TAO EXPERIENCE – Travel Diary
The Tao Experience was one of the most interesting and unique experiences I have ever been on. I have written two separate parts regarding our experience with Tao. In the first part, I describe some basic info and answer a few of the questions and doubts I had before I started out with Tao. The second part, below is a travel diary; documenting our four days and five nights with Tao and some of the cool shit that happened.
A Note: As Tao state on their website every Tao experience is different. There are many factors that will influence each trip. The weather, the passengers, the crew. Hell, just plain old luck. Part of the fun of this experience was the unknown.
I don’t go into too much detail about the other passengers. I’m just being protective of their privacy. There were 18 of us in total. Though I don’t mention them often, without these people on board, this trip would not have been as cool and interesting as it was. I would not have laughed as much, nor would I have had as much fun. Thank you to everyone who travelled on Aurora with me and for making it such a memorable adventure.
TAO TRAVEL DIARY
Tuesday Afternoon 16:30 – Tao Office
There are a few nervous looks around the group. Quiet chatter and nervous looks. Not only are we a group of possible psychos about to embark on a boat ride for five days, but we’ve all just signed a waiver that makes the possibility of a painful, lingering death all the more real. I’m betting on standing on a stonefish, swimming face first into a box jellyfish and having a shark bite me while I thrash around screaming. Either that or a mosquito will give me dengue and I will shit myself to death.
The crew come out and start their introductions by handing out Jungle Juice. This is pineapple juice, a throat burning local rum, and calamansi (a Filipino citrus). I think. Part of travelling through Asia is occasionally turning a blind eye towards what exactly it is you’re ingesting. It isn’t a bad drink. We go around the room with quick introductions, which are instantly forgotten by everyone else. I’m Kaine from New Zealand. No one stands up to declare I am exactly the kind of person they wanted to meet and be friends with. We move on.
Joy, our tour leader. Supreme Commander. Mama Joy. She reminds us of a few things. The following morning, we are to meet at 8:30. For the rest of the trip we will be on Island Time; things will happen “in the morning” or “after breakfast” or “before lunch”. This is not going to be luxurious. The crew speak English, but not perfectly. There will be plenty of food but the menu won’t be changed for the picky. Above all, no beer politics. Alcohol is purchased from Tao before you leave. Beer thieves will be made to walk the plank.
After the introductions, everyone drifts away to get ready for the following morning.
I do some last minute shopping, then back to the cottage for a simple dinner and one last attempt at sleeping through the endlessly barking dogs and crowing roosters of El Nido. I can see why parts of Asia eat dog. They deserve to be eaten. I have also started eating more chicken. They started this war.
There are four of us from Tao staying at Sommers Eco Cottages, so we grab a ride together towards the El Nido Pier, stopping for more sunscreen. It’s hot. The sun is a beast. My first Tao friends, Wolfgang and Eva, a German couple who seem nice and normal. My fear of having a boatload of weirdos eases slightly.
As it turns out, the El Nido Pier runs on Island Time too. The boat is in the harbour but can’t get to the dock because there is no space. We sit among bags and locals in the waiting room watching basketball, and news on the upcoming election. Once we get on board, we wait for the the Coast Guard, also working on Island Time, to inspect our recently donned life jackets.
Joy urges the crew forward and they say a shy hello. Jojo our captain, Dodo our guide, Juan the cook and Marben his assistant, Wasoy the mechanic and Junrey the ship’s hand. They are all Filipino, with cheeky, movie-star smiles and the fit, dark-skinned bodies of young men used to doing manual work in the sun.
As we pull away, the water quickly changes to a calm, deep blue, and we get our first glimpse of islands we will be travelling through. Mountainous peaks jut from the water and jagged cliffs surround small, white sand beaches. Only accessible by boat, or a 10 second freefall from the summit, rows of coconut trees make each beach look like a postcard of a tropical paradise. You can see the sand rising up from the depths, turning the water a bright, light turquoise.
