Balabac Islands

So where do I begin, I think if I wanted to go to a place like the places I travelled to back 30 years ago without any connection with the outside world this 3 day journey would be it.  The tour without an itinerary. I loved it, expect for the part where they wanted to share a shower with me and they couldn’t understand why this was not going to happen.  The bus journey to our boat took 6 hours from Puerto and without knowing I shared the journey with four Filipinos, two from Manila and two from Boracay.  Raymond and Miki spoke english and over the three days I learnt about life in the Philippines for young 20 somethings.  Christopher was our main guide, cook, sailor and the nephew of the owner of Candaraman Island.  He loved his life and wanted to continue doing tours.  He was very talkative unfortunately or fortunately I don’t speak Tagalong so I am sure I missed many interesting facts about this area.  We did have numerous brief conversations about his fear of losing the island he has come to know and love.  Many Islands have been taken by government officials for private use and Onuk a gem of a place is now in the hands of a wealthy businessman who is going to change it to a Maldives style resort.  The helipad was being built when I was there.  He knows that being able to stay here will be coming to an end very soon.  So I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy the one night I spent there.  However it was staying at Candaraman Island and sharing a night with Christophers family that was a highlight.  His mother Helen, aunty Ris and Vicky made us feel at home and prepared a wonderful meal.  Although the though of eating Balut, a egg with the embryo inside made me uneasy.  Luckily it wasn’t such a special occasion to eat this delicacy.  We sat around the table sharing our outside world with them and their lives in these parts of the world.  I was a fascination to the ladies because I was travelling on my own, single and no children.  This was certainly a talking point and one I have often had to repeat with many locals.  The most amazing aspect of the night was when Ris told me that her daughter, Donna is studying accounting in Australia and did I know a place called Melbourne.  The moment she found out that I was actually from this great place she didn’t leave me alone.  She has not seen her daughter for 5 years as she was also studying in Singapore.  She said Donna was being sponsored by her sister who has lived in Melbourne for 15 years.  It took a year for the paper work to go through immigration and it cost tens of thousands of dollars for the three year course at VIT.  She works at Melbourne central and was surprised that you get overtime if you work Sundays.  Donna was 1 of only 2 students that got an HD and was very proud of what her daughter has achieved so far.  However she does not know when she will see her again.  There was a sense though, that with the uncertainty of the islands Ris knows that this is the best for her daughter, as Ris is only able to live day to day, making the small amount from tours like ours to provide other needs.  Yet she would not change her life for the world, and wonders why people need the modern world.  Actually I agree, the modern world with the constant want of things is something we are told we need to aspire to, but what I have learnt from all the people I have met so far, there is only one constant and that is the love of family and friends, your health, good food and a laugh.

There were two events that bought us strangers together.  The 1st event was the boat trip to Onuk which only had a narrow entry through the reef and only passable through high tide.  Then the boat trip from Onuk back to the mainland through open waters.  In my haste when booking the tour I didn’t ask questions like will the boat be covered from the elements?  Also I hadn’t even thought about getting on and of the boat which consisted of a narrow piece of wood that was set at a 90 degree angle. 

