Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Kingfisher Park adventure

(Published in Enrich magazine, 2011)

THE MOST IMPORTANT decision you’ve got to make before your adventure at Kingfisher Park Resort in Malbato, Coron, Palawan is whether you want to (1) sweat in the sun or (2) soak-in the sun.

The former is tough but sweet; it’s physical punishment whose ultimate reward is proving you’re one tough dude (or dudette). Exercise sweat tastes good!

The latter is what your average tourist looks for in the average vacation: leisure time to soak-in the sun while taking a long hike; going on fun boat rides; gamboling on the beach and posing for digital jump shots with your mates. And, of course, gorging on the bountiful local cuisine.

Whichever option you choose is bound to create such intense memories that you’re immediately seized by the urge to share it with your gazillion friends on Facebook once you return to “civilization.” Hey, Facebook’s really about bragging rights, isn’t it?

And you’ll have a lot to brag about after vacationing at Kingfisher Park (KP). It’s almost as if you’d rocketed to another planet where clean air’s the rule and not the exception, or to a lush, arboreal moon unspoiled by humans (reminds you of a certain 3D movie, I imagine).

My intense memories of KP, however, are mostly about sweet sweat pouring down my face and soaking my body a scant three hours after my Zest Air turboprop touched down at the Francisco B. Reyes Airport after an hour’s flight from Pasay City.

Pastoral Perfection
The flight’s quickness was my first surprise. It was over so fast that I’d barely dozed-off when the flight attendant’s sweet voice over the intercom announced we were about to land at Busuanga Airport. I peered out the window as the plane went into a gentle left bank to see a ragged, unbroken greenscape flash below me, marred only by a solitary dirt trail that meant humans existed somewhere in this ocean of green.

This perception of immense greenness was reinforced during the 30-minute ride to Coron town, capital of Busuanga Island, where my adventure tour was to start. This 21 kilometer trip due southeast took me past picturesque and verdant fields; past rolling hills unscarred by fire and destructive logging and past brooks so clean local lasses were bathing in them!

It was the idyllic picture of pastoral perfection I’d read about in my grade school textbooks. And it was right here before me. I’d been to a lot of places in this country and had seen my share of stunning bucolic settings. But this was my first trip to Palawan, and my first encounter with this province in Busuanga seemed to confirm Palawan’s billing as the Philippines’ “Last Unspoiled Paradise.”

The roadsides of the all-weather National Highway as you neared Coron town are dotted with firms servicing tourism, which is the island’s main industry apart from fishing. Locals later on told me that many of the fishermen had given up their nets for the quick pesos to be made shuttling an endless stream of tourists from one island destination to another and to the island’s world famous dive sites.

Busuanga is one of the world’s top 10 dive sites and draws many divers from around the world. Wrecks of Japanese ships sunk in the shallow waters of Coron Bay during World War II are divers’ favorites. The peak tourist season lasts from October to May.

As a result of this migration to tourism, fishing is in the decline with only the hardiest continuing this money-losing trade. One tourist guide joked that fishing boats no longer reek of fish but are saturated by the scent of perfumed tourists.

If you want to travel quickly from one tourist destination to another in Busuanga, the best was to do so is by boat. Only the National Highway from Coron in the south to the town of Buluang in the northwest is the main land route in Busuanga.

Traveling elsewhere means you have to go by boat, more specifically by motorized outrigger canoes or bancas. The South China Sea is Busuanga’s E. de los Santos Avenue, as it is for Coron Island, Culion Island and Calauit Island, which are all part of the Calamianes Group of Islands in northern Palawan. The islands in the group remind one of Venice, except the canals in this case are wide salty sea lanes.

I was met at the Zest Air office along Real St. in Coron town by Godofredo “Mang Godie” Contado, KP’s tour guide, who’s been at this job since the resort opened in 1997. He was actually one of the carpenters who built the resort in 1995.

Torturous Trail
After a quick lunch, a ride on one of Coron’s “long-nose” tricycles saw me go back the way I came. A fork in the road, however, took me to the starting point of my adventure tour: a church on a knoll at Sitio Malbato.

Construction of the Santo Rosario church was begun two years ago by the Reyes family, owners of KP and one of the prominent political families in Busuanga. The Mayor and Vice-Mayor of Coron town are brothers, both Reyeses.

Made of limestone, tan colored stones (probably sandstone) and other rocks, the church is dominated by a minimalist wood sculpture of a crucified and wide-awake Christ wearing a crown of real thorns. The altar is another eye-catcher: it stands on the roots of a tree. A stained-glass circular window illustrated by two angels highlights the façade. The Church, however, remains unfinished.

