Friday, 27 June 2014

El Nido, the Phi Phi Don of the Future?

It seems that everyone is putting their hand up for involvement in the Hollywood movie – ‘The Beach’. While it was filmed on the gorgeous Phi Phi islands of Thailand, El Nido is purported to have been the location for the writing of the book. We went to Phi Phi Don last year and it was a beach that had max-ed out its tourist industry with dozens of boat operators jostling for your custom to drive you to Phi Phi Ley to sit in a ‘secluded’ beach with hundreds of other people. The real drawcard to those islands are the stunning limestone rock formations that rise up out of the water and often enclose golden sandy beachlets that look picture perfect. El Nido has those same limestone formations and is absolutely stunning, without the horrible hectic tourist element. The town has a rough grid street pattern dominated by small shack-like single story shop fronts, the end of the streets at the east of the town has rock wall structures rising to the heavens bounding the town in. Low shrubbery clings to the sharp flat rock faces and gives the town a really enclosed and almost secretive feeling. One morning when it was raining a low band of cloud hovered over the rock peaks and eerily swirled revealing glimpses of the rockscape behind. Bars, restaurants and dive operations line the beachfront and you can stroll along going for a leisurely bar crawl, moving north along the beach to get the best sunset view as the evening rolls in.

Limestone rockfaces enclose El Nido town
We are here in the southwest monsoon which is also the wet season period. Every day, mostly in the afternoon or at night, a ripping breeze pummels the cove and gusts of 40kts send boat owners securing their washing and tying down anything loose.  Next comes the rain, not usually too much but the strong wind drives it into your face and sends you running for cover. So it is the low season for tourism, which suits us just fine. While the daily storm and rain periods are inconvenient, it means that the town is not so busy with tourists.

I made the tricycle trip to the market on Wednesday (the good day apparently). The deafening sound of pigs and goats being led off to the slaughter place (open area behind the market) was my greeting. Bright colours of fresh bananas, avocados, mangoes and oranges filled my eyes. The sight of fruit was exciting as it was not something cherished on Peninsula Malaysia and I made a beeline for the mandarins and oranges. Still the animals were screeching, and pigs can make a good scream if you just look at them funny. At least you know the meat you are buying is fresh, the sound of pigs was a stark contrast to Malaysia, where pork is forbidden. I picked up loads of potatoes, bananas, watermelon, tomato and some replacement ginger for the next batch of ginger beer (more about that later).

As we dropped anchor in the bay, who did we spot but our old friends ‘Shanghaied, Aussies who we had met in Saumlaki on the Indonesia Rally. While we had stayed with the rally for the 3 month period travelling west through Indonesia, they had left at Banda Neira and sailed north to Ambon and onto Raja Ampat, before spending the next 8 months exploring the Philippines. We invited them over to EJII along with some new friends on ‘Free Spirit’ to indulge in some boat brewed hooch - ginger beer. I made up the wort batch in Kota Kinabalu, and it had made the rough passage from Borneo and up the coast of Palawan before its taste testing in El Nido, explosion free which was an excellent outcome! To the surprise of the tasting participants “it was actually ok”, and a few more bottles were opened and shared around. Abe had predicted the brew to be somewhere between downright awful and slightly tolerable, but he was happy to throw down a few glasses!

Boat brew success! Thanks to my tasting team, Shanghaied, Free Spirit and EJII
Another gastronomical (and social) experience was when Hugh and Abe went ashore at Balalo Bay, a tiny fishing village just 40km south of El Nido with no mobile phone reception and one house with electricity (petrol generator). We were hunting for a spot to anchor and dozens of children came running out on the pier, jostling each other and jumping up and down whooping and hollering while waving. They sure were excited to have visitors. With ideas of a fish curry for dinner, the boys went ashore, to be mobbed by all these children. Falling back to our old faithful ‘cross cultural-win’ with children, the high five, Hugh and Abe made themselves very popular with the kids. Hugh is 1.98m tall so when he puts his hands up at his shoulders, they are high off the ground. Filipinos are not a tall race, but the enthusiasm by some kids to high-five Hugh led to much jumping and super-human strength! Such fun kids. 

