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.
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.
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 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.