The rainy season in the Philippines isn’t always the best time of year to travel. The worst of the weather lasts from May to November and apart from the obvious risk of a dousing the islands are also subject to typhoons with winds of up to 185 Km/p/h. Nevertheless, you can be lucky and manage a few weeks with the usual blue skies to take advantage of the golden sands and warm seas around one of the thousands of tropical islands that make up this beautiful archipelago.
When a friend suggested taking over a small island resort for a weekend in June in order to celebrate his birthday, some 40 people, friends, colleagues, wives and children, all eagerly signed up for the venture. We knew of course that this country is subject to every kind of natural disaster imaginable from typhoon to tidal waves, the whole of Manila has even suffered total power failure when a swarm of jelly fish completely clogged a power station, but somehow the anticipation of a fun packed weekend, pushed all caution to the back of our minds.
The weather wasn’t looking great that week as we geared up for the trip, and by Thursday morning, it was decided that we should postpone the visit until the forecast improved. But one enthusiastic member of the party had gone on ahead and by Friday the trip was back on, lured by first-hand reports of fine weather and calm seas. What our friend neglected to report was that our boats were loaded with food supplies, if we didn’t turn up, he and his family would be left with nothing to eat!
We left in convoy before the crack of dawn for the two-hour drive to the coast; here we transferred to three large banca’s, the outrigger boats that typify the Philippine seas. Seated on their slatted wooden benches and watched by the bemused crew, we scrambled for the orange nylon buoyancy vests, a group of safety conscious expats and a puzzle to the locals who generally leave these items securely tied up and tucked well out of the way. I was traveling that day with my husband and five children aged between 14 and 2 years, and our hope was to get some good scuba diving done over the course of the weekend together with our two older boys, both recently qualified divers.
Out of the shelter of the bay, the sea grew choppy with large waves, slowing down our progress as our skilled skipper negotiated each and every one of them with care. The journey, which usually takes only 45 minutes, took us over an hour, an hour spent clutching my two-year-old daughter with white knuckles, wondering how many children I could keep afloat if the boat went over, and how anyone would be able to rescue us in such high seas. It is not unusual to be splashed by seawater during such crossings, but needless to say, we all arrived drenched. But arrive we did, all safe and sound, a little shaken perhaps, but for a party of friends, a little adventure just adds to life’s zest!
It took a little time to disembark at the resorts pier, the waves making it difficult to tie up the boat, but with the help of the fearless boatmen, we landed and were able to pick our way along the wooden walkway which had obviously suffered some storm damage, though perhaps the accumulation of several years rather than these few days. Planks were lifting and falling as waves hit them from below, and some were missing altogether. Beams only inches wide had to be negotiated, and in several places the wood looked decidedly rotten.
Welcome drinks were awaiting us in the bar, a sweet pink concoction of fruit juices known as ‘four seasons’ and tasting of nothing more than sugar. We set aside our dive kit, and were shown to our ‘cottage’, a traditional ‘Nipa hut’ named after the type of palm fronds used to thatch the roof and weave the walls. It’s not exactly five-star luxury, but the design has been perfected over hundreds of years to produce buildings that harmonize beautifully with the tropical environment. Improving on one or two aspects where nature left off, were an air conditioning unit, and a private bathroom.
Keen to explore the underwater world we split up into groups ready for our first dive. There is at least one beautiful dive site on this island, an almost vertical drop off, plunging down beyond 40 m and easing off into a beautiful coral garden at about 10m to finish. As it turned out, this was the only site we could access for the whole weekend as the weather prevented us reaching any of the other sites. This was fine; we had a plethora of underwater photographers present, and the variety of brilliantly colored fish and coral life made for more than happy divers.
We ordered an a la carte lunch, did another dive, and prepared for the evenings birthday celebration dinner, a specially laid on barbeque, and we were looking forward to cracking open a few bottles of bubbly for the occasion. As we showered and changed for the party strange things began to happen, perhaps it was the storm, but Mother Nature was behaving most peculiarly.
It started with the appearance of giant flying ants. By the time we reached the restaurant area they were swarming around the light bulbs like a miniature battle of Britain. Look at the fairies! We told the children as they shrieked in disgust. By the time the meal was over, the ants were shedding their wings onto our heads. By bedtime, our bathroom was full of brown wings and ant corpses.
Retiring to bed replete with fresh barbequed fish and a glass or two under our belts, we resigned ourselves to our ‘back to nature’ weekend and settled down for the night.
