Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Going underground in a paddle boat

Palawan’s most famous tourist attraction is its underground river system which is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site (its official name is the ‘Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park’). We hired a van and driver for the day to take us there. The price was a very reasonable 3,500 pesos (about US$75). We had to pay another 350 pesos for a permit, 300 pesos for a boat to take us there from Sabang Beach, and entrance fees of 200 pesos each on top of that. Lunch cost us 200 pesos each, so all up the day worked out to less than US$50 a person. The alternative would have been to take an all-inclusive day tour for 1,500 pesos per person which would have been cheaper, but then we wouldn’t have had the flexibility to stop off where we wanted on the way there and back. The boats that operate out of Sabang Beach to the entrance of the underground river system cost 700 pesos per round trip, but we found four people who were willing to allow us to share their boat (they take a maximum of six passengers) so that’s why we paid only 300 pesos for the boat trip. That also enabled us to jump the queue at Sabang Beach because there were already 50-60 people waiting for boats when we got there.

We left Puerto Princesa on the east coast at 9.00 am and arrived at Sabang Beach on the west coast at 11.00 am, after a couple of short stops on the way. Our driver, Danny, drove carefully so it was a comfortable two hours drive through some quite attractive scenery as we crossed from one side of Palawan to the other.

The road was sealed for most of the way, and as we approached the west coast we found ourselves riding on a very good concrete road. Only problem was that the local rice farmers were using half the road to dry their rice. It was good that traffic was light. But on one occasion, as we came around a corner, there was a vehicle on the clear side of the road, so Danny had to drive over the rice in order to avoid it. I asked Danny whether the farmer would be angry that he had driven over his rice. He replied: “Well, if they are going to use half the road, they have to be flexible.” I guess he’s right. The road was built for motor vehicles, not for drying rice.

When we arrived at Sabang Beach, after Danny managed to locate the other two couples willing to share their boat, we boarded for the 20 minute ocean trip north to the entrance of the national park.

That part of the trip on the sea was a bit choppy so I had to keep my camera covered to avoid it getting splashed with sea water.

On arrival at the national park we transferred to a smaller boat to enter the underground river.

The cave system through which we paddled was pitch black and completely natural. There were no lights or any man-made constructions inside. The orange lights that you see in the photos below are from the spotlights that the boatmen use to point out features in the caves.

I have been in so many cave systems in developing countries before – and been disappointed with what I saw (they are usually damaged and polluted) - that I wasn’t expecting that much from this trip. In fact we arranged the trip more to see the west coast of Palawan. But I was very impressed with what I saw in the national park. I lost track of the time that we spent inside the cave system. I suppose it was something like 30-45 minutes, and we traveled for maybe a kilometre or so up the river. The cave system goes on for another 7-8 kilometres, but you need a special permit to go further. There was a lot to see, and I was particularly impressed by how well everything was preserved. My only criticism was that I would have preferred the boatman’s commentary to be a bit more scientific than pointing out stalactites that looked like Sharon Stone’s bum and cracking corny jokes about stalagmites that resembled part of a man’s anatomy. But I guess he wasn’t joking when he told us not to open our mouths when looking up because there were thousands of small bats hanging from the roofs of the caves (the last of the four pictures above shows about 100 bats hanging from a small section of the cavern roof).

As we were walking back to the beach from the entrance to the underground river, our boatman saw a monitor lizard crossing the rainforest track. He ran forward to grab it by the tail to show us. I don’t think the lizard was that impressed!

Back out on the beach there were about a dozen boats waiting to take their passengers back to Sabang Beach.

We had lunch at Sabang Beach before driving back to Puerto Princesa. The beach was completely deserted and stretched for as far as the eye could see. I guess if the west coast of Palawan was not so far off the beaten track, there would be high rise condos behind the trees and hundreds of western tourists soaking up the sun on the sand.

On the way back, Danny stopped on the crest of a hill where a friend of his was building a house. He told me that his friend had bought 2.5 hectares there for 800,000 pesos (about US$17,000). This is the view from his land:

Can there be many other places in the world where you can buy 2.5 hectares with a view like this for $17,000?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Natural farming with worms and microbes

We visited Aloha House today – an orphanage and organic farm near Baker’s Hill on the outskirts of Puerto Princesa. We met with its director, Keith Mikkelson, who showed us around the farm. He is growing a very wide variety of vegetables and herbs, and also has a fish pond and is raising livestock in quite a compact area.

He has an extensive vermiculture operation as well, and is using African Nightcrawlers which he propagated from the native worms found in water buffalo dung. He is using a method of top harvesting the vermicast that is different to what I have seen in other vermiculture operations. It ensures that only casts are harvested and avoids worms and manure ‘contaminating’ the vermicast.

He has also recently started growing organic mushrooms:

Whilst touring the farm I noticed that the leafy greens had very few holes in them – a problem that you often see with organic vegetables that are attacked by caterpillars and grasshoppers in the absence of them being sprayed with pesticides. Keith said his ‘secret’ was in their technique of inoculating the soil with beneficial microbes that helps the plants to take up more of the minerals (calcium especially) and trace elements that are needed to make them unpalatable to insects (but still tasty for humans!).

I bought a copy of Keith’s book ‘Sustainable Agriculture in the Tropics’ and look forward to learning more about his obviously successful growing techniques. Keith also runs three-day seminars on organic farming every month, along with a local horticulturalist, Simon Gill. We made a note to book one before we start growing vegetables at Mandala Farm.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Windows but no Vista on Cebu Pacific

My New Year’s resolution for 2010 was to keep my blog up to date. (I didn’t do a very good job of that in 2009!). So here I am four days into the new year and posting my first entry for the new decade. And unfortunately I have to start with a gripe – about Cebu Pacific airlines. We arrived in Puerto Princesa (Palawan) earlier this evening after two flights with Cebu Pacific from Singapore via Manila. On both flights the aircraft – an A320 and an A319 – had the dirtiest windows I have seen on passenger aircraft since a flight I took with Ariana Afghan Airways about six years ago.

I know not to expect too much from budget airlines, and I am normally very tolerant of shortcomings if I have paid a low fare, but if they never bother to wash the windows, it does make you wonder what other areas of maintenance on which they may be taking short-cuts. For a photographer like myself, one of the pleasures of traveling by air is being able to capture the odd good aerial shot – but there was no chance of that on my Cebu Pacific flights – the windows were so dirty it was like looking into fog.

The picture below was taken under a clear blue sky over the South China Sea and ought to show the distinctive outline of Linapacan Island as a green land mass in a turquoise coloured sea – but through the dirty window of my Cebu Pacific A319, it was only barely possible to see.

But maybe you have to pay extra to have a clean window? These days with budget airlines, everything is an extra. An extra 200 pesos for a seat with extra legroom, an extra 400 pesos for another 5 kg of baggage, and so on . . . so maybe I missed clicking the box that said “Clean window: 200 pesos extra”.

But to finish on positive note, we’ve just had a nice meal at Kinabuch’s Bar and Grill in Puerto Princesa of fresh tiger prawns, vegetable curry and rice, a buko shake, and a mango and ginger shake – all for the grand price of 625 pesos (about US$13) – that’s about half the price a similar meal would cost at a restaurant of equivalent quality in Malaysia.

It started raining lightly about halfway through the meal, but we were seated under a coconut palm so the fronds kept most of the rain off us. It was nice and cooling given that it was a very balmy evening.

We took a tricycle back to the hotel – that set us back all of 20 pesos.