Tacloban to Surigao
The all-day caving adventure sets me back, precipitating a whirlwind of travel that takes me 200km from Tacloban in northern Leyte to Surigao, Mindanao, in 36 hours. Day 1 is relatively uneventful. The journey from Tacloban to the dive colony of Padre Burgos (about 150km) in Southern Leyte is a sonnet in three stanzas: a 2hr bus ride as far as Hilosig; a hairy 45-minute race through the mountains on the back of a speeding habal-habal
(motorcycle taxi – see video) to Sogod; and a 1.5hr jeepney ride to Padre Burgos on the west side of Sogod Bay. I was hoping to do more snorkeling with whale sharks the next day on the east side of Sogod Bay in the isolated town of Pintuyan.
Day 2 is far from routine. My plan is to hitch a ride across the bay with a dive boat - hopefully right to Pintuyan. It has been a banner year for spotting tikitiki
(as the whale sharks are known locally) in Sogod Bay, which comes as a huge relief for me. Last year the local whale sharks responded to their first mention in any guidebook (penned by yours truly) with a big, giant no-show. If they had repeated the trick this year, I was in danger of eating big-style crow.
Unfortunately there are no whale-shark-spotting tours going out today. What’s more, those who went out yesterday were served a tikitiki
bagel for only the second time since the speckled Leviathans arrived in December. Instead, I hitch a ride to Napantaw, site of a well-regarded wall dive, just 20km north of Pintuyan. Perfect. I’d get a dive in on the way.
Mission accomplished, I linger for a bit at Coral Caye, a British conservation group that has taken over the concrete premises of a mothballed dive resort in Napantaw. The setting is absolutely f***ing unbelievable. The resort fronts the shimmering blue waters of Sogod Bay, with some lofty peaks clearly visible behind Padre Burgos on the other side. Whale sharks saunter by occasionally and can be viewed from the shore. Just north of the resort is a white-sand beach, basically deserted except for a couple fishing boats. A steep hill behind the resort effectively cuts off the site from the rest of civilization. I chat with some of the 15 or so gringo volunteers. They are all shacked up here for one to six months surveying the local reefs in the hopes of establishing more marine protected areas. It’s a job that entails diving twice per day in one of the world's most diverse marine environments. Rough life.
From here a motorbike drives me to the main road, where I jump into a slooooooow, dilapidated bus heading south (Leyte’s buses are some of the most ghetto in the Philippines). In Pintuyan I’m told the whale sharks haven’t been seen for a few days. They could be elsewhere in Sogod Bay, or they may have taken off for the year – it’s late April, getting toward the time they usually depart. Until the last few days, sightings had been virtually guaranteed, either in Pintuyan or in the next town south, San Ricardo. I check out the fledgling ecotourism site in Pintuyan – what a spot, remote, beautiful, dead asleep and completely devoid of tourists. Perhaps Donsol looked like this once upon a time. And the visibility is supposedly much better here than in Donsol’s murky bay. I’m pretty disappointed to have missed them.
Oh well, there’s real work to be done. I rent a motorbike for two hours and check out the lodging options in Pintuyan before riding 10km south to San Ricardo, where President Arroyo had been two days before to inaugurate an important new ferry terminal that is meant to become a key stage in the 'Philippine Nautical Highway' running from Manila to Davao in Southern Mindanao. The inauguration was a symbolic gesture at best – the terminal isn’t close to being opened, as no ferry companies have agreed to use it (they continue to use the old terminal, 40km north of San Ricardo in Lilo-an). Anybody familiar with the case of NAIA 3 – Manila’s partially opened new international terminal that stood idle amid petty disputes for six years - won’t be surprised by this story.
I ride back to Pintuyan, go for a quick snorkel on the off-chance I might happen across a big-whale-ass shark (I didn’t), then take a habal-habal
up to Lilo-an, where a ferry was supposedly destined to depart at 5pm. It was on this leg of the journey that I ran into Jean Beliveau, a French Canadian of some renown who is walking around the world.
He’s currently in year 9 of his 11-year journey (not going to run too many of my travel war stories by this guy). All I can say is, what a random place to be running into the dude who is walking around the world. The world is a pretty big place, after all. Jean was being followed by a couple of bemused-looking Filipinos who no doubt were thinking this was this craziest motherfucking white guy they’d ever seen. The best part of the story is that, in order to maximize his walking time to Mindanao, Jean had bypassed the ferry terminal at Lilo-an and walked 40km out of his way (south) to catch an obscure daily morning bangka from San Ricardo. Nine years on the road and still refusing to take a short cut? Now that’s dedication. I was also impressed that he had proper intel on the San Ricardo bangka ferry, which isn’t in LP (or any other guidebook, as far as I know).
I thought about joining him but I was obviously on just a slightly tighter schedule than he was. We chatted briefly (see video) and went our separate ways – he toward Zamboanga and on to Indonesia and Australia, I to Lilo-an, where miraculously there actually was a 5pm ferry. Five hours and change later, I was in Surigao.
Total travel time, Padre Burgos to Surigao via Pintuyan (including underwater time): 15 hours