ON SAFARI IN THE PEARL OF THE ORIENT
7,641… let that number sink in. That is the number of islands that make up the archipelago Republic of the Philippines. You can find yourself in the company of these tropical islands when you choose the Philippines as your safari destination… best pack your bathing suit alongside your safari gear. Sitting pretty in the western Pacific Ocean, three major geographical divisions stretch from north to south: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. To the west of the country is the South China Sea, to the east is the Philippine Sea, and in the southwest is the Celebes Sea, all lapping serenely on its shores. The Philippines has Taiwan as its northern neighbor, Japan to the northeast, Vietnam to the west, Palau to the east, and Malaysia and Indonesia to the south. It seems pretty crowded, but due to the Philippines’ isolation (just look at how it appears scattered on a map like a spray coming off a Pacific wave), it has top-level biodiversity. A blooming 5% of the world’s flora is rooted in the Philippines. Get your tropical rainforest groove on! You want to head straight for the islands of Bohol, Mindanao, and Palawan. These are all examples of original jungle country – banyan and palm trees everywhere as well as many hardwood indigenous trees. Mangrove trees and Nipa palms love the islands’ coastal swamps. More amazing tidbits: one-third of the 9,250 vascular plants in the Philippines are endemic and two-thirds of the 150 palm species are found nowhere else on planet Earth. Lush deluxe. CREATURE COMFORTS There are just under 200 mammal species – eight are critically endangered and 30 are vulnerable, meaning they are likely to become endangered. The Philippines’ animals definitely aren’t the largest on the globe, but they are still wonderfully wild and oozing with personality. So, let’s make way for one of the biggies, the swampy water buffalo, or carabao as it is locally known. These bovines have the low, broad, and heavy build of draught animals, and being light gray to slate gray in color, they effortlessly blend in with their environment. Then there are those beautiful horns of theirs – sickle-shaped or curved backward toward the neck. Mature males weigh in at 420 to 500 kg (930 to 1,100 lbs) and females 400 to 425 kg (882 to 937 lbs.). Absolute units. THE WATER COUSINS A certain number of water buffaloes were imported from Cambodia in the early 20th century. They are known as ‘Cambodian carabaos.’ These guys have white or yellowish hair on speckled pink skin. Their eyes, hooves, and mouths are dark. They are slightly bigger than the other carabaos, and the same goes for their horns. The males weigh a solid 673 kg (1,484 lb.), and that ridge between their shoulder blades sits at 141 cm (56 in). Water buffaloes love a hot and humid climate. Water availability is paramount in these hot conditions. They need rivers, splashing water really, to deal with the heat they so love and to reduce thermal stress. They create their own mudholes, setting their horns to work. The idea is to generate a nice and thick coating of mud over their skin. This acts as a cooling agent and protects them from the sun. The buffalo will lie down with a plonk in a waterhole or mud during the heat of the day. This is a smart move. The mud, all cakey over its body, not only protects it from the sun, but protects it but from annoying insects as well. SNACK TIME Aquatic plants are top of their menu. Times of flooding brings out the diver in them. Carabaos will graze submerged, raising that lofty head of theirs above the water to carry out vast chunks of edible plants. What else is on the menu? Giant reeds, bulrushes, sedges, the common water hyacinth, and rushes are all devoured. The carabao feeds mainly at dawn and dusk when it’s nice and cool. IT’S A SMALL, SMALL WORLD AFTERALL Species of a ‘smaller size’ abound as well; monkeys, bats, shrews, deer, mongoose, and porcupines are found throughout the Philippines. The extremely shy tarsier is endemic to the country and is one of the tiniest monkey species in the world. Their most unique quality though, is definitely their enormous eyes! Each eyeball is approximately 16 mm (0.63 in) in diameter and is as large as or, in some instances, larger than its brain. Three endemic deer species call this island home: the Philippine deer, the Calamian deer, and the Philippine spotted deer. These are nocturnal creatures. They enjoy munching on grass, leaves, fallen fruits and berries when the moon sits in the sky. When the sun’s up, they rest in the dense forest thickets. YOU OWE BOHOL A VISIT The island of Bohol has a charm that has seduced many a