Thursday, October 9, 2014

Apo Reef, Occidental Mindoro and Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro

Apo Reef, approximately 56 kilometers west of Apo Reef Club Resort, Calintaan, Occidental Mindoro
My road trip started around 7 a.m. on Sunday, September 21, 2014. In addition to my usual clothing and toiletries, my Vulcan was loaded with my scuba equipment, which fit nicely into my large backpack placed on top of the backseat and saddlebags--and secured by a bungee net. I rode from my home in San Juan, Metro Manila to the Port of Batangas, hopped on a RORO to Calapan and proceeded to traverse the entire stretch of Oriental Mindoro until I crossed over to the mountain forests of Magsaysay, Occidental Mindoro and finally to the plains of San Jose City.

Apart from three small bridges under construction in Pinamalayan and Gloria, a short stretch of winding road through a hill heading south to Manaul, Mansalay, and a few other patches of bridge/road construction along the way, the entire stretch of road to San Jose was really quite decent. I arrived in San Jose at around 8 p.m. but I could have arrived before sunset (and saved myself the trouble of riding through unfamiliar mountainous winding roads in an evening thunderstorm) if I hadn't taken too many rest stops along the way. Live and learn!

Upon arriving in San Jose, I noticed that the town was barely lighted. There was no electricity. My thoughts immediately shifted to my evening accommodations in the absence of air-conditioning, which was not a pleasant proposition. I was surprised at my hotel (Jazmine Royale Hotel), which had a sizable electric generator to run the air-conditioning units of the hotel rooms--no extra charge! My room and bath were clean and had a hot shower. There was adequate parking for my Vulcan and there was a security guard outside the entrance of the hotel for the night. The rate was reasonable at P900 per overnight stay.

On Monday, September 22, 2014, my final leg from San Jose to Calintaan, where Apo Reef Club Resort is located, was also quite decent, with only about 3 kilometers of rough road towards the end of about an hour ride before turning left into a short access road to Apo Reef Club Resort.

Approximately 420 km from Point A (San Juan, Metro Manila) to
Point B (Apo Reef Club Resort, Calintaan, Occidental Mindoro)--
a picturesque motorcycle ride that is doable in a single day
I was informed that P-Noy visited Puerto Galera just a few weeks ago (end of August 2014) and the word on the street is that the illusive road from Abra de Ilog to Puerto Galera, a mountainous and treacherous stretch in excess of 20 kilometers that will close the only remaining gap of the circumferential road around the entire Island of Mindoro, will finally be constructed. Indeed, I look forward to the day that I can comfortably cruise around the entire Island of Mindoro on my Vulcan without worrying about some stretch of rough road that'll destroy my motorbike. If the promise is kept, then this completed circumferential road becomes a reality just before the end of P-Noy's term in 2016 and the Island of Mindoro will join the ranks of other Philippine islands with completed circumferential roads, including Marinduque, Bohol and Panay.

For those who are not passionate about traveling by motorbike, there are regular flights from Manila to San Jose City, Occidental Mindoro (less than one-hour flight duration), where you can be picked-up and brought straight to Apo Reef Club Resort (about a one-hour drive from San Jose City Airport). In this scenario departing from Manila, you are comfortably settled at the definitive gateway of Apo Reef in about two hours.

Michael Roos (mobile number: +63-917-825-2599), the Swiss proprietor of Apo Reef Club Resort, is a relatively recent pioneer in the eco-tourism sector primarily showcasing Apo Reef to both the international and local scuba diving communities. Yet in just a few years, he has managed to set-up a comfy resort managed by a hand-picked team of service-oriented personnel. His room rates (basic electric fan rooms and very comfortable air-conditioned rooms) include dinner and breakfast buffets, which (surprise! surprise!) are prepared by a very competent and well-trained cook. The food was delicious, which is usually NOT the case in less-developed rural settings such as Calintaan.

With respect to the main offering of the Resort (i.e., scuba diving at Apo Reef), Mike or Mickey (as he is called by his team) has what I call a "mini-liveaboard" that brings you out to Apo Reef on the morning of the first day and brings you back to the Resort on the afternoon of the second day. That means you get to sleep overnight on his mini-liveaboard dive boat under the skies of Apo Reef. Unfortunately, his mini-liveaboard dive boat was still being repaired during my visit, so we were brought to Apo Reef by his speed boat (about an hour trip each way) on each of the two days we went scuba diving--returning to the Resort to sleep overnight. We dove 3 times each day or a total of 6 dives in 2 days.

