Featuring… desert islands | coconut wine | killing a pig | spit roasting a pig
awesome people | jumping off boats | snorkelling | wrestling
charity | food | rum | drinking games
The Best Week of My Life.
That’s how I’ve been touting the Tao Experience on my social media. A week later and I stand by it. One of the first things our leader Mikki said to my group of 13 on our boat was that he was happy to be out at sea again and got landsick every time he moored. I now know how that feels, as do the rest of my Tao expeditioners according to our new Facebook group.
I actually only discovered the Tao Experience a week before I went on it when I was looking at my friend Chris’s blog at Backpacker Banter. I wanted to know how to get from El Nido to Coron and he’d suggested the trip so I jumped on the opportunity to have someone else plan my days, accommodation, food and travel for 4 nights and 5 days. Chris has officially achieved his purpose in my life.
I could separate the days out, tell you exactly what happened, where we slept and all the surprises that came along but one of the things I liked best about the Tao Experience was the mystery. So I’m just going to give you a quick overview of the incredible Tao Experience.
Tao Experience induction
The Tao Experience began at our induction at Tao HQ in El Nido, Palawan, the Philippines. We had a large group of 25 and so they decided we’d take two boats.
“Have you seen Hook? We’re like the Lost Boys” – Jem, the other boat’s leader, above.
After an introduction to each other, the beginnings, ideals, present and future of Tao we knocked back a few rum and coconut juices and agreed to meet at 8:30am the next day. My new friends were from around the world and after having travelled solo for the last two months I was excited to have a whole bunch of people to travel with.
Our Tao boat
The next day we sailed out from the harbour for our first taste of life at sea. Before long we anchored down for breakfast on the boat. Our group had the bigger vessel of the two, with a lot more space. Over the next few days I sampled lounging on the bow for maximum tanning and that life-is-awesome feeling, under the canopy and around the table for feeding time and for getting out of the intense sunshine rays, and my favourite spot soon became the cushioned area up top. Not the very top though, that was where my fellow Tao Expeditioner Anton got burned to a crisp and was unable to move for three days. Good one Anton.
We also had a toilet – prohibited while we were stationary and never swim behind it – and also riggers where you could hang out and sunbathe or just stand and feel like a sea warrior. This was also the location for the many wrestles we had too.
Over the five days and four nights we went snorkelling so many times. To be honest they’ve merged but they’ve merged into a ball of awesomeness. I saw more marine life around the islands and wrecks between El Nido and Coron than I have on many scuba trips, including my recent one in Malapascua. There was so much colourful coral reef and endless schools of fish swimming in and out. There was a particular pinky fish which would swim straight towards your face, menacingly, and then dart off the other way. I’ve officially stared out a fish – what a hero. Over the days of snorkelling I saw loads of nemos, puffer fish, barracuda and plenty of fish I don’t know the names of.
It’s all sushi to me.
Food on the Tao boat
Our first breakfast was awesome, but it wasn’t until our first lunch that I realised that as well as an island tour this was going to be a gastronomical tour too. That first meal we pulled up to an island with a long table. The Tao Lost Boys fetched some huge banana leaves, cleaned them up and set them down. Then they spooned rice down the middle of the table and huge prawns and ratatouille down the sides. We all had to stand in a line, right hand behind our back and with our left hand we could shovel it in our mouths. And shovel it everyone did. The delights on that table were devoured in minutes.
As the bigger boat we had the kitchen where enough food was made for around 30 people, with extras, in case anyone was hungry. After tying our boats together we passed the food cooked on our boat over to the other one.
Every meal was a highlight. But one of the other highlights of the highlights included buying a pig from some islanders, bringing it back to the boat via kayak and spit roasting it for dinner. A few of my fellow Taoers were all “I’m never eating pork again”, but come 9pm, when the pinky pig we’d nicknamed Sausage as it trotted around our boat kitchen started to brown, and look a bit more like the kind of pig we knew and ate, their attitude changed. They were last seen gnawing on the porky crackling.
