“We’re here in Calauit Island…looking for the most dangerous animal…the giraffe!” You have to read that line, or, better still, say it out loud, in your best imitation of the Australian “Crocodile Hunter”, Steve Irwin, in the same manner that our nephew blurted those words, from out of the blue and fresh from deep slumber, as soon as he stepped on Calauit Safari Park.
The giraffe, of course, is not the most dangerous animal on the planet. Far from it. On the contrary, this cute animal is the sole reason why we took the long trip to Calauit Island, found at the tip of Busuanga, Palawan. Our nephew may have blurted those words in the spirit of fun, an understandable manifestation of his excitement that had been building for almost a year.
We’ve attempted the trip before. Bought the ticket, went to the airport, boarded the plane and anticipated the landing at the Busuanga Airport. We didn’t mind the rain as we left the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA 3) in Manila. Or the slight turbulence as we went to the final stretch of the one-hour trip to Busuanga. The concern sneaked in when the plane started circling a white-beached island, through a hole in the dark rainclouds. Wow! The pilot is kind enough, we thought, to give us an aerial tour of Palawan. Then the cabin speaker crackled and the pilot, in his deliberately modulated voice, spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen, due to inclement weather and for safety reasons, we shall be heading back to Manila. We’re very sorry.” We were circling above the vicinity of Busuanga, only to take the one-hour trip back to Manila. One a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 as the strongest feeling of disappointment, we’d score a 20.
It was July when we made the first travel to visit Coron and Calauit Island. We knew that flights to Busuanga Airport, the nearest access to Coron and Calauit Island, could easily be cancelled due to bad weather. We also knew that July is in the middle of the Philippine rainy season. We just had to take our chances despite what we knew. The problem with a group travel is finding a common time for everyone. And the problem with taking chances is getting a losing card, just like what we got.
The best time to visit Coron and the adjacent islands is the first half of the year, especially summer. Less chances of rain. Less chances of flights getting cancelled. Less chances of a rough sea. We cannot overemphasize the importance of quiet waters when going to Calauit. We’ll get to that in a while.
Coron is the most logical jump-off point to Calauit Island. It is, after all, the center of this side of Palawan. A lot of tour operators and tour guides are based in Coron. Hotels and resorts, restaurants and other tourist amenities are also here. Many of the tourist attractions are easily accessible from Coron. Kayangan Lake, Twin Lagoons, coral garden, to name a few.
Our tour guide, a jolly dependable man, advised us to rest early for the evening. Get enough sleep and rest, he told us (get a good tour guide, we tell you). The wooden boat that would take us to Calauit Island leaves at 3 a.m. Very early, indeed, though it’s not a problem. Sleep is, or should be, dispensable when traveling. If a traveler takes much time sleeping at the destination, he/she ought to have stayed at home in the first place.
Including the two boat crews and our tour guide, there were 16 of us in that boat. It was still dark. While others slept soundly, we were busy keeping our balance as we straddled the concrete barrier of the pier and into the narrow bow of the wooden pumpboat. We’re used to traveling and we’ve been to countless sea travels, but the Coron-Calauit trip was a totally different experience. Sitting on the open boat deck, with no walls to protect you from the wind and sea, with no navigation guide other than the stars and the expertise of the boat captain, we felt the boat, scandalously noisy engines and all, gracefully glide through the dark seas of Palawan. The unmistakable giant cross, brightly lighted and perched on top of Coron, started getting smaller.
Calauit is approximate 3 hours from Coron, either by sea or land. The sea route was an easy choice. Traversing the rough roads was not a comforting thought. Roads are muddy and hardly accessible when it rains. We can’t really move around the car seats. Plus we don’t get to wear the bright orange life vests that we were issued as we stepped into the boat. It’s cool, really.
There’s so much wonderful experience that a boat ride brings. Leaving the port at 3 a.m., we caught the rays of the sun, with its reflection dispersed by the waves, as it rose in the east. Even before that, as the distant lighthouses flicker from the distance, we had our fill of wishes from countless falling stars. The boat is not covered. You can stand or sit in front and look at the open skies. Beautiful. Magical. But do this during the rainy season and it’s a totally different experience. Summer is the time for Coron.
