Diving coral-encrusted shipwrecks, navigating underground rivers, swimmming through goo - discover what lies beneath Palawan, the Philippine's wild west island
I’ve found the cure for jetlag.
It took 14 hours, three aeroplanes and a sweaty night in a beach bungalow, but at 8.30am local time, juddering along on the front of an outrigger, feet dangling over the side and spray kicking into my eyes, I felt wired – even if it was 1am in my brain. If not for the serious danger of falling overboard, I’d have danced.
Palawan, an island province an hour’s flight south-west of the Filipino capital Manila, might not be the easiest of places to get to – but that’s half the point of going. There are virtually no other travellers there. As my boat driver and I sped between islands and pearl fields, the only other signs of life were a couple of fishermen plopping single-hooked lines over the sides of tiny boats and flying fish frolicking at our bow.
Despite the howl of the outrigger’s engine there was a sense of tranquillity. And I was about to go one better, swapping the noisy surge of the boat for the regular hush and spurt of air beneath the glassy surface of the sea.
Palawan is the main island in the province, but I started my trip among a cluster of islands called the Calamian Group, a little to the north. Their coves and bays seemed to offer the perfect hiding place for a fleet of Japanese warships during the Second World War. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the Americans got wind of them and sank the lot. There are now more than 15 wrecks buried beneath the azure waters, most easily accessible for diving.
It had been a while since I’d dived, and I was nervous; as I pulled on my wetsuit I put my foot through the sleeve and spent an embarrassing number of minutes pulling it out again. Thomas, my German diving instructor, was a man of few words. “You’ve dived before?” he asked, obviously a little concerned. Yes, I assured him. “Fine. So now we go down.”
After I recovered from a bout of hyperventilation, which Thomas politely ignored, he led me slowly down the long rope from the surface buoy into the blue. As the undersea world swallowed me in its cool embrace, my anxieties abated.
Huge grouper fish looked on impassively as we finned along the rusty fuselage of the Kogyo Mara, an old freighter lying on its side 25m under. Bright bat and banana fish flitted around the clumps of lunar coral that clung to the rusty decks and anti-aircraft guns.
A swim-through into the bridge and out the other side gave us a glimpse of the gaping hole in the hold where a bomb had torn the heart out of the ship and sent it to its watery resting place.
When we surfaced 40 minutes later, Thomas was much more talkative. I’d shared a dive with him, so now we were buddies.
“I came here to dive these wrecks 15 years ago and never went home,” he said as we glugged cold Coke. “My friends back in Germany think I’m crazy, but most of them have never been here – this is the best wreck diving in the world.”
We dived again that afternoon, but not in the sea. On nearby Coron Island we scrambled up a rickety staircase and struggled over craggy volcanic rocks with our tanks on our backs to get to Barracuda Lake, a perfect patch of turquoise hidden among the limestone cliffs.
As we slowly descended into its depths, my wetsuit began to warm up. (And no – I hadn’t had a bladder malfunction.)
At first it was like being in a hot tub – delightful. Then the heat rose and my vision went blurry. The water was treacly, clinging like Ghostbusters ectoplasm. Then, just as the heat became unbearable, my feet hit chilly water.
A seam of hot volcanic water sits down here at about 20m – we’d just come though it and out the other side. It was the strangest sensation. We swam back up a metre or two, popping our heads through the layer of slimy, heavy goo, then glided gently along, legs in the heat, heads in the cool.
Thomas showed me a cave that disappeared into blackness – somewhere out there was the ocean. Small fish do swim through from the open sea, but most die in the muggy waters, leaving the lake largely empty. However, a few survive and grow unfeasibly large. Somewhere in these murky depths lives the giant barracuda of Barracuda Lake. Or at least that’s the legend – which I’m glad Thomas didn’t tell me about until we returned to the sunshine on the surface.
Having survived a potential encounter with Palawan’s own Moby Dick, I faced a new challenge. Only a few decades ago the native tribes of this far-flung corner of the Philippines still practiced headhunting and sorcery. Many have become Westernised, but not all of them. I flew from the Calamianes to the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa, on Palawan Island, where I hoped to come face-to-face with one of these ancient tribes – and live to tell the tale.
Over a lunch of deep-fried pork and sour tamarind soup, my guide Josep told me some of the legends. “If we had more time I’d take you to meet the Tau’t Batu, but it takes seven days to reach them. They hold tinned sardines in great reverence – they use the tomato sauce as hair conditioner.”
