Balabac, the Southernmost backdoor of Palawan, is a prisoner’s paradise, four hours sailing to Malaysia, four days journey from Manila – depending on the whims of its sapphire seas plied by poachers, pirates and Muslim rebels.
Few tourists ever see these scattering of 31 islands with their sugar and peach beaches, unexplored reefs, blood red earth, verdant mangroves and mountains full of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the planet, from tree shrews to bearded pigs who feel their way through dark, dense jungles by their whiskers.
A lone stone sentinel, the Melville lighthouse, has been guiding ships for over a century now as they steam for Sabah, Borneo across Balabac Strait, the half a hundred kilometer-wide corridor of coral shelves linking Sulu Sea and South China Sea.
The island group is also home to 30,000 people. The native Molbogs mix with Muslims who fled the conflict in Jolo, miners who lost their jobs in neighboring towns, ex-military men and city folks who married locals and descendants of revolutionaries whom the Spaniards jailed here and used as forced labor to build the lighthouse in 1892.
I felt like an inmate too. For the first time in my travels, two bodyguards shadowed every move I made. I should not wander before daybreak and after nightfall, they warned. Too bad because Balabac’s most famous wildlife, the endangered dwarf mouse deer or “pilandok”, only comes out to graze on flowers after dark.
These rabbit-sized ruminants are depicted as tricksters in folklore, burrowing under trees, cohabiting with pythons in a strange symbiosis. The constrictor beds down with the mouse deer who lures in meatier fare than itself for its housekeeper. Molbogs eat the “pilandok” and hunt him with their dogs. So, the mouse deer lures his pursuers to his burrow, straight into the python’s waiting jaws.
Just three kilometres out West, Balabac’s Great Reefs fringe 14 kilometers of the coast, going down ten fathoms deep. Giant clams and rare cone shells abound here. Mantas, hawksbill turtles, sharks, a newly discovered species – the dwarf spinner dolphin, plus an occasional whale shark cruise by.
The white coast of Candaraman is half an hour away. Roughton, another reef-encircled island, along with Nasubata, are less than an hour’s sailing. But nobody parades around the beaches in bikinis. This is Moslem country. And as spectacular as the diving maybe, no dive shops do business in these parts. You bring your own scuba gear and plunge in at your own risk. The island has a clinic but no doctor. The nearest hospital is in the capital, Puerto Princesa, 300 kilometers away.
Even the bugs that inhabit the islands are not to be messed around with. Malaria and disfiguring elephantiasis, both mosquito-borne, are rampant. I slept under a net, took anti-malaria pills, drank only bottled water and sprayed insect repellent. Yet I was covered with sand flea bites and had nightmares of parasites invading my spleen, liver and bone marrow.
Still, I ventured barefoot in the mangroves, sneaking up on sandpipers visiting from Russia, praying I don’t tread on stingrays, sea urchins or crocodiles. Pink-bellied Imperial pigeons, cockatoos, hornbills and blue-headed raquet tail parrots plucked strangler figs while a white-bellied sea eagle glided over the treetops lazily, until he spotted a fish and dropped like a bomb into the sea.
Everywhere, the earth is rich red from deposits of copper and nickel – a blessing and a curse. A defunct copper mine two kilometres from the “poblacion” has been poisoning the island’s groundwaters for decades now. On our last day, the denuded limestone mountains unleashed flashfloods through the heart of town.
Tragically, the islanders destroy their own land, poisoning the seas, devouring endangered wildlife, chopping down the mangroves, slashing-and–burning the forests while Taiwanese and Vietnamese poachers trawled the waters, stealing and killing what they can.
People here are poor though the land is rich. Land Without Hope, some locals call it, but even they refuse to leave, prisoners of Balabac’s raw beauty and promise unfulfilled.
Indeed, getting in and out is a challenge. No commercial flights serve Balabac. Without a floatplane, a round trip takes 4 days – good weather permitting.
