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Adrift in the Central Philippines

Adrift in the Talima reserve

Colorful scarecrows guard a rice field

A tarsier hugs a mossy branch
by Nick Walton

[from Spring 2010] When the engine finally chugs to a stop, the silence is deafening. For an hour and a half we had motored through a light chop in the Cebu Strait, the last of the day’s sun catching burnt faces, the ancient engine of our traditional Filipino banka outrigger catching and wheezing like an asthmatic. Finally, it gives up the battle, leaving us drifting, cast in the middle of the stunning Talima Marine Sanctuary, a sprawling marine plateau of coral and impossibly blue water, like a pearl cast onto azure silk sheets.

Pandemonium does not break out; there are no cries, no frantic checking of cell phones and probably few surprises. The work horses of the seas surrounding Cebu, few bankas retain original parts. Built from thick bamboo poles and a slender wooden hull, they cross the seas at an arthritic pace, ferrying fishermen out to sea and in this case, seven young travelers across the wide channel from Cebu, in the central Philippines, to the island of Bohol.

We leave in mid-morning and the sun is already bright and hot. Everyone quickly strips down to swimming shorts and suntan lotion, pulling bottles of cold local San Miguel beer from a bucket filled with thick chunks of ice. Behind, our captain, his wife, brother and nephew, sit in the shade, bemused by the colourful bikinis, the sun worshiping and early morning San Miguel sustenance.

From our hotel, the luxurious and unassuming Abaca Resort on the east coast of Mactan Island, it’s a 2 1/2-hour chug across the channel to the mountainous island of Bohol, with the tiny bankas taking a short cut, slicing around the southern tip of Olango Island, and skipping past the white-sand beaches of Gilutongan Island, with its tiny fishing villages perched above the lagoon, through the Talima reserve.

As the boats pass through the marine reserve, where the coral is never further than a few metres below the hull, the sea changes colour from green to a translucent, intoxicating blue that shimmers like a desert mirage. We rake our hands through the bathtub warm waters and see shoals of tiny fish flittering below.

It’s not long until Bohol rises above us, and the captain draws the vessel close to a simple concrete jetty where a 4x4, owned by another relative, is ready to whisk us inland to see the island’s claim to fame, the Chocolate Hills.

The hills take an hour to reach, through valleys of rice paddies and tiny towns where children learn under the shade of ancient mango trees. Cows graze by the side of the road and through the fields stand armies of brightly coloured scarecrows, their clothing flapping in the light afternoon breeze.

The latest survey identified 1,776 of these curious hills, tiny conical mounds that dot the landscape over a fifty square kilometre plateau. In summer, when the Philippines is battered by ferocious tropical heat, the lime-green grass, which makes the hills resemble a particularly difficult golf course during the winter months, dries up, leaving the hills baked brown – hence the name. They’re a popular destination for Filipino and foreign travelers alike and are up for UNESCO protection.

At the government-sanctioned look out, couples pose for pictures with the hills in the background – at this time of the year still the colour of kiwi-fruit flesh – before winding their way back down to the inevitable lines of souvenir shops.

Hills seen and done, we clamber back into the 4x4 and head south, towards one of the small sanctuaries for Bohol’s smallest marsupial residents, the tiny, inquisitive and endangered tarsier, a nocturnal animal best known for its massive eyes, which help it see in the depths of jungle nights. Several conservation initiatives are operating on Bohol; the one we visit has 25 tarsiers, including a few born in captivity who seem relatively oblivious to the tourist’s cameras (no flashes are permitted – a rule seemingly only followed by foreign travelers). One tiny tarsier even does the rounds of people’s shoulders, guided along by a keeper. The sanctuary also has monkeys, and considerably less-active bats, as well as river cruises on Disney-esque boats.

Headed back to the wharf, we pass through towns wreathed by the island’s lush jungle. Each is laid out surrounding towering, weathered catholic churches and in one, the sounds of a rehearsing marching band can be heard.

Finally the bush gives way and we arrive back on the coast, racing along a beach-front road as the sun already begins to sag towards the horizon. The captain and his family are ready for an immediate departure and we walk the tiny bamboo plank from the pier, and begin the slow chug northwest, with faces bathed in the warm sun and hands cooled with ice-cold beer.

And then, just as the sun shares its last flare with the day, turning the clouds into peach plumes, and the full moon sails already high across the sky, the engine finally packs in. We’re quickly assured by the captain that it’s a simple problem; a nearby fisherman is called over and one of the crew is dispatched with him to the nearby island of Gilutongan for spare parts.

But we’re not fussed. There are beers in the bucket, someone puts on music from their iPhone and everyone jumps into the water, which is now jello-like, blissfully warm and bathed in moonlight. Phosphorescence follows our every move, like a movie special effect, and we cast spells with finger wands, while in the distance, as night creeps across Bohol’s jungle-clad peaks, some of its smallest inhabitants are only just starting their day.

Getting to the Islands and Around:
Philippines Airlines flies to Cebu via Manila, while Cathay Pacific flies via Hong Kong. Most hotels, including Abaca Resort, have airport transfers included in their tariff. The airport is 15-minute drive from most resorts. Boat charters can be organized by hotels or at the many small harbours dotting Mactan Island. Don't be afraid to negotiate with boat captains. A day's island hopping (or a day's trip to Bohol) should cost between 4,000-6,000 Philippine pesos (roughly between $87-$130US), while a tour of the Chocolate Hills and Bohol will cost 3,500 pesos (about $76US ) for approximately 7 passengers.

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