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Circumnavigating Palawan, “the world’s best island”

Two friends from the UK set out for the Philippines adventure of a lifetime, and find plenty of it along the way

Images courtesy of Ross Murray-Jones and Mark Coronato

When Travel + Leisure named Palawan, "the world’s best island," in 2016, they were likely conjuring the picturesque tropical elements — mountainous landscape, white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, coral reefs teeming with marine fauna — that attract international travelers to the Filipino archipelago-province.

They probably did not project images of adventurers held at bay by monsoon winds and unseasonal typhoons. Or, say, the campfire scene with a bottle of exotic brandy passing between a group of Philippine marines on high alert for a terrorist militia group. Both exotic and extreme visions of Palawan, however, were exactly what Ross Murray-Jones and Mark Coronato encountered as they completed the first-ever kayak circumnavigation of the island this past February.

"It is an amazing island," says Coronato, "A beautiful place, with incredible people, breathtaking scenery and fantastic sunsets. Would I recommend it?" Coronato ponders, reflecting back on both the challenges and rewards the pair faced during their 800 mile trip. "Absolutely."

The long-time university friends from London were searching for an epic adventure to kick off a new chapter of their lives, their 30s. A bit of research brought them to sea kayaking in the Philippines. Seeking more intel they reached out to Singaporean adventurer, Khoo Swee Chiow, who wrote the book, Across The Philippines In A Kayak, about his own crossing through the island-scattered nation. The conversation led to the island of Palawan, a destination of both well-trod tourist resorts and unspoiled shores, and one which had never been circumnavigated by kayak, additional sources confirmed for Murray-Jones and Coronato. Allured by the tropical waters and remote destination far from the winter climate and day-to-day bustle of their business-minded lives in London, the two knew they had found their adventure. Having little sea kayak or expedition experience, they were also aware some work was ahead.

"Although the trip was much harder physically, mentally, and emotionally than I envisioned," says Murray-Jones, "the abundance of support we got from local kayaking clubs in the UK as well as seasoned expeditioners such as Sandy Robson equipped us with the right tools to succeed."

After a typhoon delayed the shipment of their kayaks, the British paddlers launched from Coron Town on Busuanga Island in early December 2016. Heading south they passed through a northern chain of beautiful islands, including the tropical mountain landscape of Coron Island that Murray-Jones compares to Jurassic Park and the impressive reefs of Linapacan, just to reach the nearly 300-mile-long island proper of Palawan, which at points is less than 10 miles wide. From there they would follow the eastern coast. Fierce weather conditions, including out-of-season typhoons, provided a significant challenge to the pair throughout the trip, at times placing the kayakers windbound for multiple days. As they reached the city of Puerto Princesa, the largest on the island, the national coast guard issued a declaration, to keep small vessels docked until heavy monsoon-driven gales eased, holding Murray-Jones and Coronato in the capital city for seven days. While the weather could be harsh it also enlightened the British travelers to the hospitality of the islanders. In the fishing village of Bulawit, for instance, the locals offered up their town hall as a place to set up camp during a heavy storm.

While an occasionally rough climate had no chance of deterring the duo from enjoying the splendors of the island, another threat loomed: Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group of the southwestern Philippines. Prior to the British kayakers’ arrival, Abu Sayyaf had attacked a German couple in the region, murdering the woman and abducting the man who was also later murdered. Aware of the incident, Murray-Jones and Coronato weighed their options as they paddled south. Along the way warnings grew that as Westerners, approaching the south end of the island would be a real danger. Seeking official counsel on the risk and the potential for support, they arranged a meeting with the provincial governor’s office while in Puerto Princesa.

“We weren't sure how they'd react to our adventure," admits Murray-Jones. "But as soon as we started conversing with them they saw an opportunity to promote Palawan from a different perspective and gave their seal of approval.”

The British paddlers walked out of that meeting with the complete support of the provincial government, including arrangements for a personal armada to escort the pair through the most dangerous portion from Brooke’s Point around the southern end of the island and up to the town of Quezon on the west coast, nearly a 140-mile stretch.

The security detail – made up of five members from the local rescue team and four Philippine marines with two speedboats in constant radio contact with nation’s anti-terrorism command – provided Murray-Jones and Coronato a wide berth to tackle the coast, while they trolled along with a watchful eye for any signs of Abu Sayyaf. Each night the group would all camp together, sharing stories, meals, and occasionally some Filipino brandy. The experience built a strong camaraderie between the two paddlers and the men who were willing to put themselves at risk to see Murray-Jones and Coronato complete what they had set out to accomplish.

We’re surrounded by sergeant majors #dontleavebananabreadinyourpockets #freediving

A post shared by Ross Murray-Jones (@kayakingross) on

Upon reaching Quezon, the security detail’s task had been complete and the two groups parted ways. Murray-Jones and Coronato continued on and completed what they anticipated would be a more sheltered western coast, containing many incredible geographic marvels that also act as tourism magnets, including a wonder-of-the-world subterranean river, and the attractive islands scattered off the northwest coast in the Bacuit and El Nido bays. Along with the magnificence of the west coast, however, they also found more grueling winds.

On February 15, in the dark of night, exhausted from relentless headwinds and with hands mangled from two months of paddling, they made landfall at Floresita’s Beach Resort on the northeastern side of the island, completing the circumnavigation of Palawan.

"As we were approaching the end, we had about three days left. Those weren't meant to be long days, but they were still expected to be pretty tough going," recounts Coronato. "There was one point, in a wind channel created by two islands, where we were literally going backwards at times, and we covered about 200 meters in 45 minutes. On the second day, conditions were actually not so bad, and so we just cracked on to the finish. It was pitch black when we arrived, but we realized we had just done it. It felt so amazing. And a beer had never tasted so sweet."

While the end of the journey was bittersweet, the two friends found the adventure they were looking for: one packed with scenic and biological beauty, physical labor, danger, and a keen appreciation for a culture and people far from home.

Not at bad way to start your 30s, and, as Murray-Jones puts it, "have a little something to tell our grandchildren some day.”

Stay tuned for an in depth look at Murray-Jones and Coronato’s crossing around the south end of Palawan.