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The Aquatic Heights and Depths of Cebu Island

At the beginning of this chapter of the Philippines, the protagonists are slumped on a rickety plastic bench nailed to the aft deck of a battered old shipping vessel. Siquijor has become a scattering of faint lights on the horizon behind us, and ahead of the ship the mountains on either side of Dumaguete and Lilo-an are ablaze with dying sunlight. On the flickering TV nearby is a hypnotically terrible Bollywood film which is successfully distracting everyone from the natural spectacle and the drunken swaying of the ship.

After forming an alliance with yet another group of like-minded Europeans, we disembarked and haggled relentlessly with the waiting minibuses before getting a lift to Moalboal from Lilo-an – a good two-hour trip up the western coast of Cebu Island, for a total of 2,500P. A bit pricey for the bohemian backpacker, but manageable between a group of five. Had we more time we would have held out for the far cheaper coastal bus, but it was well into the late evening by this point and options were becoming slim.

I should say a ‘projected’ journey time of two hours, but our driver clearly had things to do that evening; I’m sure he must have lifted off the accelerator at some point but don’t remember being consciously aware of slowing down. The outside world became a Millennium Falcon-esque lightspeed blur of sporadic pedestrians and animals briefly illuminated in the van’s headlights before being aggressively honked out of the way and vanishing back into the night. After barely an hour’s rollercoaster along a pitch-black coastline, we screeched to a halt outside Soul Travellers Guesthouse, unclenched our backsides and slid out of the vehicle.

Soul Travellers is a short drive outside Moalboal, just north of Badian- either a tricycle ride or a scoot from anywhere – and is a quiet oasis for the weary traveller to fall over and be looked after. The owners, Jocelyn and Bear, immediately made us feel at home; the guesthouse is relatively new, but word of mouth is spreading in the backpacker community. A number of guests – ourselves included – plan to stay for just a night or two as a stop on their journey, but end up crashing for multiple extra nights just to soak up the sunsets.

I can’t recommend the place enough; it’s quiet, comfortable, festooned with enthusiastic dogs (and one less-enthusiastic but vocal cat, appropriately named Protest) and barely a minute’s walk from the coast. They have brand-new scooters for hire as well as diving and snorkeling paraphernalia, and will either arrange for specific tours or just point you in the right direction of the numerous local sights if you’re exploring for yourself.

Though we’d intended to embark on the famed canyoneering adventure at Kawasan Falls, we were still in somewhat of a delicate state and didn’t yet feel up to hurling ourselves off cliffs into bodies of water, but we got ourselves on a scooter to check it out from the bottom. Kawasan is Cebu’s most famous waterfall, with good reason – but, like Cambugahay in Siquijor, with proportionate marketing efforts and tourist popularity.

The walk up from the scooter park takes you on a winding jungle path to the first set of falls, where you’ll be ushered to rent a locker (200P) and table (300P) and buy food (300+P) and rent life jackets if you want to swim directly under the falls(50P); rather than being corralled into the tourist pen here, I’d instead recommend walking a little further up to the second, much quieter set of falls.

Being the tourist-trap-phobe I am, I insisted on a secondary excursion to the elusive Montpeller Falls, as suggested by our hosts. It lies at the end of a long mountainside trail, which itself is hidden near the top of a long mountainside drive; we actually only succeeded in discovering it on Day 2, after missing the sign twice. The friendly WELCOME banner painted on a rock was partially obscured by a car, so we’d missed the …TO MONTPELLER FALLS bit and assumed it was just a nice greeting. Our trials were finally rewarded with a totally isolated mountain pool with a spectacular view of the Palawan strait.

Other girls demand sunset #instagram photos. Mine demands I take a photo of her looking like a corpse.

The second highlight of Cebu came as a bit of a surprise. While feasting on a freshly-prepared meal and local rum at Soul Travellers, we were offered the opportunity to visit a floating platform in the middle of the bay. As it was long past sundown at this point I asked why we’d do that at night rather than enjoy the reefs during the day.

