3 days, 5 girls, 1 directionless Dutchman.
Currents whipped around our tinny Filipino ferry as we surged towards the island of Cebu. My friends and I wondered how many times the old beast had made this voyage and whether it would make it. Fortunately, our first world worries were soon dispelled. The ocean expanse swelled into mountains and the waves rolled into lush palm-lined coasts. Land ho!
We had spent the day in Siquijor, a small island 25 kilometres from Cebu. It was notorious for its history of witchcraft, but from family experience I knew South East Asians could be a tad superstitious. So we enjoyed Siquijor for what it really was: paradise. We Tarzan roped into Cambugahay Falls, cliff jumped at Salagdoong Beach and explored the eerie San Isidro Labrador Church, which surprisingly was not a shrine to Labrador dogs. This sure was news to me.
Even the parts in between the sights were magic. We zipped through the island in our windowless Jeepney, huffing the sea air and the diesel fumes pillowing around us. To this day, these smells trigger fond memories of Asia. If Day One was any indication of how the next two weeks would play out, I was friggin’ PUMPED.
A close shave
We landed at Dumaguete airport at 7am that day. I hadn’t slept yet and was still riding the wave of two bottles of sangria. It was the sugar keeping me awake, I am sure of it.
Our first boat ride, the one to Siquijor, was fairly uneventful. It was lucky number two that heralded the start of many nautical misadventures. The sun had set when we returned to Dumaguete port and we were still another boat ride away from Liloan, Cebu. As we docked – well, as a so-so clove hitch was thrown around a rusted pole – we saw our connecting vessel ready to leave. We exchanged WTFs and promptly decided it was worth legging it.
Smiles beamed from sun marked skin, weathered hands burst forward to help with our bags and sing-song voices hurried us to the boat. If you know Filipinos, you’ll know they can turn anything into a party. We had made it.
After a chatty voyage with the friendly boatmen we docked at Liloan. We were close to Oslob, Cebu’s most popular tourist town, yet there was no one around.
Eventually, we spotted a lone trike and flagged it down. Five girls, one trike, 15 kilometres? Easy. Jump right in. This is the Philippines don’t you know.
The driver bore into the throttle, but it made little difference. There were five of us weighing down the sidecar. His wife also rode majestically with him on the motorbike. We considered this to be terribly romantic and so we played Kanye West’s “Bound 2”. The locals smiled, but did not follow.
We reached our accommodation and were met with perhaps the most confused Dutchman of all time. In the weeks prior, my friend and admin extraordinaire Emily had arranged our accommodation and transport with his wife, “Marilyn”, someone we did not see once during our stay. It was a very Norman Bates type of situation. If I had my time again I’d probably rest my head here. It’s too late for me now, but not for you.
Cocos and GoPros
Early next morning, the Dutchman drove us to Oslob in his Hilux. I took advantage of the lenient road rules and sprawled out in the ute tray, admiring the unobstructed view of the clouds above.
Ever the den dad, the Dutchman asked if we had remembered our “cocos”. It took us a few good hours to decode what he meant. He meant “GoPros”.
Soon, we devoured margherita pizzas and mango smoothies at café Chez Tonton, explored the nearby Tumalog Falls and pretended to sip cocktails at Villa Modern Deluxe, yes, a place that totally sounds like a bad translation of something. They were closed that day, but still allowed us access to their beach. Small miracles. This was the most low-key day we’d enjoy in a while. The next day we were rattling in the pickup tray to Bieber’s latest beats, well on our way to Kawasan Falls.
Kawasan Falls and the Kamikaze jump
Kawasan is a three-tier waterfall system, shimmering with the most vibrant turquoise hues. No doubt you’ve seen it splashed all over the ‘gram.
We were lucky enough to experience the falls in the most exciting possible way: by canyoneering it. We motorbiked from base at Highland Adventures to the jump point where we set off on the vast track of waterfalls, caves, streams, valleys, canyons and jump rocks in our helmets and never to be used again sports shoes. It was four hours of wild fun and we chose to end it also in the most exciting possible way, with a 20 metre jump into the main cascades.
“Do you know Osmena Peak?”
As I dried off in the back of the ute, I was ecstatic. My mind was lost in the ethereality of the surrounds and it wasn’t long till we were all lost. Geographically lost.
After a hard-earned lunch we made our way to Dalaguete to hike Osmena Peak. The Cebu countryside was gorgeous, jagged peaks peppered the region and vibrant green pastures rolled out to the coast. We were told the government even gave away some of these plots of land for free, prospective owners just had to ensure they would care for it.
All was bright, except everybody’s favourite Dutchman had no clue where Osmena Peak was. He began rolling up to every villager, asking: “Do you know Osmena Peak?”. He made nearly 20 stops. This line formed the basis for the running joke of the trip. We couldn’t believe that this man, who had lived here for so long, didn’t know the wonders of his own backyard. Osmena Peak is the tallest mountain in Cebu, after all.
A little boy soon pointed us in the right direction. Count it, that’s the second time a smiling Filipino saved our ass. We pulled up to a hillside village and bounded out of the car.
