three and eighteen metres, a good place for a third dive. The wreck was nicely covered with hard corals and although the visibility poor, we saw plenty of fish. At least this time there was a great bunch of divers, and loads of fun were had between dives. By evening, all were too lazy to go anywhere and we sat in the restaurant, drank beer and ate pizzas.

 

Seadive Resort was situated in the middle of town and right on the water’s edge and, therefore, a convenient place to hang out. The days came and went without me noticing, except for socialising with the other divers. I thought them equally crazy and we ate, drank and dived.

 

1 December - Coron – Manila - By ferry

 

By morning I settled my bill, loaded the bike and cycled the short distance to the ferry. The ferry was late, and only left at around 19h00 instead of at 15h30, giving plenty of time to wander around town. Coron town was very much in the eye of the storm, and the damage from typhoon Yolanda still clearly visible. It was only on seeing the devastation first-hand that the reality of the storm became real.

 

 

 

2-7 December - Manila

It was a comfortable journey back to Manila, where we arrived around eight or nine o’clock the following morning. The short distance to the pension was, once again, in heavy traffic but by ten o’clock, I was all settled in at Pension Navadidad.

 

The next day was spent at Makati, a completely different part of the city with a different vibe altogether. Makati was the heart of the financial district and jam-packed with high-rise buildings. The area was surprisingly orderly and clean. The reason for my visit was to apply for a Taiwanese visa and was surprised at the large number of people in the waiting room. Surprisingly enough, it seemed Filipinos needed a visa for Taiwan. After patiently waiting my turn, it was half past one by the time all was done. The visa took three days, and with time to kill, had a 150 pesos haircut, and while one lady was busy cutting, another one gave me a pedicure for an additional 100 pesos.

 

Pam, from the South African Dragon Boat team, put me in contact with Sandy. Sandy kindly invited me to join them in practice the following morning. It was up at 4h00 to paddle with the Manila Dragons and what an awesome experience (albeit knowing I was going to be incredibly sore). It felt good to be back in a boat after so many years, and equally pleasant to hear the familiar “Crew.……………, are you ready? Attentiooooooooooooon. GO!”

 

I bummed around town for a few days until time to collect the visa. Another lengthy process and it was after five o’clock before finally clearing out the building. Being peak hour on a Friday in Manila City the traffic was bumper to bumper. It took forever to get back to the pension but I was finally ready to leave Manila.

 

8 December - Manila – San Fernando City - 81km

 

I wasn’t ready to leave the Philippines as yet as there was a vast northern region to explore. On leaving the pension, the route led past the waterfront where the Dragon Boat races were on. I watched a while, cheering on my favourite team and took a few pics. Being Sunday morning, the traffic was much less congested than during the week. It was an eye-opener seeing the other side of the city. The shacks encroached onto the road, and the three-lane highway was, by then, only two lanes, but it remained fairly uncomplicated getting out of town. If I did go wrong, I knew nothing about it, and was blissfully ignorant whether it was the right road or not.

 

My path never quite cleared the traffic, and the road stayed congested all the way to San Fernando where there was accommodation as well as food.

 

 

9 December - San Fernando – Santa Juliana - 70km

My slow start was due to a windowless room and I only woke at around eight o’clock. After breakfast from the 7-Eleven, I was eventually on my way.

 

The area immediately north of Manila was so unique one could easily imagine being in a different country.

 

I met up with Ray Cayabyab, cycling to his hometown at San Carlos. He was doing extremely well on his old bike with a basket in the front but had to stop at every petrol station to pump his back tire. We chatted away (when the traffic allowed) as he spoke good English.

 

The plan was on visiting Mount Pinatubo, and I waved him goodbye and turned off to Santa Juliana. Mt. Pinatubo was a volcanic crater lake. On 2 April 1991, people from the lower slopes of Mount Pinatubo witnessed small explosions, followed by steam coming from the upper slopes of the supposedly dormant volcano (the last known eruption was 600 years ago). On 12 June, the first of several major explosions took place. The eruptions were so violent, shockwaves were felt in The Visayas. A giant ash cloud rose thirty-five kilometres into the sky.

 

Santa Juliana was a tiny settlement with a few houses and a tourist office. They gave me all the info about the volcano and pointed me in the direction of Bognot Homestay, a comfortable place run by Alvin and his wife, Angie. Being the only place to stay, I soon met other travellers, and arrangements were made to go to the crater in the morning.