The platform is a haven for backpackers during daytime – you can hire a local paddle boat to take you out and go snorkeling, diving and drinking with your mates. It looks fun, if a little crowded in the afternoon.

“No,” I was reassured, “you can’t go in the day, too busy. Go at night – you will be on your own, and you can see the bioluminescence.”

My Attenborough-nerd senses tingled. Unbeknownst to most of the local area – and even the hostel owners until recently – tiny, luminescent plankton gather around and under the platform when the sun goes down. We immediately got in touch with the captain (who’d personally discovered the phenomenon) and headed out on his vessel, an eight-foot wooden hull with bamboo outriggers which is slightly less narrow than a large English man but fit Meg perfectly.

O captain, my captain.

Due to it being nighttime (and to my current lack of underwater camera), photos of the bioluminescence was, alas, impossible. At first we thought we’d missed it, but then our guide told us to swim in the shadow under the floating platform. Immediately, we were enveloped in clouds of flashing blue lights as we disturbed the tiny creatures floating in the water. It’s hard to describe how weird and magical it feels to be surrounded by an electrical swarm of sparks underwater, but suffice it to say I’m going to come prepared with camera equipment in future.

Even photos on the platform itself were a struggle, as long-exposure photography does not lend itself to bobbing bamboo structures in the middle of a tropical bay. I wasn’t about to let this stop me bloody-mindedly taking photos anyway, shaky though they may be.

The whole point of improvised backpacking is to have new, memorable and weird experiences, and this was the perfect outtro to our time in Cebu. True to the pattern of Soul Travellers, we extended our stay by two nights to get the most out of the area – but in the end we had places to be, and long bus journeys to get us there.

Bidding the guesthouse farewell, we hauled our gear onto a long-suffering tricycle to Badian in anticipation of the bus to Cebu City, far on the other side of the island across mountains, jungles and a particularly nasty tropical storm. Good thing I brought flip-flops.

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Sand, Crabs and Broken Toes

 

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Disclaimer: only part of the title is a medical condition.

We’re descending slowly  into a now more-than-fleeting camping fetish. Having successfully survived the arsonists and anally-retentive groundsmen of Sangju, we were eager to accept our friends and fellow colleagues’ offer of a joint-trip to the actually isolated coast of Sungpyeong; a barely-trodden expanse of glinting fool’s-gold sand with nary a soul to be seen nor heard (with the exception of a determined yet mysterious boat whose bi-daily routine seems to consist of throwing things overboard to pass the time).IMG_2091

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Safety-conscious dog check the GPS.

Safety-conscious dog check the GPS.

Being far more practical humans than ourselves, Nathan and Alysha are part of that expat elite who actually own their own car – all the better to fully explore the country, avoid a slightly tedious daily work commute and to accommodate their two beautiful yet affectionately heavy jindogae Fiona and Ingrid. The two Jindos dwarf, chase and are in turn right-hooked by our comparative runt of a dog regularly, made all the more hilarious/repellent by a thick layer of wet sand and salted fur.

The drive to Sungpyeong is reassurance enough that we have the place to ourselves: a little while off the highway and it’s nothing but mountains and mirrorlike, irrigated valleys as far as the horizon. We’re so far out in the sticks that, were we to wander aimlessly into the nearby villages, we’d be less of a mild curiosity and more of an exotic, sweaty fascination. The car pulls into the dusty, empty parking lot and all the signs of off-season are there: the toilets are conveniently-placed albeit not-so-conveniently locked, the bins are noticeably overflowing but sunbaked past the point of offensive and you can’t hear anyone competing for space on the sand.IMG_2163

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Meg cannot possibly contain the gibbon within.

Meg cannot possibly contain the gibbon within.

