Recently returning from a seven-week trip to Luzon, the British Universities Kayak Expedition (BUKE) team report on their findings and share a few tips for anyone curious how to get amongst Philippine stouts …
Firstly, the Philippines is home to amazing whitewater. Not only are the rivers mostly free of portages and have clean lines, the water is warm and people are very friendly.
If you can imagine it, there’s probably a decal of it on a Jeepney somewhere in the Philippines. Jeepneys are the equivalent of public buses out here and hiring one with a driver makes for the perfect wagon to get to rivers. We travelled with seven kayaks and seven people’s kit through some exceptionally rough terrain and the only suffered a handful of flat tyres.
No language barrier, no problem
English is so widely spoken that we were able to communicate with even the oldest generation in the most remote villages.
Complimentary floor space
It appeared to be protocol in Luzon that if you are a visitor to a remote Barangay (small community), you can be permitted to sleep in the Barangay hall (village hall) that night. This meant we very rarely had to stay in private accommodation.
When you arrive in a new Barangay, ask to speak to the Barangay Captain about the possibility of sleeping on the floor of the Barangay hall. It is more than likely you’ll be provided with a roof over your heads as well as access to a bathroom and running water.
Adobo for days
Philippine dining suited the dirtbag kayaker lifestyle very well. Eating out at small roadside eateries was only marginally more expensive than cooking for yourself and you could normally get a dish of Adobo (meat cooked in soy and vinegar) and rice for sixty pesos (£0.90). Pancit (noodles) was frequently available too, but rice provided the bulk to most meals.
Steep, pool drop boulder gardens in stunning gorges are a Philippine whitewater staple. Over our seven-week trip we paddled sections from grade 2/3 to solid 5, the majority of it being really fun and clean grade 4! But don’t forget the rules…
Rule #1 of kayak the Philippines: everything is a gorge.
Rule #2: see rule #1!
The topography of Luzon means almost every river is in a gorge, they are very committing runs not to be taken too lightly. Carnage on these rivers could easily have serious consequences. Slot canyons are also plentiful, so make sure you’ve scoped out the river fully on satellite before blasting down!
Just because its roadside doesn’t mean you can get to the road.
Even when a river appears to have roadside access, we began to call this ‘relative roadside access’. For example, on the Upper Agno the road looks to be right next to the river, and yes, it is, but what we found was one of the steepest sided gorges we’ve paddled with very infrequent access to the road.
What we want to emphasise it that just because a road looks near a river, it doesn’t mean it’s accessible and shouldn’t be relied on for an emergency get-out. That said, we only had one big (3 hours) walk-in in the whole seven-week trip. Ingress and egress were almost always simple with the frequency of river quarries and river-side settlements.
Everything we paddled was made up of day sections. We were all keen to do multi-day paddling but we learnt that Luzon is not especially suitable. First, it would be difficult to find a sleeping spot, even with hammocks, as the jungle terrain is so dense and steep. Secondly, it is a very populated island. There were only a handful of sections where we really felt remote and away from local people. Usually, there would be a hanging bridge every few kilometers which means there is a path to a nearby settlement.
As accommodation was available in most Barangays there was never the need to spend multiple days on the river – you could just sleep in a village and start paddling again the next day at no real cost. Sections on long rivers such as the Chico could, however, be combined into multi-days if you so wished.
Google Earth is also a great tool for finding access to and from a river. If you can see a track from the imagery, there is a good chance it will be navigable by Jeepney. However, during rainy season landslides are common and many tracks get washed away. Always ask local Jeepney drivers what the current road situation is to save you driving all the way up a valley only to find a landslide near the end that means you have to turn back.
Generally bigger roads have diggers come in to help clear landslides, but on smaller roads it takes however long for the local people to clear it with their hands and spades.
More to see
There’s still plenty to be done in Luzon if you don’t mind a canyon adventure, or have a drone to assist in scouting! The biggest promise for new whitewater in the Philippines lies in the southern, large island of Mindanao. Currently the conflict there is too intense to travel there, but I’m sure some fantastic rivers will be uncovered there in the next ten years.
Back in the UK, we are preparing a video series to further document the whitewater we found. The first episode is up over on our Facebook page and keep an eye out over the next few weeks for the rest of the series. In the meantime, we have published river notes on our website if you are interested in more details about individual river sections, and of course more photos! We made many useful contacts throughout the course of the trip, don’t hesitate to ask us if you want more information.
A big shout out has to go to Palm Equipment for helping us out with some great kit to keep us afloat, safe and stylish. Also thanks to Radical Rider, VE Paddles, River Legacy, Alp Kit, and Dewerstone.