Travel, Just Empower!

Year is ending, consequently another year beginning!

And the usual scenario is always being on the run at work, more of brain-bled days. There are just a lot of thangs to organize, have a quick mind and to look beyond what is necessary for the next couple of weeks. Not to mention the holidays bustle! Well, the malls are getting festive as I had a quick detour last weekend to pay bills.

Watching sunrise from heights! Red eye flight is an advantage, in many ways…

Few weeks back, before I could get drowned over with my duties I went for an official trip to off-beaten Tawi-Tawi group! I wasn’t expecting to be back after nine years, what a joy! And again, with a smile shooting more birds with just one stone! This southern most province gave me lasting impression when I first came during Ramadan, to my surprise it was festive every day. They are to my mind are peace loving people. There has been much changes though after nine years.

Back for More!

Blue seas that meets the blue skies, in wide expanse at the Bud summit!

Why is it that wonderful trips are being challenged? Unperturbed, we touched down at Sanga-Sanga Airport after our flight from Zamboanga was cancelled, after booking last minute a flight from another airlines. So, we set aside official bustle when half of our workmates were left nowhere after the chain cancellations of many flights. Because coming to Bongao is not complete without the trek to Bud, we woke up the next morning earlier for the climb. It was surprising, being there is like a walk in the park – cemented steps got you, it was a lot easier with sheds and benches scattered as you go up. What was more surprising were the friendly macaque monkeys that came nearer interacting with the trekkers! Bud Bongao Forest Park was an experience. We lingered longer at the summit watching the horizon, feeling the warm sun and cool mountain breeze. We came down leisurely still admiring the monkeys, some came near for photos. It was overwhelming, we almost forgot our breakfast. We were famished when we got to our hotel. 😛

Quickie stroll at Panampangan Island!

The are more than hundred islands surrounding the province, with many beautiful unspoiled islets scattered in the open seas. Panampangan Island is one of them and was a far dream, the locals spoke well on its beauty but said it’s expensive for the speedboat hire. I was telling my buddy then – next time, who knows? Well, in our last day our hosts arranged for some water escapade for the group. Yes, to the islands of Panampangan and Simunul – I was smiling as if my face would split in half (okey, I am exaggerating)! 🙂

Bud Bongao floating on blue waters!

Riding on a speeding boat under the sun in the wide expanse of the ocean – all three speedboats, it’s engines sounding weird as it cruised over the waters intermittently bumping the waves. Our guide said, it would take at least three hours to the island on ordinary boats but we did it only in 45 minutes! It was a quickie hop, the waters might get rough later so it was all in a rush. The longest sandbar in the country during low tide, pure and exquisite!

Sangngy Siapuh (aka Laa Islet) Resort

Speeding our way to Siangay Siapuh (aka Laa Islet) for lunch, we raced with other boats! I love the warm sun, salt water spraying over us and the sight of wide blue seas. We lingered longer – food, laughter and fun – and we agreed that nobody would talk about work. A break is a break, we need to recharge bracing for the year end hullabaloos. 🙂

Changes, there has been lot. The Bud has been transformed to Forest Park complete with the cemented steps going up – but still the summit felt good. Laa Islet which was uninhabited before has lot of structures, now transformed to a resort. They call it developments, but I was thinking its effects in the surrounding waters of main island Simunul.

Joy of Passage

I never know when I could be back in the province, but it was another unforgettable trip. I admit the company of workmates from our rural development project is heart warming – well , the strength of our team is our relationship. 🙂 It was one happy memories just like in prior year’s Mindanao cluster travels.

Morning walk on town streets, those old acacia trees near the Bongao Doctors Hospital

If there was one I wanted to do again while in Bongao, it would be diving. The waters was so inviting, but I never took a dip. I just want it to be in the depths. Well, maybe next time! That night, as I close my eyes still wide awake I tried to recount the day’s hustle – bit of tan and much salt on my skin and hair. It’s been awhile, the pandemic have cut me off from the mainstream out of the blue.

Sailing for the night towards home

One more challenge as we went home, our final flight for Cagayan de Oro was cancelled! Whew – but never allowed myself to get distracted so we took the boat from Cebu, just right to arrive safe early next morning and still report to work on time. 🙂 A decade of spree travel thought me to grasp sudden detours with an open mind, come out victorious in the end with joyful heart. Travel is indeed empowering! And I’m now ready to be out again.