Enthusiastic High-Fiving!
Eventually Hugh and Abe were able to ask where they could buy fish, and like the pied piper leading the children, they made their way through the village with dozens of kids all pushing to be closest to them, to the man with the fish. Some negotiating done, three small fish were purchased and it was two thumbs up for fish curry for dinner. Abe passed on some exercise books and pens as gifts for the kids, hopefully they will find them useful, and they made their way back to the boat.  It was such a contrast to see this remote village, cut off from other parts of Palawan as there was no serious road access. It was so close to other places that were tourist hot spots, El Nido even has an airport, yet they lived a completely different life. We wondered whether mobile coverage would extend to this location and how long this village would remain in its isolation.

After 6 days at El Nido we decided to move on. We had had a fun time eating ashore, enjoying the edible delights of Adobo (meat stew with potatoes) and diving the beautiful waters. This sure was a nice place to visit and I hope that it does not become as over populated as Phi Phi Don, because that place was real tourism overload! A teary goodbye to Abe-l Seaman Abe (we're not above a cheap pun on this boat), as he left to fly out from Puerto Princessa and we continued our whistle stop tour of the Philippines.


Friday, 20 June 2014

The Balabac Strait

A crossing that reminded us of the nasty beam swell and uncomfortable seas like the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura Sea. The Balabac Strait bridges the waters between the Sulu and South China Seas, a veritable spin cycle. Abe went to sleep and dreamt that he was in a washing machine with jeans and a belt...the sensation was that close, except without being smacked in the head with a belt buckle. 

Swirling sea, nightime snap off the aft deck
The boat wanted to heel to starboard, but the 3m enthusiastic swell coming at us from the port side was not going to play nice. So began 3 days and 2 nights of an extremely uncomfortable trip making our way from Kudat in northern Borneo to Ulungan Bay on the western side of the Philippine Island of Palawan. You may recall that we were planning a different route east over the top of Borneo, however our plans changed dramatically, but you'll just have to read our next instalment to get the full story on that one.

The southwest monsoon had finally decided to turn up this year, better late than never! It brought a constant 15-20 kt wind and swell with it for the ride. With squalls bringing torrents of rain and 40kt wind gales, we were in for a not so fun passage, though Abe was in for a treat as we 'hove to' waiting one storm out (thankfully it was a short one). 'Hoving to' is a maneuver turning the boat into the wind, dropping the sails and waiting for the storm to pass, some boats have stayed in that position for days at sea waiting for a system to pass through. A break in the rain showed off the stunning and rugged coastline, tall sharp cliff faces with low shrubbery, very different to the jungle clad Borneo coast and lots of steep mountainous terrain. It was with much relief that we turned into Ulungan Bay, so flat and calm that we could finally put the 2 minute noodles away and cook some real food, roasted vegetable pasta it was!

After a good sleep Hugh and I Ieft Abe as boat sitter the next day, and went on the 50km over-island journey to Puerto Princessa (PP), the bustling city of the island and home to some 6000 tricycle cabs (motor bike with a metal buggy and roof structure which could comfortably carry 4 passengers, but could certainly fit 6 judging by the locals!) But first we had to get to town, via the 3 hour jeepney trip. A jeepney's distant cousin was the land rover, maintaining the bonnet and axle design, but with a 30 passenger bench seat capacity thrown in behind the driver and 1 tonne strength roof (for carrying 30kg bags of rice, 30ltr blocks of ice, slabs of soft drink, fuel containers, meat and vegetables). Oh, and adorned with rainbow colours, religious paraphernalia and tinsel, nice! The jeepney driver turned out to be the postman, the payer of bills on behalf of the rural villagers, the corner store delivery guy and the guy who gets your fuel cans filled. He also has a team of able young men carrying all these items up and down from the bus and acting as the reverse sensors with a loud 'tap tap' on the roof of the bus. The trip was long and slow, but it was great to see some of the island hinterland and see how amiably the locals got on with each other, a real community spirit and thoughtfulness.

Bright Jeepneys being loaded up for the homeward bound journey
The town was busy, with tricycle cabs zooming along and squeezing into unsqueezable spots. The immigration office was our first stop, to get our all important 'country arrival' stamp and then down to the customs office to check the boat in. Thankfully our tricycle cab driver was in the know and the drive across town to the far flung offices. The lady at the customs office was great and was helping us learn some Tagalog, she also helped us by identifying which words are the same in Spanish as Tagalog. She spoke almost perfect english and it turns out that three decades of US colonialism is still evident in their education system today and many Filipinos speak excellent english, which is a real bonus for us.

