Pacific Paradise: A Journey to the Philippines' Final Frontier

When Helen Abramson set off for some of the archipelago's lesser-known islands, she had no idea what to expect...

Words by Helen Abramson | Photos by Helen Abramson & Yannick Vergouwen

I’m woken from a mid-afternoon snooze by excited shouting. Bleary eyed, I look up to see our captain, Oli, running down the length of the boat shouting elatedly, “Tuna! It’s a big one! Tuna!” and shoving the sizeable, still-gasping silvery fish in the face of everyone he passes.

He struck out a line no more than ten minutes ago. A quarter of an hour later, the twenty eager passengers are eating kinilaw, the Filipino version of ceviche – raw fish marinated in calamansi (Filipino limes), chilli, vinegar, onion and ginger. It’s lusciously succulent and rich; I have never tasted fresher fish.

This is not a tour. This is a journey.

This is the beginning of a five-day boat trip with Tao Philippines in the astonishingly turquoise waters of northern Palawan, labelled the Philippines’ “last frontier”. In the 150km or so between Coron Town on Coron Island, and El Nido at the northern tip of Palawan Island, lie dozens of little islets with jungle-filled interiors and wiggling white-sand outlines.

This is the realm of the type of tropical desert islands that our brains have been hard-wired to associate directly with paradise. Other than our final destination, our boat has no fixed schedule, and the captain sets a course each day depending on currents, weather conditions and the general mood on board. Oli repeatedly tells us Tao’s mantra: “This is not a tour. This is a journey.”

Shipwrecks and Karaoke

I mean, technically it is still a tour, but it’s the kind you wish all tours were like, where you aren’t herded around and bossed about like a child, environmental sustainability is a priority, and local communities are involved with the expedition company in a beneficial way, rather than being exploited by them.

Life on board is run with impressive efficiency – there’s an allocated space for everything, and if you can’t find something, it’s always magically back where it’s supposed to be.

The only danger of being looked after so incredibly well by the seven-strong crew is that by the end of the trip, you’ve forgotten how look after yourself. Suddenly you feel a twinge of sympathy for the Kim Kardashians of this world who kick off when no-one tends to your every need.

Oh and the chances of being in terrifyingly close proximity for days on end with people you can’t bear are lower than normal, because punters are vetted beforehand. Not everyone is allowed on a Tao expedition, so if you have the honour of being accepted – ie. you’re willing to rough it with bucket showers, basic open-sided shared bamboo huts without the merest hint of anything close to wi-fi, and you’re happy to accept that things might not always go to plan – the odds are stacked heavily in favour of you having the time of your life.

The snorkelling kicks off to a great start on the first day, with two sunken Japanese WW2 wrecks lying incongruously peacefully on their sides in the crystal-clear waters of the South China Sea, an assortment of colourful fish blithely darting through the coral-covered rusted metalwork.

We snorkel several times every day, and the locations become increasingly picturesque: the water turns a brighter azure, the corals appear ever more varied, the sandy shores incredulously evolve to a whiter white.

One day Oli takes a few of us through a semi-submerged cave where we spot lobsters waving their spindly antennae around in dark corners. Another day there are mask-muffled shouts about turtle sightings, and I swim over just in time to see some grey shadows disappearing off into the distance… not the sighting I was hoping for, but it’s better than nothing.

He plies us with copious amounts of rum until we’re brave enough to join in… he regrets this shortly after we start singing

On our last day, when we’re all safely on the boat, I look out to find us surrounded by hundreds of huge blue-purple jellyfish, eerily floating along in a chilling slow-motion army.

The village we stay at on our first night, Buluang, is made up of only a few families in ramshackle huts, but that doesn’t stop them having an extremely loud karaoke machine. Crewmember Jeric plies us with copious amounts of rum and pineapple until we’re brave enough to join in… a move his face suggests he regrets shortly after we start singing.

The Paths Less Travelled

Our second village stay is on Daracuton Island, where the perk is a free forty-minute massage for everyone. I lie under a blanket of stars, with the sound of the ocean lapping in my ears as the tension was worked out of my shoulders. Life doesn’t get sweeter than this.

For our last two nights we stay in camps that aren’t attached to villages – they’re just remote Tao hideaways, bamboo huts set in phenomenally beautiful isolated coves. “We are the only company who’ve reached agreements with the local communities to bring tourists to their islands,” Oli divulges before we disembark.

“We’ve got 16 exclusive base camps dotted around this region, which we can stay in any time we like.” The ever-buoyant crew, who are all local islanders themselves, shimmy up palm trees and shake down dozens of coconuts, before giving us a pretty unsuccessful and rather embarrassing coconut-smashing lesson. It’s a lot harder than it looks.

Hermit crab racing and slacklining keep us further entertained, then there’s a bonfire, music and seemingly never-ending jugs of rum and pineapple. The days roll by in a swirl of snorkels, sunshine, seafood, attempted backflips off the boat, jumping off rock-faces, admiring the consistently astounding views, comparing jellyfish stings, reading, napping and playing with Harry the on-board Jack Russell.

This schedule is peppered with unexpected but always welcome interruptions, such as an amusing trade off of a couple of bottles of rum for some extraordinarily large, toddler-sized giant kingfish and grouper from a passing fishing boat, and a stop-off at Jeric’s village to see if we can buy some chickens.