40 Days till Christmas

If there’s one present I want this Christmas, it would be one not in a box with an ornate bow! Yes, that’s my description of real gift. The one that fill my heart with real gladness. And as I have promised myself, I will definitely go for a dip in my go-to dive resort, that would be enough to brace myself for all the year-end intricacies. It would make me feel good, feel whole, like my healing process is not complete without the depths.

As I scribbled this, the boxes of decor came out from the storage, the Office would soon be with blinking lights, balls and wreaths. The season is all upon us with the festive mode before pandemic, almost back to normal. It’s like going home to Christmas!

Everyone feel brand new. Soon everyone will travel again!

Breathless in Bongao

You can never miss Bongao Peak before toucihng sown Sanga-Sanga Airport
You can never miss Bongao Peak before touching down Sanga-Sanga Airport

After two plane rides a day apart, I find myself in the southern most province with a cluster of 307 islands and islets, one of the red flag spots in Mindanao – Tawi-Tawi, more than 328 kilometers from the nearest urban center in Zamboanga City. I had been doing my research and inquiries about diving in these group more than three years ago, and in 2011 chance upon a seat sale on Zamboanga – Bongao – Zamboanga route. My MRDP workmates were too encouraging having visited the province for marine preservation activities. Unfortunately, we had the trip cancelled after some irrational changes of flights leaving my tickets down the drain. Finally, I made it with my dive buddy, of course. I watched Bongao Peak in wonder as it loomed before us, while approaching the terminal of Sanga-Sanga Airport. It was still early, and the locals were just starting the day.

Zenith Moments

We went straight to our refuge in Beachside Inn, our modest room with windows facing the sea  was just to our liking. We had a long day at hand and after an hour break, headed for the trek to Bongao Peak. Yet we need the bananas for the macaque monkeys which is really necessary, the climb is not possible without the offering. Our friendly guides assured the trails won’t be horrid as it has been sunny in the past weeks. The midday sun was already scorching as we started our ascent.

The climb was only one third when we got at the cemented steps, it was getting steep which surely make one breathless but the glimpse of surrounding waters beyond was so alluring. The myth is true, the monkeys appeared for the offering and I was thinking, without the bananas all of them will swarm and block the way. They could be dangerous indeed. But personally, I found the plastics tied on the trees so disturbing, I will always see them as trash – inarguably, it marred the purity of the trees and forest. Lot of trash was left on the trails, from the climbers without doubt, it was so pathetic.

The peak was all consuming, it gave us an ample view of the surrounding islands with turquoise waters around, the town, the communities and the airport. The endless blue seas meeting the blue skies beyond is so calming. Breathless with the panorama! Peaks are always marvelous indeed.

Intense Depths

Diving in Bongao includes climbing or hoisting yourself from the waters to this boat!

The main agenda of the trip was diving of course, what else? An off-beaten site is always to our liking,  Some what mysterious and there is much to unravel. We were up early the next day, it was a gloomy Saturday morning as we gather up our gears waiting for our transpo at 7am. There is no dive operator in Bongao but the local Tawi-Tawi Divers Club (TDC) has been handling diving trips in the province, and we are grateful to them.

The hired boat, similar to those floating at the old Chinese pier was already at the bridge connecting Sanga-Sanga Island to Bongao, waiting for us. Our first site was at Sanga-Sanga Reef which is just at the front of the airport. The waters started to get choppy when we got there, but DM Ramon first sought permission from the guards, it meant wading down the waters until the shores.

Summary of our descents during the day, our first and last dive was with DM Ramon while the wreck was with Sir Dong Reyes, the president of TDC:

   Sites                  Depth   Bottom Time     Conditions
 Sanga-Sanga Reefs        15.3m     0:45        Strong current
 Pahut Plane Wreck        19.1m     0:31        Very strong current
 Sowangkagang Tiny Wall   12.1m     0:36        Mild current

One need to be an experienced diver especially that current are all common in every sites. The most challenging one and my top pick was the Plane wreck in Pahut, it was believed to be a World War II Japanese Tora-tora plane. Sir Dong had a detailed briefing before the descent making us aware of the currents judging from tide movements. The good thing was other local divers were invited, making us six in all, two of which are new graduates form MSU – Tawi Tawi from Marine Bio and Environmental Management. The instruction was once in the waters, descend immediately to the floor and hold on while waiting for others, everyone will swim or drift to the wreck together.  Angel warned me to stay close with him and never to get lost, I went ahead of him for the entry.