I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“The Batak feast on worms and are fearsome warriors,” he continued. “We can visit them – they’re only a few hours’ walk from the road.”
The next morning we set out armed with cigarettes, coffee and sweets, which would hopefully ensure a friendly welcome. Leaving our jeep by the roadside, we tramped for an hour along a mud track, slowly working our way into the rainforest. Butterflies flitted around the bushes and shrubs. We passed a couple of simple mud huts; half-naked children waved and smiled from the doorways.
A little further on we waded across several shallow rivers. I splashed water over my face, trying to keep cool as the heat began to build.
The Batak village was a collection of rickety huts with corrugated aluminium roofs, clustered around a makeshift basketball court. Lito, the head of the tribe, invited us to sit on the floor of his hut. He took our bag of gifts and divided them up, making sure each family got its fair share.
“We used to roam great distances, but now we’re not allowed to because of legislation to protect the rainforest,” he explained. “We still hunt boar and squirrels, and we gather honey, which we sell to buy rice.”
I asked how they killed wild boar, animals known for their savagery. “We take gunpowder from fireworks and make grenades using bamboo tubes,” he explained. “We also hunt with dogs.” Rafael, one of the elders, showed me his bow and arrow. Before I knew it, it was in my hands – I needed to show my hunting skills to gain their respect.
My first arrow dropped off the end of the bow to howls of Batak laughter. Determined to do better with my second, I pulled the string back as far as I could – and it snapped.
I’d broken the chief hunter’s bow. To cover my embarrassment, the tribe offered to show me their monthly fertility dance. “You might want to tip them some cash to say thank you,” said Josep. The next thing I knew most of the women were walking around bare-chested. I didn’t know which way to look.
We wandered down to the riverside, where the women set up a rudimentary bamboo drum. Squatting on the ground and bashing it with sticks, one of the older women set the tempo and the others followed, beating out the rhythm. Two of the younger boys demonstrated warrior dances, hopping, whirling and brandishing pretend swords as the drumbeats increased in intensity. The girls were then asked to dance, still topless. One was clearly embarrassed.
Was this really an ancient ritual? Or a ploy to get tourists to cough up cash for bare-chested ladies? It all felt a bit staged – but then it was. I was a stranger and it was midday, not midnight or full moon. “Normally all of the tribe dance – it’s a huge celebration,” explained Josep. At his insistence I posed alongside the women for a photo. Thankfully they then put their clothes back on.
As guardians of the forest and the mountains, the Batak know the island far better than the settlers who’ve arrived over the centuries. They found the underground river inside St Paul’s mountain long before Australian speleologists charted its waters in the 1970s. Reputedly the world’s longest navigable subterranean river, it is Palawan’s biggest tourist attraction.
A bouncing drive from Puerto Princesa across the island dropped me in Sabang, a sleepy little place of shack shops and fishing boats, and the main entrance to the underground river. After a swim to wash off the dust, I jumped aboard an outrigger and juddered around a rocky headland to a pristine sandy bay. A short walk inland through coastal rainforest, monkeys skittering and thrashing in the trees above, brought me to a huge lagoon. Here I put on a helmet and life jacket and clambered into a boat, along with a guide and a hand-held torch powered by huge car batteries.
We paddled slowly across the lagoon to the entrance, a low-roofed cave. There’s no lighting inside these watery tunnels and within moments it was virtually pitch black, with just the torch’s shallow circle of light ahead.
The air filled with midges, which flew up my nose and into my eyes, making me blink and cough. Swallows dipped and chirped above, catching the pesky insects on the wing.
My guide pointed out strange stalactites and stalagmites, huge lumps of mud-brown rock shimmering with beads of crystal. The rock formations have been given names – a remarkable likeness of Christ appears in the dark swirls and crevices on one rock, and a clump of three glistening stalactites has been dubbed the Holy Trinity.
We glided into a massive antechamber called the Cathedral. This far in it’s too dark for swallows to fly, but bats are quite at home. Hordes twitched and fidgeted on clumps of rock in the light of the torch. Suddenly a whole swarm came chattering away and disappeared back into the darkness. We couldn’t follow – humans only venture along the first 2km of the river’s 8km-long murky path.
I stayed that night in Sabang, where the bungalows were basic but the barbecued jackfish and icy San Miguels world-class. The next morning I woke to the sound of waves breaking on the sand. Outside, beyond a sentry of palms, was a perfect stretch of beach. And it was absolutely empty.