By William V. Bleisch, Palawan



On 2018 Nov 26 a Monday, we travel from Shek O to the CERS Maoyon base in Palawan. Late that evening, at 23:00, several of us travel to Barangay Tagabinet to attend the wake for Ardes F. Cayaon (Dec 15, 1976 to Nov 21, 2018), caver, river guide, explorer, and friend. He will be missed. When it was my turn to stand in front of the coffin, its glass top fogged up with condensation from the refrigeration, a large cricket hops down onto the top of the casket directly over Ardes’s mouth, then hops on to the back of my neck as I turn to leave.

Having my coffee the next morning as sun slowly rises and the temperature climbs, I watch the fish in the estuary swimming around the CERS boat dock. There are dozens of juveniles seeking safety under the shade of the dock; there are Yellowtail Scad, Atule mate, and a Caraganoides the shape, size and colour of a silver dollar, perhaps young Bump-nosed Trevally. Odd looking pencil-thin Black-barred Halfbeaks, Hemiramphus far, patrol the outer perimeter with the pale spots on the end of their long lower jaws almost poking out of the water, as if lighting their way. Banded Archerfish, Toxotes jaculatrix, up to 30 cm long, rush in and break up the school of smaller fish. I see a particularly large specimen spit a narrow fountain of water through the air up into the mangrove roots, perhaps, true to its archer name, it was aiming to knock down a cricket or katydid that was perched on the dry prop roots above the waterline.
Before the sun is high, I take the big green kayak out and paddle down the Maoyon River alone. Striated Herons fly out from the bank, a pair of Whimbrels and a Common Sandpiper fly off complaining. A Little Egret forages, high stepping daintily and pulling its yellow stocking feet out of the mud by the bank. A Great Egret watches my boat nervously, interrupted from its intense attention on the water in front of its sharp bill. A Stork-billed Kingfisher flies out from its perch on a mangrove above the bank, as does a smaller kingfisher with powder blue back. Near the rivers’s mouth, a smaller tributary joins the main channel and I paddle into the tree-lined waterway that beckons to me into the dark tunnel created by the dense canopy of mangroves overhead. On another visit to this backwater, I have heard the raucous laugh, and then seen the enormous grey shape and the oversized bill and feet of a Great Slaty Woodpecker clinging to the large trunks of one of the biggest mangroves trees. On that same visit, a Philippine Pied Fantail sat on the red mangrove roots in plain view, wagging its very long black tail with white outer tail feathers and tip. It sallied out from its low perch again and again to catch flies. Then I saw a Collared Kingfisher, with its white collar and brow and dark cap, and then the larger Stork-billed Kingfisher with its rufous head and oversized bill, and finally an River Kingfisher, with ruddy back and crown, reddish flanks, and white cheek stripe.
The sun is getting high and cicadas are calling loudly already. The peace in the swamp is deafening. I paddle back to the main river, rounding the end of a wide bend to see the bright blue sea beyond the river’s mouth to the south.
On another morning, we all board a small banka fishing boat and steam out just beyond the river mouth to Fondeado Island in Honda Bay for snorkelling and swimming lessons in the clear ocean water. While Xavier teaches Sandra, Lina and Drolma to swim, Saskia and I swim about exploring over boulder coral reef, eel grass and rubble. Despite the damaged condition of the reef here, small fish are numerous here. I see a small Crescent Wrasse, a Dash-dot Goatfish, Blueback Damselfish, Bridled Monocle Bream, a Longfin Spadefish, an Oval-spot Butterflyfish and what may be a Vagabond Butterflyfish. Shimmering cardinalfish swim together in small schools. Slate grey damselfish with iridescent spots defend their territories vigorously, unafraid to stand up to me. A pair of Clark’s Anemonefish has staked out an anemone among the boulder corals, the female large and deep red with 2 pale bars, the male smaller, orange with two clear white bars. Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse are common, or are they the treacherous mimic, the False Cleaner Wrasse? Larger fish seem to avoid their lively solicitations, making me suspicious that their invitations to grooming are fake news, and they are actually out to nip a bit of skin off an unwary victim. I try to follow two larger fish with bright pyjama spot patterns, a juvenile Oriental Sweetlips, and a Many- spotted Sweetlips.
Life at the mouth of the Maoyon River is diverse and idyllic, but I yearn to continue our exploration of the upper reaches of the river, the longest in Palawan,. On previous trips we floated down the river on bamboo rafts with local Batak guides, past karst towers, banana farms and coconut plantations, past the Peace and Love Forest Resort and under the bridge of the main highway back to our CERS base near the mouth. We also hiked up the mid-region river where it changes its name from Maoyon to Babuyon River, hiking up as far as the first confluence with Batak guides. The guides told us that beyond that point, the path becomes difficult and dangerous, requiring passage over the infamous “Goodbye Pookie” cliff. But I am eager to continue up, into the boondocks, a word that entered English from the Tagalog word for mountains. With the expert advice of Martin Ruzek and Howman, I decide on a different approach. We will hike up and over the divide from the next watershed to the north, the Cururai River, which empties into the western side of Palawan instead of the east. It looks like that should be an easier way to get into the boondocks and the upper reaches of the Babuyon.
