WE HAD been paddling for most of the day when we steered the kayaks around a rocky point to see a fishing village hidden in the shelter of a sandy bay. There, on a beach, were 10 or 12 bamboo huts overlooking a small fleet of brightly-coloured wooden long boats. At the water's edge a motley group comprising 17 children, five barking dogs, a teenager playing a flamenco guitar and a sizeable pig had gathered to watch our white faces approach their isolated homes. The younger children, bare-footed and dressed in over-sized, hand-me-down cotton vests, peered out from behind protective, older legs. It seemed as if the tide was bringing in the bogeyman their mothers had always warned them would come. No more than 16 kilometres away at Port Barton, the rather grandly-titled string of beach bungalows and tumble-down shacks on the southern Philippine island of Palawan, we had met Toby, a genial Canadian and owner of the kayaks, who agreed to rent us everything we needed for an island-hopping trip in the area. Toby lived a charmed life split between Canada's national parks and the Philippine archipelago, where he lived in a cottage on the beach, ate fish for lunch and spent his days playing frisbee with his Filipina girlfriend, Thelma. In a scene reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, when the hero Boot is outfitted for his foray to the Ishmaelian front, Toby had equipped us with the two-man kayaks, tents, waterproof bags, food, water and pointed us toward the horizon, where a cluster ofislands, ringed by a sandy beach that sloped down beneath gin-clear water, promised snorkelling, fishing and adventure. We needed no more prompting. Our first stop was German Island, named as such because, like almost everything else in this salty paradise, it is now owned by a German. Not too long ago it had enjoyed a Tagalog name, but these days the deutschemark buys more than just the land. Here, living alone like two characters from Lord of the Flies, were Benedicto, a 14-year-old boy, and his shy younger brother, Moo. As the sun went down, Benedicto showed us how to make a sturdy seat from three pieces of wood, while his brother squatted in the fringes of the light cast from our makeshift fire. We cooked spaghetti and sat on our newly-made seats to eat in silence. We watched the moon rise like a picture-perfect negative of the sun on a cloudless day. In the morning we paddled from German Island to Exotic Island, and its neighbour Paradise. Since backpackers arrived in Port Barton, most of the islands have been renamed by Filipinos aware of the difference such things make to their livelihood. The onlyislands that retain their native names are those poor cousins whose rocky cliff faces rise vertically from a beachless waterfront. An island without a beach is like a house without a roof. It took us two hours to make the crossing. Once, about halfway over, we steered the kayaks to a particularly beautiful beach, through a minefield of shallow coral atolls that sat just a few inches under the surface of the water. When we reached the beach, we saw a sign that read: ''Keep out. Absolutely no visitors allowed.'' A smiling Filipino had approached us from the shade to tell us, in the voice of one that has practised for this very moment, that no, we were not allowed to pull up there; the owner, a German, forbade it. Last year, he told us, a group of fishermen from further up the coast had arrived with their long boats and set up camp on this very spot. They had fished with dynamite that killed the coral and refused the owner's requests to leave. In the best traditions of the Philippines, the owner had responded by travelling to Manila, where he hired armed thugs to do his bidding. Before the week was out the fishermen had been driven from the island, only to return the following day brandishing their own weapons. In the battle that ensued, the fishermen were beaten and fled once more, this time with one of their number in a coffin fashioned from a small paddle boat. As we left I noticed the name of the island's boat sitting near the spot where the fisherman had lost his life. It was called L'Etranger - the name of Albert Camus' master work. Just as he had described in his existential novel, there had been a death on a beach in the blazing sun; the author would doubtless have appreciated the irony. Finally we reached Paradise Island, a sandy haven where a French couple, staying in one of the three private beach shacks, invited us to lunch. While we were eating a simple meal of rice and fish cooked on an open fire, a boat pulled up and a short, purposeful man wearing a baseball cap and jeans jumped ashore and clambered up the beach towards our shade. He was Father Magellan, he said, the area's Catholic priest on his way to church in a nearby bay and could he beg some water. He had left his own behind and in this searing heat, he feared he might collapse. We offered what we had and chatted a while. He told us he had been in Palawan for six months, where, every Sunday, he visited six churches on his boat, The Parish Connection. He made a joke about Sunday being his busy day and then he was gone. We left when the day had cooled and headed back to Barton using small sails fixed to the front of the kayaks. While we were making use of a tail wind, we spotted the fishing village, tucked away in one of dozens of bays we had passed in the last few days. It was a chance to rest and buy food and drink, so we paddled in. I can't express my shock at the villagers' reaction. As we clambered out of the kayaks, the group of young children that had gathered to watch us ran away, genuinely terrified. I asked a young man who spoke English why they were frightened. ''You are thefirst white face they have seen,'' he replied. Their mothers, he went on, had warned them that unless they behaved, ghost-like monsters would come from the sea to crush their fragile bones. Despite living just 16 kilometres from Port Barton, where predominantly German and Swiss tourists brave the five-hour jeepney journey through Palawan's thick rainforest to enjoy its pristine beaches and coral reefs, they were a fishing people whose liveswere spent either on this one beach or at sea. They had little need for foreigners, yet their lives had been forever changed by their presence. The village reception committee stayed on the beach waving and shouting until we were fully out of sight. The cotton and plastic boats made good time back to Barton; the wind giving us a chance to reflect on our travels. I thought of the turtle we had seen swimming beneath our boat; of L'Etranger and the dead fisherman; of Father Magellan and his boat and the Spanish emissary of the same name who, 400 years before, had first stumbled into the islands while on a mission from his king to find a route across the Pacific. He never completed his journey; a Filipino chieftain named Lapulapu killed him in a skirmish over land rights shortly after he landed. His, too, had been a death on the beach in the blazing sun, but the damage had already been done. The Philippines would never be its own again. How to get there Philippine Airlines has flights to Porto Princesa via Manila. Cost: $3,340 for an economy class return. Visa: required.