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Nomad Palawan: Adventure Tour Part II

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Nomad Palawan: Adventure Tour Part II

The 2nd installment of our epic adventure through Palawan, Philippine


 

The sun drew high and hot before it brought us out of our slumber, and our tents had a coating of dew on its inner walls. I wiped the sand from my eyes with a sandy arm, as I zipped my tent open to take in the scene that we did not get a chance to really have a deep look at, since the light was fading by the time we had arrived. Breakfast was served as we shook the sand from our tent, and everyone was shaking off their respective hangovers by our table.

The air had a buzz of energy to it, as if our wounds and bruises from yesterday’s misadventures didn’t exist. We had packed up quicker than the day before as we were getting into the nomadic lifestyle. We said goodbye to our new canine friends who found solace in the warmth and light of our campfire, and we proceeded to warm our bikes up in anticipation of today’s road. After a quick briefing by Ramon, we were on our way.

 
Kevin wide awake after a morning swim on day 3

Kevin wide awake after a morning swim on day 3

Made some more canine friends!

Made some more canine friends!

Ramon, Nomad Palawan's founder and prime adventurer

Ramon, Nomad Palawan's founder and prime adventurer

 

The day before, we had actually gone up the trail a few solid kilometres before we reconvened, and decided that it would be a good idea to turn back, much to our dismay. After the confidence that familiarity brings, it was not before long that it turned into unexplored territory. As reflected by our 15 years of collective experience riding bikes, we stuck together and increased our pace as a group.

The road became worse before it became better - shortly after we had left, the tell tale signs of a degrading road started appearing; the increasingly bigger potholes with loose rock and frayed edges, bumpy asphalt which eventually gave way to some rock scrambles up and down hills, corrugations from heavy diesel trucks and JEEPNEYS braking downhill. Arms were sweating and focus was waning, and unfortunately, I had a near collision with a local on a bike and that forced me to ride the brakes for the down hills, at least until I got past the shakes. Mud and loose gravel had made it difficult to increase pace and the group had put some distance between them and I - however I put that to my riding style of being a far-and-wide type of rider and not a low-and-fast type, and not at all to my riding prowess.

Graded soil eventually replaced the sharp stones and small towns peppered the landscape as we eventuated in a road that was halfway finished. At this point we were able to catch up on our schedule, making use of every square of those 110mm knobby tires as we pinned the little Yamahas at higher rev ranges. The road ended at a small truck stop town, where it linked up to a major highway - obviously not a place to stay for very long as we had a lot more kilometres to cover. As the sun passed its peak in its daily arc, we enjoyed the smoothness of tarmac and treated ourselves to a beer at the local petrol station. We look up from our bottles of Corona, the signs read Sabang, indicating the last leg of our journey.

Ancient monoliths whizzed passed us, thousand year old stones came into view and in our mirrors. The mountain paths that we rode through had taken us farther and farther from our point of origin. However as we spent more time on the highway, my mind wandered and like a bad habit, my body craved for the painful bumps and unpredictability of the rear wheel when you’re on flexing the engine in the dirt. Though after hours under the beating sun, the smell of seawater became stronger and like a reflex, our bodies pricked up with renewed energy, ready for the change in scenery. After about 35km of twisty provincial roads, we finally made it to our destination: The West Coast.

 
Mates, bikes, and a fire... What could be better?

Mates, bikes, and a fire... What could be better?

Our designated fire tender for the trip.

Our designated fire tender for the trip.

A full moon illuminates the blackness

A full moon illuminates the blackness

Drying our boots from the day's misadventures

Drying our boots from the day's misadventures

 

Sabang is a small beach town populated by mostly tourists, and local businesses who thrive on them. It spanned about 3 kilometres which were all accessible by riding through the sand on the in road side, and not by the bay side. The rest of the day came and went - we had settled in around sundown and due to dehydration, the first glass of rum cokes were downed without much conversation. Tempers were a little high, as the novelty of being encrusted with sweat and dirt had worn off and we desperately just wanted to freshen up - however, our support vehicle was nowhere in sight.

