I am slumbering on a swinging hammock under a covered pavilion that is part of an austere wooden complex. Floorboards connect similarly standing structures elevated by spindly stilts over a sandy tongue protruding from an islet. I am completely surrounded by seawater--a 360 degree world of sun, sand and surf. This is Onuk Island, one of the 30 or so islands that make up Balabac in the southwestern portion of Palawan, a blissful escape with a profile that changes constantly, depending on the time of day and the rise and fall of the tides. The ever changing hues are the main draw. The sand and the water change color, shifting and evolving constantly, providing a dynamic visual treat throughout the day. Everything falls under the different shades of green, blue and yellow. Nothing is completely pure. Pretty much like life itself.
This part of Palawan is less prominent than its prestigious counterparts in the North-- El Nido, Coron, Sabang or Port Barton-- yet no less spectacular. The long sandy powdery white stretch in San Vicente and the limestone karsts that shoot out to the sky in the Calamianes are noticeably absent but the place is not diminished one bit. This is a different proposition altogether. Malaysia and Tawi Tawi are hidden in the curvature of the horizon while the Balabac mountain range make up the backdrop on the opposite side.
The waters are rich with marine life. Lobster and fish abound. There are numerous snorkelling sites. Coral gardens are tended; dead coral are cleared so that reefs recover unimpeded. Pawikan nest eggs near the shore. There is no shortage of things to preoccupy the visitor.
Onuk Island is hard to reach. Travelling here entails a six hour commute by bus or van from the provincial capital Puerto Princessa to the southern city of Rio Tuba, followed by another four hours by boat to Balabac island. The last leg is completed in less than an hour in a much smaller pumpboat. I consider the prospects of development and the influx of crowds. There are no sites for a major airport. The droves could be kept away by the inconvenience.
There is no shortage of things to preoccupy the visitor.
When George Tapan took his National Geographic winning photo, a squall had just passed through Onuk Island and a rainbow contorted on the horizon. The mayor of Balabac was fishing on a boat on the water as George's assistant Joyce strolled leisurely on the beach, her hair blown by the wind. George clicked the moment into permanence and the rest is history. That slice of tropical life made the rounds and was brought into the consciousness of a global community hungry for pristine retreats, prompting the question,"Where is this place?" If Palawan is the final frontier, then what more of Onuk Island, one of its remotest offerings?
Access to the island owned by the mayor and whose permission I had to obtain, is getting more difficult. The local government unit is trying to limit the number of visitors to give the ecosystem ample time to breathe and recover. Such foresight and responsibility inspire confidence.
I contemplate walking to the shore to take a dip. But getting off the hammock was impossible. Sloth overcomes me. I have the strength to get up but none of the desire nor the urgency.
Earlier that morning before dawn, the moon had hovered above Balabac Island before it took its leave. Calmness had prevailed and I was one with the universe. I had decided to return to this place soon. But that sentiment has changed quickly. Now, I don't even want to leave.