Thank God I didn’t insist on driving my own motorbike. That was all I could think of on what seemed like never-ending stretches of dirt roads from Coron to Calauit. Our destination was Calauit Safari Park, a game preserve where animals roam freely, located on a small island at the tip of Busuanga, Palawan. A map showed that it was roughly 70 km away from the Coron Town proper and locals said it could be reached in about 2-3 hrs time by motorbike. But like a real life version of Excitebike, the terrain seemed to challenge us with increasing levels of difficulty the longer we drove. There are dirt roads, then there are demented dirt roads. This was the latter dialed up a notch.
Level 1: Hit the Pavement
We started off from Coron late in the morning. The gray clouds in the horizon and slight drizzle dampened our spirits and made us leave later than originally planned. After gassing up at Caltex along the National highway, we were off.
The friendly paved roads in the Coron town proper and the frequency of motorbike rental shops led me to believe that the road to Calauit and back would be relatively easy. Last year, I drove from Sagada to Bontoc and back in a day without any major problems. So surely, Calauit couldn’t be that bad. However, our money was running a little short after our explorations of Coron and Culion. We also planned to stay overnight (which doubled the cost for motorbike rentals), so we decided it would make more sense for Art to drive and me to just ride pillion instead of renting 2 separate motorbikes. Fine, at least I could take pictures while on the road.
It was a joy to ride through the paved roads, especially when the slightly gray skies turned into a clear blue. We stopped for a few more photo ops on the road with the scenic rolling hills in the background. It felt great to feel the breeze as we cruised along at a relaxed pace towards our destination.
Level 2: “Off-the-beaten-path”
Just when we were starting to enjoy the trip, the pavement morphed into patches of rocky roads that cut through forest trails. The air was thick with dust through long stretches of roads right next to bulldozers mixing up concrete. The pavement teased us again and again. It would be a glorious stretch of smooth pavement, only to mutate again into rough patches of dirt roads without warning.
After an hour of so of this kind of road conditions, we came across a coastal view with boats on the sea below at around noon. We decided to take a breather and stop for lunch at Puerto del Sol, a resort along the road, which offered a great view of the sea and surrounding hills.
The Mediterranean-inspired place, which is apparently operated by the same owner as La Sirenetta in Coron, also had a dive shop, several villas, a swimming pool, and even hobie cats for rent on the premises. I expected us to just stop at a carinderia along the way for lunch, so this was an unexpected surprise. After a quick lunch, we were determined to make up some time and arrive in the early afternoon.
It was surprising to come across a place like this in the middle of our road trip
Level 3: Clear as Mud
Why are there no road signs? Why do all of the bridges seem to be broken? Why can’t government funds be channeled towards fixing roads here instead of wasting funds on road widening projects in Manila? More random thought as we drove on.
From there, the terrain was covered in a slick mess of reddish mud riddled with puddles and potholes, some of which spanned the whole width of the road. It was possible to still weave around the smaller potholes to avoid them, but for most part, we just had to drive through them. We also passed through a number of makeshift wooden bridges built over streams right next to broken concrete bridges. I lost count of how many times we stopped to ask directions at major forks in the road just to make sure we were going the right way. Most of the time, there were no people to ask though.
Then, finally a ray of light! An actual metal sign that pointed left to Calauit Sanctuary and right to YKR airport. A sign! We must be near. However, our celebratory selfies and enjoyment was short-lived after we drove on.
Apparently, the sign was nowhere near the jump-off point to the park. From there, it was still a good hour or more away especially given the road conditions.
Level 4: Wild ride
The dirt and mud roads degenerated further into paths made up of loose pebbles and gravel, which made driving on it feel like driving through a sandy and pebble-ridden beach. The motorbike’s tires skidded and slipped more than once as Art drove, but he still managed to keep the motorbike balanced even with me behind it. With no people or houses for miles, I wondered what people did if they ran out of gas or if their motorbike broke down on a road like this. Or if they were driving in the rain or in the dark. I checked my phone. No signal of course. It was the kind of road that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror film. We were half expecting an old man to come up to us and say: “Anong ginagawa niyo sa lugar na ito? Umalis na kayo bago dumilim!” (cue creepy music)
Watch out for monitor lizards and snakes crossing the road.
At one point, we reached a fork in the road with an empty sign, with no idea where to go. We rode up the right path, thinking it looked more ridden on until the two track lane turned into a single track thick with tall grass. Hmm. Some groups visit the park by van, right? There was no way a van would be able to pass through here. Soon, we met a dead end and a broken bridge.
We doubled back to ask for directions at the houses we had seen a while back, passing through the gravely section of the road again. Apparently, we should have turned left instead of right. OK. A sign pointing the way would have been really helpful. So back we went and we turned left this time. Then, we reached the final test…
Level 5: End of the road
The last stretch of the road from Buluang to Malacachao cut through the mountains with steep uphill and sharp downhill descents riddled with loose marble-like rocks. At this point, dismounting for backriders is absolutely necessary, and I got down to walk as Art navigated the motorbike through the challenging terrain.
On the way up this sick part of the road, we met 3 other tourists on their way down who had just come from Calauit. They told us that we were about 10-15 minutes away and that we could ride a boat at the first cottage we came across. It was a relief to hear that we were almost at our destination. The sight of a small cottage with a sari-sari store and small basketball court and the boat on a placid lake with the island in the distance after that road trip was a huge relief.