Hours passed and night fell, and we spent the time drinking as the sun beamed its last golden rays over the peaks of the mountains. Eventually our support vehicle made it to us, and our spirits rose instantly as we were now able to change to clean clothes, and out of our shoes soaked in sweat, mud, and river water. Our sugary drinks finally gave way to our rumbling stomachs and dinner was served, which consisted of some delicious home cooked lemon chicken from Ramon’s lovely wife. Everyone did their jobs and roles in tending to the campsite, though tonight would be easier as we were sleeping in nipa huts on the resort.

 
The first thing you see as you wake up in the morning.

The first thing you see as you wake up in the morning.

Breakfast at the far end of the island. Thanks Pangge.

Breakfast at the far end of the island. Thanks Pangge.

Our bangka which took us to St Paul Subterranean River National Park.

Our bangka which took us to St Paul Subterranean River National Park.

Kaylee sitting pretty. She makes it easy.

Kaylee sitting pretty. She makes it easy.

Turtle Island as I have aptly named it!

Turtle Island as I have aptly named it!

 

The next day was not an official part of the tour, however, Ramon had set us up with private tour to visit the island named Palawan Subterranean River National Park. This small island was located in the St. Paul Mountain Range on the west coast of the island, and home to a monitor lizard reserve as well as one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, the UNESCO heritage listed/World record holder - the world’s longest underground river. The freshwater system spits out into the Pacific ocean - you can tell because of the tonal contrast of the two water systems as your banka glides over from one to the other. It is 24km long, with visitors access up to 4.8km from the mouth of the cave - anything further than that will require a research permit. You do get to cover a lot of impressive sections of the cave, each of them lovingly named like The Market (named aptly as many of the rock features resembled fruit and vegetables) to the extraordinary and awe inspiring like the Cathedral. This section of the cave was the largest, with the ceilings covered by bats, limestone, and magnificent spires and stalactites. Rocks would resemble the Holy Trinity and scenes from the Bible, as told by our boatman.

At this point, we felt the urgent need to turn back - We were getting comfortable on the beach, but there was still a ride home back to the East side of the island that had to be done by sunset. As we jumped back on the boat and headed back to Sabang, Bloi and Ramon had packed up the truck and made sure that all mechanical gremlins had been fed sufficiently enough to get us through the day. We make it back to our bikes and as we were excited for an easy day’s ride, the skies opened up and emptied a few days’ worth of tropical deluge on us about 2 minutes into the return trip home.

None of us had protective clothing, and within a few seconds each and every one of us was absolutely soaked. We regrouped under an old tree, and figured it would be a good idea to take a break as the group’s confidence had sunk, and we did not want to be too far away from our luggage in case it didn’t make it. We convened in a local tindahan and drank some coffee to warm our shivering bodies. Big garbage bags were handed out and fashioned into shirts and rain shields, as anyone who has clocked any good speed on a bike in the rain can attest to the pain a drop of water can bring.

The situation was getting dire - Kaylee’s crash in the previous day had shaken her confidence, and her broken electronics meant no lights for her. Kevin had no trust in his tires, and neither did our group leader but it was important for the experienced riders to be steadfast and brave for the group’s sake. Our solution was for me to ride in Kaylee’s blind side, where my front wheel sat inches from her rear, so I could provide light for her but also meant I had to anticipate her movements. Walter was a happy choppy, enjoying his cold ride but vision was also becoming a problem for everyone.

Eventually we made it back to Puerto Princesa city proper, and Ramon had taken us to our little motel at the edge of town. It had running water and a toilet with a flush - things we were very grateful for by the end of the 4th day. Lucky for us, our support vehicle made it there with absolutely zero problems whatsoever and we were able to change out of our clothes and into something dry. A round of rum cokes to celebrate life and avoiding death for the past 3 days, an order of fast-food, and a quick check into social media to let our loved ones know that we were still alive, and we were ready to pass out.

