… Say the marketing slogans. They are not wrong!
Rewind to November last year, and we watched in horror as the atrocities of Typhoon Yolanda swept through, taking with it the livelihoods of thousands of Filipinos and the lives of well over 6000 people. Several people asked us if we were still going ahead with our plans to visit, but there was no stopping us. The devastation of such natural disasters continues long after the event itself and without tourists how could they afford to rebuild? There was never any question; wild horses would not stop us going.
Now firstly I should say that the Philippines were originally my baby. Having been on a few cruises (very different to backpacking I know!) with my parents I had over the years come across many many Filipino ship staff, and for a long time I have wanted to visit the country. Not only because I had heard how beautiful it was, but just so I could look them in the eyes and say I had been to their beautiful country. From the early stages of our planning, the Philippines was to be the ideal destination to end our travels and to be our second honeymoon (two weddings, two honeymoons sound fair don’t you think?!).
So we set off, and landed in Cebu, with little planned out and in need of some R&R. We initially spent a couple of nights at Kon Tiki divers (!) on Mactan Island, which enabled us to dust off the regulators and get ourselves wet with our first diving. These early dives were to be the first of about 16 dives that followed over the next two weeks and we loved every second of them!
We had heard about the huge shoals of sardines that swam off the coast of Cebu in Moalboal, so after our initial dives we headed over to the other side of Cebu Island. We found a lovely dive resort called Quo Vadis and felt very at home. Whilst there was little beach area the sunsets were incredible and we found ourselves easily settling into the diving, snoozing, rum at sunset drinking routine! We liked it so much that Dean decided it was time to up his skills and attempt to catch me up! He signed on to do his ‘Advanced Open Water’ PADI course. Even though I am a ‘Rescue Diver’ level, it really meant there was not too much between us in terms of the depths we could go to. He also decided to qualify in diving with Nitrox (Oxygen enriched air) so we could use that together. I won’t go into the benefits of using it, but its good stuff! So for me these few days were very relaxing, but for Dean they involved a lot more study!
The diving here was instantly great. Even the house reef out of the front of the resort was like jumping into my Father’s fish tank and every dive was a joy. The sardines well and truly came out to play and at one point I could barely see up, down, left or right as I found myself in the middle of them. Quite spectacular. We saw plenty of special things. Turtles galore, but my favourite was a tiny blue ringed octopus that I managed to spot on a night dive. Quite a sight and pure fluke on my part!
All too soon it was time to move on and we headed over to Donsol a sleepy fishing village on another Island. It was a bit hair raising getting there. With the knock-on effect of a typhoon approaching (fortunately not one as bad as Yolanda) the rain was out to play and it took us three attempts for the pilot to land the plane. I’ll not lie – I was getting a bit scared by the end when we kept doing the emergency ascent!
Things in Donsol didn’t quite go to plan. The weather meant it was too rough to get out to the dive site we had hoped to dive. However we managed to have a fun few days as we went out to spot Whale sharks. This was a fun experience as we were with a couple of really cool people from our hotel. We sat around on the boat convinced that we wouldn’t see anything when all of a sudden we got the call to ‘prepare’. This involved sitting on the side of Bangka (‘catamaran’) and throwing ourselves into the water when the Whale Shark was near. The ones were saw were up to 8m in size, and were truly spectacular. We had seen them once before in Mozambique but these gentle giants are always special and it’s a true privilege to snorkel with them. There is also more of a theme park style experienced with these gentle giants somewhere else in the Philippines where they bait them. We do not agree with this at all and we were so pleased we had waited to see them in Donsol in their natural habit. Very special.
We also managed to get out to a local waterfall. The journey there was very eventful, as we had to abandon our tricycle, and walk some of the way through local villages. It was really interesting to see the simple way of life that exists within the village communities. By the time we got to the waterfall we really had earned our swim! To avoid some of the walk back we took a local Bangka (boat) back to our abandoned tricycle. The only problem was the tricycle was so caked in mud it took some convincing to get going! In the Philippines ‘road rehabilitation’ (road works) don’t mean don’t drive on the road. It simply means the going is a bit tough! Today was a fine example of that as the road was being built and with all the flooding was one big mud bath. I gave up with my shoes in the end and simply walked through the ‘road’ bare foot. I felt so sorry for the driver. My muddy feet were nothing compared to the amount of mud he was wearing! With lots of coaxing, eventually the trike made it and we were on our way! With the added adventure thrown in this had been a great day.
The lack of diving ending up being good as it forced us to do something different. We then took a bus back into Legazpi and went out on ATV (quad) bikes to see the Mt Mayon active volcano. We rode our bikes up and you could see the lava flows from the last major eruption less than ten years ago. Whilst we saw some of the volcano unfortunately we were not so lucky to see the top of it on the day we were there. Like a lot of days it was hidden rather mystically in cloud, but we still had an amazing time. We returned in time to do a rather unusual activity – fire fly watching! We boarded a boat and headed out to see these fascinating flies. As part of their mating rituals their bums light up into what can only be described as a spectacular display. They were gathered in trees along the banks of the river and they just looked like a fibre-optic Christmas trees. We were surprised at how much we loved them! When one landed up my arm I was enthralled with it. They were amazing!
Now for the last part of our trip we had planned to slowly make our way back up to Manila, but that was before we heard about the majestic Thresher Sharks. This species of sharks tend to be deep dwellers, in waters up to 500m. We had heard that divers could see them in the waters off the Island of Malapascua. This was the only place in the World where they come shallow enough to dive with them. A simple google search revealed an image that we wanted to see. That was it. We changed our plans and set off on a mammoth travel day full of cancelled flights, missed flights, delayed planes, stressful encounters…. But it was all worth it. 14 hours later we arrived on our small part of paradise. Malapascua Island, one of nature’s hidden secrets.
Now it’s worth saying that whilst the waters were not the clearest, we saw some of the most interesting creatures of my whole diving career. Evolution dive centre had been recommended to us, and their dive guides Alex and Gino were simply outstanding. These local dive guides not only had a responsible head on their shoulders but they had incredible eyes. They spotted things from the tiniest Orang Utan crab (which in reality looked a bit like algae!) to bamboo sharks, wacky frog fish and exotic Nudi Branches.
The variety of fish and were simply amazing, but the highlight definitely were the Thresher Sharks. We dived to ‘their’ dive site twice, and were not disappointed both days. For me the most special moment was when I was watching an Eagle Ray get a bit flustered, all of a sudden I looked up and saw a big Thresher lazily swimming past! They grow up to about 3m in size and have this most incredible tail fin. Their big eyes are a real feature of the species and they look almost surprised to see you! I have said it before, but I will say it again. This was a sight that we felt very honoured to experience and was just a fantastic end.
All too soon our diving adventure was over and we were preparing to pack all of our belongings. Whilst we didn’t want to come home, it was getting a little tiring carrying too much stuff (we still had all our cold weather -25 degree gear as well as a newly acquired wooden shark names ‘Clark’!).
As we boarded our 14 hour flight from Manila reality hit. We were heading back to where it all began and it was very sad. The journey had been an immense one, where we felt like we had achieved so much. Not only that but we have had a lot of fun, have lots of memories and lots of stories to tell. One thing was for sure though. This was not a goodbye for the Philippines, simply a ‘see you later – we’ll be back’. Next time diving the wrecks in Palawan awaits…..