safari-goer. Yes, there are beautiful rice fields and fishing villages, but it gets even more surprisingly scenic. Hills in any shape imaginable as far as the eye can see, a mystical mangrove forest and sparkling white-sand beaches on the adjacent island will all greet you on Bohol. The ocean lapping on Bohol’s shore is a treasure, and more than eleven species of dolphins and whales live under the water’s surface. Bottlenose, pan-tropical spotted, and long-snouted dolphins are there in high numbers, as well as melon-headed, short-finned pilot and sperm whales. If you go on safari between December to May, you’re in for a spectacular sight – the largest annual get together of whale sharks! They migrate to these parts to take advantage of the dense food and krill ‘on tap.’ Now for a tasty Bohol itinerary – with our compliments. Indulge in the Chocolate Hills If you stand on Carmen town’s main viewing deck, the bizarrely-shaped Chocolate Hills will immediately capture your gaze. These gigantic grass-covered and dome-shaped mounds stretch into infinity – all 1,200 of them! The grass cover dries to a brown color in summer, hence the name. FYI, 214 steps lead up from the driveway to the observation deck, but the view will undoubtedly make it oh so worthwhile. Hop on a speed boat at Panglao Island Calling all safari-goers who love a good dive. Five minutes from the dreamy Alona Beach, an underwater wall of sorts hosts a wealth of small fish, nudibranchs (soft-bodied mollusks) and Anemone. On Doljo Beach you can get up-close and personal with huge gorgonians (soft coral sea fans), and sponges, and the Balicasag Marine Sanctuary is the aquatic home to an abundant variety of sea life all year round. Go on a lazy river cruise Venture deep into the Bohol countryside to witness local life in the inner towns. A Loboc River cruise on calm and clean waters is beyond relaxing. Should you opt for a cruise with a cultural injection, then head for Cortes town. Take what the locals call a ‘Bandung’ down the Abatan River where you can pay a visit to the towns of Maribojoc, Antequera, Balilihan, and Catigbian along the way, then end at the spectacular Kawasan Falls for a splash. Welcome to Zipline Capitol An adventure center adjacent to a spectacular canyon carved into the limestone by the Iwahig River awaits the safari adrenaline junkie. This gaping maw in the earth provides the setting for high jinx. If you’re looking for something exciting, yet aren’t ready to have your life flash before your eyes, take a ride on the Skyride's tame cable car traversing the gap. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try the ‘Suislide’, a two-way zip line across the ravine. And if that isn’t death-defying enough for you, why not try the ‘Plunge’ (bungee jumping)? Will you take the leap confidently, or will you be a mad display of flailing arms and legs. Don’t worry, the cord stops short (ish) of the rocks below. (We’re not going to say what the final distance between you and Mother Earth would be. Why spoil the surprise?) The local terrain offers, for those who prefer both safari boots firmly on the ground, trekking through mysterious canyons. Mix it up with kayaking or tubing down the Iwahig River or make one of your best wide-eyed tarsier monkey impressions and climb up one of the canyon walls. SHOULD I GO NOW OR LATER DOWN THE LINE? The best time to visit the Philippines is without a doubt between the months of November and April. It’s the height of glorious summer in this Southeast Asian country. You’re going to get soaked between June to October. ‘Quite a bit of rain’ is an understatement – think deluge. The temperature is also lovely and warm around this time. Basically, the Philippines is characterized by only two main seasons: wet and dry. The wet season starts in June and continues until October, and a safari is still on the cards if you’re not bothered with hot days infused with some rain. The really thunderous typhoon season generally starts in September and lasts into October, so you may want to stay home and do some of those DIY or decoupage projects that you’ve been putting off during this time. The dry season reigns from December to May, making this a very popular time to visit the island with its azure skies and mint beach conditions. The heat cranks up in the hot months of April and May – perfect for sipping on a refreshing beverage at El Nido Beach or a hike up Mount Batulao. On top of the scenic splendor, this island country is renowned for its friendly people and their natural sense of song, dance, and hospitality. You’ll definitely be made to feel at home. So, do you see yourself on safari in the Pearl of the Orient? We do!