We stop in a small bay off Cadlao Island and have our first swim together while the crew move some supplies from a camp to the boat. Five metres of water under us and we can make out the sand at the bottom. It is the perfect temperature. We all agree; we can survive five days of this.
With supplies loaded, we’re off to our first snorkelling spot, Cadlao Lagoon. Beautiful colourful reefs with tropical fish darting around. Clownfish charging forward, before rushing back to the safety of anemone homes. Angelfish, parrotfish, pipefish, sweetlips, butterflyfish and many others. I could keep describing this, but it would take too long. Suffice it to say it was amazing. We spend an hour in the water, slowly drifting back and forth.
Next stop is Helicopter Island for more snorkelling, before a lunch of garlic shrimp, mussels and Filipino power, a.k.a. rice, against a backdrop of a long, white sand beach. The excitement of being in this paradise together is still running high. Four and a half more days of this?
We head to Big Lagoon and arrive between the tour groups that normally flock to this attraction. The name comes from the fact this lagoon is…big. It is really a series of lagoons and I opt to kayak through rather than swim. A few people load their belongings onto our kayak and we disappear into the lagoon leaving them all behind. Suckers. Hope no one needs their sunscreen or reef shoes.
We take turns paddling, looking at the cliffs rising above us and the water changing from turquoise to blue and back again. We spot a small stingray that disappears as we approach. The crew show us through a narrow cavern, and we listen to our quiet splashes echoing up the sides towards large rocks hanging suspended above us. It is a short but welcome respite from the sun.
The peace is broken by a voice singing, of all things, Like a Virgin. Thus, as we head towards our first base camp for the night, munching on caramelised bananas, we are all singing or humming along to young Madonna’s 80s hit.
Base Camp One
We swim to shore to explore our home for the night still singing. Like a virgin….touched for the very first time. We gather around the simple table and collect our sleeping things. Sheets sewn into sleeping bags, a pillowcase, a pillow, a mattress and, most importantly, a mosquito net. We head off to our assigned huts to set up.
Dusk is coming, so we perform what will be our nightly ritual. Have a wash, don shirts and pants, smear ourselves in foul smelling, insect repellent and head to the common area for Jungle Juice. At least one of us will absently rub an eye or stick a finger in a mouth. Deet might give the occasional person slurred speech, seizures or land them in a coma, but it stops mozzies from attacking. Wolfgang has the most outrageous tie-dye pants, made worse by the fact he seems self-conscious about them.
Dinner is grilled milkfish, jackfish, veges and Filipino power. It is delicious, fresh and healthy. The rum flows. The stars come out and people drift away from the diesel torches to gaze at them. We who live in cities forget how stunning the night sky is. After a few days of sickness, lots of sun, and asshole roosters, I turn in early and fall soundly asleep to the sound of Peter and Nicholas leading the others in a drinking game around the bonfire…BIIIIG BOOTY!!!
The morning starts early for me. Sydney is two hours ahead, so my body is waking me up at 4:30am to get ready for work. The beds are surprisingly comfortable, though hot. No air-conditioning here. For starters, there’s no power…or walls really. There are mosquitoes though, and spiders.
People are moving around, taking photos and having morning swims. A lot of people are sporting new patches of sunburn. I hear it’s all the rage in these parts. Fresh coffee is delivered from the boat along with fruit and ginger tea. I get into the coffee. The pineapple is amazing. The mango is too. I kayak around the small bay, sticking to the shady spots.
Joy tells us to follow Dodo on the first of our snorkels for the day and to keep an eye out for turtles. A short swim later we are all looking down at a turtle, ghostly gliding away from us. Another is spotted on the bottom. My first turtles in the water and I am amazed enough to ignore the creepy darkness of the drop off.
The boat picks us up and we attack plates of banana pancakes. I shouldn’t have eaten them and will regret it later. I eat some more anyway.