Indulging in some barbequed chicken for lunch (with unlimited rice, as is the selling point here in PP), picking up some donuts for Abe and some more fresh veggies and we were back at the bus station, ready to catch our jeepney home. It had been raining while we were doing our admin chores, but that wasnt cause enough for the driver to lower the front windscreen from its open horizontal position as we sat in the front seat, back on went the sunnies to prevent dirt and insects from lodging themselves in our eyes. Well it was a whirlwind tour of PP with highlights being the immigration and customs office, experiencing a new country and its checking in procedures, travelling by boat is always a different tourist experience. 


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Covering off Sabah

Kudat, a strange yet very welcoming place. The former capital of the Borneo state of Sabah, now a town that seems to be lost in another time. Shop houses with timber second stories, footpaths that are used for walking on (not parking scooters or stacking shop wares) and cheery locals that grin at Hugh and shout "hello, hello mister, I love you" before giggling. The man that stopped us in the street to show us the large glass ball that he was holding is his mouth was strange indeed, but funny nonetheless. It seems that tourists from western countries do not visit here much and the locals are stoked to get a chance to practise their English skills.

Kudat main street, neat two-storey shop houses and landscaped median strip
We had spent a few days making our way north after quickly popping in to Kota Kinabalu (KK) - a busy and vibrant tourist town (also the current capital of Sabah). While it is a brilliant city to visit, it is a nightmare of a place to take your boat with no good anchorages in the current south-west monsoon and the single resort marina is slowly becoming more and more member focused, charging an outrageous amount for the simple luxury of using their dingy dock. So it was a quick provisioning stop to top up on cheese and other western delights, some fresh food from the market, oh and collecting our friend Abe who would be joining us for a couple of weeks aboard and we were off again.

On our way out of town, we were busy looking for a fuel barge that we had heard was anchored in the strait between KK and Pulau Gaya. We were following the channel markers and thought we could spot it, but we were not sure so we were asking off the bow of the boat to locals coming past if it was...they just smiled and waved...lost on translation I think. As we were in a precariously shallow part of the channel, we saw it and just came up beside throwing ropes and fenders over the side to secure us in. It was located in a particularly highly trafficked area, but we just had to tie on the best we could and hold on when the wake came crashing through. Seeing the fuel attendant smoking a cigarette next to the 'no open flames' sign, ready to create a floating bomb was just par for the course. The fuel pump was set for super yachts and fishing boats that use hundreds of litres an hour, so Hugh had fun trying to slow the flow for our comparatively meagre tank without sloshing it all overboard, making for another fun refuelling adventure.

All fuelled up we anchored on the northern side of Pulau Gaya, with a picturesque view of the jungle covered hill. There was a small family development nearby who took their canoes out fishing with nets in the evening. We followed their lead, though we had no luck with our fishing attempts, so had to settle for veggie stir fry instead.

A few days of uneventful sailing and motoring and we arrived in Kudat. Possibly the hottest place we have been to yet, though the afternoon storms do something to quell the searing daytime heat, the subsequent mozzies that come after it are less fun. Diving off the boat for a quick dip while we were underway helped manage our overheating en route. 

Abe taking a refreshing mid-sail swim
Kudat has an interesting history, stories about it being abandoned as the capital of Sabah varied depending on the source with tourist brochures referring to the British relocation of the capital due to the inability to secure a fresh water source, others refer to the repeated sacking of the town by neighbouring Filipinos. The town was then forgotten by authorities and remained remote, with the first road being constructed connecting it to KK in the 1970s enabling the old town to retain its charm and constrained its development or role as a trading port. A brilliant fresh food market makes it a great provisioning port for us. We were treated to some amazing hospitality by the marina managers, who took us out for lunch to gorge on some local Chinese delights and also to the local chamber of commerce to get a 'permission' letter to buy extra fuel (ie, more than 20lts), which made our time here fun and always interesting.

Our hosts - local city Councillor Johnie and his son John
Having seen the main attraction on our way past (the northern most point of Malaysia), we had little else to do here. Impatiently awaiting our package of rope for our furler posted from Australia (which may have been lost in the bowels of the Malaysian postal system) and watching our new 12v to 240v power inverter blow up were just other fun things that remind you why not everyone is out here sailing.

Happy Captain, package success!