From the car, we heft our camping gear on foot to Nate and Alysha’s pre-discovered Choice Spot, hidden amongst boulders and alongside a handy water and/or wine-cooling stream. From a distance, however, the beach appear to have a life of its own, with pebbles seeming to erratically rush towards and away from the oncoming waves. On closer inspection, we realise that we’ve simply disturbed hundreds and hundreds of tiny red crabs, all scurrying wildly away to their subterranean dens underfoot. Most succeed, with the exception of the three hapless crustaceans our fascinated dogs managed to seize. True to her nature, Millie totally failed to dominate even a tiny specimen; the Jindos on the other hand managed a grisly, acrobatic display of catch-the-crab before getting at least one leg each.IMG_2126

Following the dogs’ enthusiasm, we promptly hurled ourselves into the sea, quickly discovering that the water was A) emasculatingly chilly and B) a cunning camouflage for the sneakiest bastard rocks known to geography. After a few minutes of soothing drifting and violently spontaneous profanity, I reckoned I would do The Romantic Thing and carry Meg (+her stubbed toe) from the cruel waves. This lasted approximately three seconds before I kicked the rocks’ reigning champion, ultimately lacerating my foot and actually breaking at least one toe while dropping Meg back into the sea. Not a proud moment.IMG_2152

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One of the upshots of camping on a nigh-isolated coast is that one can let one’s imagination run wild vis-a-vis campsite customisation and driftwood furniture. Pooling our combined creativity and DIY skills, we managed to rig up a mostly-successful underground(/sand) cooler box, as well as an elegantly canopied, raft-remnants-and-polystyrene-box dining table, complete with almost-not-wet Styrofoam stools for the discerning diners.

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IMG_2441Evening entertainments included a live concert (playing Mumford & Sons from a mobile phone whilst drinking stream-cooled wine), a private cinema (Meg and Alysha escaped to a tent to watch Pitch Perfect on iPad) and a fully-interactive arts show, ie. Nathan and I scrambling over rocks while waving torches maniacally for the sake of light-trail photos.IMG_2471

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Still sadly un-equipped with a remotely spacious tent, Meg and I pretzelled ourselves into the (quote-unquote) ‘2-person’ tent for another night’s almost-sleep, with Millie’s small canine buttocks firmly clenching my shoulder for much of the duration.IMG_2474

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Luck willing, we’ll actually get our human-sized tent before the next inevitable, obsessively-documented expedition. Until then, I will contend myself with hunting down the elusive dunes of sand hidden in the crevices of every bag, shoe and sock I own.

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(Green) Tea Time

Definitely green.

Definitely green.

It’s felt very odd since I moved back to Korea. Not because of any (non-existent) regrets, or feeling alienated – quite the opposite – but because it’s felt remarkably normal to be here. The first time around, we reached the airport and didn’t have the faintest bloody idea what to do next. Now, we know how the transportation works, we can (poorly) muddle by with our infantile grasp of hangeul and we know what to expect from the country in general. It’s a weirder sensation not feeling displaced – but it does make it a hell of a lot easier to buy groceries.IMG_8788

Mandu, or Korean dumplings, also with green tea.

Mandu, or Korean dumplings, also with green tea.

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The flip-side of our too-cool-for-cats familiarity with Korea is that we’ve been absolutely rubbish at Getting Out There since we got settled in Gwangju. We’ve popped out for a stroll in the mountains with our school and we nipped up to Seoul for a laugh, but we hadn’t really Done An Adventure until last week – when I threw down my Playstation controller and demanded that we leapt into action.

[note: some artistic embellishment may occur RE: pivotal action roles in this scenario. Meg may have expressed enthusiasm while I was hunting Templars in the Caribbean]

One of the problems we faced whilst near Seoul was that, although conveniently close to the country’s capital, there wasn’t much else to be discovered in Gyeonggi-do; almost everything worth seeing seemed to be on the southern half of the country. Now that we live in the southern half of the country, we should really live up to our latter-year resolutions.IMG_8918

So, after a brief brainstorming session where I outright refused to walk up the bastard great mountain Mudeungsan (surely a blog-to-come later in the year…), we settled on Boseong, the celebrated traditional green-tea fields on the southernmost edge of the country. One of the destinations we never quite managed to get around to before, Boseong is on most online lists of ‘Top 10 Places To Take A Selfie In Korea’, ‘Top 5 Edible Places In Korea’ and/or ‘Top Korean Tea-Related Destinations’, and so on.

