Friday, December 28, 2007

Island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island

We arrived back from Tagaytay this evening after a two day trip to visit Lake Taal and the active Taal volcano (last eruption 1977). Lake Taal is only 70 km south of Manila, but it took us five hours to drive there yesterday and two and a half hours to get back this afternoon – such is the state of the traffic in the Philippines.

Lake Taal is in a large volcanic caldera (which many people incorrectly think is the volcano’s crater, but the actual volcano is on an island in the middle of Lake Taal). And inside its crater is another lake, and also an island called Vulcan Point – which the locals claim is ‘the largest island in the world that is within a lake that is on an island within a lake on an island’.

We’d visited Lake Taal on many occasions before – and it’s certainly worth the trip down from Manila just to see the lake as long as the viewpoints along the ridge to the east and west of Tagaytay City are not covered by cloud – but on this trip we intended to cross to the volcano island in the middle of the lake and then climb to the top to see the crater lake. We stayed last night at a small resort called Balai Isabel right on Lake Taal just to the west of the small town of Talisay.

The rooms were 4,000 pesos a night (about US$100) – which is over-priced for the Philippines – but we’d managed to negotiate a 30% discount through a friend of the owner, and after some extra bargaining on check-in, we managed to get two rooms for 2,500 pesos each – a good price. The rooms were basic but clean, with two double beds, a small ensuite bathroom, a TV and a fridge. The place was quite new and seemed to have only a limited number of rooms completed, with others being constructed nearby. We saw only one other family staying there. There was a nice swimming pool next to a small black beach (comprised of crushed volcanic rock).

On the lake itself there was a floating pontoon with six smaller swimming pools built into the pontoon (at least that’s what the resort called them, but they weren’t much bigger than spa baths, so you wouldn’t be able to do much swimming in them).

Dinner was quite basic (mainly local food) and so was breakfast, but reasonably priced. I woke up early and wandered down to the beach to take a few shots of the lake whilst the light was still warm. A fisherman was heading out to the middle of the lake in a sleek wooden boat with an inboard motor.

Several locals were paddling around on the lake on rafts made of three or four bamboo poles tied together. One had tied a small wooden chair to the bamboo poles and was paddling around with a young toddler wedged between his feet. It didn’t look very safe, but living on a lake I expect they learn to swim at an early age.

After breakfast this morning we arranged through the resort to hire a bangka (an eight-metre wooden boat with an inboard motor and bamboo outriggers) for Php 1,600 to the return trip to the island (which included two and a half hours waiting time whilst we were on the island).

The boat picked us up directly from the beach at the resort and took us across to Buco, a village on the northern side of the island – a trip of about 20 minutes.

When we arrived on the island we hired five horses for 500 pesos each to take us up to the crater at the top of the island. Most of the guides walked the horses up the trail, but we saw a few others riding on the horses with the tourists. Some of the guides were quite young kids, but they all seemed very capable riders. My guide annoyed me a lot because all the way up he kept asking for a tip. I told him I would tip him when we got back down, but he kept asking. We found out from talking to one of the other guides (who was a young pregnant woman) that they only got Php 50 (little more than US$ 1) out of the 500 pesos that we paid, because the rest went to the horse owner, so when we got back we gave each of the guides a 200 pesos tip, and they seemed happy with that.

The ride up took 40 minutes, and it was quite steep in places. We stopped about halfway up to admire the view looking back towards the edge of the caldera, on top of which we could just see Tagaytay City.

I’m glad we took the horses because the sun was unusually hot for December. A couple of other tourists who had arrived on another boat about the same time as us, decided to walk (which takes about an hour) and they arrived at the top about 20 minutes after us looking decidedly worn out and soaked in perspiration.

There were some drink stalls set up by local villagers under wooden shelters on the edge of the crater, so it was nice to rest there for an hour, enjoy the views and some ice cold drinks (which weren’t unreasonably priced at 30 pesos each given that they have to be carted up to the top on horses along with large blocks of ice which are placed into wire cages on the horses).

