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Disconnecting to find real connection with Tao Philippines: 3 days island-hopping from Coron to El Nido


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“Attack!” The boat crew, known to us as the Lost Boys, move aside to reveal mountains of food: sticky banana empanadas, rice noodle salads, and steaming white fish caught earlier this morning. 

20 adventurers, newly-established Tao expeditioners hailing from all corners of the world, form a surprisingly orderly line - as far as is possible while sailing Palawan’s untamed waters.

Since departing Coron for Tao Philippines three-day and two-night expedition through some of Palawan’s remotest islands, the last thing on anyone’s minds are our mobile telephones, internet connection, or unread emails.

Aside from a scramble for cameras at the sight of a sea turtle or several irresistible sunset snaps, our mobile devices remain untouched, locked away in the boat’s underbelly, in favour of raw aquamarine paradise.

Image credit: Katie Treharne

Here, surrounded by jungle, jellyfish, and the jesting crew, internet or mobile connection is not only near-impossible but unnecessary.

Day 1: Departing Coron for coral gardens and shipwrecks

Disconnection begins in Coron, a mellow fishing town tucked under the south side of Palawan’s Busuanga Island. At Coron Port, I meet the other 20 Tao expeditioners, soon to be my companions in close quarters for the next three days as we get to grips with base camp lifestyle: basic beachside huts, fireside riddles, and unfamiliar tropical wildlife.

Patsy Island base camp. Image credit: Katie Treharne

I am handed onto the Tao boat, the Aurora Igorota, by the Lost Boys who introduce our honorary crew members, two Jack Russells attuned to life digging up coconut shells and hopping between kayaks.

As we sail away from Busuanga, smaller islands seem to rise out of the sea like baking dough, thick with dense vegetation and encircled by stretches of white sand. There are sharp limestone peaks stippled with sparse bush and other islands which seem endless, teeming with jungle and feathery white sand.

These are the busiest waters I will see in Palawan; traditional blue-white boats with wooden extensions resembling the wings of a bird speed away in different directions.

In the midst of this fantasy-landscape, the boat rumbles and stalls, pulling up alongside the shallow turquoise waters of Tangat Island. In a flurry of motion, everyone pulls on their snorkelling gear. Two minutes later, I am gliding over the shadow of a vast shipwreck.

Image credit: Katie Treharne

Entombed in the sand, the East Tangat World War 2 wreck is coated with skeletal coral, purple and orange, and of so many shapes and sizes it seems as though they have been moulded by hand. Below, divers are busy wriggling through portholes, giving rise to large bubbles, startlingly similar in appearance to jellyfish, which wobble and ascend from the chalky depths.

Schools of small butterfly fish flit around the site, one of many species of fish I will see over the next few days snorkelling Palawan’s underwater metropolises.

The carnival does not end there. My arrival to the first base camp on Patsy Island is a flourish of colour. Deep oranges, chrome yellow and magenta streak the sky as the sun ducks behind distant mountains. The early Filipino sunset seeps into the water until it seems that the surface is lined with sheets of gold, at least for as long as we can resist leaping into the shallows.

Image credit: Katie Treharne

Day 2: Embracing the journey to Tabayan base camp.

The sun, unfiltered, is my alarm.

It seems to me as though I have entered an existence antithetic to the usual everyday blare of my generic iPhone alarm. Instead, I fling aside my mosquito net to watch as local fishermen are framed by the rising sun.

The Aurora Igorota at sunrise. Image credit: Katie Treharne

The light reveals what was veiled in darkness the night before: a network of tiny wooden huts, doorless and windowless with triangular wooden thatching, shielded from the sun by towering palm trees, and a communal shelter at the centre of the camp where we dined on vegetable curry at last night's dinner.

After braving the cold outdoor showers and filling my dry bag, I take to the ocean again to breaststroke to the Aurora Igorata, where we are served hot pancakes and omelettes with fresh fruit and strong ginger tea.

Feet hanging over the side of the deck, I watch as the ocean rushes by once again, leaving more of Palawan’s nameless islands in our wake.

Image credit: Katie Treharne

Ruben, a frequent traveller, strikes up a conversation considering how, on a boat like this, everyone is a blank canvas before you speak with them.

His words play on my mind as we sail past Culion Island, stopping to snorkel over the shallow corals at Cagdanao, and again upon arrival at the Tabayan Base Camp. At this halfway point between Coron and El Nido, I contemplate how different my interactions may have been if I had not been disconnected from the internet. 

In addition to being present and undistracted, I have harboured no prior judgements from online profiles. Here, conversations begin with no expectations, and a connection is created through common interests, ideas, and comprehending other people's ways of living.

As my new friends' faces are framed in the orange glow from the firepit, I consider how it is impossible to label who may be a millionaire, who may be from a disadvantaged background, or how many followers someone may have

Day 3: Arrival in El Nido - disconnecting or re-connecting?

At Tabayan Base Camp, we dine on freshly-prepared eggplant omelette, fresh pineapple and melon, and garlic rice, all produced at the Tao Farm which we'll explore later in the day. After breakfast, I pick my way gingerly between pea-sized white crabs that scuttle across the hot sand, passing the smouldering campfire, to take a kayak back to the boat.

Image credit: Katie Treharne

As we arrive in El Nido, there is little time to prepare for the re-connection with technology and modern-day conveniences: the bleeping of notifications, pop music, and revving engines are overwhelming compared to the serenity of the ocean and the Tao base camps.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I am hesitant to turn on my mobile phone. I expected to feel eager to re-connect, but, instead, I am gripped instead with a fear of disconnecting.

The distinction between disconnection and connection has been blurred by my experience with Tao Philippines. For me, moments of real connection manifested in my disconnection with modern-day technology and the internet: unrestrained conversation, the communal breathless silence watching the sun descend behind the mountains, and the euphoria of gliding through the open ocean.

Find out more about Tao Philippines here. 

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