It’s only two weeks short of the official typhoon season and here I am setting sail aboard a rickety bangka resembling little more than a DIY cubbyhouse. The exact itinerary for the five days ahead is sketchy, but that is the nature of a Tao expedition.
This eco-company offers exclusive access to some 200 remote islands in the Philippines, lying between Coron and my eventual destination of El Nido. Tao believes in genuine adventure, luxury in simplicity and the joy of exploring new cultures. At night we will be immersed in village life on land, but during the day the boat is our home. I am puzzled by how exactly 12 paying guests, a generous crew of seven, a few accompanying family members plus an incredibly agile dog all manage to fit on board.
The region is a graveyard of World War II Japanese ships, all teeming with marine life. Every contour of this organic relic is smothered in a coral mass, camouflaging the intact vessel beneath.
At Lusong Island I take myself overboard, lured by the promise of rewards lurking beneath the surface. I flounder about, choking on the choppy waters intruding into my snorkel. Suddenly, a metre below me, the upturned edge of the Lusong gunboat wreck appears. The region is a graveyard of World War II Japanese ships, all teeming with marine life. Every contour of this organic relic is smothered in a coral mass, camouflaging the intact vessel beneath. In this mesmerising display of nature overcoming a man-made intrusion, I feel like a prop in an elaborate artificial aquarium.
Emerging from the water, I am be greeted back on board by a gorgeous spread of grilled whole fish, vegetable curry, steamed greens and rice. There is no waiter service, nor any table etiquette, just a bunch of starving swimmers digging in.
Pass Island is our first overnight stop, and it beckons us with its flag-lined beach and flame torches that resemble something from an episode of Survivor. We navigate barefoot through menacing sea urchins guarding this island paradise, to set up camp under a lingering sunset. Open-air stilt huts are allocated and rigged with clever box-style mosquito nets. Dinner materialises from our ever-resourceful cook and we sip on the potent local rum before an early night.
The waters chartered from this point are seldom seen by travellers. The vast body of ocean is broken only by handfuls of lush islands jutting into the horizon. Our captain weaves a path through the calm sea. As we head further, reef damage becomes apparent, with parts of the seabed bleached and blasted. Dynamite and cyanide fishing are still practised throughout the area, yet there are signs that sustainability is being taught and embraced.
That night, we are welcomed at a homestay on Culion Island, a remote area sparsely populated and resourced. A local family vacates a home for Tao guests in return for support and infrastructure. In the fading light, we find our beds within the thatched house perched over the rising tide. Assembled around the fire, no DEET cocktail could deter the clouds of insects assaulting my body. By torchlight we polish off a tart jackfruit curry and watch the kids racing around barefoot on rocks that should be crippling.
The next morning we cruise through still waters painted by the reflections of lush hills and a cloud-dotted sky. Further along the Dicabaito Channel, we encounter a reef bordering a pristine beach, and snorkels make an impromptu appearance. There’s a fierce current but the constant flow of water helps accelerate coral regeneration.
Life is constantly moving in every direction in a swarm of iridescent colours that would be impossible to replicate with a painter’s brush. The parrotfish steal the show, parading colours found on a rainbow Paddle Pop, challenged only by the animation of the clownfish. The underwater silence is broken by the incongruous sound of crackling bacon, which is, in fact, the sound of fish nibbling on coral.
Traversing an open channel, we say goodbye to smooth sailing and hello to looming dark skies and dropping temperatures. The crew bustle around, securing loose cargo and sealing the main cabin. The rapid fire of rain dances across the ocean before drenching the boat and its passengers. This sudden ambush lasts just minutes as we bunker down through it and approach our camp at Kulaylayan village.
It is late at night when we are invited over by locals for karaoke. We cram into the small shed housing a very modern machine and peruse the extensive song list. Karaoke is considered a luxury at five pesos (five cents) per song, and families save money and travel from afar for this treat.
A visit the following day to a neighbouring settlement gives us the chance to experience the true workings of a self-sufficient village. A snapshot of daily remote life plays before me – mothers painstakingly weaving bait nets, children priming cocks to fight, elders huddling around a deformed newborn, and a carpenter single-handedly crafting a new outrigger boat. What amazing stories and lives these characters would reveal if only we could communicate beyond exchanging warm smiles.
Before lunch we arrive at a place where coconut-white sand melts into shallow turquoise water. We drop anchor at Takling Island and, for the first time, the beauty ashore trumps snorkelling the wonders below. We do little but close our eyes to the blinding sun and wallow in the bath-like temperatures.
With promises of a meat feast on our final night, we head to Tao’s base camp at Cadlao Island, only a short distance from El Nido. A plump pig has been rotating on the spit for hours, blistering with crackling that would make even a vegetarian’s mouth water.
The large gathering embodies how many people rely on and embrace the Tao philosophy. With family and friends often travelling aboard, it can feel like you’ve crashed a family holiday. This is rustic travel with no pretence or pandering. When it rains you get wet, but it’s all part of soaking up the experience.
Cebu Pacific Air flies to Manila direct from Sydney, as well as Dubai and other Asian cities, with connections to Coron.