Admittedly, the first day of diving was a bit disappointing. The marine life just didn't seem to be in the mood to display themselves. The second day was much more rewarding. We were even treated to delightful "stroll" with a sizable clan of dolphins halfway towards Apo Reef. Click the following link to view the film clip on YouTube: Dolphin Encounter.

Yes, I saw plenty of fish--big, small and different schools of fish. White tip sharks were common. Saw a gray reef shark and an eagle ray briefly and from a distance. Sea turtles not as frequently as I would have expected. Coral conditions were quite ordinary compared to the ones I saw in Apo Island, Dumaguete, although this may not be a fair comparison given the much larger area of Apo Reef of Occidental Mindoro compared to Apo Island of Dumaguete. All in all, my dives in Apo Reef are still some of my best dives, right alongside those in Apo Island and Balicasag. It was a bit surreal to have Martin as our dive lead. You see, Martin is a blond and blue-eyed Swiss, who appears more suited as a Ski Instructor in the Swiss Alps rather than a Scuba Diving Instructor in the Philippines ; ) I'm looking forward to returning to Apo Reef Club--this time on their mini-liveaboard overnight at Apo Reef.

Highlights of Apo Reef Dives (1)
Highlights of Apo Reef Dives (2) -- watch for the eagle ray towards the end of the film clip
Highlights of Apo Reef Dives (3) -- pretty and relatively shallow wreck dive

From Calintaan, I returned to Mansalay to attend to the pending marine protected area ordinance that was tentatively scheduled to pass on Wednesday, October 1, 2014. In the absence of Mayor Joel, who was out of town over the weekend, I decided to proceed to Puerto Galera, where I dove 3 sites on Sunday, September 28. My first dive at the Canyons was quite memorable. It was definitely the strongest drift dive I've done so far--not for beginners or the faint hearted. The current was quite strong such that we surfaced in the "open blue" halfway to Isla Verde! Our dive lead was Beat, another Swiss Dive Instructor (apparently quite common in the Philippines), who is associated with Sea Rider Dive Center of Mark Narvacan, Proprietor. I found out that one of our diving buddies in Planet Dive, Prandy Yulo, is also a regular patron of Sea Rider. Looking forward to diving with them again!

Puerto Galera Dive Sites
The rest of my stay in Mindoro was focused on the pending marine protected area ordinance of Mansalay. I attended the first reading (Wednesday, October 1) of the draft ordinance and we made great progress on the draft to the point that the draft for the second reading (Wednesday, October 8) was, in my opinion, ready for passage. I am returning to Mansalay on Monday, October 13 to witness and assist, if necessary, the third reading and the passage of the Mangal Marine Protected Area Ordinance on Wednesday, October 15.

I introduced this concept to the municipal government as early as May 2012. Assuming the ordinance is passed on October 15, that's 2 years and 5 months in the making of a simple ordinance that should have taken only a few weeks to pass. Unless the Sangguniang Bayan (SB, the local legislative body) drastically improves its response time to private investment initiatives, Mayor Joel's aspiration of Mansalay as a major tourist destination is doomed to fail! The SB needs to be violently whipped into shape from a stodgy unresponsive bureaucratic body to a lean, mean and ultra-responsive legislative machine!

On Tuesday, October 7, I returned from Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro, my scuba mask, snorkel, mobile phone, credit cards, driver's license, ATM card, scuba license and a few hundred pesos in cash stolen--right under our noses in the beach cabin in Casabangan. It left a bad taste in my mouth after a fun and fruitful two-week sojourn in the Island of Mindoro. In spite of all my family's efforts to help the Municipality of Mansalay launch a truly world-class tourism complex, some low-life shithead, who has nothing better to do, prostitutes his miserable soul to the devil by stealing my stuff that's of little use to him. It only cements the notion that the tourism complex we have in mind should be tightly secured to keep the hoi pollio out other than to provide much needed employment. Our mantra is to reel-in reputable institutional investors/locators to create jobs for the local community.

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