Tao Open Expedition | Redefining Escape
Joining the Tao Open Expedition in Palawan has always been on my active bucket list. Yet again, in my February 2015 exploration of the island province, the stars were not aligned & I missed it for the 2nd time. But gladly, I met Ross, the first person who has ever told me real-life experiences about Tao. On Travel Trilogy spotlight, Ross shares to all of us such an inspiring story of how this expedition made his short stay in the Philippines worth a million memories.
“ATTACK! ATTACK!” yells Jim Boy, the captain of our ship, with his signature rallying cry, ushering us over to dig into yet another delectable spread of freshly cooked seafood. We fill our plates with tiger prawns and grilled fish before setting our lazy sun-kissed bodies down on the pristine sandy beach. As we eat, we bask in collective awe at the beauty of our surroundings: the sparkling ocean stretching off into the distance, the tropical islands that pepper the horizon, our boat, an old Filipino fishing vessel, bobbing from side to side on its outriggers in the bay, while Harry, our intrepid mascot, digs for crabs, unearthing them and frantically chasing them across the sand.
A few hours later we drop anchor at our camp for the night, a smattering of loosely spread wooden huts set back a stone’s throw from the deserted beach – we’re the only people for miles. After a quick dip in the sea, we take in the sunset, before cracking open the beers and sharing stories and laughter deep into the night. One by one we lope off to bed, utterly contented and comfortable in the knowledge that we have 4 more days of this to enjoy.
How did we get so lucky?
We discovered Tao Philippines.
When I set about researching how I should spend my time in Palawan, it immediately became clear that the Tao Open Group Expedition had to be at the top of my list. I’d rarely seen such positive reviews for anything before (around 90% of visitors rate is as ‘Excellent’ on Tripadvisor) with some reviewers describing it as “the best thing they’ve ever done”.
The more I read about Tao, the more understood why they were so effusive in their praise. The expedition is comprised of a 5-day journey with a group of like-minded travelers and a local islander crew through the blue-green waters of the beautiful Linapacan island group. With no itinerary or set route, you set up camp in a different tropical island each night, “falling asleep in open cabanas to the sound of the waves, ready for another day of adventure!”. Within 10 minutes I’d picked a date and was raring to go.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye I was sharing rum and pineapple cocktails with 26 soon-to-be friends in the Tao Philippines office on the island of Coron. They proved to be a lovely bunch – whether they hailed from Latvia, Colombia, Tunisia, or the American Midwest, every single person on the expedition was open minded, good natured and a pleasure to be around – with two of the couples even spending their honeymoons on the trip. Our captain, Jim Boy – a mischievous local lad with a big smile and an even bigger heart – introduced us to the crew and laid out the plans, which, true to form, were decidedly loose. We ordered some last minute supplies, traced our fingers along the maps on the walls, and clinked glasses, knowing that in 24 hours time we’d be doing the same in paradise.
After a night of drunken reveling with my shipmates in Coron Town, I found myself sitting bleary-eyed aboard my new home the following afternoon, gazing in disbelief at my surroundings. “Bloody hell, this is actually happening!” I thought to myself, as the boat drew towards a picture-postcard beach and Jim Boy casually suggested we all go for a quick snorkel. “Not a bad start…”
As the week went on, the days began to take on a distinctive shape. Depending on the degree of alcohol consumption the night before, we’d wake up sometime between 8 and 10 and have breakfast in camp. After pottering around for a while and perhaps enjoying a game of beach volleyball, we’d swim aboard our faithful fishing boat and set sail. Not long after, we’d stop off at the odd coastal village to buy ice and fish, providing us with ample opportunity to explore or go snorkeling, following which, we’d either have lunch on the beach or on board the boat. The afternoons were typically spent sailing to the next camp, where, having arrived around dusk, we’d get massages, eat dinner, play drinking games and, on one occasion, indulge in some karaoke, before turning in for the night.
Plenty of time was spent on board the boat, but boredom was never an issue. We whiled away the hours reading books, sunbathing, idly chatting, drinking or simply losing ourselves in the stunning surroundings. The food was consistently delicious: lots of seafood and native vegetables prepared with local spices and sauces, washed down with homemade iced tea. I’ve also heard tales of freshly prepared sashimi and Filipino-style suckling pig being prepared on other Tao trips.
Much like the food, each camp also had its own distinct flavour. Some were nestled beneath dramatic limestone monoliths, some were on paradisiacal white beaches, while others were built amidst local villages. The majority of camps had no electricity so light was provided by burning torches made from diesel filled beer bottles, dotted around the camps on bamboo stands.
Although the itinerary is ever changing, there is one constant: every expedition spends one night in the Tao Base Camp. It the largest of the camps and stands as a remarkable testament to the positive impact Tao has had on the local population. Behind the eye-catching architecture of the Tuka huts and bamboo structures lies the Tao farm, a sustainable haven of organic produce and training opportunities for young talented islanders. During our tour of the farm, it was heartwarming to hear stories of the young people undertaking apprenticeships and pursuing further education, courtesy of Tao Philippines, not to mention Tao’s steadfast commitment to progressive, sustainable farming methods. Eddie and Jack, the founders of Tao, have made a real effort to give something back, and the proof is there for all to see.
It’s difficult to pick individual highlights from such a trip, but, on reflection, there are a few moments that stand out, often involving the aforementioned mascot, Harry. A calmly inquisitive Jack Russell, Harry had a penchant for standing proudly on the tip of the bow and gazing off into the distance. At times his wistful gaze gave the impression that it was in fact he, not Jim Boy, who was the captain of our voyage. His legendary status was sealed by the harem of lady dogs that we inevitably found waiting anxiously for him at each camp. One morning I was swimming on my back over to the boat, when in the corner of my eye I noticed Harry’s head bobbing in my direction. He proceeded to climb aboard my chest and use me as a makeshift man-raft, lounging for a good 5 minutes as I desperately tried to stay afloat while bursting with uncontrollable laughter. Other memorable moments include snorkeling through the wreck of sunken Japanese ship, picturesque chess games on the beach, and one particularly ridiculous round of King’s Cup.
After 5 days, which somehow simultaneously felt like both the longest and the shortest of my life, we pulled into the harbour in El Nido. Two of our party was celebrating birthdays and the crew secretly organised for a cake to be brought on board, resulting in an impromptu sing-along accompanied by the lilt of the ukulele. It was fitting end to a triumphant trip. We cheered, said our goodbyes and made for land, sad that Tao was over, but gratified that we’d had the chance to experience it.