The silence of Sabang

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

THERE'S a beach in Palawan that’s better known as the one near the Puerto Princesa Underground River, the one next to the wharf, that gorgeous place for a stopover—for meals, a quick dip, or a short, leisurely walk along the shore. That beach has a name: Sabang Beach.

Now this long stretch of white sand beach leads to a river that snakes through mangrove forests. And it has a name as well: the Sabang River.

This tranquil place that is Sabang belongs to a rich ecosystem of river, swamp, sea, forests, mountains and caves. It is also a centerpiece of sustainable community-based ecotourism programs.


In an ideal world of ideal travelers, Sabang, which means “mouth of the river,” deserves to be explored–beyond St. Paul’s cave that is—and experienced for days. The beach is arguably one of the best in the country, but it is the river and the surrounding mangrove forests and rainforests that may well surprise even those who consider themselves well-traveled.

Yes, I admit that like many of Sabang’s visitors, my lack of imagination got the better of me. This, perhaps, explains why when one of the resort hotels that operates in Sabang invited me for a three-day, two-night stay, I was only half-excited.

Don’t get me wrong—the mere suggestion of travel makes my feet itch, how much more to Palawan, but having been to the Underground River twice, I ached to see something “new.” So upon receiving the itinerary from Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa, the first thing I requested was to replace the Underground River tour with another activity.

“How about a trek through the rainforest,” the woman on the other end of the phone suggested. Perfect, I said. For day one, I thought this would go well with the Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour, followed by the 800-meter zipline ride. Day two lined up an ATV tour, a trip to the Sheridan Organic Farm, some sailing, and, yes, some spa time.

On paper, the itinerary looked routine and resort-ish. It was nothing but. Apart from our wonderful stay at this eco-friendly hotel, the entire trip turned out to be an eye-opener. Sabang was more than just a drop-off point for subterranean river travelers—it was a remarkable eco-tourism experience that stimulated both the body and the mind.

Every day eco-tourism

The hotel driver fetched my wife Bretha and me at the airport at around 8 p.m. (flight delayed, long story). We then took the two-hour trip to Sabang, which we later learned was not yet “electrified.” The streetlights along a short stretch going to the wharf, it turned out, were solar powered.

We also learned that the area has a sizeable wildlife population, some of which crosses paths with travelers. At one point of the trip, a peculiar odor suddenly pervaded the air-conditioned coach. “That was from a skunk,” the driver wexplained.

The tiny mammal sprayed an odor so strong it went through the aircon filters. “Skunks in Palawan. Nice,” I said.

Minutes later, we arrived at the Balinese-inspired two-storey hotel, which, with its subdued lights, glowed in the darkness, its reflection in the pool beautifully surreal. We didn’t notice the row of windmills near the entrance nor did we see the dozens of solar panels on the roofs, both of which powered half of the resort. The rest of the electricity came from generator sets. More solar panels are on the way, said the hotel manager, adding that the entire resort will run on renewable energy soon.

The following morning, our tour guide slash resort concierge led us to the mangrove forest. As we walked through the vast Sabang Beach past a row of cottages, I asked our guide about some establishments that were closed. “No permits,” he said.

The structures stood along the beach far from the shoreline, more than what’s mandated by law. The Sabang folk walked freely on the beach along with visitors and playful dogs, a habal-habal passing through quietly from time to time. Here eco-tourism, 20-meter setbacks and the beach as public domain are more than just concepts—they are part of everyday life.

Insights from a self-made scientist

We reached the edge of the beach where the Sabang River flowed out into the West Philippine Sea. Our resort guide Razam Teodoro introduced us to Nestor Elijan, mangrove paddleboat tour guide and former park ranger.

As our boatman Christopher Cacho paddled through the brackish water, Mang Nestor explained the importance of mangroves in the marine and forest ecosystems. “Mangroves serve as habitats not just for marine life but forest animals as well, like that mangrove snake overhead,” Mang Nestor said in Tagalog, pointing at the elegant creature of black and yellow bands curled around a branch.

“Is that poisonous?” Bretha said. “That’s not going to jump at us, is it?” Mang Nestor said it’s venomous, but he assured it’s not going anywhere.

Deeper into the forest we saw several mangrove creatures: long-tailed macaques, crabs, oysters, monitor lizards, mangrove and cattle egrets, hornbills, ruddy and stork-billed kingfishers. Those that called the mangrove forest home but we didn’t see included Palawan bearcats, clawed and clawless otters, pangolin or scaly anteater, mayna, and yes those skunks locally known as pantot.

Later, back at the receiving area, he would hack open some driftwood and pull out a foot-long tamilok or shipworm, a marine bivalve mollusk that bores into submerged wood. While considered a pest in other countries, the tamilok—dipped fresh in coconut vinegar—has become a delicacy in these parts. Mang Nestor, though, warned harvesting the tamilok for commercial purposes isn’t allowed, as this would affect the mangrove’s ecosystem.

Since his days as a park ranger going after illegal loggers and poachers, years of watching over Sabang’s environs have turned Mang Nestor into a self-taught mangrove scientist. He can identify the different kinds of mangroves along with the scientific names at a drop of the hat, and whether this or that bakawan—from the Tagbanua tribal word “bakhaw”—is male or female.

Midway through the tour, our paddleboat ride ended and we got off a makeshift wooden platform, leaving Christopher the boatman behind. We walked on a bamboo pathway built over sinuous mangrove roots that led to the bird watching area, but we weren’t going there. Instead, we’d be taking a trail that even our resort guide Razam hasn’t tried yet, since the bridge in the regular mountainside trail, Mang Nestor explained, was damaged.

Ecosystem by design

Along the bamboo pathway, Mang Nestor further talked about “true mangroves”—those that thrive only in mangrove environments—and “mangrove associates”—those that grow in the periphery of mangrove wetlands, pointing out which is which as we trekked on. Some of the information he shares seem random, but are hardly trivial, like that of a parasitic mangrove tree that has “swallowed” another mangrove associate, depriving it of its share of sunlight and soil.

Mang Nestor’s enthusiasm is remarkable. As one of the caretakers of this beautiful but fragile place, he has made discoveries of his own, of how, in his words, God has designed to the last detail such an ecosystem. And every single detail, he said, serves a purpose.

“Look at those mangrove roots. I’ve always wondered why they were shaped and arranged that way,” the scientist said. “After much thought, I realized this was to hold water so the fish that get trapped here during low tide would not die.”

This is the kind of observations Mang Nestor makes, ones us regular travelers take for granted. His wish is that those who visit Sabang to see the Underground River would include the mangrove tour in their itinerary. The more people he gets to enlighten, the more beneficial it would be for Sabang in the long run.

And for good reason: Sabang’s mangrove environment is constantly under threat, and these threats are getting bigger. As we made our way from the rainforest trail, the Sabang beach, sea and sky came into view. We had stepped into an expanse of sandy ground under the shade of century-old trees. Mang Nestor pointed at another parasitic mangrove associate, a massive one.

Razam told us that a big developer with a notorious environmental record had bought this land and was planning to build a 500-room hotel right smack in the rainforest.

Worse, it had no right-of-way – to make one means cutting through the mangrove forest and building a huge bridge over the Sabang River, laying waste to the ecosystem and everything Mang Nestor and his small band of caretaker guides in this inconspicuously beautiful community have fought for.

Yes, Sabang deserves more name recall, but it would be a tragedy many years from now to remember this place for what it once was—all because everyone else remained as silent as the mouth of the river.(first of 2 parts)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on April 24, 2014.


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