Padyak Palawan: Exploring the last frontier on two wheels
Words and Photos by Gabriel Malvar
Buliluyan is a remote quiet town on the southernmost point of the main Palawan island. Save for trucks moving back and forth and cement mixers rumbling on the unfinished jetty, there was hardly any activity in the area. This fishing village is merely a jump-off point to ferry goods and people to the smaller islands of Balabac, Pandanan and Bugsuk.
The outer islands are different from those in the tourist havens of Bacuit Bay and the Calamianes. The dramatic crags that characterize Coron and El Nido are absent. But the long stretch of white powdery talc in Sebaring and the Maldives-esque island hideaway of Onuk can definitely compare with the more prestigious Palawan sites. Unfamiliar and unrecognizable, yes. But only for the moment. Hardly anybody comes here because of the remoteness and the difficult travel conditions. The roads are not complete. The main highway from Puerto Princesa extends only to Rio Tuba. But it is only a matter of time before this part of Palawan becomes part of recall.
Under a mild drizzle, against the backdrop of trucks and machinery on the port, amidst the locals composed of Christians and Moslems and a company of Marines from the 12th Battalion stationed in the area, Padyak Palawan was unceremoniously kicked off, but only after the customary photo taking with the tarpaulin marking the event.
Literally at the end of the road, the only direction forward was northward. Over 700 kilometers beyond was El Nido, the tourism jewel and the more famous counterpart at the northernmost municipality in the opposite side of the island, a stark contrast to the milieu on hand. In the long stretch from North to South, landscapes and terrain lay in varying shapes and form between the extremes. The geological makeup of the scenery changed the further south or north one went.
The intention was to traverse the entire length of Palawan island by bike, an undertaking of over two weeks through the province’s main municipalities and panoramas, to conclude in El Nido. The team was composed of former and existing UP Mountaineers, an assorted and larger than life bunch of an artist, a maker of bamboo bikes, a geological mapper, a dreadlocked cook, to name a few characters. The squad was led by prominent adventurer Romi Garduce.
“I have never done a bike tour. I wanted to find out if I can complete one.” A funny, self-deprecating soul, this Romi, conqueror of the mighty Mt. Everest and the rest of the seven summits.
It was a plan hatched after his vertical challenges had been conquered, and new quests had to be conjured or reframed. Why continue going higher when one can roam further sideways? Not lost underneath his modesty though is a genuine concern for the environment.
“Hopefully, with this tour, we can showcase the other less visited parts, as well as call attention to conservation issues affecting the island.”
After refilling water bottles, redundant trips to the latrine and conclusive tire pressure checks, the team finally set forth to tackle the first (a 72 km ride to Bataraza, passing by the mining community of Rio Tuba) of 10 legs en route to the ultimate destination in the karst-peppered region on the tip of the island.
Palawan island, the largest, least populated and most distant province in the western side of the Philippine archipelago, is elongated, defined more by its length than its width, and in some stretches, the eastern and western coasts are separated by a distance of only five kilometers.
The island is wrapped in over 2,000 kms of coastline and there is no escaping the great bodies of water. Be it the West Philippine Sea or the Sulu sea, the shore is never far away. With a plethora of grand majestic bays, concealed lagoons, mangrove forests and deserted stretches of powdery white sand, there is no shortage of dramatic seaside sceneries.
Palawan island is a landmass on bedrock, and a massive backbone of limestone karst splits the eastern and western sections of the entire island. In the southern region, this spine hugs the western coastline, leaving expansive spaces on the eastern side for farmlands and plantations. Wide-ranging networks of caves–shaped, eroded and weathered by the elements–perforate the mountainous terrain.
