So I spent Xmas with friends and family, drifting between islands in the Philippines, far from the madding crowds. Most of this account has to be photographs rather than words, because the islands speak for themselves.
At the end of this jetty was a boat. Getting to it involved four airports and some frantic transfers. Kirsty, Eva and I left Delhi with our friends Tom and Steph, then picked up Sean, Fi and their two boys Callum and Ellis at Manila (technically, they picked us up, threw us in the back of their car, and somehow got us all from the international terminal to the domestic one through absolute gridlock).
Nevertheless, nine exhausted people made it aboard. The stupor didn’t last long. It was blown away by clear waters, astonishing sunshine, and the first of many plunges into the sea to see the wreck of a sunken Japanese warship. The isolation was astonishing. We boarded near Coron, which is far off the tourist track, and spent the next week sailing quiet waters between villages and islands without seeing another westerner until almost the end of the trip. No phones. no internet, nothing resembling the kind of lifestyle we’re all used to. It was extraordinary.
By the time we kayaked from the boat to our first camp it was dark – really, really dark. The stars were amazing, but they and the torches lit around our beds were all we really saw. It was morning before we got a real view of where we were, and that was when it struck me how cut off we were. The feeling was profoundly liberating. We’d slept beneath mosquito nets and canvas – there used to be a couple of huts at the camp, but they were flattened by the typhoon in November and hadn’t been rebuilt yet. Nobody minded. It was hot all night, and walls and a ceiling weren’t really needed.
And then we were away. The days sort of blended into one. Find islands, kayak or swim out to them, wander beaches, snorkel and swim around coral reefs, that sort of thing. It wasn’t so much unimaginably beautiful as exactly as beautiful as you imagine. Here are some pictures to prove it.
The trip was the opposite of a tour. We had a start point and an end point, a wooden boat, and seven days to cover the distance. With none of us hardened sailors, we were pretty reliant on our terrific crew. There was Delbert, the captain with the insane grin who stared storms in the face and laughed. Romy, our expedition leader, kept us on track and got us to our camps before the sun went down each day. He also caught fish, and chopped them up so we could enjoy incredibly fresh sushi. Eating a squid that was in the sea fifteen minutes previously is an amazing thing.
We also had Jerry, Gian Gian, and Alexander on board with us, and they pulled off the neat trick of making sure we didn’t really have to do anything but sit back and enjoy without ever crowding us or being overly solicitous. Stuff just happened and appeared when we needed it to. A splendid bunch. They made sure we went to places like this.
For the most part, it was a blissful experience, even though I couldn’t get the score of Pirates of the Caribbean out of my head for more than ten minutes at a time*. Sure, there was the night that Steph turned into a rage monster and tried to fight the owner of Tao Philippines (the company who organised the trip) when we met him on an island. He survived, thankfully. Apparently Steph fights people now. It’s her new thing. She’s like a very pretty Incredible Hulk.
Mostly blissful though…Until Christmas Eve anyway, when we met poor weather while trying to get to the night’s camp, and had to make land at the first place we could find. It was a bit grim…
The atmosphere was creatively enhanced by Romy’s explanation that the house had been partly built by a Canadian gentleman who one day simply disappeared, leaving it half finished. The obvious, and probably most accurate, explanation might be that he went back home to Canada without bothering to tell any of the passing island folk that he was giving up his dream. The least likely explanation… well, there are lots of least likely explanations, all of them pleasingly horrible. It cheered me up considerably, although I suspect it may not have thrilled others in the group so much.
Somehow, Romy and the crew managed to build a shelter on the beach out of spit and pieces of driftwood (emasculating we male passengers in the process – but to be fair, if I had to choose to be stuck on a desert island with one other person then Kirsty would be left to the waves in favour of Romy). They also cheered us considerably by roasting a piglet over an open fire for our festive dinner, while Eva did magic spells to invoke her personal deity of choice (Loki – Tom Hiddlestone version) and ward away evil spirits. Seemed to do the trick. Thanks Loki.
A quick head count on Christmas morning proved that nobody had been abducted in the middle of the night by feral Canadians, and then it was on to El Nido, our final port and the end of the boat trip. We were ready for it, after a night on the Devil’s Rock. After days of dousing ourselves in cold water from barrels, real showers were very welcome indeed. The hotel wasn’t much to speak of, but it had mattresses, and air conditioning, and we woke the next morning all the better for it.
Basically, it was an amazing trip. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do anything like it ever again. A boat and crew of our own, and some of the most beautiful waters and islands I’ve ever seen to drift through. In the wrong company, of course, even the most extraordinary scenery could have been a backdrop to a hellish experience. In our case, the company was splendid. Brilliant people, who I know much better than I did, and who went into the trip with much the same easygoing attitude we tried to.
Thanks guys. You were tremendous ship mates.
On Boxing Day we were serenaded onto a plane and took flight for Manila, where midgets fight and the war dead rest in endless fields, but that’s a blog post for another day…
*it’s possible that this made the trip more awesome, not less. I can’t decide.
Currently reading (novel): Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
Currently reading (novel): The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally
Currently reading (graphic novel): Absolute Sandman V by Neil Gaiman
Currently reading (short stories): The Weird, edited by Jeff Vandermeer.
Currently reading (short stories): Gotrek and Felix: The Anthology, edited by Christian Dunn.