Barely visible in the distance from the Church was our destination: Kubo sa Dagat (Huts on the Sea). It was a torturous, four kilometer trek under a fierce 3:00 pm sun. At the end of this exhausting march was a five-minute banca ride to Kubo sa Dagat, which stands on a sandbar in the middle of the Malbato Bay. Kubo would be my lodging for the next two days.

Although I lugged around just eight kilograms in my valise, the undulating dirt trail winding along the side of Mt. Lunes Santo (Mt. Holy Monday) and the fast pace set by Mang Godie so we’d reach Kubo before sunset made the trek punishing but manageable.

I’d expected to really sweat but my choosing a valise with a shoulder strap instead of an ergonomic backpack was a wrong decision. Constantly shifting the strap from shoulder to shoulder slowed me down and made me sweat much harder.

Since I used to run and still keep in shape by walking long distances, however, these exertions didn’t leave me flat out fatigued. And I loved the way I was breathing heavily. It felt magnificent to happily inhale as much fresh and unpolluted air as I wanted to. Doing this in Metro Manila would be the equivalent of slow suicide.

The unnamed mountain trail, Mang Godie told me, led straight to manganese mines on the other side of Mt. Lunes Santo that used to be active before World War II. By force of habit, I constantly scanned the trail ahead for any signs of fresh or dried cow or carabao dung. My previous excursions taught me there’s no such thing as dried dung: it still stinks if you step on it, no matter what state of decomposition it’s in.

The presence along the trail of masses of “napier grass” used as forage for cattle (and lately as a biofuel) also caused me to be on the lookout for dung, but Mang Godie told me cattle no longer inhabited this part of the island. As I think back on it, the only cows I saw on the island were in a herd grazing close by the airport.

After carefully crossing a rushing brook called Subang Mayor (or Big Brook) on a puny log the width of a grown man’s leg, we came across a hillside dotted with “ironwood” trees. As the name implies, the trees are as tough as iron. Locals cut down the trees using saws. Hacking at the ironwood trees with iron bolos only results in blunted bolo blades. The guard rails at Kubo are made from ironwood.

A surprise was discovering “pitcher plants” grew on the slopes of Mt. Lunes Santo. I knew these carnivorous insect eaters grew in other parts of the Philippines such as mainland Palawan and in Mindanao, but discovering them on the slopes of this mountain was a surprise.  

As we neared the seashore, Mang Godie pointed out another surprise to me. It was a queer tree whose entire bark was colored blood red. Called kulam (pronounced “kooh-lum”) by the locals, the tree only grows near the sea. There are no local superstitions associated with the tree, Mang Godie said.

As we boarded the banca that took us from the landing to Kubo, Mang Godie pointed at what appeared to be wooden tips rising from the shoreline. These, he said, were the roots of young mangrove trees that grow upwards instead of downwards. Much of the shoreline flanking the Kubo has been overrun by mangrove forests, and I’d see that for myself first hand on the morrow.

Kubo sa Dagat
But for now, it was time to get personally acquainted with the Kubo. My first impression of this hotel in the middle of the Malbato Bay—the only one of its kind in the area—was one of toughness: it had withstood time, tide and tourists, and that was an achievement. I’d be safe here and so would my valuables. That was a correct estimate.

The white paint on the beams supporting the roof had all but been brushed off by the wind. The sturdy natok floor planks, the ironwood guard rails and the acacia dining tables had that melancholy patina associated with ancestral homes. Since the resort opened back in 1997, its robust condition was remarkable despite it constantly being battered by wind, rain, sun and sea salt.

After checking into my “veranda suite” as the sole occupant of a room named “Dolphin” with seven empty beds, I checked out the facilities. Apart from my suite (the largest), there are five others, most of which have one double and one single bed.

There are separate shared bathrooms for men and women, both of which are clean and sanitary. The men’s bathroom has two bath stalls and four flush toilets, a pleasant surprise, since the resort has its own huge septic tank.

Water is delivered by an undersea pipe from Coron. The water pipe, installed only two years ago, also means you can do your own laundry or have the polite resort staff do it for you for a fee.

The main dining area also doubles as the resort’s pier. It seats some 50 guests and is the perfect spot for watching the sun set over Malbato Bay. Guests spend the evenings in conversation here or sleep here. Interacting with one another is about the only activity available every evening since there isn’t a TV, karaoke, DVD player or computer on the island.

That’s because electricity is scarce. The resort’s electricity is provided by roof-mounted solar panels, and this power is just enough for a few lights and to charge your celphone or small batteries such as those for digital cameras. You can’t plug your laptop or you’ll drain the system’s solar batteries. You also can’t iron your clothes for the same reason.