Mountain peaks protrude at sharp gradients from a narrow base, the slopes and valleys enclosed with lush tropical rainforests, home to indigenous folk (Tagbanua, Tau’t Bato, Palaw’an) still practicing traditional ways of tribal living. Dense jungles and watersheds bring forth the continuous flow of water in numerous rivers, falls and streams. And with water comes life. Pitcher plants, orchids and other vibrant flora are abundant and bloom in the wild, nurtured and supported by highly-fertile soil. Uncommon and endangered animal species inhabit the land which thousands of years ago used to be part of Borneo, foraging or roosting in Palawan’s deep interior and coastal territories.
With its impressive array of incredible natural landscapes, rustic settings, and terrestrial and aquatic offerings, what more ideal place than Palawan for an exploration and adventure on two wheels?
Padyak Palawan is a road trip. It starts from the deep south, heading northwards, a pedal through the heartland of Palawan via the main highway, yet diverting off the grid occasionally using dirt roads and old logging and mining trails. A bike is the perfect conveyance for this expedition; a motorized vehicle is simply too fast, while walking the entire length is unrealistic. The endeavor, however, is no pedal in the park. It is physically challenging, averaging 67 kms per day of riding trails at all levels of difficulty under varying conditions.
The initial Buliluyan to Bataraza stretch was the best introduction to gradually get the biking legs going and up to speed. The ride was mostly over flat terrain of mixed dirt and paved roads, surrounded by elevated wooden houses, swathes of coconut trees and the realities of rural Palawan. A jungle-clad monolith with three false peaks appeared like a watch tower in the horizon and was a constant companion. The gentle uniformity was broken upon reaching Rio Tuba, a municipality built on the back of nickel extraction and processing. The condition of the improved and there was a noticeable shift in fortunes and living conditions.
In Brooke’s point and Espanola, the Islamic influence was evident (portions of south Palawan were once part of the Sultanate of Sulu). Women wore hijabs and numerous mosques dotted the highway. Under the shadow of ominous Mt. Matalingahan, the highest peak in the island at over 2,000 meters, egrets traipsed on rice fields and farmers tilled the farmlands. The ride along the main highway was straightforward and routine.
The road forked westward in the the narrow break between the Mt. Matalingahan and Mt Victoria mountain ranges, and led to Quezon, the biggest municipality on the western coast, home of Tabon Cave in Lipuun point and a host of unexplored caverns and their secrets about the history of the earliest human beings. Quezon provided the first opportunity for a full day’s break after a three-day continuous journey. There was an opportunity to learn about history and archaeology.
After the brief respite, the team commenced its first grueling phase on possibly the loneliest road in the province with hardly anyone in sight for long periods, through Berong and its seemingly-deserted mining towns and plantations of palm trees, to Apurawan Beach in Aborlan. The Mt. Victoria range now took its turn as the constant marker. There was no shame in dismounting to walk portions of steep, winding slopes of stone and clay. Secluded beaches and plateaus at the end of steep ascents provided the perfect stops to catch a breather from negotiating uneven tracks and dodging rocks, or to view the distance just covered as the cool sea air blew.
From Apurawan Beach, the road wound inland across Aborlan’s mountainous forests and rejoined the main highway on the east rounding Puerto Princesa bay just before the approach to Iwahig, home of the open penal colony at the base of Mt. Thumbspeak, (its rainforests hosting exotic ferns and leaches), before entering Puerto Princessa the capital. The journey’s forgiving section was now revealed as the southern portion was completed.
More bikers joined in Puerto Princesa for the second half push towards the “glamorous” north.
The jaunt to Tinitian Municipality in Quezon from Puerto Princessa was among the easiest despite being the longest ride. It was a relatively easy cruise over rolling well-paved roads where uphill climbs are immediately followed by descents, facilitating quick recoveries. Honda bay was to the right. And Sabang, home of the iconic Underground River, was to the left, hidden behind the massif.