Jojo takes Aurora out and we sail to Nacpan Beach. If you ever visit El Nido, you will be asked by every tricycle driver you come across if you want to go to Nacpan Beach. It might just be worth it. We swim to shore and struggle up a small hill in the crushing heat to take photos of the beach and the nearby village. We walk up the beach to buy buko (drinking coconuts), drinks and shakes. I get myself a sarong as well. Turns out it is the same design as Tim’s. I knew the moment we met he was a scholar and a gentleman. We form an exclusive sarong club. Everyone is jealous.
We swim back to the boat and head to a Diapila for a lunch of fried snapper and adobo squid. The moment we are done, we are back in the water cooling off. Sarah overcomes her distaste for jumping into water and manages to hit the water without screaming. Quite the achievement. Everyone is jumping in, diving off the front of the boat or wrestling on the outriggers of the banka. The local kids swim over and join us, clambering like spider monkeys all over the boat and back flipping off the front. Show offs.
Jojo takes us out again and we lounge around, drinking coffee and water, reading books or napping. You know, the kind of thing you do on a tropical holiday. We’re on our way to The Farm, which sounds like something out of a horror movie. Come to think of it, this entire trip is the perfect setting for a zombie movie.
Wolfgang is fishing from the back of the boat with a handline. He looks a little uncertain, until the line goes tight. Winding in a handline with the crew all cheering, he brings in a tuna. Everyone is delighted and we gather around to watch as it is cut up and turned into sashimi. Fresh sashimi in soy sauce. Fishing suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. While we aren’t able catch anything else, that tuna was excellent. I haven’t had tuna that fresh before and it may have ruined sashimi for me forever. I now get to be a jerk and say things like “this isn’t fresh. I’ve had real fresh tuna before. Straight out of the water.”
We swim to shore again, past the sad sight of a dead manta ray, which appears to have had its flaps cut off. A sign of a disgusting trade still present in the area. I only hope it went to feed a hungry family and wasn’t sold to some Chinese asshole so he could get his dick hard.
We are greeted by Salty Tom. Salty Tom is a very small, white dog that owns The Farm and everything contained within it’s boundary. He loves to swim and roll in the sand, which is unfortunate as he appears to be allergic to both of those things. We are told he loses his hair on occasion because he refuses to stop. He also can’t eat fish. This is an issue when living on an island, where the primary protein source is fish. He’s a pretty cool dog though, and agrees to guide us around The Farm during our visit.
We are introduced to Ann. She is Head Chef at The Farm. As the kitchen is the centre of The Farm, this makes her Head Honcho. She explains to us how Tao operates and we get a better understanding of it as a social enterprise. The farm supports 350 people and uses the funds received from the passengers of the Tao Experience to help grow and build.
There are a number of factors influencing development in the Philippines. The land is not the most fertile, so burning is used to nourish the soil. This is an effective, but short term solution. Once crops are harvested, the soil is no longer viable and farmers must move on. Tao are working with experts in these areas and with local farmers to find a way to improve this process, returning nourishment to the soils. Fertilising can be used, however it is expensive and the rainy season can wash fertiliser from the soil.
Ann explains how the rainy season did not deliver last year, and so drought has affected the entire region. Deforestation means the soil does not hold fresh water from the rainy seasons, so fresh water springs are not flowing as strongly as they once did. The current cycle is destructive, yet Tao are hoping to find a solution.
They have a goal to become self-sustaining, so the farm can provide food for the families and also supply the boats. It appears to be an excellent social enterprise and I am quite sure I haven’t done it justice in these few paragraphs.
Ann explains that all the boys on our crew started at The Farm. They’re taught to cook initially, then are able to expand from there into other things. Some of the boys come in as young as nine. They are given some direction and guidance.
