The Last Frontier: A Rowner Writer on a Philippine Island

A paradise, a sanctuary to an amazing variety of fauna and flora found nowhere else in the world. It is blessed with awesome landscapes and its steeply sloped mountains are canopied by virgin forests. This was how the Philippine island of Palawan was described on the websites David Angus read. Curious, he decided to go there himself.

North of the town of Puerto Princesa, beyond the cross on the pass through the hills and the fork to Sabang, the frontier is all around you. Instead of man’s constructs surrounding nature as in Europe, nature surrounds man here; with forests and mountain jungles making the road the exception to the rule in this land.

There is also the odd Philippine nipa (palm-thatched) cabin, palm plantation, farm and cultivation – and just two towns – in 297 kilometres along this mountainous, pencil-shaped island that had once been a land bridge between the Philippines and Borneo. One can occasionally see The Last Frontier opening up in a vista of lush, tree-covered mountains stretching far to the north and the Sulu Sea, its immense blue distances rivalling the sky.

If you have some adventure left in your heart – and God knows I’ve tried to keep mine alive – then this is the landscape for you, as it was for me. ‘The final frontier,’ ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations…’ as they say in Star Trek.

At the public transport complex north of town I found out that my tour operator was called ‘Fort Wally’. I’d chosen one of their air-conditioned Volkswagen Combis because jeepneys (adapted military-style jeeps that ferry paying passengers) were too slow for the journey north and buses carried too much luggage, thereby posing a security problem.

I waited for a long time at Fort Wally, with the locals and the chickens. Our driver made up for the wait by careening dangerously out of Puerto Princesa to what could be heaven past that cross on the pass. I was jammed in the front by the door, next to a woman who was towards my age. Just as well, for I don’t remember any seatbelts. There were only grey teddy bears on the dashboard between me and a sudden bloody end if I was flung through the windscreen, which already had what looked like a bullet hole in it. Perhaps the bears were prematurely grey with the lifestyle.

I saw it all: the road unfurling ahead through the scenery, its surface tarred, which probably encouraged the Wally to drive faster. Honking his horn at every opportunity whenever he saw children, chickens, cripples and vehicles, which he passed regardless of where we were, including blind bends and a few oncoming trucks we played chicken with. Woe betide any dogs who stood their ground. The tyres squealing on every bend seemed to be music to his ears.

I was disturbed by some news that a bus had gone into a ravine on Luzon, killing most of those on board. Mike, my travel agent friend, confirmed the event after I’d returned home.

After a while I realised that my small backpack was mysteriously wet. Was something leaking in there? No, it was because the floor the backpack was on was wet. Something was leaking from the engine. Brake fluid by any chance? I conferred with the woman and found liquid dribbling from an opening where some sinister-looking wires came out. I waited until there was a stretch of dead straight road with nothing on it so as not to kill everyone when I told the Wally, who didn’t use the brakes anyway. He thought it was battery fluid. The brakes could still work, I hoped, and there’s be an outside chance of electrocution.

It was a matter of argument as to whether the air-conditioning was working in this vehicle. That didn’t wake up the Filipina behind me in the centre of the second row. Almost everyone else was asleep too. Ignorance can be bliss, I suppose.

The further north one went, the less traffic there was to overtake apart from motorbikes and, once in a while, something more spectacular, such as that crowded bus where they were hanging on to a goat at the rear.
Maybe the scenery was a balm for the nerves. It was almost all forest apart from the odd rice paddy, settlement, glimpse of green mountains or the sea. But what nature! Lush shades of green rainforest, jungle plants with huge leaves, coconut palms. No wonder they called it the last frontier.

For a long way, the road ran along the coast where the mountains went straight into the sea. I saw signs of landslides. There were rest stops at the few towns along the route with various snacks and hot food in gleaming metal containers.

Somewhere beyond one of these towns the road ran out of tarmac. It was being rebuilt with construction kit and dumper trucks, often with one finished lane open. This made little impression on our Wally.

Then it was all dirt road with dust, stones, gullies and corrugated iron worn into it. We writhed up and down beyond the last town through the hilliest terrain so far, thick with jungle. Again, this barely registered with our Wally.

What happened if we met someone with the same mindset as Wally coming the other way? The distance travelled soon eroded my concerns down to a weary fatalism. Besides, there was the scenery. Aside from the visual splendour of the jungle, I could glimpse the sea on the other side of the island to the west and a mass of mountain beyond a convoluted coastline. It was higher than anything else, indicating a different geology.

The sea became more apparent with a huge bay. The road ran around it on its bordering hills. There were mountainous islands over there too. It looked like heaven.

On a hilltop I spotted the black shape of a tortoise crossing the road. Luckily the Wally needed the other side so it lived to stagger on.

Not long after that, we passed through a notch in the precipitous hills. The tropical paradise of El Nido was on the other side. We’d made it!

Photography by David Angus.