Endless Samar Part 4: Ulot River Torpedo Boat Adventure

Any solo traveler will tell you that one of the most painful parts of traveling alone is the fact that you have no one to share expenses with. After riding around the coastal road of Samar on the way back to Catbalogan City, I decide to squeeze in one last activity.  When I passed by the local tourism office in Samar, the three main destinations being promoted were Sohoton Caves Natural Bridge in Basey, the Rock Formations in Marabut and the Ulot River Torpedo Boat Ride in Paranas. I’ve visited the province of Samar on several caving trips and have written a detailed travel guide about it, but for some reason, I haven’t been to those three main and most popular sites.

So while riding back from Borongan to Catbalogan City on my solo ride around Samar Island, I decided to stop and try the Torpedo boat ride at Ulot River since it was along the way. Unfortunately, when I got there, I found out it costs P1,850/boat for a 2 hour ride. Normally, that rate is good for up to 5 people so you only pay roughly P365 each. But since I was traveling alone, the fee felt really steep. In fact, it cost more than the 4 days of renting a motorcycle (P300/day), which had already taken me around the three provinces of Samar! My room accommodations averaged at P300-400 a night and I had spent even less on food. But the boat fee is the same whether you’re just in a group of five or just solo, since you’re paying for the time of the guides, the boat, equipment and gas. But what else will I do if I don’t try this? I’m here already, I told myself.

In terms of personal satisfaction from the whole Samar ride, I had already met my goals. Before I started my ride, I already hiked and spelunked to a very remote waterfall and cave in San Jorge. While riding around the past four days, I had seen firsthand the gorgeous landscapes of Biri Island in Northern Samar. I was awed by the quiet desolation in Mapanas and the empty roads facing the Pacific Ocean that seemed to stretch on forever before I reached a major city. I enjoyed the quiet and laid-back beach in Borongan City. The ride back from there cutting through the cross-country road and right smack through Samar Island Natural Park (SINP), the largest land-based National Park in the Philippines covering over 450,000 hectares across three provinces, was just icing on the cake as I passed through some of the most amazing mountain views.

At one point, the road intersected itself and went over and around in a loop. The ride itself was the reward and the whole point of my adventure. Any other activity I came across was just a bonus. But as much as I enjoyed the ride itself, I know regular tourists who aren’t riding a motorbike to get around will be looking for some activity they can do. Sometimes, you have to think of what will interest your readers.

I know this Torpedo boat ride just fit the bill of the kind of activity that barkadas and families will want to try if it’s their first time in Samar. I needed photos and material to write about for future list and travel guide articles. Unless you’re really into motorcycling, I can’t exactly recommend “ride a motorbike around the whole island solo” as a “thing to do in Samar.” So I caved in and forked over the cash.

Ulot River Torpedo Boat rates: 1 boat good for 5 pax – P1,825/boat (excluding food) * additional P200/pax if lunch will be served. Contact person: Eires Mate (0918-2235586), Danilo Miralles (0939-7793518)

On the way to Paranas, I came across the office of the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP) and passed by to check it out. There’s a wide multi-level outdoor swimming pool here. Hardly natural, but it provides a stunning view of mountains and would probably interest families with kids who want to go on picnics and swimming with refreshing scenery.

A bulletin board there displays some of the region’s top sights including Langun-Gobingob Cave in Calbiga, the largest cave system in the Philippines, which I hiked to during my first trip to Samar with tour outfitter Trexplore. I recognize some of the photos taken by fellow travel bloggers who’ve visited the cave as well.

From here the jump-off point to Ulot River is just a few meters away. Ulot River is the longest river in Samar Island, stretching to a length of 90 kms. It used to serve as a navigational highway between the provinces of Samar and Eastern Samar in the years when there was no road network. Before roads and highways were built on the island, locals relied heavily on the river systems to get around. Nowadays, the extreme boat adventure aboard Torpedo boats is what attracts adventurous travelers.

The Ulot River Torpedo Extreme Boat Adventure takes guests from jump-off in Barangay Tenani in Paranas through a 10-kilometer long winding route through the river’s white-water rapids. The boat called Torpedo (which also happens to be an acronym for Tour Guides & Boat Operators for River Protection & Environmental Development Organization, the community group that manages the ride) is a six-seater wooden boat without outriggers maneuvered by guides using wooden oars. It rained the previous night making the river a bit murky. Based on photos and videos I’ve seen online, the river is normally very clear. It’s probably better to go during the summer months, not the monsoon season as I did.