Some hours later, in the middle of some vivid dreams, we were woken with a shock. I mean a real shock – an earthquake. While these are fairly common in the Philippines, to awake in such a manner in the middle of a storm, in a native hut on a remote island made several of us understandably edgy. There were a couple of rumbles, but no apparent damage so it seemed safe to return to sleep. Next morning we laughed it off. Did the earth move for you last night? Was the question on everyone’s lips.
We had breakfasted; dived and prepared for lunch when the first rumor that all was not well began to circulate. The resort manager told us that there had been an accident at sea the previous day, a banca carrying some tourists had capsized in the heavy seas, and lives had been lost. The Philippine coastguard had therefore cancelled all further crossings until the weather had improved. What could we do? Due to return to Manila that afternoon, and with the men of the party expected back at work the next morning we were stranded.
Lunch was a somber affair. The children demanded French fries and tomato ketchup, but the kitchen was running low on supplies, portions became increasingly smaller until eventually there were none left. Being on the main part Brits, we made the best of things, unpacked our dive kit once again, and set off for the now well-explored site of San Agapito. Plans were hatched to evacuate the party by helicopter, ocean going vessels and any other imaginable option, but it was not to be. We were well and truly marooned, and would be staying a second night whether we liked it or not.
The children had consumed every French fry on the island, along with every Pringle, crisp, cashew nut and snack available. That evening we dined on rice and corned beef.
After an uneventful night, we breakfasted next morning on more rice and corned beef and were fearful that lunch might produce the same menu yet again. Apart from this, things were not too bad. The improving weather was warm and the breeze very welcome, while the crashing of waves on the shore was remarkably soothing to those escaping city life for the weekend. Those who were not diving took advantage of the sun loungers overlooking the ‘infinity’ pool, which appeared to merge with the sea beyond. The children splashed in the pool and played on the beach oblivious to our predicament.
Our cell phones were proving their worth on Monday as we communicated with the mainland. It had been arranged that we would be evacuated that morning on a large seaworthy vessel used as a live-aboard dive boat by one of the major Scuba companies in Manila, and by nine o’clock we heard that they were about to set sail. Once again, our luggage was packed and lined up along the rickety pier, which, as we stood discussing events finally gave way beneath one of our company who sank to his knee through the rotten board. By lunchtime there was no sign of our rescuers and the tale was of uncompleted paperwork, the coast guard was still preventing sailing. When eventually we heard that they had set sail and were on their way, we all heaved great sighs of relief, but as the afternoon wore on, and the entire party learned the rules of Mah Jong, our concerns grew. Four hours for a 45-minute trip and there was still no sign of our boat.
To cut a long story short, our rescuers arrived at four o’clock with tales of having to motor slowly out of the harbor in the absence of any official paperwork. By the time our luggage had been loaded and life jackets distributed it was almost dusk, and hysteria was rising. Having just witnessed a shameless act of lawbreaking, my confidence in even this vessel was reduced to almost nothing. The captain himself and the head of the dive company both came ashore to convince me of the boats safety record. I am a confident swimmer and an experienced scuba diver, but how could I support five children in choppy seas at night should anything happen to us? Time was pressing and I knew that if I stayed behind, it could very well be for the rest of the week until the weather cleared and banca’s allowed to sail once again. In floods of tears I climbed into the pitching tender and watched horrified as my baby daughter was lowered from the pier, dangling in mid air until a wave brought us to a level where she could be handed over to me. We were the last to leave the island, and once on board one of the few to be allocated a cabin for the crossing. An hour or so later and we reached dry land, climbing down gangplanks by the light of torches and getting our feet wet in the process.
Our little adventure certainly demonstrated the power of natural world. We had witnessed a typhoon, earthquake, plague of flying ants, were marooned and almost ran out of food all in the space of a few days, but if you want to see anything of this beautiful country of over seven thousand islands, it is almost impossible to avoid going by sea. There is nothing to beat watching the white outriggers plowing through glassy green water while cotton wool clouds dot the bluest of skies above, but just in case, I now keep a much closer eye on the weather, and life jackets, as ever, are an essential part of any trip. It was a truly exciting weekend and a tale, which will regale the dinner parties of folks back home for many years to come. An interesting coda to this tale is that our rescue boat has since sunk, and in case you’re interested, I haven’t eaten corned beef since.