All at sea in a waterworld

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 December, 1998, 12:00am

As a seasoned traveller I make it a rule to listen to local advice - the sort of advice that tells you, for example, not to eat the shellfish in Hong Kong, do not order drinks in Shenzhen bars without asking the price first, and not to carry parcels for people who befriend you in Thailand.

Which makes me still wonder why I broke my own rule during one of my latest forays: a journey to the Tawitawi island group in the Sulu Sea, east of Borneo.

The goal was the sea gypsy community at Sitangkai, one of the most unusual settlements in the world.

It is a town virtually without land, a cluster of buildings perched on fragile stilts erected high over a reef in the middle of the ocean; a Waterworld set without Kevin Costner.

I never got to Sitangkai, and was almost attacked by an angry mob - mainly because I did not heed local advice. But I did get quite close to my intended destination, and saw some interesting places on the way.

The name had always beckoned: Tawitawi, a scatter of green, lagoon-fringed islands, one of Southeast Asia's most remote and more forbidding regions.

I had wanted to go there for years, but was deterred by reports of Muslim insurgency and pirate attacks.

Then I met a man, in southern France of all places, who was from Tawitawi, and he invited me to visit him.

So the first opportunity I had, I was flying out of Manila at the start of the long journey to the farthest-flung island group in the Philippines archipelago.

Tawitawi is closer to Borneo than to the rest of the Philippines. You can see the mountains of Sabah in the west, rising above the sea mists.

The people of the island group move easily on their small boats through Philippine, Malaysian and Indonesian territorial waters, hardly aware of where the boundaries lie.

They are mostly Muslims, a fact that once led them into conflict with the Philippine Government which has been fighting a stop-start anti-insurgency war with Muslim separatists for nearly three decades.

The fighting has left Tawitawi. The people there are now more interested in making money from bartering than pursuing the dream of a separate state.

To get to Tawitawi you fly from Manila to the southern city of Zamboanga, a place so strongly influenced by the presence of a Spanish garrison maintained there until the end of the 19th century that the people still speak a bastardised form of Spanish.

From Zamboanga it is a short hop south over waters so blue that from the air it is hard to distinguish the many coral islands from the equally numerous shallow submerged reefs. Bongao, the small island containing Tawitawi's provincial capital, rises surprisingly from the sea into a steep, fist-shaped peak, so high that it is often wreathed in white clouds.

It towers above the shore-hugging town - also called Bongao - and adds an element of drama and mystery to the place that is absent in the other, mostly flat, islands of the Tawitawi group.

I had heard that a boat left every morning on the day-long journey from Bongao to Sitangkai so I rushed from the airport to the wharf expecting to be well in time for that day's sailing.

There was no boat in sight. A man drowsing on a chair in the customs office told me that day's sailing had been cancelled: the boat was in dry dock undergoing repairs. But not to worry, it would definitely go the next day.

At that stage I recalled the advice I had been given by a former priest I met in Manila shortly before leaving for Tawitawi. He had spent several years in the island group and loved the place with a passion.

'Give yourself plenty of time,' he had said. 'Don't expect things to work out the way you plan them to.' Bongao has a remarkably good hotel for such a remote spot. It is called the Beachside Inn and fronts a sandy bay a few kilometres from the town centre.

It has comfortable air-conditioned rooms with sea views and cable TV for 500 pesos (about HK$125) a night and a big open-air restaurant that serves plain but satisfying local food such as grilled fish.

With an afternoon to kill I decided to take a trek up the Bongao peak after the hotel receptionist said there was a trail up to the top.

'Take some water,' he advised, 'and some bananas.' I thought I would skip the bananas.

The trail was steep but interesting, offering glimpses of the sea and adjoining islands.

Just below the peak is a small plateau made into a resting place with wooden seats and palm-thatch shelters.

As soon as I sat down to catch my breath they started to appear from the trees: dozens of monkeys - adults, young ones, and mothers with babies, moving quickly through the branches and dropping silently to the ground. They soon surrounded me, and started to get nasty.

First it was the noise they began to make, a snarling, growling sound punctuated with shrill screams. Then the big males started showing their teeth, lifting their upper lips to reveal long, yellowing incisors. One of them rushed at me from behind and grabbed at my trouser pocket, almost tearing the cloth.

As I fled from the snarling horde I noticed the floor of the plateau was littered with banana skins. Now I knew why the monkeys were angry: people who came up there brought them bananas. It was the entry fee to their domain. I had not brought any.

Back at the wharf early next morning the customs man was playing chess with a police officer. He shook his head apologetically when he saw me. 'No boat today, but tomorrow for sure.' Wandering along the seafront I met a pair of radio journalists who directed me to another boat that was going to Sibutu Island, the closest substantial bit of dry land to Sitangkai and within striking distance of my goal. I boarded the boat and lay down on the upper deck - there were no seats - among a tangle of fellow passengers and cargo that included odd lengths of lumber and a tethered cow.

Four hours later the engines gave a shudder and we were weaving through the ranks of small boats that filled the busy harbour. About two hours out from Bongao the engine started coughing. The boat stopped dead then started again. Then I realised we were turning around. Three hours later we were back in Bongao.

The next day at the wharf the customs man was ironing his shirt. When would the boat be leaving for Sitangkai, I asked. 'Very soon. Any day now, sir.' I had only given myself five days for the trip to Sitangkai and was due back in Hong Kong on the sixth. The next day, day four, found me at Bongao airport, changing my ticket for that day's flight back up north.

'When will the plane leave?' I asked an airline official. 'It leaves this morning, sir,' she said. I thought that would be the most precise answer I was going to get.



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All at sea in a waterworld

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