ISLANDS IN TIME
We climb a steep hillside through the jungle until we reach a
large, stone wall enmeshed in tangled vines and trees roots. Although I
have been to northern Palawan many times, I have never before seen the
old lost fortress of Linapacan Island. In fact, because of the
remoteness of these slips of land – Linapacan is one of over 1,700
islands that make up Palawan, the Philippine’s far western province –
few people have seen the fortress. Finally arriving at the fortress,
some four days after I departed Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, I
feel like I’m the first outsider to fall under its charms.
The interior of the fort, a relic of Palawan’s days as a Spanish
stronghold in the 18th century, is grown over with trees and carpeted
with fallen leaves. It seems that we are in a forgotten world as we rest
in the shade, looking out on a dazzling sea. Out boat, Tao Diwa, awaits us below and we soon set sail again among the myriad islands that are scattered into the distance.
We are travelling with Tao Philippines, an expedition-style travel
company founded in 2005 by Filipino Eddie Brock and his British partner
Jack Foottit, which is opening up this almost untouched part of the
world to visitors. But these trips are not for everyone. “You must be
open to genuine adventure,” says Foottit. “We provide the boats, crew,
equipment and knowledge of the islands but the other 50 percent comes
from you – your interest, enthusiasm and adventurous spirit.”
Brock grew up in the Philippines’ mountainous Cordillera region but left
for the UK when he was a teenager. He stayed there for a decade but
would regularly return with friends to explore far-flung corners of his
native country. Having exhausted almost all known tourist routes, he
found he needed his own boat to access more isolated islands. He asked
Foottit, who was then a 21-year-old architecture student in Edinburgh,
to help design and build a Filipino banca and soon after the two friends mapped out the business model for what would become Tao Philippines.
old Spanish fortress on Linapacan Island. Photo: Katherine Jack
The starting point of our journey is the town of El Nido (“the
nest” in Spanish), overlooking the surreal limestone islets that dot
Bacuit Bay. Towering marble cliffs, hidden lagoons, white beaches and
lush rainforest are all attractions, but the area is probably best known
for its edible birds’ nests, gathered by locals from caves in rugged
mountain outcrops. We stay at Talikwas House, a lodging and yoga retreat
perched high above the ocean, away from the jumble of backpacker
lodgings in town.
By chance our visit coincides with the annual El Nido arts festival and
we catch a concert by Lolita Carbon of the legendary Filipino folk-rock
Her music, much of which draws inspiration from indigenous
and environmental issues, is apt in this landscape of ancient karst
formations, home to some of the oldest conservation laws in the
Philippines. In as early as 1935 the first small forest reserve was
declared in El Nido and by 1991, a 95,000-hectare marine reserve had
been established to protect the area’s colourful coral reefs and aquatic
life, including dugongs, whale sharks and three species of sea turtles.
Our journey aboard the Tao Diwa begins early the next morning.
With such a natural wealth of islands, beaches and reefs to explore
throughout the Bacuit Archipelago, as well as across the Linapacan
Strait and north into the Calamianes, we do not plan a set route or
“We have the basics – food, water and essentials for the sea
and sleeping on the islands – but the real essence of our expedition is
simplicity in its natural, organic form,” says Brock. “We leave after
breakfast on the first day, and arrive before nightfall on the last.
What happens in between is up to you.”
Without a schedule to adhere to, we decide to stop just an hour after
pushing off. Cadlao Island, a protrusion of forest-clad mountains
fringed by powdery beaches, also happens to be home to Tao’s rustic
headquarters. We laze in hammocks, swim and meet Amit Elan, a
21-year-old Israeli artist, painting in his temporary jungle studio.
feast on a lunch of fresh Spanish mackerel, mud crabs and squash in
coconut milk, the first of many delicious picnics prepared by our
In the afternoon we set sail again, bound for our overnight destination –
a speck of an island called Daracouton, off the northernmost tip of
mainland Palawan. Along the way we glimpse lone fishermen in small
paddleboats bobbing on the waves, their faces deeply tanned from many
hours spent at sea. Our crew, who are all Palawan natives, know some of
the fishermen and buy from one a freshly caught snapper.