 

10 December - Santa Juliana Mt Pinatubo

Shortly after 5h00, a four-wheel drive jeep left from the tourist office for an hour-long drive to the crater, a bumpy and dusty ride along a riverbed. The scenery was stark and barren with only the odd water buffalo.

 

Surprisingly enough, people who looked completely different to the Filipinos in the rest of the country, lived up in the hills. Known as the Aeta, they were indigenous people who live in scattered, isolated, mountainous parts of Luzon. They were thought to be among the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines. One theory suggests the Aeta are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines, who, contrary to their seafaring Austronesian neighbours, arrived through land bridges that linked the country with the Asian mainland about 30,000 years ago. Unlike many of their Austronesian counterparts, the Aetas have shown resistance to change. All attempts by the Spaniards to settle them in reservations failed.

 

We continued until the jeep could go no further and then set off by foot for about an hour to the top. The walk was a relaxed one along a stream until finally reaching Crater Lake. The lake was much larger than expected; we took a few pics, sat chatting a while, and then retraced our steps.

 

Once back in Santa Juliana, and already after midday, I was too lazy to continue and stayed put.

 

 

11 December - Santa Juliana – Camiling - 77km

On the way back to the main road, I stopped at the depressing Death March Memorial. It was the final stage of the tragic Death March and a concentration camp. Approximately 75,000 prisoners of war were forced by Japanese troops to make a sixty-five-mile march to a prison camp. The exact figures are unknown, but it’s believed thousands died because of the brutality of their captors, who starved and beat the marchers and bayoneted those too weak to walk. The marchers made the trek in intense heat and survivors were taken by rail from San Fernando to prisoner-of-war camps, where thousands more died from disease, mistreatment and starvation.

 

Today, they are remembered by a large memorial and a wall bearing the names of those who died. War is such a sad thing.

 

The rest of the day was a nice and comfortable ride, arriving in Camiling in the midday heat. With inexpensive accommodation in Camiling, there was no reason to push on as I wasn’t part of the Death March.

 

12-13 December - Camiling – Lucap - 88km

Breakfast consisted of the usual Filipino breakfast of garlic rice, a fried egg and Longanesa sausage. Once again, the road was flat, making for an enjoyable ride to where the way met up with the coast at the Lingayen Gulf. At the junction, I threw a left and headed in a westerly direction to the small village of Lucap.

 

Lucap was the gateway to the 100 Islands National Park, and looked a good place to explore. Once in Lucap, everything was well organised, and I easily located a reasonably priced room at Sweet Honey’s. This family-run place was very helpful and arranged a boat to take me to the islands the following day.

 

On waking the next morning, the boatman was already waiting. My host had packed lunch and water (all nicely in a cooler box), and all was ready to enjoy a full day of island hopping. The islands (hundred and twenty-three of them) were mostly tiny, mushroomed-shaped islands with a few shrubs. A few of them were larger and had beaches, and some even had caves. We explored a good few of them, and there was plenty of time to swim and snorkel. The snorkelling was an immense pleasure with plenty of fish and fantastic corals. Giant clams were being reintroduced in the area after dynamite fishing destroyed most of them. All in all, a fantastic day - well worth the money paid.

 

 

14 December - Lucap – Agoo - 111km

After backtracking the thirty-five kilometres to the junction, I ventured in a northerly direction along the coast. Past small villages with interesting-looking churches and past furniture makers and crab sellers. Like the previous day, it was a day of easy riding and the slight headwind a blessing in the heat. My path crossed a multitude of rivers and interesting and ingenious fishing methods. Stalls were selling clams, oysters, dried fish, fresh fish, crabs, and just about anything the sea could produce.

 

On reaching the tiny village of Agoo with its basilica, it looked interesting enough to overnight. Finding a guesthouse was, however, more difficult than expected. The few km cycled to the beach only revealed one dilapidated and overpriced establishment. I headed back to the village looking for a “Transient Room”; a room by any other name was only for a few hours and for a completely different purpose than what I had in mind.