Amazingly none of our group of 25 were vegetarian – something they said had never happened before. I’m not sure how a veggie would’ve fared on kill-a-pig-day – I’ll never forget those squeals, or even worse, when they eventually stopped.
After failing at trying to catch fish on the boat we bought some from another island and cooked them up in our boat kitchen. I can’t believe the incredible food that came from that tiny stove. We had more fish than you could think about eating along with rice and delicious veggie sides.
And a new for me, one day we were even served Stingray. We took a few seconds to remember the late, great Steve Irwin, before scoffing the plate full.
In the afternoons they gave us some welcome snacks – banana fritters and then desiccated coconut that they had a special machine to extract, and on the final day, chocolate donuts.
My absolute food highlight – stop reading if you’re going to go on an expedition – had to be the third day breakfast. I awoke to see the Tao Lost Boys climbing coconut trees and creating a pulley system to bring the coconuts down. Awesome, I thought. Then I saw them bring out a massive vat of porridge. Awesome again, I haven’t had porridge for ages. Then, I realised they were going to bring the two together. I sat and ate my porridge – complete with a squirt of honey on top – from a fresh coconut sat on a log on a desert island. Life doesn’t get much better my friend.
Drink on the Tao boat
“This is not a booze cruise.” – Tao Lost Boys, repeatedly.
So we’d been told many times, and the statement was usually followed with a “Or a yoga retreat”, but we managed to make it both on our boat. The guys told us tales of past Tao expeditioners who’d got through tens of crates of beer every day and started as soon as they woke up. I enjoyed how much our group drank, no one was ill, but 90% of our boat were at least tipsy after lunch which slowly progressed until the stragglers (me included) went to bed at around 4am every night.
At the induction night you’d buy the crates you wanted and then it was pretty much a free for all from the cool box during the day. Apparently there are always beer wars when someone drinks too many but everyone was too cool on our boat for that kind of negative shenanigans.
Days on the boat
Whenever we anchored down for snorkelling it was a chance to jump and dive off the boat, or to wrestle on the rigs. Sadly I think I only won twice out of all the matches I had, but it was a lot of fun.
Of course we also spent a lot of time sitting around and chatting. The beers would be popped after lunch and one of the girls had an awesome sound system on our boat. The day she played a cool, dirty house remix of ‘Sunny’ as we cruised along the waters beer in hand will stay with me forever.
On the final day Mikki bought out his guitar and played One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful to us. Again, could life get any better?
Days on the islands
On every island we met with some of the local villagers. Not in an artificial, “now’s the time to meet the villagers” kind of way, but in an actual we went over to say hi, or they said hi to us. On one of the islands three little girls were quite taken with my friend Tor. She’d been playing chase and hi fiving them, and they just kept coming back for more. So cute.
On another island, a fellow Tao expeditioner Jouzas was chatting to a little boy. Then 6 ft something Jouzas decided it would be a great idea to throw the little boy in the air, in the way kids usually enjoy so much, but apparently this one didn’t and burst into tears. Just before we left the tears subsided but the little kid still wouldn’t say bye. Poor child. On another note, this child’s mum looked at my friend who had huge boobs and was totally awestruck – she slowly managed to get out that they were ‘so big’. And then she tried to marry her off to her other sons.
Evenings were spent playing card games. The first night was Ring of Fire, Slaps and Arrogance. Although I didn’t quite make it as far as Arrogance as I was so useless at Slaps I had to keep downing my drink and amazingly, for me, had the compos mentis to excuse myself to bed.
I also saw the most brutal game of UNO ever, which I wasn’t actually involved in but seemed to always end in someone drinking rum from a snorkel.
