Corals towered above the seabed like skyscrapers, while bright orange Nemo fish darted around. I was at the Coral Garden—a protected marine park, in Davao, Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines. We had started the morning donning our snorkelling gear and making hesitant newbie forays into the water with our guide, to see the magical world below. There was a canopy of soft and hard corals shaped like cabbages, the human brain and like receptacles housing sea horse, starfish, morays, sea urchins, garden eels, wrasse and parrot fish. In the distance was a white strip of sand called the Vanishing Island. Yes, the island actually vanished during high tide!
Davao, for many years, has been in the shadow of its famous siblings like Bohol and Palawan, but is now getting a chance to shine, being President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown, where he served as mayor. Mindanao is the most culturally diverse island in the Philippines, where people of different languages, tribes and races meet. There is a significant Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and even Arabic community who have settled in the city many years ago. Today, mosques stand alongside Chinese and Buddhist temples and Christian churches. Davao is home to many ethnic tribes whose ancestors first arrived in Mindanao across land bridges from Malaysia.
Today, the sprawling city is full of shopping malls—a legacy of the Americans, who governed the Philippines for nearly half of the 20th century—and jeepneys (old American army Jeeps, now brightly painted and operating as sturdy public buses, with shiny chrome fixtures and a variety of motifs painted on their sides). Habal-habal passenger motorcycles weaved their way through the thick traffic. The topography of Davao and the surrounding islands offered a gamut of picturesque landscapes, from lush pineapple and durian plantations, orchid farms, to volcano-fed hills and valleys and coral islands. “The four icons of Davao are the Waling-waling orchid, the smelly durian fruit, the Philippines Eagle and, of course, Mt Apo, the dormant volcano lording over the hinterland,” explained our local guide. The name Apo means grandfather, and it was rich with flora and fauna—orchids called waling, the Philippine eagle and primeval vegetation.
Over the next few days, I discovered that Davao was a vegetarian’s nightmare—a feast of tuna served in 10 ways and grilled pork belly was in store for the carnivores! But, luckily, it was also fruit paradise. Davao was durian country, the fruit that natives said ‘smells like hell and tastes like heaven’; the locals had pushed the envelope, creating all manner of treats with the traditionally smelly fruit—candies, pies, cakes, jams, and even durian-blended coffee. In the sprawling, chaotic Bankerohan market, we walked through aisles and aisles of exotic fruits, tasting them from the hands of friendly shopkeepers—pomellos, bananas, mango, papaya, lanzones, rambutan and pineapple. My carnivorous friends feasted on beef soup while I feasted on lanzones and marang, a soft pulpy, delicious fruit that reminded me of jackfruit.
At the Davao Crocodile Park, we saw hundreds of baby crocodiles and the country's biggest crocodile, the Pangil, besides stalls that sold oddities like crocodile ice cream and civet coffee. While the park was not a full-fledged zoo for crocodiles, it featured other exotic animal species such as raptors, monkeys, bearcats, snakes and various reptiles, and was equipped with state-of-the-art crocodile breeding systems.
A choppy ride on a traditional outrigger boat with a pointed prow, called a Bangka, from Santa Ana Warf across the narrow Pakiputan Strait, took us to the pristine Samal Island with coves, pristine white sand beaches and huge bat caves. A favourite spot for divers was the historic site of two Japanese shipwrecks during World War II. Our home away from home was the luxurious Pearl Farm Resort, a former cultivation farm for luxurious south sea pearls now converted into a luxury resort with traditional huts on stilts. In the 50s, this beach resort operated as a farm where thousands of oysters transported from the Sulu Sea were cultivated because of their white, pink and gold pearls. The designs of the Samal House were inspired by the actual designs of the Samal Tribe of Mindanao whose members are usually seafarers. I loved the organic feel of the resort, which incorporated natural materials—bamboo, wood, rope and stone blending magnificently with the rest of the landscape.
Riding a speedboat, we whizzed past a coastline defined by tall, swaying coconut trees, white sand beaches, rock formations, mangroves, coral reefs and small fishing villages. We clambered down a pebbled beach to walk up to the Montfort Bat Reserve, which was home to one of the largest colony of fruit bats in the world. An estimated 2.5 million Geoffrey’s Rousette fruit bats can be found at the bat caves within the Monfort Bat Sanctuary on Samal Island. The 1,000-foot-long Monfort Bat Cave also sheltered people against World War II bombing raids. It made the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010, as the largest colony of Geoffrey’s Rousettes in the world.
Our guide at the Bat Reserve explained that “bats were not vampires or Draculas, just useful mammals that act as pollinators and facilitate seed dispersal”. We saw zillions of fruit bats clinging and hanging upside down on the roof and sides of the caves. Did you know that bats are a good source of guano, one of nature’s most effective natural fertilisers? I picked up bat trivia like, bats can live up to 30 years and that there were more than 1,000 kinds of bats globally. The fruit bats were directly responsible for the high density of durian fruit trees that proliferate in the surrounding rain-forested mountains. The colony's population was kept at moderate levels by natural predators like rats, pythons and occasional monitor lizards. We saw colonies of senior-citizen bats, pregnant bats and even a male preserve. The bats live in a single cave—guests were not allowed to enter, but they could peer over bamboo railings into any of the five openings where the seething masses of sleeping fruit bats coated the cave walls. The bats used to roost all around the island until continuing human encroachment drove the flying mammals to seek refuge in the Monfort farm. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers are on the increase.
As we began the journey back to civilisation, the endearing images of the previous days, ranging from touching a starfish, and the wind whipping my hair on boat rides to the tranquil sounds of birds chirping and the sight of Mt Apo in the distance from my room, remained forever embedded on my memory chip.