Looking back, we did not cover many kilometers like you would on a traditional motorcycle trip. But this serves as a perfect example of quality and not quantity - I am now completely in lust of some dirt, and this trip had changed the course of my upcoming summer in Australia, as we now plan to explore the fire trails, single track lanes, and country dirt roads that we have lived beside for over a decade.

On this trip, I was a tourist in my own country with our dirtbikes serving as the tool that bridged my new life in Australia and my old life in the Philippines. Palawan has shown this city slicker an entire new world in a place where I thought I've seen everything.

 

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Nomad Palawan: Adventure Tour Part I

Nomad Palawan: Adventure Tour Part I

An epic journey from Puerto Princesa to Sabang Bay in Palawan, Philippines

 

"When you're lost at sea, just follow the eagles. They know the shortest way back to land," he croaked like a seasoned veteran of the islands between mouthfuls of cigarette smoke, as we looked out into the inky black ocean inching its way closer to our campsite atop the sandbank. It was nearing midnight, and we were all tired from a long day's ride.

The scene had changed dramatically; in the last 24 hours, we had transitioned from Metro Manila, a cosmopolitan city full of highrises, endless highways of bright red tail lights enhanced by the pervading smog rising from road known as EDSA, to our little secret cove on the east side of Palawan, a major tourist destination some 800km south of Luzon, the capital state of the Philippines. Here we were surrounded by trees and tropical jungle, endless coastline, about 70km deep into rural countryside. One dirt road presented itself after another, and the humidity made the air thick.

But I digress; let's start from the beginning. After spending a week in Metro Manila revisiting old haunts and seeing old faces, the novelty of spending hours upon hours battling through the infamous traffic of Edsa Blvd had just about worn off. The city was always awake - at any point in time, there was an event to go to, or somewhere to be. A few friends were flying in to join us for the second half of our trip - we had signed up for a motorcycle tour that required us to fly to Palawan, a major tourist destination some 800km south of Luzon, and ride from one side of the island to the other.

 
5am red eye flight from the dense urban jungle that is Metro Manila to Puerto Princesa.

5am red eye flight from the dense urban jungle that is Metro Manila to Puerto Princesa.

We got to know our steeds by taking them around town before the tour began.

We got to know our steeds by taking them around town before the tour began.

 

The adventure was drawing near, and we made our final preparations quickly, getting as much sleep as possible to sustain us for the upcoming few days. By 4:30am, we were on our way to the domestic airport and hop on the first flight to the island. We get picked up from the airport by my cousin/tour guide Ramon, and we head back to the Nomad Tours HQ so we could drop our bags, grab some coffee, and acquaint us with our steeds that would take us from Puerto Prinesa on the East coast, to Sabang beach on the west.
Photos

This would be a great time to specify that one of our riders in the pack had also never ridden a bike in his entire life - so it was a morning of learning how to control the clutch and throttle without inevitably killing oneself that was on the agenda - and believe me, these things happen. The road crew were still loading up our support truck at the HQ, so they threw us the keys and told us to go explore the island and come back in an hour or so. We grabbed breakfast, knowing that this was going to be the last time we will be eating a regular meal for the next few days.

So back to Nomad we went, to assemble at the paddock for a final briefing and an official starting line. A turn of a key and a few sputtering cold starts later, we managed to shake the cobwebs out of our Honda XR200s and warm our bikes up. A quick trip to the gas station to fill our 9L tanks up to the brim with petrol, and we hit the open road. From Puerto Princesa, we took the one major road out of town and kept pumping our 4 collective cylinders until the city was blurred in our vibrating rear view mirrors. As the countryside broadened left, right and forward, the mountains loomed over us, knowing that we were on our way to tell us its secrets.

 
Taking the main road out of town

Taking the main road out of town

Island traffic is different to Manila traffic, so it was easy to keep the group together.

