07-Oct-2018 -- Having lived in the Philippines for several years now and having bagged several confluences in other parts of the world the chance of visiting 5N 120E was just too much to refuse. We have been discussing it for years but the problem has always been that the advice is not to go there. The area is notorious for pirates and the kidnapping of foreigners. The big island, Tawi Tawi, is much closer to Borneo than any of the main Philippine islands, Mindanao being the nearest.
As it so happens, my wife and I do volunteer work with the Philippine Coastguard Auxiliary and through our work we met regular coastguard officers who had been stationed in the area. They assured us that Tawi Tawi was quite safe (although not the nearby island of Sulu) and if we wanted to visit they would coordinate for us and guarantee our safety by providing an armed Coastguard escort. Not only that, but there is a Brigade of Philippine Marines based in the area and we could stay with the officers at brigade HQ. With an offer like that, we could not refuse.
Plans were made, first we had to fly to Zamboanga, the main city in SW Mindanao, because of flight timings an overnight stay followed by a 6.00am flight to Tawi Tawi arriving at 7.00am. The calculations were that if we left Tawi Tawi at about 8.00am using a speedboat we could get to within about 150 m by boat and then hike a short distance through mangrove forest to get to the point. Allowing time for photos and celebrations, lunch was ordered in Tawi Tawi for 12.00 noon. Things are always so simple when you look on the maps / Google Earth.
Having dropped our luggage at the Marine HQ we made our way to the Coastguard station where we met up with the rest of the team and embarked on the Coastguard speedboat. Setting off on time and at high speed was a great start but that was when our good fortune ended! We got across, close to Biliatan Island (our objective) very quickly but about 1.5Km off shore it became so shallow that our boat could not proceed directly and much time was spent circling to try to find a channel, in the end we saw some local fishermen and they helped guide us but even then the draft of our boat was too much and we had to stop, we were still about 800 meter off shore.
No problem, we can walk in, but this proved nearly impossible because the bottom was not sand it was a fine silt and when you put your foot down you could sink up to your knees and often it would mean taking off your shoe / boot to be able to lift your leg. Then dig out the shoe. We did not get far before we realized that we were not going to make it like this and so we spoke to the fishermen and they got some small, very shallow draft boats which we got into and paddled to the village which was approximately 1 km from the objective. It was obvious that we could not simply sail to within 150 m and so we got as close as possible by boat (about 7-800 m) and then set off on foot. By this time we had collected some interested villagers who offered to guide us and told us that the direct route which we wanted to take was not possible because what looked like easy open ground was in fact a very silty estuary and crossing would be extremely difficult just like trying to get ashore. We therefore went a circuitous route of about 2 km which took us through very dense mangrove forest where the floor was either very sharp volcanic rocks or very slippery and muddy when we tried to use small rivers to make the path easier through the dense undergrowth.
Along the way we came across a very old giant clam shell in the middle of the “jungle”, evidence that the overall water level had been higher sometime in the past. That was followed by two encounters with a wild pig who was not happy to see us since she had piglets with her but eventually we crossed a small river estuary and we were about 200mtrs from our destination. Back into the thick and treacherous bush and after approx. another 20 – 30 mins we made it. Well almost. The final obstacle was a small river that again looked very muddy but with steep banks and one of our group was injured trying to get down the bank. I decided that we should not risk further injury since evacuating even a sprained ankle would be difficult so I called a halt. At this point we could see the confluence point and the GPS said we were 13 m away. I have since verified that mathematically from the readings of our position and math said we were 11.5 m. Since I believed that this was within the accuracy limit for a successful visit it seemed pointless to risk any injury.
It had taken about four and half hours from when we first had to get out of our boat and could just about see the area for which we were headed and so we had a small celebration that involved a drink of what was now very warm water and the usual photos being taken. The thought going through everyone’s mind was “now we have to trek back through the forest” so we decided to risk crossing the delta to get back to our boats. Just as forecast this was very difficult and took almost an hour to move the 600 m but we did make it and then back into the village where we had further celebrations this time with cold coke and most welcome it was too. The local villagers are extremely poor and so we gave money to those that had been our guides and helped with boats. In addition, we spoke to the head local official (known locally as a barangay Captain) and gave him a donation to buy books and pencils for the small school that was on the island. The good thing was that the tide was now coming in and there was enough water for our boat to at least get to the village so our departure was a lot easier than our arrival. We returned to the Coastguard station on Tawi Tawi and ate the lunch that was prepared for 12 o’clock at just after 4pm.
Some final notes / thoughts: If you are thinking of attempting this point it may be better to time your attempt at high tide so that you can get a lot closer by boat. You do of course run the risk that if you take a long time your boats will be marooned until the next high tide. Make sure you have food and water.
Much is spoken about Tawi Tawi and surrounding area, all I can say is that everyone was really friendly and everyone was at pains to reassure me that it is completely safe. I saw no evidence of any problems and the whole area is beautiful, my only regret was that we did not allow at least another day (we were booked on a flight out the next morning) for sightseeing. The local villagers on Bilatan Island were also really welcoming and more than a little curious at the sight of a large white foreigner! There are some wonderful beaches and most interesting in the area is the oldest Mosque in the region built in the 14th century almost 200 years before Magellan and the advent of Christianity. If you are Filipino then I would definitely say that you should visit. As a foreigner you should be advised by whatever is the current recommendation from your embassy but if you can go, then you should.
I have to say an enormous thank you to Capt. Ronnie Gavan of the Philippine Coastguard who facilitated the whole trip. To LTCDR Alvin Dagalea PCG station commander of Coastguard Cebu who escorted us all the way and LT Euphraim Diciano PCG station commander Coastguard station central Tawi Tawi who provided our escort and the speedboat. Also thanks to our great friend Camilo Borromeo who was our host and guide in Zamboanga and travelled with us almost to the confluence point.
Lastly but by no means least, a great thank you to Brig Gen. Custodio Parcon Philippine Marine Corps officer commanding the 2nd Marine Brigade for his generous welcome and hospitality during our stay on Tawi Tawi.