Though the weather is fine, a strong wind slows our progress, so it’s
dark by the time we approach Daracouton. The horizon is lit by boats
harvesting squid, a crescent moon is up and Tao Diwa is
trailing a stream of sparkling bioluminescence.
On shore, villagers are
waiting with lanterns to guide us up the beach to a simple cabana that
has been prepared with crisp white bed linens and mosquito nets. After
bathing outside in a large basin next to the communal water pump, we sit
down to dinner – our snapper, grilled over hot coals – under an inky
sky speckled with stars.
I’m woken the next morning by a chorus of cicadas and the smell of
freshly brewed Benguet coffee. We decide to explore the island on foot
in the cool of the morning and set off down a gently curving beach
broken by a muddle of fishing boats and huge boulders over which we
Our companions are a couple of friendly island dogs chasing
monitor lizards through the shrubbery. As we walk, Brock talks about his
childhood. “I grew up in a very traditional Igorot family, the proudest
culture in the Philippines,” he says. “This gave me a sense of the
importance of the island cultures when I came to Palawan.
The sun is high by the time we return to the village. Men and women are
sorting through their seaweed harvest while children play on the beach.
Watching this idyllic scene, it’s easy to appreciate the simple beauty
of rural Filipino life. But there is a flipside: the people here have
low incomes and scant access to education and healthcare. Brock is
mindful that to keep Tao’s visits sustainable the company must give back
something meaningful to the community.
“Tourism should work both ways –
benefiting the traveller and the host alike,” he says. His company
employs 250 local staff and buys almost all of its expedition supplies –
food, drinks and boat equipment – from the islanders. Included in the
price of each expedition is a donation to social welfare projects that
largely focus on children, providing day-care centres, teachers, school
supplies and supplementary food.
We leave Daracouton and continue our journey across the Linapacan Strait
and into the Calamianes. It is extremely difficult to access these
islands unless you have your own boat and the only outsiders that we see
are a handful of foreigners travelling on a small ferry from El Nido to
Coron. Although we are essentially on the same route – our expedition
will end in the same port – the direct trip will take them around seven
hours, while our meandering journey lasts for five blissful days.
We stop whenever we feel the urge to explore an empty beach or snorkel
over a colourful coral reef. Palawan lies within the Coral Triangle – an
area demarcated by scientists across Indonesia, the Philippines,
Malaysia and other Pacific countries as being home to the highest marine
biodiversity on the planet – and the waters around El Nido alone are
home to nearly 200 fish species. Underwater, we encounter channels with
vibrant reefs fed by strong currents, giant clams with glistening
mantles and corals covered in multi-coloured Christmas tree worms that
hide and reappear as we pass. We see boldly patterned lionfish and, on
the beaches, find strange rock formations, puzzle fruits and turtle
Our final stop, Coron Island, is a huge limestone outcrop home to
indigenous Tagbanua people. The isle is off-limits to visitors save for
two sacred lakes –Kayangan and Barracuda. Kayangan is renowned as the
cleanest lake in the country and the caves on its steep cliffs are home
to edible-nest swiftlets. Nearby is Barracuda Lake, known by divers for
its shimmering thermoclines, caused by geothermal activity beneath the
island, which separate cooler levels on the surface from 37°C water
It’s easy to fall into rhythm with this life of spontaneity on the water
– over the hours that we drift between islands and reefs, I can’t help
but disconnect from the modern world.
Days of jungle walks, village
living, exploring ruins and swimming eventually roll into each other and
come to an end, all too soon. Upon arriving in Coron town, I find
myself reluctant to leave the sun-kissed deck of the Tao Diwa behind, the only comfort being that I know I will be back here – and staying for longer – before too long.