The Cleopatra Needle mountain range encompasses an area from east coast to west coast, the entire width of the island. The main road was constructed to hug the seaboard rather than cut across the park. A collective decision was made to leave the main highway and break inland for a cross-country passage to the western municipality of Caruray tucked between the coves of Sabang and Port Barton. If there ever was an epitome of Palawan’s deep interior, this was it. The most eventful leg involved traversing the base and inclines of mountains via jungle routes following a snaking river which steeply climbed to high elevations resulting in several tumbles and bike breakdowns in sections eroded by landslide. The bikers, however, were rewarded with beautiful mountain scenery, lush forests and hidden rice fields between valleys and sightings of scurrying animals. A small waterfall provided the perfect place to cool down and wash up in the heartland of what is referred to as the “last frontier, where the support vehicle could not reach.
The road to Port Barton, a similar coastal town enclosed in jungle, offered more of the same characteristics while another opportunity for a breathtaking pit stop presented itself upon reaching San Vicente, blessed with a stunning long beach fronting the West Philippine sea. From the poblacion, it was a return to the main road and a rather unexciting cruise to the historic town of Taytay, passing by Lake Manguao and its endemic mynahs and cockatoos on the way.
The final homestretch to El Nido was an ascending winding road that lorded above the waters of Malampaya Sound and Bacuit Bay which sheltered the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin and fish stock, hidden reefs, a tangle of limestone bluffs, sea grass and mangroves. As the remaining distance to the ultimate destination shortened, every turn increased the dread of finality as well as the anticipation of yet another discovery. The fulfillment of a promise was in the cards. The team was rewarded with the amazing sight of Palawan Hornbills in their natural environment and yielded to the relentless hankering throughout the entire trip to dismount and take photos.
The essence of the expedition is found in its plentiful moments: quiet meals in a desolate beach, singing songs at day’s end, changing tires on the roadside, nasty spills or wildlife sightings. Accommodations could be adequate– a mere bench in a public beach or a cozy bed in an air-conditioned beach resort. Meals could be whipped up in large pots after quick trips to markets or generously sponsored by the local mayor. There was the never-ending checking of gear, the treating of blisters and the nursing and resting aching joints, the lightning visits to local attractions (Iwahig Penal Colony and Tabon cave), the courtesy calls on the local councilors and mayors or the distribution of school supplies to students in schools visited.
As in all journeys, the quiet moments are equally as important as the human interactions. The instances that give pause for reflection and realization go hand in hand with fellowship. The individual cannot be separated from the community and his environment. Personal examination. Insights. Banter and laughter. The sharing of provisions. Kindness. Encouragement. These are the occasions that make up the adventure. All these may never be captured in photos or immortalized in prose, but will remain in memory. And the journeymen are all the more richer for them.
For over 12 days, the bikers faced different challenges. 12 days of strenuous paddling. 12 days of constant fellowship. 12 days of self-discovery. 12 days of being alive.
The north road doesn’t end. It loops back towards Taytay in a clockwise direction on the other side. At some point, the journey had to finish. And after 12 days and some 720 kms later, Padyak Palawan concluded in Duli beach, just 20 kms outside of El Nido. Not exactly the furthest up north, but north enough.
Englebert Chan, one of the elderly statesmen waxed sentimental just before the finale,” I felt sad that the bike adventure was about to end. I didn’t want it to end. Events like these make me feel that I am living life. Everyday stuff is corny.”
Diminutive and energetic Charm Bartolay was more introspective, yet inspired. “There is just so much beauty around us that we miss out on because we’re too focused with what we think is essential for a basic survival. There is much beauty when I look intently into the faces of the playful youth, tired vendors and weary farmers.”
“Cycling for two weeks and riding with a big varied group provides an opportunity to chat with other people with different views and vibes, plus much introspection and digestion of these thoughts when you end up cycling alone at some leg. This lets you get to know yourself beyond your blindside. And with awareness comes learning. And with learning comes action. And with action comes change. For the better hopefully. So let’s change the world!!”
Romi, of course had the last say. “Palawan is really beautiful, now having seen it first-hand. This is the longest ride I’ve ever done.”
“Pwede pala. May kasunod.” (It’s doable. There will be something next.)
We can’t wait.