The Philippines: Jungle experiment
By Sophie Turton
“Slow down!” The motorcycle bounces as we accelerate over aged cement, veined and grouchy.
El Nido’s Roller-coaster road is not kind; it twists unexpectedly, careens round, juts out towards the archipelago and then pulls back into the land. Stones and broken glass, sunburnt cement downtrodden by thousands of vehicles and horses and people, all fly up like fire crackers and snap at our bare legs.
It is ten in the morning and the sun already commands a perfect, blue sky. To our right the sea expands for miles, nuanced by hundreds of tiny, uninhabited islands. The Philippines is comprised of 7,107 islands, only 2,000 of which are inhabited. Palawan is known as the country’s “last frontier” because it is hard to reach and contains some of the Philippine’s most spectacular beaches. It is 280 miles long and 31 miles wide and is surrounded by 1,780 islands and rocky coves, making views from its irregular shores a site of extraordinary natural splendour.
El Nido is at the top-most tip of the javelin-shaped island, opening it up to 180 degree views of islands and islets, covered in rich, luscious vegetation and resting on waters of the purest aqua marine. The tiny coastal town is 148 miles northeast of the main airport in Puerto Princesa. The trip takes a hazardous route through rough terrain – seven hours crammed in the back of a 4X4, getting familiar with stranger’s body odour. It took my friend Erik and I over 24 hours to get here from where we’re based in Shanghai.
Our private part of paradise is a badly kept secret. Despite how difficult it is to get to, tourists have discovered El Nido’s charms and have slowly started visiting its beaches. There are few things less off-putting for an expat living in Asia than the sound of British people eating a fried breakfast and loudly dissecting the locals. We made our escape, hired a motorbike and took off in the direction of the Nagkalit-Kalit falls. We forgot to take a map. We also forgot water. We’ll only be gone a few hours.
“It’ll take about 40 minutes to get there by bike. It’s pretty much just a straight road down the coast. You’ll see a sign with a picture of a waterfall and there’ll be a few men there to guide you through the jungle,” Erik’s local friend, Marcela told us.
“Let’s ask one of the men to take us.” There’s a small wooden hut by the side of the track. We can see the mouth of the jungle and the air is filled with the sound of cicadas and the low hiss of hidden serpents. The men look disinterested, hardly like intrepid jungle warriors, as they smoke cigarettes and talk in a mixture of English and Filipino.
“We’ll be fine,” Erik tells me. I try several more times but he is decided, we will conquer this jungle, unassisted, with no map and no water and by jingo, we will be triumphant.
We are not triumphant. We walk for hours through paddy fields, past a carabao resting in the mud and a minute cow. We jump over streams and begin an ascent into the thick of it. We pass no one.
“Erik, essentially you have killed us. Your stubbornness has killed us. We’re going to die in this jungle, eaten by miniscule cows or giant jungle serpents.” Erik ignores me as we continue on, climbing higher into the mountains. The path is narrow, covered in a canopy of rich foliage, which rains bugs and debris but blocks out the intensity of the sun. We follow the path of the river as it falls several feet below. “I’m not sure we should have come up this high,” Erik batts bugs and branches a little too hard with a stick he stole from the carabao. He is terse. “You are terse. It’s ok. All will be well. I’m sure we can’t be that lost anyway.” We continue for another half an hour before we decide to turn back, by this point we are drenched in sweat and the excitement of being lost in an Asian jungle has all but worn off.
On our way down we are intercepted by a tour group approaching from another winding path to the left. We can hear their thick Italian lilt long before we see them. We are saved. “Do you mind if we join your group? We’ve been lost in here for a long time and would really like to see the waterfall.” They don’t seem at all happy with my proposal. I follow them anyway. They take a totally different route, up a tiny path – we crouch to get through the thick leafed ferns, which lock together like clasped hands and close immediately behind us.
We clamber over fallen trees and across streams, all the while the other explorers ignore me and it is a while before I realise Erik is no longer with us.
“Stop! Please, stop!” I shout at the tour guide. “My friend. He’s disappeared.” The tour guide snaps into action.
“Stay here.” He commands the rest of the group, as he bounds back the way we came. He is like a human heat detector with a GPS function – he moves with certainty yet still I panic. I try to follow but the stones leading back up the path are slippery with moss and I’m suddenly aware of how thirsty I am.
He returns with Erik, who had collapsed further up the path. Handing us a bottle of water, the guide reprimands us for our “stupidity”.
“We are almost there,” he says. “The waterfall will provide some cheer and help cool you down.” The waterfall appears unexpectedly. It is smaller than this adventure would promote, more jeans and t-shirt than evening gown, but the cool, clear water is sensually enticing. Our group are the only people here and, with the cool water hugging our sweaty bodies, they crack tiny smiles and we talk of our travels and adventures to come.
It seems we had survived our jungle experiment.