I went the way locals go. After an hour and half flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa, I squeezed in a rickety van, jolting 8 hours over rough roads, dust and red mud to Rio Tuba, spent the night there, then took the boat for 6-hour’s sailing to Balabac in blinding rain.
When visibility turned zero, the captain killed the engine. We bobbed in the middle of the angry sea as he sought our bearings over sandbars and reefs that can eviscerate the ship. Our bodyguards tensed. Here, we are most vulnerable to raiders. After an eternity, the fog lifted and we raced for land, bucking and jolting over the waves.
Remnants of a Spanish stone fort stood in the heart of Balabac, cut by a single road lined with houses and stores. No jeeps or cars in sight, only locals on foot, motorcycles and tricycles charging half a hundred pesos per trip. There’s no bank, just a single pawnshop.
I was relieved that our lodge, J&D, was a real house, not a tent crawling with bugs. For P200 per night, I enjoyed a single room with a hard bed and ceiling fan. The sheets are freshly laundered. No towels or hot showers though. They turn off the generator at midnight and urge you to sleep under a mosquito net.
Surprisingly, the food was good. The restaurant in the corner fed us fresh-caught fried “samaral”, cuttlefish, native chicken “adobo”, “tulingan” in tamarind broth and tuna “kilawin”. The owner lists down everything you eat in her notebook. You settle your bill on the day you leave.
When the rains abated, we climbed the lighthouse on the hill above Biga-Biga beach and looked across the strait to the blue-hazed outline of Borneo less than 60 miles away. But going down, our bodyguards came face to face with the muzzle of a cocked rifle – police patrol. Another reconnoitred on the beach.
Just a few days ago, they caught Chinese poachers who killed critically endangered hawksbill turtles and lopped off their flippers. Incredulously, even the local police ate 3 turtles, one of them admitted.
It reminded me of soldiers in Aurora who shot down one of the province’s last Philippine eagles just to find out what it tasted like. It was sad. Only one in a thousand turtle hatchlings survive. They don’t reproduce till age 30 and are almost extinct. As I argued the hawksbill’s case, the young policeman shrugged lamely, looking out to sea.
Our bodyguards urged us to get out of Balabac as soon as possible but our boat captain jabbed his fingers at the dark clouds bloated with rain and refused to sail. It will be suicide to cross the open sea.
So, we took a small boat to Tambon, a satellite island across Balabac, though the waters churned ochre and the rain pursued us. I was soaked but overjoyed when a white-bellied sea eagle materialized in the mangroves and circled over us.
Tambon’s caretaker invited us to his nipa hut and quenched our thirst with fresh young coconuts. I perched on his window ledge, squinting in the smoke while he set a kettle to boil on his charcoal stove. Between the slatted bamboo floor, I made out scrawny chicks scratching for grubs below.
Island life is hard, he confided. He plants tomatoes and cucumbers among his coconut trees to earn extra. The mangrove yields fish and oysters but he still needs cash for rice and gas for his boat.
Behind the hut, a tethered water monitor lizard lashed his tail menacingly when we approached. Yesterday, he killed three chicks. So the caretaker snared the monitor, the third he caught so far, to sell to locals who eat lizard meat.
I felt sorry for the doomed reptile, remembering the huge monitors of Coron who begged for handouts in the kitchens everyday. Monitors are endangered, I told his captor, but they tame easily and tourists love them. But he didn’t seem to hear.
Near dusk, he saw us off with a bag of shellfish fattened from the mangroves plus a coil of “makabuhay” – a medicinal plant that deadens pain. “I don’t believe this land is without hope,” he called out in parting.
Back at Balabac’s port, run-off from the mines bloodied the coast. A dark water line marked the walls of stores and homes. We gawked at the refrigerator on top of the dining table in the store across our inn. The mountains unleashed a flash flood awhile ago, the owner explained.
Reluctantly, we left Balabac at dawn. As we passed by the mangroves, my sea eagle emerged from the canopy, spreading his wings in a last salute. And I found myself praying for hope – for him and his wild abode.