We wander through parts of The Farm with Salty Tom pointing out the pigs and the aloe vera. He chases a rooster. I reward him with a pat and tell him he is a good dog. We find a large mango tree and Dodo climbs up to get us fresher mango than we have ever tasted, though the goat under the tree also claims a few, daring anyone to get closer with it’s cold, dead gaze.
Base Camp Two
We swim back to the boat and head off to Daracuton, the site of our second base camp. I have been given a small hut on the beach this time. We set up, wash some gunk off, put different gunk on. The sun sets in a wondrous display of colour and many of our party have our cameras out.
There is power at this site, so we have light enough to play cards. Everyone to Irish Snap. We’re not sure if this is the real name, and given there are two Irish people in the party, Donal and Sarah, and they’ve never heard of it, I suspect someone is fucking with us. A fun and sometimes violent game, the last person to slap their hand down loses. Jungle Juice adds to both the confusion and the violence.
After a delicious dinner of fish, coconut curry veges and, of course, Filipino Power, we wander down to the water where bioluminescent plankton gives a splash of stars as we walk along the shoreline. We go to bed content again, with a slight breeze keeping us cool through our mosquito net. It is pure bliss.
Fucking roosters. It is 5:30am and already I am sweating. The sun is rising though and it looks to be another excellent day. I convince myself it would be unfair to kill every rooster on the island. People are moving around again. Cameras out to capture the sunrise. Quick swims to wash away the last of the sleepiness. Coffee, ginger tea and fruit.
Breakfast is fresh bread from The Farm, eggs and banana flower pancakes. I think they meant banana flour and my brain takes a long slow circuit around the idea of turning bananas into flour. I suppose you dry them and then grind them up. But wouldn’t they get sticky again, pretty much straight away? What a waste of time… oh what? You mean banana flowers? You can eat them? Fucking hope so, given I’ve already finished four and there are two more on my plate.
Attack of the Jellyfish
There is a fishing boat wreck off the shore here which should provide some nice snorkelling. There are jellyfish in the water and, as we get closer, we find ourselves facing a wall of jellyfish. After flapping around ineffectively for a while, we beat a hasty retreat and instead grab a kayak to rescue others who were attempting the passage as well. A few stings, but nothing too major…says the guy who didn’t get stung. We kayak over to the wreck and, watching carefully for the crafty jellyfish bastards, have a quick snorkel. The wreck lies in a few feet of water and was apparently left there once the company no longer needed it. It has turned into a partial reef and is home to a lot of tropical fish including a grumpy looking lionfish.
Back on board, we are told today will be a snorkelling day and head off in search of our first spot for the day.
The Rescue of Friday
Of all the things that happened to us, one that sticks out in my mind is the rescue of Friday. We stop briefly for a snorkel at a small reef off one of the many uninhabited islands. A few of us sit this one out due to too much sun, salt water or alcohol the night before.
As we sit there, someone points to the shore. A small, emaciated black cat is walking along the sand, meowing to us. Here we are, anchored at this tiny deserted island, and there’s this skinny little cat trying to get out attention. What the hell?
We swim to shore with fresh water, though it is more interested in being close and sheltering in the shade under us, at least until the crew bring food over. It nearly takes my hand off trying to get into it. Poor bloody thing. How it got to the island we have no idea, but if some prick left it there, then he needs a slap.
In the spirit of all that is right in the world, we implore the crew to allow us to rescue it. They agree to bring it on board and to drop it off at the next base camp. Had I thought I had a chance to get him into Australia, I would have brought him home with me, but I don’t think they’d have let a stray cat from a deserted island in the Philippines through customs. It would have been a pretty cool back story when people asked “where did you get your cat from?”
In the words of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: “We let him know his name should be Friday, which was the day we saved his life: we called him so for the memory of the time.”
I hope he’s still OK. Stupid asshole.
Friday, having eaten and quenched his thirst, lay sleeping on the deck of the boat. Our new companion. Val watches over him and Kirill watches over her.
