Sunday, June 12, 2011

At our destination in Claveria, almost in the water

After leaving the lighthouse the road we traveled turned to the east across the top of Luzon. Checking it out online I now see that after passing through Laoag we began driving on The Maharlika Highway, which spans the country from top to bottom.

Traffic had been light after Laoag and it stayed that way for the rest of the trip—no complaints there, especially considering how winding and up and down it is. It sort of reminded me of traveling north on California’s coastal route 1—it has much of the same type of views with the surf far below and craggy looming hills to the right, only in the Philippines version the towering hills are covered thickly with lush jungle growth. Then again, I haven’t been on California Route 1 since like 1978, so maybe I’ve remembered it wrong.

We paid attention as we passed by the next large town called Pagudpud. Note that the more you say it the less strange it sounds, honest! We knew that we’d have to make at least one trip back to it to refill all our scuba tanks at the only resort on the northern coast with a diving air compressor. It's a beautiful place on a sugar-white beach called the Terra Rika.

By the time we came to the fork in the road with a big sign that says "Claveria" exactly in the middle of the two diverging roads it was almost 11:30 am. The sign shows left to Claveria and that’s the way we went. Five more minutes and we pulled into our digs for the next six days, The Claveria Bayview Inn. It would be our "base of operations” for all of the eight dives we got in during our stay there.

Don and his gal decided to take the second floor room almost directly over the office while the wife and I opted for the newly built third floor room across the driveway with a window view of the beach. Give me a choice and I’ll always go for the view, even if it means a little work getting up to it; and with scuba equipment on tap there is always going to be some work involved.

Once all our bags and stuff was situated in our rooms, my preference was to get right back out on the road to find our first dive spot. But, Don outvoted me on that one, saying he needed some rest first. I knew he was bone tired from driving 10 straight hours through the night and day, so I didn’t argue; I only insisted that we rest no more than an hour or two or I'd never be able to do it. I know that more often than not, an hour nap can turn into a six hour bout of slumbering unconsciousness.

Heading up to our room to wait out the “rest period,” I turned on the aircon, pulled out the lower hide-a-bed and purposefully took an uncomfortable seat on it. I was hungry as well as sleepy but I can’t dive on a full stomach so I asked the wife to cut up some fruit which I finished in about five minutes. With the History Channel blaring at me, I propped my back up with a single pillow and only then allowed my eyes to close.

If I had curled up for a deep sleep I knew my mind would fog and I’d be done for the day. Staying vertical wards off deep Slow Wave Sleep, thus allowing me to snap my eyes open and immediately press feeling almost refreshed. An hour and a half later I opened my eyes for about the fifth time. Struggling to my feet, I stretched and decided it was time to head over to see how my dive partner was doing.

I had to laugh. He was sprawled across the bed on his back, his head resting on his girl’s lap who was sound asleep. What made me chuckle were his eyes. They half opened as I knocked on his door jam and for the next half minute, try as he might, he could not quite get them fully opened.

Sounding as chipper as possible I inquired as to how soon I could expect us to take off to find our first dive spot.

He yawned before answering, “Give me about a half hour to shake off the cobwebs and we’ll head out down the road. I don’t know how you can be so wide awake after not getting any sleep last night.” Another yawn.

I chirped, “Ha! I’m faking it man. I’m dead tired too. . . . No, really, I just know from experience not to fully lie down or I’ll never get back up, at least not while the sun is still shining anyway.” I paused, “Okay then dude, we’ll see you down at the car in about a half hour.”

Forty-five minutes later, the four us loaded back into his Honda SUV, we continued for about twenty minutes east through town until we came to an unmarked turnoff down a dirt track toward the sea. He said they had found it during one of his many past motorcycle trips north, and the spot ahead that he was thinking about, he thought might make for a good dive entry point.

Approaching the unseen South China Sea coast we rounded a wooded bend and soon had to stop where the tracked trail was blocked by several dumped loads of gravel. “Hmmm, that wasn’t there before,” he declared.

We got out and walked around the huge piles of gravelly dirt. A fast moving brown hued stream gurgled and swirled to our right. Sounding a bit uncertain he announced, “Hmmm. None of this looks the same as last time we were here.”

The trail gave way to a jumble of boulders and rocks. “All of this was under about five feet of sand,” he continued. “I thought we’d be able to reach the water through here, but it doesn’t look doable now with all the sand gone.”