Ever the confident yet ill-advised navigator, I rallied the troops and led them through cabbage patch after cabbage patch. You could say I took navigational style cues from the Dutchman himself. Soon we noticed other hikers over yonder on what appeared to be the path, but I preferred our way. I could see the top of the thing, how hard could it be?
We eventually reached the summit and shuffled through groups of hikers to find a vantage point. Turns out Osmena Peak was a very popular attraction, well known to locals and tourists alike. Another 10 points to the Dutchman.
We took our time returning to the ute, curious about the kind of trouble our driver might have found himself in during our absence. Nevertheless, we returned just before sunset to find our guy sipping moonshine with the farmers. If we knew anything, it was that alcohol was the perfect stimulant for a long drive.
The Trying Dutchman
We set off on a 35 kilometre road through the Badian ranges and into the heart of a remote valley.
Our next stop was dinner in the coastal town of Moalboal, but Dutchy had other ideas. He had no idea. And so a most perilous drive began. To be clear, little me riding shotgun quite liked the absurdity of the adventure. But as the sun lowered and we sunk deeper into the ranges, my mates in the truck tray weren’t so pleased. A day of chasing waterfalls was behind us and there was no sign of what lay ahead.
After navigating my heart out in the front seat, I retired to the tray to see what all the fuss was about. And that’s when I saw it. Nailed to the trees above the dirt road were crucifixes. Many of them. Such a sight may appear benign to most, especially in a country as Catholic as the Philippines, but to five foreigners it told another tale. Particularly at night.
To add to this, one of the girls in the back suggested we take a look under the driver’s seat. She had unearthed a foot-long machete. Freshly sharpened too, you could shave your legs with that thing.
Large rocks crunched beneath the tyres and looming mountains transformed the landscape as we continued to lose altitude. We had reached the end of the road, literally and most likely, proverbially. Peaks surrounded us at every turn and if it hadn’t already been said, now was a good time to admit we were lost. Even if Dutchy planned to murder us with that machete of his, we knew we had bigger problems.
It was nearing 9pm yet our driver was poised to heap on an extra layer of woe. Beyond the dead-end was a dip in the tightly packed soil, a precipice of sorts. Now, most people who saw this would think: dried up creek, a ravine that is no more. But not our Dutchman! Where others saw folly, fatality even, he saw opportunity.
The vehicle laboured through the waterbed. We continued to scramble into the darkness. We hadn’t made it far when a single headlight shot through the abyss. A motorbike approached and we readied ourselves for death.
A tiny family of three then greeted us with smiles, telling us to turn back as there was no way our car could make it. The third time smiling Filipinos were our saving grace.
We backtracked until we found what could pass as a main road. The feeling of crossing from rough terrain to a sealed road gave me a euphoria I imagine isn’t too different from the effect of hard drugs. And boy did we not need drugs for the magical mystery tour we were taking that evening! It only got weirder.
Mum, I’ve finally found my tribe
After half an hour in complete darkness, we came across a well-lit basketball court. It was the only source of light for 20 kilometres. We pulled over to inspect. Popular songs with a Latin vibe hammered through the speakers. An overenthusiastic leader pumped up a crowd. Pairs of feet shuffled in time. This could only mean one thing.
*or a witch doctor conference.
Yep, in the middle of absolutely nowhere was this open-air village fitness session. Our curiosity in turn drew the curiosity of those in the class, and before we knew it all five of us were in the thick of it. They pulled us right in. We were learning the moves, we were gyrating in a crowd of 40 strangers. They all welcomed us, just like that! It was the most goosebump-inducing moment of my life. And I have seen The Phantom of the Opera on stage. Twice.
If there is any proof that veering off the track pays dividends, this was it!
Sleeping with the fishes
After spending our final night in kamp van de Nederlander, we bussed to Cebu city. The three-hour journey rounded out to a robust six and we missed the last boat to the neighbouring island of Bohol.
Our only option was to take the overnight boat. Quality was not assured, we would need to wait a few hours to board and it would take nearly three times longer than the normal ferry. I was livid.
So I did what I could to distract myself. I hunted down the rare power point, ogled the cute sniffer dogs at the wharf and had a phone call I’d never forget. Yet nothing could distract me from what loomed in front of me. Our vessel to be was a barge. I wondered whether my friends and I would be able to catch some sweet z’s on a pile of mangoes.
Nonetheless, we boarded and I soon ate my first world words. Above what we believed was the entire island of Bohol’s groceries was the “tourist quarters”. Turns out that for a few extra bucks we got an air-conditioned berth with clean bunk beds and a TV. This made the six-hour voyage a breeze. Plus the absurdity of the day’s misadventure had us in high albeit whacked out spirits.
The five of us gathered to watch a popular (I think) Filipino language soap opera. An emotional farewell scene was playing out and we improvised a narration. If you think Hollywood can turn up the drama in an airport scene, think again.
Our two-week adventure through the Philippine islands had just begun. If you’re dying to find out what came next during our side trip to Bohol, please stay tuned.
Note: We later learned that many of the passenger ferries/cargo ships on the Cebu-Bohol route frequently sink. So we’re lucky to have made it. My water treading skills are not up to par and I wouldn’t know where to start when it came to signaling our new whale shark friends for help.
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