If you’ve got SmartBRO on your laptop, you’re in luck since it means you remain connected to the internet. Sorry for Globe subscribers: no signal. Smart celphones also receive a stronger signal than do Globe celphones because the former has more celsites on Busuanga. There’s no cel service for Sun Cellular on Kubo.

I took my first meal (dinner) along with a group of six accountants on a business/vacation trip. The cuisine was not unexpected: adobong alimango, calamares rings, tilapia, rice, adobo and sweet mangoes. Coffee and tea are bottomless and mineral water is always available for free. Aling Juaning Zabalo, the chef, has been preparing meals since joining the Kubo’s staff in 1997 and her knowledge of Filipino and international cuisine is immense.

Kubo is the nod to civilization in the otherwise all-natural Kingfisher Park. Spanning 400 acres, the park is a wildlife sanctuary consisting of mangrove forests, islets, tropical forests, hills, a mountain and numerous species of animals, fishes and birds. It’s owned and managed by the Reyeses who bought the land in the 1950s.

Immediately after dinner was a feast for the eyes called “Starry Starry Night.” And, no, we didn’t’ sing this 1970s hit song a capella. A night boat ride took us from Kubo to the opposite shore. As we neared the shoreline we could see trees lit by what appeared to be hundreds of LEDs bobbing around in mid-air.

These weren’t light bulbs, however. They were colonies of fireflies, or aninipot in the dialect, flitting around pagatpat trees, the leaves of which are their main food source. The sight is normally described by locals as “Living Christmas Trees.”

For city people who’ve never seen a firefly at night or a firefly swarm for that matter, the sight is fantastic. “Wow!” and “Picture! Picture!” are common exclamations of wonder at the sight. Sadly, however, you aren’t allowed to take photos using a flash (it would scare away the fireflies). You can only watch in awe at a spectacular sight city dwellers no longer behold.

And the stars look enormous and brighter than they do in the city. Venus was especially noticeable, huge and unblinking as she was against a clear sky festooned with winking stars. The only explanation for the stars seeming so close is because there isn’t a blanket of smog and pollution obscuring them. So this is what heaven without pollution really looks like.

Going to sleep, needless to say, was a delight. The only sound alien to my Manileño’s ears was that of waves constantly slapping against the concrete stanchions of the veranda. The night is so deathly quiet it’s scary—but only if you’re alone. With someone else, you could describe the evenings as really romantic.

Mangrove Kayaking
Dawn saw me take my first long look at Malbato Bay and the Kubo. Envision Malbato Bay in the shape of the capital letter “Q.” The diagonal stroke of the letter represents one of only two entrances to the bay. Kubo is located to the left of this stroke, and faces due north.

The other entrance to the bay is to the northwest and we took this passage enroute to the second stage of my adventure tour: mangrove kayaking and a visit to a newly discovered hot spring tucked deep in the mangrove forest.

The motorized banca ride to the mangrove forest (or bakawan) took about 30 minutes. Navigating the ruyukan or the narrow “streets” between mangrove islands was a slow process. At low tide you can actually wade in the mangrove, but kayaking is only possible during high tide.

With Mang Godie paddling and me taking photos, we wended our way through the mangrove maze. We landed and made our way through a tropical forest and past a bewildering array of trees and plants.

What made a lasting impression on me was walking through a forest of buho, or small bamboo plants that bent inwards to form a spectacular green arch over the forest trail. Buho is also the material used for the roof of both the Kubo and the Santo Rosario church.

After watching three workmen clear vegetation at the hot springs, we headed back to the kayak. The forest bordering this mangrove is home to host of animal species, some of which we think only exist in other countries: armadillos, skunks (pantot), anteaters, porcupines, wild boars, monkeys and monitor lizards (bayawak). I only saw a bayawak as it rushed past us and that for only an instant. But I did hear monkeys and woodpeckers screaming from somewhere in the forest.

Family Tours
The adventure package I went on is only one of many a tourist can choose from. You can find information about these packages at

Most of these packages are fit for families or for corporate types, and are definitely less exhausting than a four kilometer walk, Lunes Santo trekking and mountain biking through this mountain. The only reason I didn’t go mountain biking was that I ran out of time. A two days stay isn’t enough to explore most of at Kingfisher Park. That’s why you’ve got to choose your packages carefully.

The bird watching package has a charm of its own and one might even get to glimpse the bird for whom the park is named. A popular family package is a visit to D' Fisherman's Haven in Sabang on the northeastern part of Busuanga. D' Fisherman's Haven has a white sand beach and offers wind, surf and sun.

You’ve got to go back to experience Kingfisher Park to the fullest. I’m seriously considering it.