Island traffic is different to Manila traffic, so it was easy to keep the group together.

The local motocross track. "We have to go through THAT?!"

The local motocross track. "We have to go through THAT?!"

Out of the city, and into the country.

Out of the city, and into the country.

 

We started climbing and hitting some twisty switchbacks, the road elevating up Mt. Salakot. The road quality had also degraded from tarmac to hardpack, with a layer of sharp broken concrete and limestone shards that was the result of some road breaking. There was as a fervent layer of dust that stuck to anything white and clean that you owned. Eventually an archway appeared, surrounded by some military trucks, and that was the landmark that indicated that we had reached our first official stop of the day at Salakot Falls. The cool turquoise waters were a welcome break from the third world sun, as our legs stung from our lack of protective gear and from the heat emanating from the road, which emanated heat like a blowdryer against our shins.

Our trip had gone on relatively trouble free since, however our recovery vehicle struggled to climb the elevated roads so we pressed on, skipping our original plan to have lunch by the water. As the road levelled out, we were careening our way through the twisties, dodging rock and dirt patches at full crank - or at least, how much our knobby tires would permit us on asphalt. Ramon and I, natives of the Philippines, had no issues expecting big diesel trucks to come onto our lane mid corner however our foreign friends quickly got acclimatised. Eventually we pulled over by a carinderia, an eatery commonly found on provincial roadsides and indulged in local food, with the very traditional adobo served with a bowl of rice, with a nice tall glass of Red Horse beer to grease our dusty bones. The beer buzz set in and numbed our broken pelvises from the dirt roads, and we pulled into a beachfront coastline and pitched camp beneath some Agalai trees.

 
Turquoise waters to ease the soul, and cool the body.

Turquoise waters to ease the soul, and cool the body.

Cooling off in Salakot Falls from the 3rd world sun

Cooling off in Salakot Falls from the 3rd world sun

An old dilapidated bridge absolutely covered in moss and lichen.

An old dilapidated bridge absolutely covered in moss and lichen.

Chowing down on some (you guessed it) ADOBO! A staple in any Filipino carinderia

Chowing down on some (you guessed it) ADOBO! A staple in any Filipino carinderia

No meal is complete without Red Horse Beer. Cheers from the Nomads!

No meal is complete without Red Horse Beer. Cheers from the Nomads!

I always make it a point to make some canine friends wherever I go.

I always make it a point to make some canine friends wherever I go.

 

It took a while for a city slicker like me to get into the Island Life way of living - had this trip been done in Australia we would have been running on schedule, with an itemised itinerary of things to do and the corresponding amounts of fun we are expected to have. However, since we ARE still Sydney siders, we had helped set up camp (much to the surprise of the locals who are accustomed to catering to every need and want of their clients) as we are the outdoorsy types ourselves. The water was calm and warm, and unexpectedly shallow, as one could walk a good 300m from the shore and still be only waist deep. The water helped wash off traces of the day’s activities, and we floated around drinking rum. Eventually we all convened at our makeshift dinner table, illuminated by bottles of kerosene placed inside a coconut shell - Bloi, our resident musician and driver, told us that if you were to explore an island a day in Palawan, it’d take you more than 5 years to see all of them. He told us to follow the eagles out at sea to find the best ones.

We woke at the crack of dawn and helped dive for some lobster and fish for breakfast, and took our time packing up our campsite. When the sun drew high and hot so we put on our lids, mounted up, and brapped away over sand dunes and through a small local resort, and back into the dirt we went.

 
Camping out in the Billion Star Hotel

Camping out in the Billion Star Hotel

Miles of undisturbed empty coastlines. A motorcyclists' dream!

Miles of undisturbed empty coastlines. A motorcyclists' dream!