 

Eventually, a place with a restaurant across the road was located. After a shower and by then starving, headed in the direction of the restaurant. The waitresses, decked out in their Christmas hats, appeared somewhat wary of me and I suspected I was their first western-looking client. They kept their distance as they took my order and I had an overwhelming desire to go “Boo!” (making claws and big eyes). LOL. Being far too hungry I refrained from any such behaviour as it was entirely possible I wouldn’t see them or my food again.

 

15-18 December - Agoo – San Juan - 50 km

After a quick bite to eat I ambled along to the tiny village of San Juan. San Juan was known for its surfing, making it a perfect spot to take a lesson or two. There weren’t any cheapies, and in the end, there was no other option but to settle for a rather pricy abode (but known as a surfing hangout and a place where one could get surfing lessons). The place was, however, slightly dreary (maybe it was the “cool surf” attitude, looking bored and disinterested).

 

The next morning, I moved to a cheaper and friendlier-looking place and while having a bite to eat, bumped into Lionel (from Coron). A pleasant surprise to see a familiar and friendly face amongst all the other emotionless ones.

 

The grand plan was on taking a bus into the mountains to see the rice terraces and the famous hanging coffins. I packed up, arranged to leave my bicycle and bags at the inn, and with a small backpack headed to the bus stop. The bus never arrived and irritated from waiting decided to give it up and return to my room.

 

The following morning, I woke with a sore throat and blocked nose. The weather came in and, with bucketing rain and howling wind, and thought better of it and stayed put. The idea of cycling north to the city of Laoag and to fly from there to Taiwan, didn’t seem a good choice as all flights went via Manila, making it even more expensive.

 

19 December - San Juan – Urdaneta City - 100 km

Getting bored, I swallowed a few more flu tablets and headed back in the direction of Manila along a slightly different route. The day was marked by slow traffic, road works and loads of dust making for a frustrating and dusty day. On reaching Urdaneta City, I was ready to find a room and spent the rest of the night watching TV, something not done in ages.

 

20 December - Urdaneta City – San Fernando City - 120km

Cycling with a cold was most likely not the best thing to do but fortunately, favourable conditions made easy cycling. The road passed interesting roadside stalls, some selling dried fish and all sorts of fascinating things. In the end, I found myself back in San Fernando and at the same hotel as before.

 

21 December - San Fernando City – Manila - 76 km

The last leg of my Filipino journey was marred by slow-moving traffic and more dusty road works. On cycling into the city I somehow found myself in the middle of China Town, midday on the last Saturday before Christmas. My word, what chaos! It took ducking and diving through the traffic, to avoid the many Jeepneys and tricycles, but by then, I handled it like a pro.

 

22 December - Manila

 

 

Back in Manila, the city was in a festive mood. The waterfront was packed with food stalls, people strolled and biked along the promenade, and hawkers peddled their wares.

 

Little was achieved in the way of organising my trip to Taiwan, as both the bike shop and the travel agents were closed on Sundays. Fortunately, it was possible to upgrade luggage to forty-five kilograms at a small fee - good news as flying with the bike could be an expensive affair.

 

 

 

23 December - Manila

Finally, a flight ticket to Taipei, Taiwan was purchased, and the bike taken to the bike shop to be boxed. The rest of the day was spent sorting out gear. That evening’s stroll along the promenade made me understand why Manila was referred to as the Pearl of the Orient. It was a stunning evening, and the sunset like a huge ball of fire, without a drop of wind and an agreeable 28°C.

 

24 December - Manila, Philippines – Taipei, Taiwan

My flight was only at eleven p.m. allowing the entire day to play in Manila. I didn’t play much but did much-needed catching up on both my social and business side of things. After collecting the bike from the bike shop, I took a Jeepney back to the pension, bike and all. LOL, what a performance.

 

My early departure for the airport was due to still wanting to have the bags wrapped, but the wrapping stall was deserted. Fortunately, there was no restriction on the number of bags one could load and, as I upgraded to forty-five kilograms of luggage, there wasn’t any worries about being overweight.

 

We touched down in Taipei at around two o’clock in the morning. Everything went smoothly and all the luggage came out on the belt, bike and all. With it being that early it was better to wait for daylight before taking a taxi into town. The hostel booked wasn’t open at night, and the reception desk only opened at 9h00. I also wanted to drop my bike at the bike shop for reassembling, which was right next door to the hostel, but they only opened at 10h00.

 

I slept soundly on the soft airport couches, and by morning was ready to venture into my new country.

 

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