It was just that we really, really wanted to do our own thing, and we were almost ready…
When I first wrote about the Philippines, here, we were packing up the usual suspects of adventure: Tent, sleeping bags, cooking stuff, medications. But as we motored down the Pasig River on a commuter ferry, we were mapless.
Jon and I were finally on our way that afternoon to get on a big ole’ ship bound for Coron Town from the port of Manila. For ‘where to actually go exploring once we got there’ resources, we had a Lonely Planet and a scrap of paper with a hurriedly scrawled selection of ‘Philippines Best Unspoiled Beaches,’ taken from a blog post. A starting point, but we were game for getting really lost for a few weeks, and for that we felt stunted, navigationally speaking.
Had we not come across a nautical map supplier by fluke that day in Intramuros, our time in the Philippines would have been drastically different. These maps were the catalysts for a boat trip that was both independent, but also forced us to frequently rely on local advice, kindness and hospitality. Talk about a lucky combination.
Although we spilled coffee on them, ripped them, wrote on them and sometimes sat on them, we worshipped the maps and this post is dedicated to them specifically. One of us even got a bit emotional when we first bought them, but I won’t say who.
Now cherished souveneirs, the three maps were 1:50,000, with bathymetry variably noted in metres or fathoms (hello, vintage). Legend omitted, it was up to us to trial and error our way through deciphering the symbols that rimmed the islands freckling northern Palawan’s waters. We hoped that the less intuitive ones were not critically important!
The maps rarely left our sight – they were our key to adventure more than most other things in our heavy backpacks. The grand prize goes to, predictably, our poor ATM cards. And our positive attitudes, har har. Our first day in Coron Town, the maps were clean and uninitiated. We’d unroll them carefully in our room and evaluate distances and terrain. Could we maybe rent sea kayaks? Could we get dropped off at a beach for a few days at a time? And why is there no symbol for ‘perfect deserted camping beach’ on the map?
The maps gave us confidence. We saw that the region was generally sheltered, the distances managable, but that an engine was required. They inspired us, too; beyond and between the beaches advertised on tour pamphlets there appeared to be endless coves, shorelines and entire islands that we could maybe play castaway on. This is why when Jon asked me the next morning if I wanted to try to buy and captain a bangka boat, I only balked a little. Twenty-four hours later, unbelievably, we had settled on a temporary floating home at a price we could stomach.
On the pier, in the tour office, on the boat, new friends now pored over the maps with us. They gave us essential advice, cautions, destinations to set course for, and pointed out ports for restocking food and fuel. We could see that the maps also gave them reassurance that we hopefully knew what we were getting ourselves into. They had, after all, offered to be a phone call away if we ran into trouble. It can be a tall order to rescue an outrigger canoe and its passengers in crisis.
The first week at sea, the maps were only put away at meal times and at night. Where to next? Frequently we studied them for landmarks, topography, distances, hazards and depths. While underway, we’d look up, down, up, down, up down – no moreso than when we were comparing the extent of the mapped reefs to the neon coral shelves popping up around us under the surface. All this while I struggled to break my map-spinning tendencies.
A note on map maintenance. It’s a hard life for paper maps on a bangka. They got a bit tattered as a result of weighing the corners down with rocks – but they wouldn’t be much use should they get whipped away in the wind. When we put them away it was on a dirty dark shelf above a much dirtier, darker engine area. We didn’t really intravene on their well being until we taped up the creases with medical tape about halfway through the trip. Next time some sort of plastic sleeve would be awesome.
For me the most enjoyable perk of having the maps, besides using them to not sink, was plotting parts of our routes out, and seeing the journey’s haphazard progress. Little notes, of which I wish I had made more, mark areas of particular challenge or fun times.
And as they sometimes do, the days passed quickly and we found ourselves winding down sixteen days on the water, retracing the way back to Coron Town. The maps didn’t get as much action later in the trip. It was a great feeling to use our modest tide knowledge, familiar views and better reef reading to steer a course that didn’t require such frequent cross referencing.
Yes, we were prepared. But without turning that lucky corner back in Manila it wouldn’t have mattered much. Our perspectives on what we could try to tackle were changed completely. So all the quiet mornings, secret spots, canned meat meals, near misses, waving fishermen, ocean baths – I thank the maps. These days, they’re high and dry in Utah where I hope they miss the ocean a little less than I do.