A Week on the Water: 7 Days Kayaking in Busuanga, Philippines
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As an expat in China, Chinese New Year means vacation time, and if you’re smart, it means a time to explore world beyond China’s boundaries. Why? Because your only other two options are to sit at home finding various ways to entertain yourself while all the restaurants and shops are closed (although it is just about the only time you will have quiet streets and a peaceful atmosphere, so there’s a plus) or travel among the absolute chaos that happens when a billion people migrate back to their home towns for the holiday…hmm decisions, decisions. I don’t know about you but we opted to leave China behind, and our chosen destination, the Philippines for a week of kayaking.
Our trip took us to Busuanga, an island making up part of the Calamianes chain, and a 45 minute plane ride from Manila, the country’s capital. Unfortunately, as with most of the Philippine islands, there are no direct international flights to Busuanga, and only one direct flight per day from Manila leaving first thing in the morning. This meant that we had to stay the night in Manila upon arrival as our flight came in on Saturday night and the plane to Busuanga didn’t leave until the following morning. Talk about the scariest walk of my life. Seriously, never walk around Manila at night if you can help it, actually just never walk around Manila period if you can help it. Our hostel was only a 10-20 minute walk from the airport, but it felt like hours. I can only describe it as feeling incredibly exposed and vulnerable. People were staring at us, child beggars ran up shoving their little hands in our faces wanting money, people were shouting at us “Hey Bro!” and being about ten different kinds of creepy, lets just say it definitely got my spidey sense tingling. I’ve never wanted so badly in my life to be invisible. We finally reached the hostel, checked in, and settled down to what was one of the hottest and most uncomfortable nights of our lives.
Not the best start to our trip, but luckily we were up before dawn the next morning to catch a plane out of this oh so lovely city, and by 8 am we had landed in paradise. The island of Busuanga consists of jungle, beach and a couple small towns. Most of the island is uninhabited countryside, and it is absolutely stunning. So wild with this untouched natural beauty that in this day and age of constant human intervention is so increasingly rare.
Vans picked us up from the airport for the very wet 26km drive to Coron. Driving down the road we noticed most people wearing very bewildered expressions on their faces, looking up at the sky and around at the weather in a state of confusion. I don’t think it ever really rains in the Philippines during the dry season, and it seemed to really be freaking people out. The unfortunate side of the rain for us was that as a result people were very reluctant to rent us a kayak, claiming that it was too dangerous to go out on the water today. By the afternoon the rain had let up, and after walking up and down the streets of Coron stopping into every tour company’s shop we could find, we finally found one willing to rent us a kayak for our week long self guided island hopping adventure.
It seemed to be pretty rare for people to come asking to rent a kayak, especially for more than a day, as everyone reacted with surprise at our request and the guys we eventually rented from had to dig us out a kayak from the back of their shed and then rummage around for half an hour to find usable paddles. We ended up with a triple kayak (2 seats for us and 1 seat for storage) and two semi-decent paddles, and then took off to buy a week’s worth of food and fill up on water before taking to the ocean.
At around 2:00 we were in the water and paddling across the bay to Coron Island to find our first camping spot. Most of the islands around Busuanga are uninhabited, as such the beaches are small and naturally formed, which means they are steep, and when the tide comes in at night, they all but disappear. We decided to go with hammocks instead of a tent for this trip for multiple reasons: they are cool, light, small, more comfortable etc., but after experiencing the beaches, or lack thereof, on the deserted islands, it is something we would definitely recommend if you have an interest in doing any type of camping adventure in this environment. We were certainly glad to be hanging from the trees, especially during one night when the tide came in and brought the ocean directly underneath of us!
After setting up the hammocks it was time to get cooking, which revealed our first obstacle: the fuel canister we bought didn’t have the right hook up to connect to our stove. Uh Oh. That was 80 pesos down the drain, on to plan B: rubbing alcohol in Justin’s homemade camping stove. Needless to say, between the alcohol not burning very hot, and a lack of oxygen underneath the pot, the fire kept going out, leaving us to continually check whether there was still a flame, and relight it time and time again. This got old, real quick. Time for plan C, make a fire. We gathered wood and any sort of dried leaves we could find to get it going, then I waited and let the master do his work. 10 minutes later I was still waiting, and then waiting some more (as it had rained all morning nothing was dry enough to catch fire), and then finally, after many short lived puffs of smoke, and lots of choice words from the husband, we finally had a fire. Yay for food time!