We had another snorkelling stop at Cobra Island before base camp. What kind of name is that you ask? So did I. Sure, I know there are cobra in the Philippines, but are they on this particular island? Are they waiting to bite anyone who tries to step foot on the island? Is this some joke the locals think is hilarious? I didn’t get a satisfactory answer.
Snorkelling this time in some of the clearest water I have ever seen. We drifted across the coral reef and looked down into this world of colour before walking over the island back to the boat again, watching carefully for cobra.
The sun heated the ground to a scorching temperature and the shallow waters were so warm I thought I was swimming over thermal vents. My back was browner than it has been in years. My goal of being as dark as one of the crew is coming along nicely.
Base Camp Three
We arrived at our base camp on Ginto Island and set up for the night. Friday’s new home. He is loaded, along with the drybags and dinner, into a kayak and paddled ashore by the crew. He doesn’t look impressed with the situation. Whether it is because he was on a kayak or heading towards another island, it is impossible to say.
Sunset tonight is amazing making it easy to get great photos. I set up a hut again, with mosquito net and bedding. Sun shit off, insect shit on, though strangely it looks as though there are no mosquitoes here. I wander around checking out this base camp.There appears to be a permanent family here. There is a basketball hoop and several animals, including pigs, dogs and another cat.
The Jungle Juice is served and a game of cards starts. Irish Snap. Nicholas is accusing someone of being a “tucker inner” during Irish Snap. I’m pretty sure Donal is the culprit. Kyle, one of the English lads is yelling at him as well.
We wake up to another almost perfect sunrise. The sun peeks over the horizon and bathes the calm water in orange and pink. The Aurora looks like something out of a dream. Of course I have been awake for a couple of hours already, so I’m staring at the banka waiting for the coffee to be brought over. Yes, beautiful. That is the epitome of bloody grandeur. Is that someone bringing shit over on kayak? If it is ginger tea, I’m going to burn this place to the ground.
The Re-Rescue of Friday
Fucking stupid cat. As we stand around having our morning coffee and fruit, we notice Friday has climbed a tree during the night. Probably scared by something on the island, like the other cat, one of the dogs or a pig. Of course, he’s stuck. He’s a skinny, starving, stupid asshole cat stuck in a tree, meowing for us to get him down.
Considering he has recently been stuck on an island alone, he probably deserves a bit of slack. Dodo climbs the tree and rescues him, in the gentle manner of grabbing him by the scruff of the neck. I’m glad Dodo did it as I was worried I’d have to climb up. I probably outweigh him by 20kg and the tree was already being propped up.
Now he’s down, Friday wanders off like nothing has happened, towards the food. I take one last look at Friday, give him a pat and we head to the boat, surrounded by little baby cuttlefish.
I hope he’s OK. Stupid cat.
One Up, Four Down
Geert fell ill this morning. One moment he was taking photos, the next he was on his knees on the sand. He had been feeling unwell earlier, however now he has gotten worse. It isn’t looking very good. As we pack down, others are convincing him he is too ill to get on board.
We are lucky enough to have two doctors and a nurse on board the boat with us and the decision is made to take him to hospital. Joy calls in a fast boat, which takes some time to arrive. The rest of us board the Aurora to wait. We eat in relative silence.
The fast boat arrives and he is loaded onto it. He is moving around and sitting up by himself. It is two hours to the nearest medical centre. Sarah and Tim (The Doctors) go with Geert and Iris.
The Aurora leaves as well. Somehow the boat has acquired a pig. We are one pig up and four people down. The boat has had a thorough cleaning by the crew and we have been reminded by Sarah and Tim to wash our hands, especially before eating. Remember that relationship between communicable diseases and hygiene? I am sure I’m not the only one wondering if I feel slightly ill or if it’s all in my head.
We head to a cliff on Linapacan Island where the crew show us what they’re made of by jumping and diving off. A few of the passengers give it a go to the enthusiastic cheers of the crew and everyone else on board. It is quite a high cliff. I opt to skip this one.