The little ones are sleeping like, well, babies, safe and warm in their jackets and blankets. The night before the trip, before our tour guide dropped us off in our hotel, he reminded us to bring something to keep us warm for the open-sea voyage. I didn’t sleep during the whole 3-hour trip. I wanted to soak the entire experience, including the intermittent splash of seawater as the waves hit the bamboo outrigger that extends to both sides of the boat. Or maybe I just wanted to make the most of what we paid for the trip.
Our group arrived at 6 in the morning, the first batch to register at the visitor reception center of Calauit Safari Park. Breakfast was served while the tour guide made the necessary arrangements at the counter. In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by thick mangroves, lush trees and short bamboos, a simple feast of fried eggs, hotdogs and rice, spiced by the excited chatter of the company, tasted so good. And as everyone started to get infected with the Australian accent of the wannabe Steve Irwin (Bogart The Explorer has found his match, mate), in the raging debate on what other animal in the safari could possibly be more dangerous than a giraffe, we caught sight of a wonderful piece of vehicle that would take us through the single dirt road leading to the Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary — a Land Rover Defender. Old model. Cracked white paint. Spare tire on the hood. Rough-looking. Nice.
I mean, c’mon, what makes a safari trip look like a safari trip? Imagine the old movies or documentaries about the African safari. There’s the brown dirt and the ground-hugging vegetation, scorched brown. The wildlife, of course. There’s the flat landscape punctuated by lonely tall trees. And there’s the reliable white Defender. All that, we found at the Calauit Safari Park.
In the 1970s, the park ranger started his story, the Philippines was one of the countries that responded to the call of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to conserve wildlife that have been affected by conflict in the African region. On second thought, that’s not how the park ranger started his story. He opened the narrative with something way more colorful: Kris Aquino visited the place a few years back.
Anyway, the island of Calauit, with 3,700 hectares of secluded land, emerged as the top choice in the search for a Philippine wildlife preserve. This is the original Jurassic Park (remember that movie about ferocious creatures bred and isolated from the mainland for obvious reasons?). With the establishment of this wildlife preserve, a number of species soon arrived, including giraffes, zebras, gazelles, waterbucks, impalas, bushbacks and elands. All the existing animal stock in Calauit are the heirs of this original batch.
Maintaining the facility wasn’t a walk in the park, we were told. The original stock of animal food ran out immediately as soon as the animals arrived. The staff had to gather each and every leaf in the area, tested for both nutrient content and harmful content, and check which ones the animals will eat. The giraffe liked a certain specie of bakawan. A certain plant, being abortificient, had to be eradicated from the entire island.
The guided tour covers only a small portion of the wildlife park. The star animals — giraffes, zebras and the deers — graze freely in the open. The sidekicks of the show — including the python, porcupines and wild pig/bearded pigs — are in enclosures. Surprisingly, there’s another set of animals contained in an enclosure, an interesting twist that we haven’t seen in zoos such as the Ark Avilon and the Avilon Zoo. That would be us, human beings. The first stop of the tour vehicle was the wooden enclosure with a hut in the middle. Visitors were asked to go down the vehicle, but not to watch any animal inside the enclosure. Instead, guests were asked to go inside the enclosure so they can watch the animals which are out in the open (or, another way of putting it, so the animals can view the guests in the enclosure). Giraffes are known to kill lions (no lions or other natural predators in Calauit) with their powerful kicks. They go to combat against each other using their long necks as whips. Probably the reasons for the enclosure.
The highlight while inside the enclosure? Feeding the giraffes. The park personnel provided the guests with a bunch of small branches, with leaves of course, to hold out near the enclosure’s fence. The giraffes in the middle of the field started walking towards the direction of the enclosure, their long legs moving in what looks like slow-motion steps, reaching for the peace offerings of the guests with ease. Long necks. They got so close guests could kiss them. Or see their teeth cavities if someone chose to. Bloody wonderful experience, mate.
Only the giraffes and zebras survived to this day, joined by endemic wildlife such as the Calamian Deer and the mouse-deer, at the Calauit Safari Park. Still, we were hardly disappointed with the loss of other imported species. There’s really not much to see at the park itself. A trip to Calauit Island is made special by the authentic look and feel of the place, the excitement in the trip itself, and all the wonders of nature that a trip to Palawan always brings (the whole day awaits for island hopping and visiting the coral garden). We trooped to Calauit Island mainly for the lovely giraffes, now all Philippine-born. While the giraffe may not be the most dangerous animal on the planet, it’s definitely a survivor in the Calauit Safari Park.