I’ve been driving a scooter since 2011, but I don’t think I could have managed to drive here through level 5 on my own and would have been severely stressed while driving through levels 3-4. Locals told us that many tourists have gotten into accidents and have had to be rescued for attempting to go to Calauit by motorbike. Even locals who are used to the terrain have gotten into accidents especially in the last stretch. I have to give Art props for getting us safely there in good spirits and in good time. Deducting our stops for lunch and photo ops, the trip there took something like 3.5 hours, though it felt longer. MUCH longer. It was nearing about 3:30 pm when we finally boarded the boat and crossed the lake to get to the park.
Destination: Calauit Safari Park
The Calauit Safari Park is a game reserve and wildlife sanctuary in Palawan where animals brought in from Africa roam freely with local fauna. The place, which was originally created as a game reserve by former President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s, covers a span of 3,700 hectares. Now, it’s an eco-tourism attraction in Palawan.
As we entered the park, zebras just grazed past us. An adult giraffe and her baby were snacking on the leaves of trees just mere meters away. Wild deer hid in the grass and ran in herds as we approached. Our guide Florante brought branches of leaves for us to feed the animals. As he walked down the path, a friendly giraffe nimbly followed after him with a couple of 6-feet tall baby giraffes close by.
I guess readers won’t be able to relate if they haven’t played this, but there’s a moment in the video game The Last of Us when Ellie comes face to face with giraffes near the end of her journey. It’s an unexpected and beautiful moment within an otherwise brutal game. You stare at the pure innocence in the eyes of a wild animal and forget the hardships you just endured to get there. As the afternoon sun cast the park in a golden hue, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the trips of the year and the reasons why I travel. It’s moments like these – when you make memories that you know will last you a lifetime.
So now I’m writing this by flashlight as I sit in an open air gazebo after our encounter with animals earlier this afternoon. It’s nearing 8 in the evening and it’s pitch black. We’re the only tourists on the island. The thatched hut with a couple of beds covered by mosquito nets with animals right outside is our room for the night. We’re actually the ones caged in here in the hut, while the animals roam free. Not a lot of visitors opt to stay overnight, we were told. Most visitors come on day trips by boat because of the road conditions or brave the long chartered van trips and only stay an hour or 2 at the place.
The gazebo where we slept (taken the next morning)
I know it’s going to be a long ride the next morning to heading back to Coron to catch our flight back to Manila. But it was one hell of an adventure. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
TRAVEL TIPS & USEFUL INFO:
- Motorbike rental varies in Coron town from P500-800/day depending on the operator. We were charged P500/day + 100 extra fee (total P600) for 24-hour use of the XRM motorbike at Zurich Pension House in Coron, which also manages motorbike rentals.
- It’s possible to visit Calauit from Coron on a day trip if you leave early in the morning (around 6am) so you can get back before dark. However, locals recommend you stay overnight trip so you can explore other areas along the way and the trip won’t be too rushed.
- A full tank of gas will get you from Coron to Calauit with some gas to spare. You can refuel at the store in jump-off point before heading back.
- The cost for the round-trip boat from the jump-off point to enter the Calauit Park Park is P400/boat
- Entrance fees to Calauit Safari Park: Foreigners: P400, Filipino: P200. Exemptions: Free: senior citizens, physically challenged and children below 12 years old, IPs within the island or ICCs.
- The normal tour for groups is to explore the place by truck. There’s a service fee of P1,000 or more depending on number of guests. If you’re on a budget and don’t mind walking, take a walking tour of the island instead.
- For those staying overnight, there’s a camping fee of P350 per group per night. Maximum of 7 pax plus 50 per pax in excess. There are public restrooms where you can wash up after the long trip.
- There is no restaurant in Calauit Safari Park, so if you’re staying overnight, you should bring food or buy basic supplies like canned goods that you can have cooked by a caretaker for a minimal fee. You can buy last minute supplies at the sari-sari store before riding the boat to the island.
- There is no electricity in Calauit Safari Park. We were told there’s a certain point in another gazebo that has a signal for SMART, but we couldn’t find seem to find it. No signal for Globe. No 3G.
- Things to bring: extra clothes if you’re staying overnight, towel or beach cloth as blanket, insect repellent, flashlight, playing cards for night, food that doesn’t spoil (ex. canned goods for dinner, cup noodles, etc.) snacks, drinks, 3-in-1 coffee and bread for breakfast the next day, fully charged cameras.
BONUS: Other areas of interest
When you’re nearing the jump-off point for Calauit in Buluang, there’s a steel bridge over a river with a nice view of mangroves on either side. We didn’t take a pic on the way, but made sure to stop for some photo ops on the way back.
On the way back to Coron, we also passed by Concepcion Waterfalls, which is roughly a 5-minute walk from the bridge along the way in the town of Concepcion. You can park your motorbike right next to the bridge. The water looked really refreshing, but I almost stepped on another small snake that jumped into the water, so we decided not to swim. 🙂
Other points of interest along the Coron-Calauit route include: Kingfisher Park, Rio Playa Beach and Ocam-Ocam Beach.
NOTE: Kudos to Owen and Nikka of Two2Travel who first wrote about their motorbiking experience to Calauit in their blog last year. Check out their post and their great e-book resource Life’s a Beach: Coron & Calauit.
NOTE: I wrote the draft of this in longhand while in Calauit Safari Park before super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan hit the Philippines. According to news articles, some animals were injured in the reserve during the typhoon. PETA and other animal welfare groups are aiding animals in the area. Prayers go to the swift recovery of everyone in Northern Palawan and the Visayas region who were hit by the typhoon.