There is a series of caves nearby that are screaming to be explored. Not to me though. I will happily jump out of an airplane, climb a cliff and slide down mountains. But I try to avoid caves. I don’t like the feeling of being crushed by a mountain. I’ve been black water rafting and can breathe my way through it, I just get nervous. I think I’ll work on that. Others show no hesitation and head towards it with Joy to investigate. There are apparently small bats and swallows. I kinda wish I had gone. I like bats. They’re definitely one of the cooler mammals in my opinion.
After an hour or so, we head towards another snorkelling spot, again munching on caramelised bananas. I want to take Juan home with me and keep him as my own personal chef. The things he does in a simple boat kitchen are amazing. Some life has returned to the group after this mornings incident. We are moving on with the trip though in the back of my mind I hope Geert is doing OK.
People are hurrying me. We have arrived at the next snorkelling spot and I have yet to put my contacts in. I struggle to put them in while the boat is moving as they either blow away or I jab myself in the eye. Also I don’t wear them normally because my sunglasses are prescription. I’m a complicated person. Everyone else is in the water by the time I am ready.
We get into some more warm and clear water. No wait, I need to spit into my mask. I know, I should have done it earlier at the same time I was putting in my contacts. As we finally set out, we can see Elodie ahead of us by a few metres, swimming alone. After taking a quick look around I see she has turned and is rushing back towards us. She looks scared and I can see the whites of her eyes. I instantly think “we’re going to need a bigger boat.” She stops near us and points into the blue.
Out of the darkness, I can see a large shape heading towards us. Too slow to be a shark…and not as large as I was expecting. What the hell?
It glides towards us on silent wings. Circling, it looks at us curiously. It has two fish under it’s belly and two trailing behind; an entourage of cleaners. We stare at it. It stares back. A manta ray. Not a large one, but still, a manta ray. We call others over and watch it as it swoops around our small group. This is easily the coolest thing I have ever seen in the water. It is an experience I will remember forever.
Then, just as silently, it heads off into the darkness and is gone. I am left awestruck. If we had gotten into the water 2 minutes earlier, we would have missed this incredible animal. I resist the urge to chase it and leave the experience for what it is; a chance encounter to be remembered. When it left, it head straight for Andrea. I bet she’s just shit herself.
As we drift along the drop off, floating over coral and fish towards the waiting banka, two thoughts stick with me: “the others are gonna be pissed for missing this” and “No one will ever hurry me again”.
We have the longest single trip now. Two and a half hours. During this time, the crew will prep the pig. This going to be our dinner. Currently it is still a pig, tied to the handrail and very much alive. We are given the option to watch or assist with the preparation, from live pig to roasted pork, which is locally called lechon. A few want to watch, a few want nothing to do with it. I watch.
The pig is killed with a knife. In through the throat and down into the chest to the heart. It is quick. Death is not nice. Starving is worse. The blood is kept and will be used for black pudding. I have done some hunting throughout most of my life, so this doesn’t disturb me too much. The others look on in curiosity. This is where our food comes from. I think it is good for people to see it and acknowledge it. In order to eat, this animal has died. It should not be taken lightly.
Boiling water is poured onto the skin and the hair is scraped off with spoons. It is obviously a hot job. Once most has been removed, the rest is shaved. The pig is carefully gutted and dressed. The stomach cavity is stuffed with banana leaves and other various things. The entire process takes hours until it is clean, stuffed and ready to be roasted. It is a physically demanding job and most of the work happens on the floor of the small boat kitchen. There is little air and a lot of heat. Massive respect to the crew for everything they do there.
During our long trip towards the next base camp, Joy informs us we’ve run out of water and we will need to get some before we can do anything else.
Our slow journey leads us towards Culion Mainland and down a fiord filled with large jellyfish. We watch over the side of the boat as we fly over the large, white blobs. I am told we will trade diesel for water. We park up next to a fishing boat, mooring beside a cluster of small huts. An exchange is made.