 

After spending a reasonable amount of time on the trails, it was easier to get back into the “dirt bike” type of mindset by the 2nd day. Our aim was to zero in on your focus and chew up kilometres - endless trails and majestic views and hundred fifty something foot drops off cliffside roads for good measure. We had come significantly closer to the West coast - the shortest distance between the two coasts at the thinnest part of the island is only 80km. However, trust a motorcyclist to find the longest way between the shortest distances! And besides - on dirt, you generally average at a slower speed, however, this is a prime example of quality vs quantity. It was still hard, it was still hot, and it was a lovely day to go brapping.

There is a saying about being a rider though - that one is not a true rider, not until they have eaten the proverbial dirt and only then are they considered part of the “club.” As I had taken the role of Tail End Charlie, who’s responsibility was to always stay at the very back to retrieve downed riders and is the one who usually carries the necessary amenities and supplies to recover any mechanical malady that we come across. I had stayed behind and pulled over every now and again for photos, the rest of the pack pressed on, tackling rivers and rocky crossings. Easy trails and slightly challenging treks had instilled a false sense of confidence in us, however, as Kaylee overestimated the depth and breadth of a particularly deep river crossing, resulting in her hitting a tall rock, losing the front and end, plunging the mighty 175cc Yamaha into the cold river - leaving her pinned under it, with her head submerged in the freshwater stream. After the initial shock, we helped her get up, wrung our clothes out and chopped up some watermelons to eat in the shade while we make some bush repairs.

 
The first of the river crossings - little did she know that she would come to hate them.

The first of the river crossings - little did she know that she would come to hate them.

Bloi, our driver/bush mechanic helping us get on with the day.

Bloi, our driver/bush mechanic helping us get on with the day.

The only way to get around the Philippine countryside.

The only way to get around the Philippine countryside.

A child splashes around to cool off as he runs through the river.

A child splashes around to cool off as he runs through the river.

 

So the injury report was that we had a cylinder filled with water and a doused spark plug, a broken electronics (water was filling up the headlight and the side mirrors) We also had a loose battery that kept literally falling off the bike as a result of some motocross style jumps done by our resident hoon. Our support vehicle had broken down more times than I can count on the one hand due to the gaskets not sealing the oil sumps perfectly. The issue was solved by hacking up an old tire to the shape of the rubber fitting, which solved the problem well enough for the foreseeable future.

We kept on and eventually realised we had spent too much time at the unplanned rest stop and decided we had to settle down and set up camp. A few of us had gone ahead in hopes that the support truck would follow, but due to the numerous breakdowns, we ultimately had to turn back and stop at the first cove we passed as It would have taken us a good few hours of riding to get to our original destination. We had to make do - they had promised us a mountain face that was scalable as it was perched over the water, so any unfortunate accidents would simply fall into the Pacific, and the brave would be rewarded with a zipline on the peak of the rock face. While it sucked we never made it to the original destination, they offered us rum so really, it was a fair trade off.

 
We used a tarp to catch coconuts while Ramon effortlessly climbed the tree.

We used a tarp to catch coconuts while Ramon effortlessly climbed the tree.

Pro tip: THERE'S RUM IN IT

Pro tip: THERE'S RUM IN IT

Pangge, our camp chef, heats up a wire mesh to grill some fish we caught earlier in the day.

Pangge, our camp chef, heats up a wire mesh to grill some fish we caught earlier in the day.

Night falls on our secret cove.

Night falls on our secret cove.

 

It was a quiet but fun night, with fatigue and exhaustion setting in. Our guide climbed some trees to collect coconuts, a skill that we Australians never needed to learn as we never had an abundance of coconut trees to make it worth the effort. Bloi, Ramon and Pangge made us drinks from coconuts and decided to take it easy and spend the next few hours just playing around in with the landscape. The mesmerising flicker of a campfire and the rum cokes had helped us settle into our new temporary home for the next 12 or so hours. Eventually we ran out of firewood, and my vision was altered heavily by bottles of Tanduay. Our stomachs and livers had been satiated and eventually, one by one, we all dropped off into our respective tents under the southern hemisphere, listening to the rising swell and the rustling of the coconut trees.

 

 

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