The best night was the night we deemed ‘Tor’s birthday’ even though it wasn’t for another 10 days. Three of the usual 4am suspects crew (me, Tor and Juozas) watched the moon rising – I’ve never done that before – and then came back to the group to eat the aforementioned spit roasted pig. It takes a long time to spit roast a pig when you have to manually turn it and it was probably about 10pm by the time the food came round. This meant everyone had had a good 3 hours of rum drinking time already. Let’s just say we were in good spirits. That night we had karaoke. Desert Island karaoke. Of course the girls on my boat got together and belted out ‘Mickey’ at the top of our voices.
“Oh Mickey, what a pity you don’t understand…”
Mikki was mortified. Then I joined forces with Anton for True Colours, gave it some welly in Wannabe and went all out on Macarena too. Brilliant fun.
There was another evening where we watched the sun set from a hammock and got excited every time we saw a firefly.
For a chronic FOMO sufferer like myself I was up every night, and there were another 5 or 6 others who always seemed to be left when the rest of the group had gone to bed. I loved these guys. We talked about things you’d never discuss with anyone, deep chats, stupid chats, rude chats, we had it all covered in the hours we spent together after hours.
Sleeping on the Tao Expedition
Every night we slept in beach huts, some with sides for protection, others without. We put up our mosquito nets and slept on sun lounger mattresses with a pillow under a sheet. I never had any trouble going to sleep, usually because it was more of a pass out after all the excitement, and copious amounts of rum, rather than ‘falling asleep’.
Camps were basic. Think bucket toilets and bucket showers, and you’d be grateful for that.
Being a Tao Lost Boy
“It’s the dream of every guy in Coron to become a Tao Lost Boy” our guide Mikki.
On the final day Mikki told us how it’s what he’d always wanted but that the training was really difficult. As a leader you needed to be ready for anything. As well as being a personable and awesome person – not hard for a Filipino – you needed to know the boat, the area, and how to deal with large groups of crazy Westerners. As a Tao leader they get to sail to islands none of their friends will ever see, and have fun along the way. The Tao lost boys were one of the many reasons the trip was so good – obviously best friends with each other, they also made the time to get to know us. They encouraged us to have a go at everything – including egg bombing the other boat on the final day. Just like the Lost Boys on Hook.
Tao Experience charity
The Tao Experience is also a social enterprise. For the past 7 years the founders Eddie and Jack have invested their money in educating the local community in sustainable living, in needed trades like massage, and in speaking English. They’ve set up enterprises on different islands to show the locals how they can use their skills to make money and do something to be proud of. We visited one of the farms that Tao owns to see how they’re working the land to provide an income for the islanders.
My fellow Tao expeditioners
One of the many, many best aspects of the trip were the people I shared the boat and the experience with. I had such a good time just sitting around chatting and learning about their lives. Mix 2 Swedish, 4 Brits, 3 Americans, 2 Dutch and a Lithuanian and you’ve got yourself a good time. We entertained ourselves with games of Snog, Marry, Avoid, an attempt at boat yoga and by getting Juoazas from Lithuania to sing and play us Lithuanian love songs on the guitar.
We also had a pet dog, Fatty, on board, who the other passengers fell in love with. As you know I’m not one for dogs and I think he sensed that. I enjoyed / felt slightly disturbed at my fellow Taoers spooning him and at one point one of them even pretty much snogged him. Eugh. The other boat leader had also been given a dying puppy one of his guests had found who was now leaving and during the course of our expedition he nursed him back to health. Bless.
I paid 25,000 PHP for the Tao trip, around £400. I was a bit worried at first it was too much, but as you can tell the experience, the food, the travel, the people – it was worth every penny. I’m actually planning on going back in February next year to relive the whole thing. The Lost Boys said it was perfectly normal for Tao expeditioners to get to land and then book the next return trip they can. Apparently one guy went back and forth three times, and I can see why.
Take a look at the Tao website for more information and if you have any question about it all, just let me know in the comments box below. As you can tell, I love to talk about it!
Best. Week. Ever.