My stated goal on this trip (aside from writing a good book, ahem) was to do as much cool shit as possible. Yet here I was, two weeks into my trip, and the coolest thing I’d done was ridden a motorbike a modest 20 minutes to a relatively tame waterfall near Puerto Galera. This had to change.
I define cool shit as adrenaline sports and/or encounters with wild animals (the two are not mutually exclusive, of course).* Going south toward Sipalay, my attention was focused on Danjugan Island, a sort of mini-Galapagos of odd creatures, including a few highly endangered specimens. Amid widespread dynamite fishing, the island was declared a nature reserve about 15 years ago and closed to the public to let the coral reef regenerate. It reopened about three weeks before we arrived (cha-ching). “You will be among the first people ever to dive at Danjugan”, our divemaster would tell us the next day.
He wasn’t lying. The night we rolled in we strolled down from our resort (the inimitable Driftwood Village) to neighbouring Takatuka (possibly the Philippines’ most eccentric resort). I asked the woman at the bar, the Swiss co-owner I believe, about dive trips to Danjugan.
“We don’t do Danjugan”.
“Oh, I see. Well, do any of the resorts do Danjugan? Is it allowed to do Danjugan?
“We don’t do Danjugan”.
“OK, well what dive sites do you do. Which ones are the best?“
“We don’t do Danjugan”.
My question had evidently put her on the defensive. Maybe she thought I was an eco-detective out to prove that they did do Danjugan. Had I been an eco-detective, her response certainly would have aroused my suspicions!
But Danjgan was now open, I wondered, why didn’t they "do" it?
Johnny Weekend and I planned to “do Danjugan”, and not just the diving. We had all sorts of activities teed up - some kayaking in Danjugan’s 7 lagoons; an island hike, hopefully with some critter spotting (sea eagles and bats were tops on our list); and a scenic motorbike ride along the coast to the island’s jump-off point. I had promised John adventure. Now it was time to deliver.
The ride north, along the same road we drove in on from Kabankalan served to shake the cobwebs from the night before. From the jump-off point it was about a 25-minute bangka ride out to the back side of the island, where the park workers' camp is located and where several dorm-style guest beds in an open-air cabana were recently opened to the public. Joining us for the trip was – wouldn’t you know it - one of the Takatuka co-owners (a different one), along with a couple of their clients. Aha, so I guess they did Danjugan after all.
Actually it turned out that his clients weren’t divers. He would be joining us under the watch of the park’s resident divemaster – the one who informed us we’d be among the first people ever to dive here. Well that fired us up, especially as we’d be diving a site named Manta Rock. Alas, we saw no mantas. I pressed the divemaster and he admitted that he’d never seen mantas there either. Perhaps whoever named the rock simply thought it looked like a manta ray. Anyway, the dive was good, not great, as visibility was a tad cloudy. There were lots of fish, but we didn’t see anything too exciting. But hey, a frontier dive is a frontier dive. I’ll take the pioneer label any day. We opted not to do a second dive as we had too many other things lined up. The Takatuka guy did a second dive and reported seeing a shark and a walking octopus. Bastard!
After the dive it was into the kayaks to explore “Lagoon 2” around the point to the north. We had no idea what to expect, thus it was with shock and awe that we paddled over shallow waters into a deep blue lagoon that was comparable to the Philippines’ two most famous lagoons, Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon on Miniloc Island in Palawan (Filipinos evidently aren’t very creative when it comes to naming lagoons). But while those get crowded after 7am or so, there wasn't a soul at Lagoon 2 at midday! Nor was it likely that there would ever be a crowd here, at least in the near future. In a word: sick.
Outside the mouth of the lagoon a headland forms a narrow passage with a large rock just offshore, sucking the sea through. A minor squall was whipping up the waves, causing some major turbulence in the passage. Perfect for kayaking. We paddled into the passage, managed to turn our kayaks around without flipping, and were off to the races, riding down these huge, nearly cresting swells. We couldn’t get enough, but on the third or fourth go-around I broke my paddle in half – or I should say my paddle broke, as admittedly it was rust, not brute strength, which caused the paddle’s demise. No matter, a half paddle proved sufficient to navigate my vessel to calmer waters.
Back on shore, the Takatuka clients were snoozing but we weren’t resting – this is work, after all. From the next cove north from the camp, a short paddle away, walking trails lead to several interior lagoons and a supposedly impressive bat cave. The other lagoons, some of them screened off by mangroves, weren’t quite as idyllic as the one we had paddled to, Lagoon 2. But it was a gorgeous walk and if you looked into these lagoons you could see strange creatures jumping out of the way – a fish shaped like a goat and so on. The diversity here was meant to be Galapagos in scale, after all. The bat cave was an unexpectedly rewarding wildlife experience, punctuated by the most noxious scent of guano I have ever encountered. Actually it was one of the most powerful smells of any type that I’ve ever encountered. I’ve posted a 1-minute of me being practically blown over by the odor.
After a short snorkel to see some giant clams being bred just offshore from the camp, it was time to head back to the mainland, where our bikes awaited. I wanted to check out a cluster of dive resorts bout 15km south of Sugar Beach. We drove 45-minutes south along the same stunning coastal highway we’d come in on before reaching Sipalay. With the sun setting spectacularly on the horizon, we continued another 20 minutes south along an even more scenic road to the dive colony, getting there just in time to grab a beer and watch the orb drop. We drove 30 minutes back to Sugar Beach in the dark, then took the 3-minute ‘bangca barge’ ride over the river that so effectively separates Sugar Beach from civilization. It was about 7.30. We had done Danjugan. We had done Sipalay for that matter.
The next day we took a bus to Dumaguete – inside the bus, this time – and flew back to Manila. The day after that I flew back to Cambodial. The first stage of my research was over.
*I like museums, if they’re good, but Philippine museums rarely fall into the “cool shit” category, the exception being the Bontoc Museum with its intense headhunter photos.