Sometimes the Philippines can seem less like a country than an infinity of islands.
With 7000 of them scattered across the South China, West Philippine and Sulu seas, a traveller is confronted with the question: which one first?
Fiery mountains, 500-year-old cathedrals, highland blowpipes, city casinos or white-sand beaches?
There’s almost too much choice. Poke a pin into the map and if you’re lucky you might come up with the Palawan Islands, a long, skinny archipelago that stretches 650km southwest down the South China Sea, almost to Borneo.
Although only 80 minutes flight from Manila, Palawan, consisting of some 1770 islands, is a world apart from Manila and much else of the Philippines.
When the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan was slain in battle near Cebu in 1521 (“We killed our first tourist,” joke Filipinos), the remnants of his fleet retreated south to Palawan, where they found food in such quantity that the voyage chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, named this “the Land of Promise”.
Palawan is the Philippines’ largest (and possibly neatest and least trammelled) province. Its namesake Palawan Island, some 450km long and just 50km wide, is home to the capital, Puerto Princesa.
We start here with a fine day of island-hopping on its Honda Bay (part of the Sulu Sea), snorkelling on one island, swimming on the next, and then feasting at another on freshly grilled mantis shrimp and grouper.
Back onshore, at night we board a canoe to paddle – well, to be paddled by a boatman – up the dark and silent Iwahig River, where fireflies bloom in the mangrove shoreline, their fleeting tinsel glitter almost mirroring a star-shot sky above.
The mangroves pulse with bioluminescence. As we glide between these constellations of sky and forest it might be a time for wordless contemplation or poetic musing but for our guide’s breathless recitation of a thousand firefly factoids. Silence is golden?
One kilometre up the river, we turn about at a point where he explains that “past here is a prison and we can’t go too close”.
He’s referring to Puerto Princesa’s unique Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, a free-range slammer where prisoners tend rice fields, crops and fish ponds, and live with their families.
As a place of rehabilitation and education, its inmates are free to do almost anything but stroll out the front gate. Visitors are welcome, so next day I check out this penitentiary-in-the-forest with its gardens, village, church and scattered accommodation.
There’s even a gift store where handicraft workers make and sell souvenirs. I buy a toy – a distinctly non-Filipino reindeer – that has been carved by an amiable young man who explains he is doing a long stretch for a robbery in Manila.
“Why so many years,” I ask. As though he had previously overlooked a small detail, he adds “Unfortunately, there was also a homicide part of the robbery”.
Palawan Island’s main visitor attraction is the spectacular underground river that runs through a deep limestone cavern for 8km before it exits to the South China Sea.
To reach it, first we take an 80km ride north of Puerto Princesa to Sabang on the edge of World Heritage-listed St Paul National Park, and then a shorter trip in a motorised outrigger boat, known as a banca, along the jungle shores of the park until we reach the mouth of the river cave.
This had been known as the world’s longest underground river until 2007, when a longer one was discovered beneath Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Park officials line us up with a guide and an outrigger canoe that’s equipped with a powerful spotlight. The boatman paddles us towards a cleft in the limestone karst mountain wall and soon we are gliding into the stygian darkness.
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River (to give it its proper name) is navigable for some 4km inland, although we will travel only about one-third of that.
The spotlight picks out the surreal forms and frozen marble cascades. Tiny bats swirl by or cling, shrouded, to the ceilings. Stalactites drip their miniscule, millennial extensions.
Swiftlets zip and skitter past us, charging the air with their peculiar clicking sounds until it seems we are in the Cave of a Hundred Geiger Counters.
Our boatman, Rogel, points out with the spotlight the giant “flowstones”, aeons in the making, of yellow marble that bloom from the ceiling and cave walls.
The boatmen have been drilled in the “What does that rock remind you of” school of anthropomorphic projection.
A formation that their commentary calls, for instance, the Holy Family might equally be the Three Stooges or Salvador Dali’s Dilemma – plus dragons, waterfalls and, I think, a fine bunch of celery. It’s like drifting through a giant Palaeolithic Rorschach test.
Beyond our words and interpretative fantasies, Palawan’s cavern of dreams remains a wonder and, fittingly, was recently named as one of the planet’s New Seven Wonders of Nature.
And then, after 45 minutes we paddle back into the light, to be surrounded again by jungle and buttressed tree roots, pilfering macaques, a large monitor lizard hoping for a sandwich in the picnic shed, and the rest of Palawan’s grand possibilities and promises.
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