Meg likes pine trees.

Meg likes pine trees.

One of the many upsides of our location is that we’re within a 5 minute scoot of Gwangcheon Bus Terminal, from where we can get pretty much anywhere on the Korean mainland. Hopping on a (gloriously empty) coach to Boseong proper, we then hitched a further taxi ride on the other side to the Tea Fields themselves. A note to wary travellers: regardless of how alluring the violet, fuzzy lining of the taxis waiting outside the bus station, I’d opt for a local bus to the fields instead; 10,000won is enough to get to the other side of Gwangju, so a 10-minute saunter for 13,000 didn’t come off as a good deal.

The Boseong Tea Fields are contained in a reasonably small area – maybe a square kilometre or two – but what it lacks in expansiveness it makes up for in sudden altitude. After a peaceful stroll through lines of pine trees, the ground suddenly takes off and shoots up a hundred metres. Tattooing this drastic slope are rows after rows of violently green tea crops, ripe for the picking by peckish tourists. I can’t vouch for the actual raw edibility of the plants, but the elderly ajummas and ajushis were cackling around us while chewing leaves, so presumably it’s delicious and/or that’s just the sort of thing ajummas and ajushis do.

Meg can't quite handle the sheer quantity of tea.

Meg can’t quite handle the sheer quantity of tea.

The pinnacle viewpoint for the fields – and for the surrounding countryside, which drops two hundred green-hilled metres onto a distant valley floor – is spectacular. Owing to the masochistically steep incline of the mountain, most of the initial shots might be blurred or feature other heaving, sweaty adventurers, but there’s usually a break between couples’ selfies where you can get a shot for yourself.IMG_8884

Simply not enough selfies in the world.

Simply not enough selfies in the world.

As seems to be typical of any kind of exploring in Korea, the second we stepped off the obvious beaten path, we were entirely alone. Rather than backtracking down the mountain-ladder, we instead wandered further round the landscape – rewarding us with another of those ultra-rare, gloriously Silent Moments. Surrounded only by forest, away from the crowds, the sensory-depriving silence was enough to make the blood in my ears louder than the world around me. The loud, ecstatic greeting from (presumably) the groundskeeper sweeping a muddy stone staircase moments later served as a fine reintroduction to Korea.

'What's that sound?' 'Your heartbeat.' 'Oh.'

‘What’s that sound?’ ‘Your heartbeat.’ ‘Oh.’

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In favour of heading straight back home after circumnavigating the fields, we instead took the bus to Yulpo, a nearby beachside town, offering a Pine Forest Beach to explore. This decision cost us 1,200 won (about 60p) and bought us the single most spectacular mountainside-road spectacle I’ve seen in Korea. Huge mountains wrapped around tiny, distant fields on the valley floor stretched out into the water, and (owing to our disgustingly late departure in the first place) the setting-sun light blinding us on each left turn around the mountain burnt everything like fire. Excuse the poetic waxing: it just describes the experience as best as I can, and I owe it at least that.

Unbelievable and, thanks to the direct sunlight - entirely unphotographable views whilst moving.

Unbelievable and, thanks to the direct sunlight – entirely unphotographable views whilst moving.

Bright sunlight selfie.

Bright sunlight selfie.

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#likeomgsophotogenic

#likeomgsophotogenic

In the short time between arriving at the orange-lit Yulpo Beach – with a (well-timed) folk concert blasting out strangely off-key melodies and people dancing on the beach – to us waiting in the freezing cold for an ultimately non-existent bus back to Boseong, we ambled along the sandy stretch to the pier, (Meg) did a few cartwheels in the sand and I bought a sausage. It was a good start to this year’s exploration.

PS. Sorry about the beard, Mum.IMG_9042