Chilling in the Philippines

By Rachel Ashton

Stress minimisation is the order of the day – for snakes as well as travellers, as Rachel Ashton finds.

A tarsier is a little fluffball with the tail of a rat, swivelling head of an owl and eyes so freakishly large, they belong in a cartoon. Photo / Thinkstock
A tarsier is a little fluffball with the tail of a rat, swivelling head of an owl and eyes so freakishly large, they belong in a cartoon. Photo / Thinkstock

What would you do with a snake that is as long as a bus and weighs 280kg? How about willing it to grow even bigger? Prony is the largest python in captivity in the Philippines but her caretakers are going for the world record.

Prony is the star resident of Alburquerque, a village on the central Philippines island of Bohol. She lives in a small native animal park where she shares an enclosure with a watchful eagle.

Marimar, a flamboyant transvestite who describes herself as "Prony's spokeswoman", bats the heat away with a fan as she fills us in on the essential details of Prony's charmed life. The snake eats one pig a month, which she can swallow whole in one hour. Sometimes, for a change, she will scoff down two goats instead.

Prony has been in captivity since 1996 and has reached the size of a 50-year-old python in only 15 years. "We want her to have a title in the Guinness Book of World Records. We're trying to minimise her stress."

Minimising stress is what a trip to the Philippines is all about. Everywhere I go, people encourage me to take it easy, whether it's resting my weary feet with a ride in a sidecar motorcycle, banishing tension with a relaxing massage on the beach at sunset or indulging in a little pampering with an impromptu manicure and pedicure.

One scorching afternoon I idly mentioned that coconut water would do wonders for quenching the thirst. Next minute, a young lad had shimmied up a palm tree, hacked off a fresh coconut, stuck a straw in it and voila - nature's Gatorade. Delicious.

For a stress-free holiday it's hard to beat splitting your days between relaxing on a white sand beach and wallowing in crystal-clear waters. But in a country of more than 7000 tropical islands, deciding which beach you should be laying your towel on is daunting.

That's where Philippines Adventure Tours come in. The Auckland-based company runs tours to the picturesque Central Visaya region in the middle of the Philippines archipelago.

The islands of the Visayas, known for their beautiful beaches and lush jungle highlands, are well away from the political and criminal danger zones. And travellers concerned about touching down in the over-populated capital needn't worry. Flights from Singapore go directly to Cebu city, a considerably more sedate gateway than hectic Manila.

My trip takes in Panagsama Beach on Cebu Island, Apo Island just off the coast of Negros and finishes at Alona Beach on Panglao Island near Bohol. The mood varies as we skip around the islands from a backpacker party vibe, to secluded relaxation to a laidback family-friendly haven. All three destinations have one key element in common - exceptional snorkelling.

The Philippines is famous for having some of the most spectacular dive sites in the world but simply donning a mask, snorkel and a pair of flippers and kicking off from the shore is all you need do to discover a world of underwater wonder.

Colourful tropical fish swim among coral clusters. My favourite swimming buddy is the graceful sea turtle. Watching the chunky, prehistoric-looking creature paddle silently through the water is magical.

As tempting as it is to stick to the water's edge, visitors would be missing out if they departed the Philippines without exploring inland. Bohol Island is the native environment of the tarsier, a tiny tree-dwelling primate (see sidebar).

It's also known for a bizarre geological phenomenon, the tasty-sounding Chocolate Hills, more than 1220 symmetrical dome-shaped limestone hills that stretch to the horizon.

In summer, the grass dries brown, giving the hills an even more chocolate-like appearance. There are many local legends of how the strange hills were formed - all involving giants, of course. The scientific take is that the hills were thrust up by tectonic activity and eroded over thousands of years.

More tranquillity can be found in the historic churches. Approximately 90 per cent of Filipinos are Christian, predominantly Catholic.

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon is one of the oldest churches in the country, an enormous Spanish-style building made from coral stones that was completed in 1727. Smiling women at the door hand out pieces of fabric so I can drape myself in modesty.

The church's interior has an austere, ancient beauty, and if it wasn't for the tropical heat outside I could swear I've been transported to a major European city.

After some quiet reflection, it's time to head back to the beach for a massage at sunset. Stress minimisation accomplished.

Tarsier spotting

When God was making tarsiers, did he start recycling animal parts? The grey fluffball has the tail of a rat, swivelling head of an owl, ears of a mouse and face of a monkey. Its eyes are so freakishly large they belong in a cartoon, not nature.

The best place to see these peculiarly cute creatures is on Bohol Island. The Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary was opened in a patch of jungle last year, allowing visitors to safely view the endangered animals in their natural environment.

The visit begins with a quick briefing. Don't take flash photos - they will harm those sensitive eyes. And definitely don't touch. Tarsiers are timid and can "commit suicide" by leaping from trees after coming into human contact.

There are 113 tarsiers in the spacious enclosure. Motionless and so small they would fit in the palm of a hand, it is difficult to spot them.

With help from experienced guides, suddenly they emerge from the foliage, clinging to the branches with their lizard feet and silently staring back with those saucer-like
eyes.

For more information on travel to the Philippines see here.

Rachel Ashton travelled to the Philippines courtesy of Philippines Adventure Tours.

- Herald on Sunday

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