A month ago, we found ourselves in our longest traveling day yet, where every single minute felt like a long grueling hour, and a supposedly two-hour road trip stretched to five and a half.
When the map says ‘NO DRIVING DIRECTIONS TO BULUANG’, what would you do?
Every stretch of dirt road, including countless rickety wooden bridges, waited at these two diminutive people riding a barely-alive motorbike.
The maps we had, including a sketch that was as rough as the actual route, barely kept us sane as we motored past the dark streets of the still-sleeping town of Coron. Our destination? The tip of mainland Busuanga—the fabled Calauit Island off its western tip, a safari that’s the only one of its kind in the Philippines.
We have always wanted to go there, and seeing as we were so near–two hours or roughly 70 kilometers as the tourism officials said–we didn’t want to leave Coron without going for it. Besides, our foolhardy selves thought, we could always rent a motorbike to get there. This was one of many available options, and the cheapest of them all.
The only other time we were ever on a motorbike though was three weeks previously in Bantayan Island in Cebu.
That leisurely pace spoiled us too much into thinking we could give it another go. Back then, we had no particular destination; we simply circled around the towns, coming and going as we pleased. The well-paved roads of the island made it an easy one for two people, one of whom doesn’t regularly drive a scooter, while the other has never learned to balance herself on anything with two wheels.
But at 4 AM, when the rest of Coron was still too dark and quiet, we set off for the road through barely lit roads and endless stretches of fields and mountains (somebody please install road signs, driving directions, and street lamps in this part of the country!).
Ugh, wooden bridges
We never looked at wooden bridges the same way again. Those we had to cross–and heck there were MANY of them–didn’t look like they were too happy to have us in the first place. It gave us those helpless moments when all we could muster was a deep breath as the wheels touched the first of the planks, jerked sideways threatening to throw us off balance, and bobbed off violently on the other end of the road.
Until now we could get out of breath recalling how we sheepishly sought balance every time we faced another one. One wrong swerve and we could have fallen into a creek 10 meters below, along with a motorbike that could crush us to pieces. It was not the most beautiful way to die.
We sought comfort in the thought that every minute we spent longer along the dirt roads was every minute nearer the sunrise. Traveling in the dark with a hapless motorbike and an unknown route felt like signing up for a death sentence. With the lampposts that weren’t there, the countless intersections that dared us to go the wrong way, and the five-foot-long snake (!) that greeted us when we reached a dead end, composure had been difficult to come by.
As we wound our way through the mountain bends, the sun had begun to peek until it bathed the sea and limestone cliffs beyond in merry shades of blue and green. It was a beautiful sight we could only freeze through memory, not having had the gall to stop and take a leisurely pace for a photo op.
That postcard-perfect sunrise had all the trappings of a great souvenir photo. There were several others too that followed, including a woman carrying her kids who smiled so widely at us as we passed, their pet pig bobbing along as they crossed a tiny bridge. It was Sunday, and everyone was home and having an extra grand time with family. Albeit a photograph that never was, it had been a moment too vivid and joyful to forget.
We were, however, heavily lagging behind the supposed two-hour schedule. By this time, we had already ditched the printed maps and settled for the GPS, which was, miracles of miracles, moving along with us despite the lack of network signal. This was one of the many things we were beyond grateful for. What we’re more thankful for, however, are the heaven-sent guys who had helped us get through relatively unscathed along the way.
The first one was a drunk teenager the night before, in a village aptly named Sto. Nino, who had so vehemently advised us to not push through with our plan to go all the way to Calauit in the middle of the night. Our naive selves did not know better, having set off at 7 PM hoping to get there by 9 PM and wake up early the next morning in time for the animals’ feeding time. We never got his name, but he had saved our lives more than he could have cared to imagine in his state of drunkenness. We would like to believe the Universe led us to this drunk man who would make us realize we were crazy treading an unknown route in the dead of the night.
Chancing upon the second one to help us was nothing short of incredible. We were going up one particularly steep albeit short slope, the gravel loose and the rocks too big to allow us a smooth trek. The front wheel hit a particularly big rock while we were trying to swerve, and the next thing we knew, we had fallen sideways off the bike, jeans torn as knees came in contact with gravel, half of our feet buried below the metal. It was the least likely place to call for help, as we were in the middle of nowhere, but before long we had another young man motor past us, coming back down to hoist the bike up (we were in the middle of the slope, devoid of energy and willingness to push the hapless thing up to level ground). Raymond–his name–kindly drove with us until we reached the final stretch of our trip.
Prior to this, we had had a grueling taste of the dirt roads and the slopes we had been warned of. Our rented motorbike had only one side mirror and a manual ignition that gave us more trouble than we expected. It would conk out at the slightest stop and its headlights were too faint. Apparently it had seen better days, maybe even along the same road.
The slopes began to get worse as we neared Buluang, which had nothing but vegetation and a narrow dirt road, unrecognizable even by an advanced digital map.