I stare across at the fishing boat. A dozen young men stare back at u; sitting at our leisure trading for water. We still see this as paradise. A place we visit to relax, read books and bathe in the sun. Those eyes staring at me see different things. It is difficult not to notice. They are not the product of a wealthy nation. Poverty is everywhere and abundant. Children work when they should be in school. Long days under a hot sun. Men and women struggling to survive. Does our inane chatter and apparent idleness make them despise us? How could they not, when we appear in front of them, visitors in their tiny villages, their daily lives almost a novelty for us. How is this fair?
I try to shake off this dark feeling as we head back through the jellyfish towards the sea, turning towards our final camp site. It is something I see wherever I go. It makes me feel powerless.
Base Camp Four
Everyone is talking about it. There are showers here. I get in early. A shower feels great after days of washing with a scoop. Feeling clean again feels wonderful, if only for a short while. The pig is being roasted over an open fire and it will be three hours before it is ready. Someone has to turn the spit constantly. The fire must be tended and the pig must be kept moving. The crew rotate between people. Some of the passengers give it a go as well. It is not a fun job.
The camp is set up at one end of a village. A village with a store, a bar, and, to my disgust, a karaoke machine. For those that don’t know, I don’t like karaoke. I am a firm believer that most people cannot sing. I am also a firm believer that there is little worse in this world than giving someone who cannot sing a microphone connected to a set of speakers.
We gather around a table and settle in for a couple of hours awaiting our recently deceased companion to finish roasting. Irish Snap, followed by Spoons, played with bottle caps. Jungle Juice is flowing again and people are laughing. It is our last night together and people are enjoying themselves.
We discover Tim and Sarah have turned up again, looking somewhat exhausted. Thankfully they tell us Geert is OK. From what they say, they have had quite an adventure themselves, getting to the hospital and trying to get back. Tales of crazy tricycle rides, no money and towns with no food to buy. Boats with no petrol and drivers who want to take the long way around the islands. Everyone is smiling at having them back again.
I wander over to the boat, taking advantage of the fact is it moored at a pier. We chat with the crew and share some snacks we have hidden in our packs. We learn that Jojo has been with Tao for around 20 months. He apologises for his English, though his English is better than my Tagalog by thousands of words.
We wander back from the boat and, as we get close to our hut, we are swarmed by flying ants. Dozens of them. I know they are favouring me, because everyone else manages to calmly tell me to stop being silly so I make a dash for the hut and the insect repellant, smearing deet over myself before putting on some long pants. It helps a little. You can see in the lamplight there are hundreds of ants buzzing around. They relent eventually, heading in search of something else to annoy. I am a little annoyed that I haven’t managed to significantly dent their numbers with my wild waving and slapping.
We join in on another round of cards before the last surprise for the evening. Geert and Iris have reappeared. Geert is looking a lot better than he was, which isn’t hard given he looked terrible the last time we saw him. Sorry, mate, but you did. Having had some fluid pumped into him, he is back on his feet, though weak and a bit hungry. It is really good to have them back. They too have some amazing stories of trying to return. This one involves taking the crazy mountain road in a tricycle that Sarah and Tim had been cautioned against. They are all smiles now and we are all together again.
Soon the pig is ready and the crew carry it over to the table and start carving it up. Roasted over the fire for several hours, it is bundle of delicious crackling and succulent pork. We set to eating as much of it as we can.
After dinner, everyone started heading off towards the bar in the small village. I agreed to come along and have a listen for a while, however although my fellow passengers had much better voices than many I’ve heard, the suddenly screeching of the microphone soon drove a few of us away. Others lasted for a while longer than I did. We wandered back through the small Tao camp, the warm tropical air stirred by a nice breeze. A rooster crowed in the village. I groaned. We went to bed and fell asleep to the dulcet tones of Kirill crooning Killing Me Softly into the night.