In my best know-it-all scientist voice I lectured as if speaking to a classroom of students, “You know what man? There must have been a hell of a storm since the last time you guys were at this spot. You can tell that all this area has been swept clean by fast moving water. That’s how it is around the ocean; nothing EVER stays the same,”

I looked out across the wide deep looking torrent more than a dozen feet across at that point and spotted a long sandy stretch of beach in the distance. “How about over there?” I asked pointing toward the beach.

“Let’s go check it out,” he answered.

We backtracked to the car where the stream was more easily fordable. Jumping across the water using some rocks, we picked our way through thick grass, partially hidden stones and mats of folliage thick with beautiful yellow and white wildflowers, until we reached a sandy knoll where goats had obviously chewed the foliage down to where it was more like a neatly clipped lawn.

From the top of that rise we could clearly see the beach. There was a single bangka boat and a trike parked next to it, so we knew there must be some kind of access. Standing on tippy toes I shaded my eyes and pointed excitedly, “Hey, see there? It’s a lane where vehicles have traveled. I’ll bet we can back up and get on it and get close to that beach.”

My partner in crime nodded agreement and headed back to the car. I told him I’d continue to walk toward the spot so he’d have me as a visual reference. He didn’t need me for that though, since by the time I made it there on foot he and the girls were just pulling up. I signaled him to pull around and back it up so that our gear would be easily available. As usual he was way ahead of me.

Soon, we made our way on foot down to the swells sequentially rolling noisily up a steep bank of soil colored sand constituting the beach. The surrounding view could have been the scene on a “wish you were here” tropical beach postcard. It was serene and it was lovely, but as I closely examined the sandy brown beach I began to develop some misgivings.

“Dude, look at this sand.” Kicking at it, I continued, “There are no coral bits, no broken shells, no seaweed, there’s nothing here; nothing that was once alive anyway. Have you ever seen anything like this? And see the color of it? It’s the color of soil from all the tons of sediment that has come down from the hills from all the rivers dumping into the sea around here. Man, I do NOT have a good feeling about this.”

“Well, we won’t know what’s out there until we GET out there,” he rightly stated.

“Okay, let’s get our gear on and check it out!” We fist bumped before turning and making the trudge back up the gentle slope. Gentle yes, but we still had to work hard due to our feet sinking deep into soft sucking stuff that looked more like powdery soil than beach sand.

It was a new experience for me, putting my dive gear together out there in the great outdoors. As we took our pieces of equipment out of our dive bags the sky turned sullen. Angry drops of rain began to spit down on us intermittently. I searched for a spot on a little grassy hump where I could place my tank and BCD so that I could sit under it while strapping it on once I had it ready. Then, with a hand up from somebody I'd be able to struggle, creak and groan myself back up onto my feet.

I moaned when I noticed that I had chosen a spot covered with brown little goat droppings, most of them still quite fresh. ‘Oh well, it will all wash off my wetsuit once I’m in the water I suppose.’ Just the same, I brushed away as many of the little goat “raisins” as I could before planting my big fat butt on the grassy spot in front of my gear.

Once again, my dive buddy was way ahead of me; with his immense strength he simply swooped his heavy dive gear up from the ground, shrugging into the shoulder straps as if it was no more than a heavy winter coat. I’d be lame for a month if I tried something like that.

Before getting to that point though I insisted that we discuss our dive plan before weighing ourselves down with some 70 pounds of dive gear. One of my main concerns was not knowing the waters we were about to enter. What would we do if a fast current took us? We made a plan for every possible contingency, including what we’d do if we got separated or lost visible contact with each other. We knew that what we were about to do included a modicum of danger, but hell, THAT is much of the excitement.

With both of us geared up, we checked each other’s equipment one more time and took turns turning on each other’s air—first I turned my back to him and then him to me. Then we stood for one more second staring out at the gorgeous view before us.

“Okay, let’s go see what’s out there!” he exclaimed. I nodded, and down the sandy hill I traipsed. From behind me I heard him say, “Ahhh. I’ll be right with you Phil; I’m going to get one more drink of water before I go.”

I chuckled answering, “Okay brother man. See you in the water.”

As I always do I carefully watched where I placed each foot before planting the next, all the way into the drink.

That dive in the next post….

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