The boat ride is pleasant enough. A lot of other people who have tried this before have described it as extreme, thrilling and exciting, but I can’t help but compare it to our previous journey to get to the very remote areas of Pinipisakan Falls and Sulpan Cave and canyoneering downstream through the river without any boat, which already provided me with enough thrills and spills to last a lifetime.

To be perfectly honest, the Torpedo boat ride felt tame and leisurely in comparison. But that’s just my opinion. If you haven’t tried the other activities, or if you’re traveling with kids and city folk not used to this kind of thing, or maybe if I were traveling with friends, I’d have a very different opinion and would have found the whole experience more exciting.

But I admit, that the activity is very well-organized, accessible to the public, low-impact and ready for mass-tourism compared to some other sites I’ve been to. If you don’t have a lot of time in Samar and are in a group, this offers a fun day tour relatively near Catbalogan City.

We eventually reached a rocky area known as Deni’s Point, where we had to cross the river with the help of ropes since the current was strong. My guide swam it with no problem, and secured the rope to the other side, giving me a stable line to hold when I crossed. On the other side, I spotted several small, shallow holes in the rocks that provided natural pools. I also tried jumping into the water and getting swept along by the current until I reached the rope to go back to the riverbanks. It was pretty fun to get carried away by the frothy current. You feel like you’re being spun around in a washing machine.

I guess I was feeling kind of down that day because I didn’t have any companions for the activity. As much as I like these solo trips, traveling alone does take its toll on you. Aside from having no one to share expenses with, it’s kind of sad that I can’t share these experiences with others. I also still felt bad for spending so much money on the activity.

I talk to Jun, my guide and ask him what he used to do before he became a tour guide. “Dati kahoy yung dinadala namin sa mga banka. Ngayon puro turista na. Ito na yung bumubuhay sa pamilya ko,” he says. Illegal logging was a major problem in the island. Locals used to cut trees and sell them in order to buy food and other necessities. Many of the boat guides are residents who were former harvesters and transporters of illegal logs in what is now known as the Samar Island Natural Park. Suddenly I feel better for taking the tour. I can always earn that money back somehow. If I’ve saved one tree in the forest from illegal logging just by enjoying a boat ride and patronizing community-based initiatives like this, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

I thought the weather would be great the whole day because it was so sunny and hot in the morning, but the sky darkens in the horizon and I suggest we head back. The weather seems to change just the blink of an eye. The boatmen assure me that it’s safe, but I wouldn’t want to encounter flashfloods here. Rain starts to pour heavily as we ride the boat. We encounter a large group of tourists aboard two boats on their way to Deni’s Point. So if I had waited, I could have probably joined up with them and saved some cash. But I guess I wouldn’t have reached the site when it was still sunny. On the way back upstream, we pass through shallow portions where the boatmen need to get down and push the boat on the rocky riverbed against the current and rapids. It’s a tough job, and usually harder the more people are in the boat. Since it’s just me, we save a lot of time. 

I spend a couple of hours in the Torpedo office/shed just waiting for the rain to stop. The hut has a bathroom where customers can wash up and change into dry clothes. The officer on duty shows me various video features and documentaries all about Samar island including travel episode features of Biyahe ni Drew and Motorcycle Diaries: Samar Expedition. I realize there’s still so much to see on the island. There’s no place to buy food in the area, which sucks because I haven’t had lunch. The guide says they’re planning to put up some eateries nearby for the sake of tourists. The group I encountered on the boats on the way to the site return completely drenched and shivering. I find out that they just came from celebrating the fiesta in Oras and decided to go on a road trip to try out the boat ride. They don’t bother changing into dry clothes and just pile back up on top of their pick-up truck to head back to Oras.

“Hanggang mamayang gabi na siguro yung ulan,” the officer on duty remarks while looking out of the hut. One by one, the guides start to leave, certain that no other tourists will arrive to take a tour. The weather doesn’t look like it’s going to get better, but it could just get worse, so I decide to just brave it and drive back in the rain. I change back into wet clothes since I’m probably going to get soaked while driving anyway. What’s important is that my camera and phones are double bagged and secured inside my backpack.