There was also a small police outpost on the crater rim, and the policeman on duty asked Alan if he would like to shoot his gun for 500 pesos. He said he could have five bullets for that price. He had set up some plastic bottles for target practice in front of some bushes along one of the paths on the edge of the crater. We took him up on his offer and Alan took five shots at the bottles but missed them all.

I wondered who was paying for the bullets – the policeman or the Philippines’ constabulary? I can’t imagine the police in too many countries selling bullets to tourists to make a few bucks on the side – I shuddered to think of the consequences if someone had decided to go behind the bushes to relief themselves.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Breaking the rules at La Mesa Dam

After several days of battling the Christmas shopping crowds at different malls in Manila (shopping malls in most countries are crowded in the week before Christmas, but I have never been anywhere where they are as hectic as those in the Philippines) we decided to head out to La Mesa Ecopark, a nature park next to La Mesa Dam on the north side of the city, to get away from the crowds. The picnic ground not far from the entrance was quite crowded (and lots of kids in an adjacent playground), but on the other side of a large pond, where there were a couple of people fishing, there were some walking trails which I had all to myself.

It was quite a pleasant place – cool and shady under a lot of big trees - and a lot cleaner and better maintained than any other parks I have been to in the Philippines. On the side of the dam wall there was a flight of concrete steps, flanked by spectacular pink mussaendas, which appeared to lead up to a viewpoint over the dam.

However, when I got to the top (which was a hot climb as that part of the park is in full sun) there was a low fence blocking the way and a sign saying that loitering was prohibited and no pictures were allowed. And then across on the other side of a road which appeared to run around the dam, there was a higher fence blocking the view and another ‘No cameras or video taking’ sign (see picture below).

I wondered what the sense was of building steps up to a viewpoint, only to block the view with an ugly fence and putting up signs saying that you couldn’t loiter or take photographs. Perhaps a quick glance at the view is permissible, but anything longer would be breaking the rules (and of course my photo was breaking the rules as well).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Child abuse in Aurukun

I read a disturbing story today about a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl in Far North Queensland who had been gang-raped by six teenagers and three adults, and had been let off by Cairns District Court judge Sarah Bradley because the prosecutor had maintained that the sex had been “consensual in the general sense” and had described it only as “naughty”.

Apparently the rape happened in 2006 but the lack of convictions had caused such an outrage amongst the general community in Australia that the prosecutor, Steve Carter, was stood aside this week and an appeal announced which will be heard on 30 January.

I looked up the story on one of the Australian news websites this evening which said that the child was gang-raped at the age of seven in Aurukun on Cape York in 2002, and was then put into foster care with a family in Cairns. After being returned to Aurukun by the Department of Child Safety at the age of 10 in April last year, she was gang-raped again.

You hear about stories like this in Africa and a few Asian countries from time to time, but it is shocking to learn that such child abuse is still going on in a ‘civilised’ country like Australia.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sabah bureaucracy gone mad

This morning’s local paper carried a story about a 19-year-old girl who had gone to the National Registration office in Sandakan to collect her ID card – only to be told that it had been inadvertently given to someone else.

And what did the diligent National Registration officers suggest doing? Recover it? Cancel it? No. They suggested that the girl change her identity and apply for a new ID card under a different name! If that isn’t bureaucracy gone mad, I don’t know what is.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Half a wing and a prayer

There is an expression "flying on a wing and a prayer" but in Indonesia perhaps that should read "flying on half a wing and a prayer". I read in the local paper this morning that yesterday airport officials in Jakarta found a three-metre long section of a wing on the main runway - but no airline has come forward to claim it.

I wonder whether it fell off a Batavia Airlines jet? They got some bad publicity last month when parts of the wing of one of their Boeing 737s fell off after mechanics forgot to tighten some bolts (see my 21 November post) so maybe it's happened again but this time they are too embarrassed to own up.