We had a peaceful boat journey to Candaraman Island, not much swell as the water was protected from the many islands dotted along the way.  Anyway I welcomed the sea spray which was cooling especially with the Philippines heat.  It was the journey from Candaraman to Onuk that changed that.  Although not a major shipping channel we were closer to Malaysia (Borneo) than Manila.  You could see large ocean going vessels in the distance and the swell was considerably larger, especially in a small low lying boat.  We were also sailing into the wind, so a journey that might take an hour turned into two.  We were all happy when we made the outer reef and started to relax.  Looking over the boat’s edge the water was so clear and the colours of the reef were vivid.  Christopher moved to the front of the craft to guide the boat through water as the water become shallower.  However you could hear in the tone of his voice that things weren’t going to plan.  Suddenly, the sound of the boat scrapping the reef.  We were asked to move back, but then the propellor made a horrible clunking sound.  Even with my untrained eye you could see there was no way through.  The next thing I knew the crew and the Filipino guests were jumping off the boat.  What the….?  Was there a hole in the boat?  Raymond, his eyes as big as balloons screamed at me, “get off the boat”. I thought we might be stuck here until the tide rose, not jumping off!  Looking at the fear on the other guests eyes, water and swimming wasn’t something they were comfortable with as they huddled together with their life jackets standing on a large rock.  They were more interested in taking selfies and posing for the camera to show their friends, not evacuating a boat and wading in waist deep water.  So I grabbed my go pro and jumped in.  I just wished I had my togs on and grabbed my goggles as well, as the reef was so full of life.  I swam over to the others and I tried to reassure the young girl, by this time her life jacket was high around her head.  She was petrified, however with some coaxing she started to float with the current towards the boat.  By this time Christopher had moved the boat off the reef.  The next challenge was getting back on.  Lets just say, I use to be able to get my legs over my head, luckily I turned off my Go-pro. We eventually made it to Onuk and once settled in and filling our stomachs with food we bonded and laughed about our adventure.  That night without electricity and only my head lamp for light, we ate an amazing meal of freshly caught tuna cooked by Christopher, played cards and listened to Christopher talk about his dreams and Marco talk about his hopes for a new business venture, selling beauty products.  I have to thank Raymond for being my translator.

I had planned to wake up to a beautiful sunrise but that turned to despair when the colour of the sky wasn’t crimson but dark grey and ominous.  I could see out in the distance the chop of the sea and I could hear the roar of the waves pound against the reef.  So to did the others.  This time I was ready, I had a plan, just wear my togs and sit further back in the boat.  I am sure everything will be fine.  Christopher got word that the boat was struggling to reach the Island to take as back.  The sea was angry and after a while, with the help of a pair of huge binoculars I could see a small object bobbing up and down in the sea, so tiny and powerless.  I think from the time we first spotted the boat till it reached the outer reef it took 2 hours.  Of course the next problem was how the hell were we going to get past the reef.  After several attempts they decided to anchor the boat at the reef and we were going to meet the boat in the swollen seas on a small wooden canoe.  OMG how the hell are we going to jump from one boat to the other?  Ask no questions I decided was the best option.  So did the others.  So we all crammed in and set off.  The boat was so low in the water my eyes were at water level.    The next trick was leaving the inner reef and tying the canoe to the boat.  It took several attempts whilst the boats were bobbing up and down like yo-yos.  Still the question how do we get from one boat to the other?  I wish now I had my Gopro because I don’t have the language skills to describe how hard this was.  If yesterday was a hassle this was an ordeal if ever there was one.  Somehow though we all managed to crawl on without any injuries.  Now safely on the boat we took off. I put my life jacket on, mainly for protection of the water rather than saving us from going overboard and I sat behind Raymond at the back thinking that I might get some sort of protection.  Well within two minutes that idea went out the window.  The swell was well over 6 meters and at times when on top a wave I felt I was on the big dipper.  The boat would move side to side and fall down the wave with a thud, no cushioned seats on this little beauty.  The motor was struggling, one boy was pushing the hand bilge and Christopher was tossing out water from a saucepan.  When I turned around about 15 minutes later they had changed jobs.  The only thing I was thinking was thank god the water and air was warm.  I could see land in the distance but at no time did I feel we were getting any closer.  Four hours later and not wanting to disappoint us by not going to the pink island Christopher decided to stop at a sand bank.  Now by this stage the last thing on my mind was gee I really want to take photos of me lying on a sandbank.  The boys however thought it was a great idea so of they went lying on the sand, throwing water in the air and taking selfies of the beauty of the sandbank.  I just sat on the boat feeling like I was watching a reality show.  Eventually we made it back to land the journey from the sandbank without a hitch.  The van was waiting to take the 6 hour journey back to Puerto, including a shared shower with 4 others at the back of someones house, in the middle of a field, I kindly declined.  All I wanted was a loo, but that is another story.




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