Sadly there’s a shortage of fully-grown fowl in town, so it’s back to the seafood drawing board for the chef.

However, we do get to meet Jeric’s welcoming dad and take a peek inside his lovely wooden-stilt house, as well as to wander round the rest of the village and buy melted chocolate bars and buns filled with unidentifiable purple goo (which we later discover is ube, a yam fruit) at the little sari-sari convenience stores.

He saw men blow their arms off fishing with dynamite.

Before each meal the wisecracking chef, Aldren, explains every dish that he’s masterfully prepared, as we sit there salivating in front of it. Food in the Philippines in general is very hit or miss, and tends to be heavy on pig fat and short on fresh vegetables.

Aldren’s food, however, is always a delight. Lunches and dinners mostly consist of imaginatively flavoured steamed fish and plenty of seafood or vegetable adobo (the national staple marinade sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic) all served with what Aldren calls “Filipino power” (rice) and finished off with juicy, perfectly ripe mangoes.

One evening Aldren presents us with ribs from a freshly slaughtered pig from Tao Farm. These are the kind of ribs that demand a string of superlatives – the juiciest, meatiest, largest, most tender ribs I’ve ever had.

The Principles of Tao

Once we’re out of the main touristy areas near Coron and El Nido, we don’t see any other foreigners except at the farm, where we stop for a few hours on our third day and meet Jack Foottit, one of the Tao founders. Jack came backpacking here from the UK with his friend Eddie Brock nine years ago and bought a boat on a whim.

Swanning round in ludicrously small shorts and speaking with a peculiar Filipino lilt, Jack reminisces about the early days. “Before long we were inviting friends to come island-hopping with us, and the Tao family grew from there. It’s still very much a family now – just a bigger one.”

Eddie is half-Filipino, and having a native speaker on board certainly helped in the initial stages. “Not once did we encounter a problem with islanders here. Everywhere we went we were welcomed.”

Overfishing is a big problem in this region. Using dynamite and cyanide is illegal, but people still do it.

The pair formed the Tao Kalahi Foundation to help finance education projects in island communities, and then in 2011 they founded the farm.

Tao Farm is based on principles of permaculture, a notion hitherto unheard of in this region, and it’s an uphill struggle for the Tao boys to persuade islanders to adopt practices that go against generations of traditional farming.

While the population soars and demand increases, the land here is being destroyed by out-dated methods such as slash-and-burn, which ruins the soil in the long term. On the permaculture farm everything you can think of is reused and recycled to help sustain the land, yield the best results, improve the quality of the soil and avoid waste.

They grow vegetables, grain, herbs and fruit, as well as raising a small amount of livestock. The Tao team are acutely aware of the water shortages in the area, and of the overfishing that has brought stocks to the brink of collapse.

No one understands this better than our captain Oli, who was a fisherman for 12 years before he joined Tao. “Overfishing is a big problem in this region. Using dynamite and cyanide is illegal, but people still do it. These techniques kill coral and other marine life, as well as also destroying mangroves, which help protect shores from rough seas during typhoons.”

Oli’s pre-Tao life stories provide great on-board entertainment. He’s 32 years old, roughly the mean age of the guests, but seems to have lived several lives more than the rest of us.

He used to free dive down to depths of up to 25m. He saw men blow their arms off fishing with dynamite. He was once stuck on an island for four days with three other fishermen during a typhoon; they caught a squid, fashioned a needle out of bamboo and gave each other squid-ink tattoos. The somewhat faded, roughly drawn thorn on his stomach doesn’t look too bad, considering.

He evidently still gets a thrill from fishing, which works in our favour on the sashimi front. When we come across a large throng of anchovies while snorkelling, he grabs a large bamboo stick and starts hyperactively hurling it into the shallow water, successfully stunning a fish.

He grabs a large bamboo stick and starts hurling it into the water, successfully stunning a fish.

He shares it with me there and then, and I have to readjust my scale again on the freshest (but not the most delicious) fish I’ve ever eaten. While a group of us play frisbee on the beach at one of our camps, our captain scours the water for shrimps. Within minutes he’s filled a bucket, and that’s our pre-dinner appetizer sorted.

Weathering the Storms

Oli tells us how, during the catastrophic 2013 typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda, nobody had any idea what was in store, least of all the fisherman. Between July and November, typhoons are very common in this vulnerable country, which consists of over seven thousand islands.

The fishermen braced themselves for Yolanda the way they always did for oncoming typhoons: “They moored up in protected coves and started drinking,” says Oli. But Yolanda blasted through the usually protected areas, taking with her thousands of lives and levelling entire villages. “We had two Tao boats out at the time, and they both capsized. We lost one of our crew, who was trapped inside a cabin.”

Since Yolanda, Tao have taken fisherman craftsmanship to create typhoon-proof huts called Tuka, or bird-beak design, using nylon cords to secure each intersection of bamboo. Simple, yet completely effective.

Our last stop before we arrive in Coron is the Pasandigan Cave, which we tentatively scramble into in single file. Streams of light filter in from high above us through steep rugged walls and echoey corridors, and as we emerge squinting back into the full sunlight, I will time to slow time down so we can continue this trip for longer.

Strangely, my wish is actually granted. Well, in a way – the constant motion means I spend the next week in a rocking, nauseating world in which it feels like I’m still on the boat.

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