If I could give out one tip about what not to bring for food on a camping trip, it would be rice, never bring rice, holy cow, what were we thinking. It’s not like this was our first rodeo. If you’ve never tried to cook rice while camping, here’s why you should never try: first, it takes FOREVER to cook, and second, you will never get it to the right consistency, don’t ask me why but some of it will always remain crunchy and underdone. Stick to pasta, or if you must do rice, one of those super fast cooking rice-a-ronie (did I spell that right?)/ minute rice, for reals, white rice is bad news bears for camping. Oh well, live and learn.
Next, it was off to bed in our hammocks, which I was super excited about. That is until I realized I had never actually slept in a hammock before and that it seemed like a much better idea in theory, than in reality. Before we went to sleep Justin informed me of the secret to sleeping in a hammock, you have to sleep on a diagonal, that way the hammock is flatter and less banana shaped. Ok, I thought, no probs. Ha! Right, I don’t think I got more than half an hour of sleep at a time that night as every time I tried to roll over or move in the slightest, I woke up. Seriously am I missing something? Justin slept great, I, on the other hand, discovered that sleeping is a actually a skill, and one that I apparently fail at when it comes to hammocks (the experience didn’t show much improvement as the trip wore on by the way). Oh well, we are on our own private beach in paradise, I can sleep in a week.
The next morning we were up with the sun, made breakfast, packed our stuff back onto the kayak, and took to the water. The sun was out and here to stay and we basked in its warmth as we paddled down the coast of Coron island. Man the sun felt nice, a little too nice as it turned out…a couple hours in shorts and a t-shirt and we were burnt to a crisp. And we thought the sun was strong in Zhuhai! The sun is not your friend in the Philippines let me tell you. We soon discovered it was actually cooler to wear long sleeves and long pants (who would’ve thought) and thus spent the rest of our trip covering up as much skin as possible.
Out on the water we paddled over countless coral reefs, the crystal clear water giving us an amazing view of the teaming world of life beneath our boat. It wasn’t long before the beauty beneath our boat enticed us to dive into the water with our snorkels. We paddled over to the buoys by the reef, tied off the boat, and soothed our sunburnt skin in the cool water. The snorkeling here is like nothing else I have ever experienced. The coral is bright and alive, with such a variety of colorful fish swimming about. The ocean is truly a magical place when you see it like this.
After an exhausting second day on the water (kayaking is definitely an adjustment for your body if you’re not used to it) we found another private beach to camp on near the tip of Coron Island. With much quicker success, we made a fire (things had dried out after the rain), cooked dinner, and spent the night stargazing on the beach before falling asleep in our hammocks.
As the week wore on, our bodies go used to paddling all day and we paddled around 3 different islands, snorkeling over numerous coral reefs as we did so. Every day was a combination of paddling, floating, snorkeling, and marveling at this amazing island paradise around us, while each night consisted of finding a place to camp, making a fire to cook dinner, and stargazing before bed (living in a city in China we haven’t seen the stars in a very long time). It was blissful there for a while, and then the wind came, and life got a little, well, rough.
I felt like mother nature flipped a switch and said, “you don’t really want to go back to Coron Town do you?”. Unfortunately, we had a flight to catch, so we had to make it back there somehow. We spent two days battling against the amazingly fierce wind and fighting the choppy water which was creating waves almost a meter tall. Our new schedule became start paddling early in the morning, stop before noon and wait out the afternoon wind, then continue on after an early dinner until dark before finding a place to camp. Paddling became one of the best and scariest workouts of my life, trying to fight against the incredible force of Mother Nature. Eventually, on the last day, after both of our very sketchy to begin with paddles broke, she won out when about 100 meters from shore when we were left with no steering a wave hit us just right flipping our kayak. At this point with two broken paddles, huge waves, and the current pulling us away from where we wanted to go, it was clear we were not going to make it back to the correct spot on the shore without some help.
Luckily, the Filipinos in Bususanga are extremely kind generous people, and were happy to tow us and our kayak the short ride back to town. Well, short in distance that is. It felt like the longest kayak of the entire trip as I was constantly getting pelted in the face with ocean spray as the boat pulled me to shore against the waves. As awesome as the trip was, after that experience I was certainly glad to be done with the kayak. All that was next was to gorge ourselves on our first real meal in a week before catching our flight home. Until next time Philippines!
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