Paddling Palawan – Sea Kayaking in the Philippines
by: Tim Morch
An incredibly clear, multi-hued blue sea dotted with dozens of islands distracted me from my attempt to assemble my Feathercraft Wisper XP kayak. My eyes kept scanning Bacuit Bay, just outside El Nido, on the northwest end of Palawan Island. Striking karst formations that typify the landscape displayed an endless series of limestone cliffs leaping from the sea to extraordinary heights. My eyes darted from a frame assembly to a nearby island and back.
Located between the Sulu Sea to the southeast and the South China Sea to the northwest, Palawan is the southern most province in the Philippines. Palawan consists of more than 1700 islands, nearly 25% of the 7,107 islands that comprise one of the largest archipelagos in the world. It was designated a fish and wildlife sanctuary in 1967, protecting the sea as well as the virgin jungle that covers the island, making it an outdoor paradise.
I had my boat together soon enough, keen to experience nirvana first hand. After a few day trips to stretch the muscles and get comfortable, my paddling partner, Ian, and myself loaded all necessities for a short expedition south to Port Barton.
We set off across the bay with a rolling 6 ft. swell and strong wind blowing on the starboard beam. The “amihan” is a northeast trade wind that blows from mid-December until mid-April. As we were to learn, it can get powerful for weeks on end. A few km across Bacuit Bay, we paddled into sheltered water behind Antalula Island. A small sand beach tucked into the west side looked like a potential campsite, especially as we were hoping to watch sunset. But it was still early, so we decided to continue.
On a chart or GPS it is easy to identify the beaches and they all look enticing. Unless there is a good sized village, there tends to be no marking on most islands. It also excludes resorts. Rounding Pangalusian Island, we discovered a major resort under construction. With 600 labourers working 3 shifts, 24 hours a day, this was clearly not the place to stay.
Across the strait lay a beach dotted by a few bamboo homes and we paddled that way. We beached and were greeted by Roy, a construction contractor living in the area since 1987. Roy was full of information, including a key piece of data that eluded us thus far: Palawan was under a Signal 1 typhoon warning. Roy recommended we stay inside his storm shelter and we accepted gladly, hanging our Hennessy Hammocks in a sturdy mangrove frame wrapped in a tarp. That night saw some strong wind gusts and heavy rains, but by the following morning, it appeared that all was well. Roy told us the storm was 420km offshore, so we set out believing the storm had passed.
The waves were rolling around 10 feet as we rounded the headland and paddled south to the the town of Liminancong which lay at the northern end of the Endeavour Strait. For the next couple of hours, the water became calm and we glided the strait heading south to the mouth of Malampaya Sound.
Malampaya Sound was once known as the fish-basket of the Philippines. Today, although there is an incredible variety of species, the numbers are low. Twenty-nine resident Irrawaddy dolphins patrol the narrow sound that stretches over 20km inland.
Camp that night was an abandoned resort where we watched the clouds roll in and the wind start up. It is important to watch not only the high tide reading on your GPS, but the most recent high tide indicator on the beach. I always set camp well above and it turned out to be an especially good thing that night. The rain was biblical and the wind topped out around 100kph. The following morning, we learned that Roy had not informed us the direction Tropical Typhoon Sendong was offshore. Turned out it was 430 km east and actually passed overhead hours before.
We took a day off to let the ocean regain some sense. The winds were all over the past 24 hours and, as a result, the waves were as well. The mouth of Malampaya Sound is full of rocks and small islets. To get out, you must pass between a small group of islets and a rocky point. I watched the local boats (bancas) make the transit through some challenging seas and followed their path. The sea got really wild for an adrenaline-filled kilometre. To the right, a series of jagged rocks poked out in a chaotic half-barrier that set the ocean askew. Crazy currents and irrational waves went in every direction. The island lay 150 meters to the left and the waves that did get past the teeth busy sending a large rebounding wave to add to the soup bowl. Quite a ride!
Breaking through the challenging channel, we settled into the massive rollers that ran down the west coast. For the next 5km there was nowhere to beach as the coast is sharp rock. We worked our way around the corner into a gorgeous protected bay and made camp in a perfect lagoon. This was a boat access only beach, as there were no roads that lead there.
The wind came on early the next morning and we worked straight into it until we got to the lee of a point. Rounding the point, we again fought the headwind into the bay, ultimately reaching the village of Binga. A local family living across from where we beached let us hang our hammocks in their yard and use the lovely fresh water that was piped down from Mount Capoas. Mount Capoas is the highest mountain in northern Palawan. It springs from the ocean to an impressive 1131m. In this area, one is always in the shadow of Capoas.
Filipinos are very friendly. Everyone in the Philippines speaks English, so it takes communication out of the equation. Our new friend John was young, educated and spoke English extremely well. Like everyone from Binga, he was intimate with the sea. Unlike the others, he was studying to apply to the Navy. With John’s assistance, we enjoyed a few cold Red Horse Extra Strong beers and ate fresh barbequed tuna.
The next morning, the entire village was on hand to watch us load our kayaks, climb in and break out through the surf. I am not sure who got more entertainment: them watching us or us watching them!
The remaining couple of days the heading was due south to Port Barton. The wind was coming over the island and we hung in the lee of sand beaches with rolling hills covered in “cugen” grass in the background. Occasionally, we would round a rocky point or outcropping to arrive at another beach. Alimanguan and San Vicente are the only two towns of any size on this part of the coast and we paddled into each to have a look and grab supplies.
As with every expedition, the critical factor is water. I carried up to 22 litres of water at any time. Regardless, every opportunity missed to top-up on water is an opportunity wasted. In Palawan, it seemed that even the tiniest village had a shop selling water, so there was no problem. There were also several streams rolling off mountains to be boiled or treated along the way.
Just north of Port Barton, we stumbled on a Canadian who owned a chunk of secluded beach with camping. No roosters, no dogs and no noise were enough to entice us to stay for Christmas and New Year’s. Regrettably, my paddling partner was injured at this time falling from a rock and had to end his trip. I disassembled my kayak and took the bus back to El Nido for another excursion around the Bacuit archipelago.
Photo by: timmorch.com