Day 4 ROUTE: Borongan City – San Julian – Sulat – Taft – Paranas – Ulot River Torpedo Boat Ride – Motiong – Jiabong – Catbalogan City (146 km)

The downpour makes the last stretch going to Catbalogan City scarier than it should be, particularly when I get back to the Pan-Philippine Highway. Riding in the rain was manageable when there were no other vehicles on the road. But when I pass the Paranas intersection and get to the main thoroughfare where buses and vans coming from Tacloban heading up to Northern Samar pass, it gets a little trickier. Potholes and uneven asphalt are obscured by the puddles on the road and my visibility is hampered by the rain. I can barely see through the helmet’s visor, but when I lift it up, I get pelted by raindrops smack on the face. Speeding buses send sprays of rainwater on me as they overtake. Normally, I’d stop by the side of the road and wait this out, but I just want to get back to Catbalogan before night falls and get into dry clothes. I also haven’t eaten the whole day and it’s almost five.

Sometimes when you travel solo, you tend to fixate on all the bad stuff or think of all the things that could go wrong. If you’re on a motorcycle, you always worry: what if the bike breaks down, what if I get into an accident, what if I run out of gas, what if a group of armed men stop me along the road and hold me up? There are a lot of strange, random thoughts that pop up.

Times like these, I just try to breathe and think of all the things that are going right. The motorcycle hasn’t broken down so far. I’m still in one piece. I’m still alive. That’s all that matters. Just finish the home stretch. I know I’ve been complaining that the roads in Samar seem endless, but in fact, I don’t want the journey to end. I guess that’s how it is with these kinds of rides.

I get back to my starting point and homebase in Trexplore Guesthouse in Catbalogan City, drenched but fulfilled. It may have just been a four-day  ride, but the memories and experiences I’ve had will last way longer than that. But for now, I think I’m ready to end this chapter and go home.

But I really don’t want to call this “The End.” I haven’t done a full loop of Samar Island. I guess for now, this is just “To be Continued.” 🙂

NOTE: This is Part 4 of my Solo Motorcycle Ride around Samar Island series. Hope you can read the earlier parts.

EPILOGUE:

Here’s my late lunch / merienda of tahong lumpia, tahong balls and other interesting eats in Trexplore guesthouse after I got back. I had dinner shortly after merienda to make up for the lost meals. I kind of wish I had stopped to take a photo of the giant tahong landmark in the plaza of Jiabong when I passed by, but I didn’t want to get my camera wet.

READ MORE: 5 Unique Ways to Enjoy Tahong in Samar

Tahong BBQ costs 5 pesos per stick. Don’t you just love happy endings?

This trip would not have been possible without the guidance of Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore and Samar Outdoor Shop, who hosted my stay while I was based in Catbalogan City, facilitated the motorcycle rental, gave me suggestions on what to do around Samar and kept tabs on me throughout my ride. Joni has mountain biked around the whole island of Samar and has been actively promoting adventures like caving and canyoning to local and international tourists for decades I really believe that tourism in the region is improving because of his efforts to promote it. I probably would have never gone on this epic ride if not for his encouragement. Thank you for the support!

With Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore / Samar Outdoor Shop before heading back to Tacloban City for my flight back to Manila. 

2 thoughts on “Endless Samar Part 4: Ulot River Torpedo Boat Adventure

  1. Hello Kara!
    I enjoyed reading your adventures and i admired your courage travelling alone on a motorcycle especially up north. I am from Borongan (born and raised), and it makes me happy that people are starting to notice Samar Island as a tourist destination. 3 days ago me and my friends went to Palapag and yes the terrain was stunning, i just wished you could have experienced a better weather on your trip. Also I just wished there is a bridge if not a road connecting Palapag and Laoang to the mainland since its impossible for us to cross coz we used a car. Next time you visit Eastern Samar you head out to Guiuan its known for great surfing spots. Also in Hernani, Canjugas rocky beach and Ginduyanan Cove are my go-to-destinations when some of my friends from Manila visits my hometown.

    Sending regards,
    Jake Agda

    Ps: can i ask your IG name? Mine is jakebrandonlorenzo

    • Hi Jake. Thank you for your tips. Yes, I really wish the weather was better that time in Mapanas and Palapag. I was also wondering how cars could cross from the Eastern side to the North. Apparently you have to make a really long detour through the cross country road. Too bad there is no bridge yet in that area. Will take note of your tips on the Eastern Samar side. I really wanted to go to Guian, but I didn’t think I could make it to my flight back to Manila via Tacloban if I did. Plus I still had to go back to Catbalogan to return the rented motorcycle. Anyway, I really enjoyed that ride to Samar and can’t wait to explore more of the island soon 🙂 My IG name is @karasantos

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