After the effort put into cooking the pig the previous evening, our group had told the crew to take their time in the morning. As such, we have a bit of a late start. Coffee comes over on a kayak along with mango and pineapple. People chat quietly amongst themselves or swing slowly on hammocks. Breakfast will be on the boat this morning. Freshly cut Buko, with fruit salad. Sarah eats the last of the honey. I know you will read this. I know it was you.
We have a long trip to our first stop and we spend it reading books and chatting on the fly deck. People are napping in the cool breeze as the boat skims over the water. It is another day of almost flat water. Our entire trip, the water has been calm. Even over the straits, there has been little in the way of waves.
I stare out over the water, watching flying fish soaring away, inches above the water on long fins before disappearing beneath the surface again. I spot a sea turtle several metres under the water as we pass over it, a glimpse before it vanishes in our wake.
Luson Coral Garden and the Wreck
We arrive at Lusong. After all the excellent snorkelling we have seen so far, Joy tells us this place is the best, so we are expecting great things. We are not disappointed. Visibility is amazing and the reef is fantastic. We drift around entranced by what we can see. There is abundant life here. All the fish we have seen before and more. Fish shoaling around the coral, racing past us as we swim through them. Larger fish dart away, eying us warily. We watch on for a long time, paddling back and forth. We nearly have to be dragged out of the water.
The next stop should be an interesting one. It is the wreckage of a japanese gunboat from World War II. The Lusong wreck lies between 0 and 13 meters of water. Though it is only small, the wreck is really cool to see. Coral has started to cover the wreck and it is surrounded by sea life. Of course, it is a popular attraction and quite close to Coron. We arrived before too many other groups and were able to snorkel over it, sharing only with several divers. However before too long, several boats unloaded tour groups of people and you couldn’t go very far without being kicked in the head by some idiot in a lifejacket being towed around by a member of their crew.
It was a truly fascinating sight, seeing this piece of history lying at the bottom of the sea. I try to imagine the people who crewed the boat; Japanese soldiers. The enemy, pushing the threat of an invasion down into the South Pacific. Now a tourist attraction, a ghostly haunting reminder of at the bottom of the sea.
A short boat ride this time, skirting around Coron town to Siete Pecados. The Seven Sins. Another stunning series of reefs. Schools of fish twist and turn in unison. A lionfish hides in a small crevice in the coral, a few metres down. The drop off fades to dark as the light fails to penetrate. We do a few circuits of an island and then head back. This is our last snorkel on the Tao Experience and our last stop before we head back.
We can tell it is coming to a close. This is our last day and we know tonight we will be heading our separate ways. The music starts to play. Other boats look over at us. All the girls on the Aurora stand on the outrigger and dance, or at least try to without falling in the water. They’re having a great time. The crew dance back. I look around and can see everyone smiling and enjoying these last few moments.
After all the places we have stopped over the last five days and all the things we have seen, I find it difficult to say, yet again, that this was beautiful, or amazing, or stunning. When does it stop being any of these things? How many times can you use these terms before they become meaningless? Any of the places we visited would be an experience by themselves, yet we have had our fill during this expedition. Our four nights and five days have been filled completely. There hasn’t been a time when I wanted to be somewhere else, wanted to be doing something else, or needed anything else. It is a memorable trip and I would recommend it to a lot of people who wanted to see this part of the world.
The boat pulls into Coron and people slowly gather their belongings. We gather around for some last minute photos. Thanks, hugs and handshakes are shared with the crew, but they do not seem to be enough. Nor do the tips we pile into the Laphroaig container being passed around. They have been phenomenal hosts who have shared a part of the Philippines we would never have seen without them.
We make our way up the gangplank to the pier where the crew have placed our bags. Last minute handshakes and hugs; promises to keep in touch and to see each other again. With some sadness at the end, we head off towards the next part of our adventure…step one: find somewhere to bloody sleep tonight.