We all swam to the wreck with Sir Dong leading us, the overriding current almost sweeping us but firmly finned for the spot. I was somewhat dismayed that the remnants barely outlined the plane, far from the photos I saw taken two years ago. I came too near holding on an iron part, the strong current fiercely gushing and swooshing before us. Although I was focused with the currents, my eyes never failed to notice the colorful fishes hovering the artificial reef, such lovely sight! I tried to circle around still seeking refuge in the wreck mound. We all drift away as our DM signaled to depart from the spot, passing hard and soft corals with the tropical fishes – there was no pelagic in sight. We ascend too far from the boat!

Diving in Bongao or in Tawi-Tawi for that matter is not for the faint hearted, its depths is as fierce as its local people, silent but tough and can be dangerous. Confidence and trusting in one’s capacity is necessary but never forgetting basic safety rules. Forget about the comfortable white-washed dive boats with amenities and ready stairs, doing the Spartan way is the mode, climb your way from the side sans modesty and without reservations. I have gone that far, but that’s all part of the job!

Our last descent was for finishing touch with DM Ramon, it was already late at 4pm but the current has gone mild fading away. Sowangkagang was just near our lodgings. It was not a wall actually but a sandy slope decorated with soft corals like it was filled of brown grasses swaying with the current, it was mild and barely noticeable. We took some time trying to find the giant clams Sir Dong was talking about but it was nowhere. Three dives with currents are exhaustive and left us almost breathless, thanks to my oxygen! I learned that there is more joy in the routines than conquering the site – challenging or not!

The abundant marine resources of the Tawi-Tawi group has been depleting
The abundant marine resources of the Tawi-Tawi group has been depleting

Marine Preservation and Protection

It is impressive to note that while Tawi-Tawi province is distant and the frontier to Malaysian waters, it is not last in terms of marine environment protection – government agencies, local government and advocacy groups like WWF, FISH and even MRDP are collaborating cohesively in information & education campaign around the islands. The efforts to address existing environmental problems is supported by local communities particularly in preservation of MPAs, research studies and activities were put in place too. I learned from Engr. Dong Reyes that TDC in cooperation with MSU Tawi-Tawi College of Fisheries replanted coral polyps from dead corals due to dynamite fishing. He showed few of this artificial reefs scattered near the university’s port with the grown corals which will be transplanted in areas with depleting coral reefs. WWF Philippines on the other hand has satellite office in Bongao and extension works in the islands of Simunul, Sibutu and Sitangkai. They claim that marine resources have depleted precariously, fish stocks are overfished and important habitats are being lost – fish catch of fishermen are dwindling over the past years. The increasing number of people living in coasts and continuing rise in consumer demands for fish threatens marine biodiversity. Yet hopeful with this impending crisis as the rural communities are aware and cooperating in preservation and protection efforts. The Tawi-Tawi group is one of the country’s significant breeding grounds and a rich source of marine products and by-products – definitely more than just a “tourist” destination.  No, definitely this province is not struggling to be seen, just come and be their guest!

Travel Notes:

1. There are no dive shops in Bongao, diving in islands can only be arranged with Tawi-Tawi Divers Club (TDC) through Engr. Rosendo Reyes  at 0917 7222905 or 0921 2938287.
2. Bringing your own gear is recommended, TDC gears are owned by members and by chance not available.
3. Boat hires are available at old Chinese Pier: for diving within Bongao it costs P 1500.00; going to the islands costs more depending distance, Simunul Island is P 2,300.00 – haggling skills may help.
4. Trek to Bud Bongao is more than an hour including stops and monkey offerings, the descent is about fifteen minutes depending your pace.
5. Sunsets are best viewed at the Provincial Capitol that sits on a hill.
6. Simunul island, is the site of oldest Mosque in the Philippines and home of the revered Sheikh Makdum one of the early pioneers in the spread of the Islamic religion in the country.

NB. My point and shoot cam was totally useless during my dives, sorry no underwater photos on this post

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