A little past 9 AM–five hours after we set off, with barely anything to eat except for coffee, and with several wounds to boot–we had finally found the house where we would leave our motorbike for the short ride to the island. We could clearly see our destination from the small docking area–the place we had motored five hours for–and we wondered if all the risk was worth it.
Literally living to tell the tale, we are.
Sitting on the boat was the single most relaxing moment of our day yet. And suddenly the sky was a bright, merry blue along the mangrove channel we were cruising past. It was a refreshingly peaceful sight, even with the wounds that were starting to get more painful. But we didn’t mind, for we still had a long way to go.
The boat ride of our lives, although it was a short-lived one.
We had arrived at a less than ideal time in the island–almost 10 AM, way past the 5 to 7 AM feeding time of the animals. We had opted for a walking tour instead of taking the P1,000-tour truck that could comfortably accommodate 20 people. We were thinking about getting back as soon as we had arrived, for we were hours away from another potential misadventure: a 3 PM flight.
Nevertheless, we found Calauit one of those places you simply have to see at least once in your life (although perhaps not risk it for). We had seen the Calamian deer; posed for a photo with Jimkirk the giraffe; spotted a pack of zebras; and even saw the wild boar who knew how to open a faucet. We learned that people who decide to stay overnight in the island could start a bonfire in the grounds–a prospect we knew we would soon come back for.
The Calauit Wildlife Safari is home to animals who came from Kenya in the 70s. Naturally, those in the safari park today are offspring of the original ones who were transferred here to preserve their dying population in Africa. As our guide put it, the animals today, including Jimkirk, are all African-Pinoy (Filipino).
We were on the boat back barely an hour after we had arrived. By this time, we had come to terms with the dreaded thought that we would be traversing the same road–the same slopes, and the same gravel–to get ourselves back to Coron in time for our 3 PM flight. It was 11 AM, and we had barely 2 hours to get ourselves out of the place if we are not to miss a plane ever again.
And this is where we met our third savior of the day–our boatman Jong, no older than us, who turned out to be as skilled a motorbike driver as our wildest dreams could be. Soon after, filled with unexplainable joy, we were wounding our way through the same steep inclines–all three of us aboard the same hapless motorbike–with Jong maneuvering the road with the skill that can only be brought by years of experience. See, Jong and his family live along the banks of Buluang, where the docks to Calauit are located. The only means of transport to and from their barangay was the motorbike, which explains why he knew the roads like the back of his hands. We also learned that we weren’t the first to ask him to drive for us. He once had a foreigner who also thought the road was too harsh to deal with a second time, and requested Jong to drive for him on the way back.
But wait, there was more.
We did have another misadventure though–a flat tire that set us back another half an hour. But between that and getting through all the slopes miraculously unscathed, we were beyond grateful.
Jong had generously agreed to drive us halfway through the trip, taking us there twice as fast. When it was time for him to head back–he had driven until we met the bus going back to Buluang, at which time he alighted and we were on our own again. We could not thank him enough for saving us from something we might be unable to get back from otherwise. But we had the rest of the way to go–and barely an hour left before our flight. It had been relatively smooth sailing since then, having picked up speed along the way, and Jong’s driving giving us headway into our route.
It was 2 PM when we finally arrived–Owen still had to return the motorbike, and I had to scramble to the hotel to throw in all our belongings into our bags and implore them to take us to the airport 30 minutes away.
Our receptionist looked half convinced to allow us to go, knowing we would never make it to our flight on time. I assumed he took one look at my dirty clothes, torn jeans, and desperate face to finally allow us into the van that would take other passengers back to the airport. Barely having recovered from what we had just gone through, we found ourselves on a race once again–but this time we could do nothing but wait. We were thinking of our options should we miss our flight–we barely had cash to buy a pair of tickets, and the lone credit card we carried wasn’t surely going to be enough. We HAD BETTER get to that flight because it was IMPOSSIBLE for us to stay a day longer in Coron! It was easy to break down with everything we had gone through. One more hitch, and we were surely going that way.
We had arrived at 3 PM for our 3:05 departure. The Busuanga airport security didn’t help either: they inspected bags manually, so we had to endure around three whole minutes of bag-opening before we could get through. As expected, the check-in counter was closed.
But there was no plane on the runway. Not a single one. We were sure the airline we were taking wasn’t the only one flying to this route. The pregnant silence of the small runway was our first glimmer of hope.
Apparently, our plane’s arrival was delayed–our second hope, although we weren’t yet assured to be given permission to fly.
We had no choice but to wait, but for some reason we knew this one would fall into place just as everything else in the past 12 hours–barely there, but falling into place just the same.
A few minutes later, the guy at the airline’s check-in counter came to us, handed printed boarding passes, and said, with a mix of amusement and disbelief, “Malakas yata kayo sa Diyos ah.”