Joceline helps me by assembling a five-man expedition team, led by Captain Arnel, also known as Punoy, a boat captain based in Sagang. Jolito, a new CERS staff member, is a Batak tribe member from the Babuyon region. Paulino, another CERS staff and also a Batak tribe member, has gone to hospital in PPS for respiratory problems. Instead, Pogoe joins the team. He is also a new CERS hire, and looks nearly identical to Jolito. Also on the team is Moosenjoe, a neighbour of Jolito’s. With his kinky greying hair and grey goatee and wide flat nose, he captures the look of an aboriginal elder. Later, we are joined in Caruray by Jimille Ramos, a young Tagbanua with wiry frame, wavy hair, big eyes and boundless energy. He makes a living collecting almaciga resin in the forests where we are going and he knows the trails well, so he usually takes the lead. We all soon take to calling him “General Ramos.”
On the morning agreed, I set out from the CERS base at 5:00 AM sharp to Sabang with Joceline and Jesse driving the van. By the time we arrive in Sabang and stop at Paulino’s “infirmary,” the first light of dawn is already glowing through the trees. While we wait for Joelito and Moosenjoe, I watch a troop of Palawan Long- tailed Macaques eating litchi-like fruit in the tall trees above the hut. We arrive at Sabang harbour with the team at 7:00 AM sharp and are soon aboard Captain Panoy’s boat, a colourfully decorated banka outrigger that he usually uses to take tourists from Sabang to the entrance of the Subterranean River World Heritage Site. It is mostly clear, but dense cloud cover in the northeast has me worried. At 8:50, we arrive at the mouth of Caruray town at the mouth of the river of the same name. We wait for our Captain to meet the kapitan of the Barangay. All permissions have been arranged ahead of time, but they need to be checked and re-checked. Tourists never come to this remote port, and I gather that the mountains ahead are not on the approved list for trekking.
Finally, at 13:33, we arrive at the end of a rough motorcycle track and begin our
hike, soon passing the last farmhouse. Stripe Peak is visible to the left ahead. Just below the peak should be two of the longest sources of the Maoyon River. We continue on and into the beginnings of forest, and the trail begins to climb up on a well-worn track. Sign of wild pig foraging are everywhere, and the leeches are annoyingly abundant. The tiger leeches of the Philippines, brown with black and orange stripes, are unlike their relatives in China in that they do not inject anaesthetic with their bite. So it is relatively easy to detect them with the first sharp prick on an ankle or above the belt- line and scrape them off before they can dig deep. As we climb, the forest is getting better, and we pass a station where someone has been collecting almaciga resin in recycled 50 kg bags. At 17:37, just as dusk descends, we arrive at a nice stream, a high tributary of the Caruray River. I set up my hammock in the fading light between a large tree and a young sapling, then go to take a sponge bath in the dark. The water is crystal clear and cold.
The next morning, there is oddly little bird song. Perhaps it is too cold on this winter day. We strike camp early and continue on this good trail up to a pass in the divide between the Carurai and Babuyon basins. Carurai harbour is behind us and to the right, and Sagang Bay is visible in the distance ahead. According to the satellite map, on the right along this same ridge should be the source of one of the major tributaries that contribute to the Maoyon River, and Stripe Peak is on the left, below which two more sources of the river are to be found.
Continuing on into the region of Maoyon’s headwaters, we pass another almaciga collectors’ camp and then cross several small streams. All of these contribute their waters to the Maoyon River. We leave the heavy things, including 5 days of canned provisions, at the side of a large stream. The trail then forks, and following Jimelle’s suggestion, we hike counter-clockwise around the base of Striped Peak to try to find an easier access to its upper slopes. We meet an almaciga collector tapping a huge tree, more than 1.5 meters across at breast height. We continue on along the rough trail to a large stream that drains the west slope of Stripe Peak. Scrambling up the stream, alternately hopping from boulder to boulder and splashing through the water, we soon have to climb up short waterfalls as the slope becomes steep. We pass a spring where the water bursts from among a wall of head-sized boulders. Continuing on, there is only a small trickle above, and finally only an isolated puddle can be seen.
Our plan is to continue up to the ridge crest, where I am guessing there should be a trail up to the top of Stripe Peak. Perhaps I am too used to the mountains of Tibet, whose upper slopes are often clothed with grassy meadows that are striped with clear trails up to their peaks. Here in Palawan, we must cut, stumble and push our way through dense viny bamboo. Interspersed among the bamboo tangle are fronds and tendrils of rattan, their ends coated with hooked barbs that grab hats and arms and will not let go. The main stem of the rattan palms are covered with one inch razor sharp needles. We continue heading up but the going slows to a crawl. There is certainly no time left to try to climb Stripe Peak or explore other tributaries. Even trying a short-cut back by descending down one of the streams on the north face now seems too risky. Jimelle explores and pronounces it too steep. Looking at the clock, I realize that we are in trouble. I seem to be the only one who thought to bring a torch, and the light will soon fade. A night out in the forest without dinner or shelter among the mosquitos and leeches is certainly something to avoid.