Escape from Pearl Farm in the Philippines

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Having left Auckland at 1.15am via Singapore and Cebu we arrived at Davao City to be met by music, dancers and a bunch of women from the local tourist department. On the same flight were a number of Royal Canin associates from Indonesia. The Malaysia, Thai and Philippino associates are arriving on different flights to join this conference. These guys are part of the emerging markets and not part of Sylyia’s team; she is here as a guest for the week.

Bags are collected and put in a separate vehicle; we are loaded into black transit vans. An armed police motorbike escort takes the lead and clears the the traffic as we make our way to the marina compound, where armed, but not too alert, police guard the entrance.

Tickets issued we head down the long pier to board a motorised catamaran. A couple of armed police join us as we make the 45 min journey to Pearl Farm Resort. Two small coast guard boats move out standing off a couple of hundred meters. Two military helicopters fly past although I think unrelated to our journey. A big anti terrorist exercise was being conducted here this week

As we come ashore at the resort medallions are draped around our necks while a bunch of drummers punish the leather skins of their drums. The sun is setting as we settle into our cabin for the night. Sylvia heads off to an event dinner while I relax and read through the papers about the resort.

There is diving, fishing, snorkelling, jet-skis and tours in Davao City. Here I am thinking I am in for a couple of interesting days and looking forward to some long walks on the island while Sylvia attends the conference. I then read the Mars security briefing on the area. Davao area security threat is 4 out of 5. A state of emergency was declared in May 2017 and is still in place. A night market was bombed in 2015 killing 15; a resort 25 kms north of here was the target of the Abu Sayyaf group, who abducted four people, killing two. Three of the abducted were foreigners. Some years before that this resort was attacked in an attempt to kidnap tourists; three of the security staff were killed but no one taken. Interesting place to choose to have a conference!! When Sylvia returns from dinner I discuss action to take in the unlikely event something goes down.

Wednesday 7 February 2017

After breakfast I head to the reception to check out the activities. “As Mars have booked out the whole place we aren’t running any – you can however snorkel inside the nets”. What about a walk in the jungle? “too dangerous – you can’t leave the perimeter!” What about a walk through the village next door? “No, we won’t let you out the gate”.

I took a stroll to the gate at the north to be met by a soldier with a US M14 rifle. There are a bunch of these guys hanging out around the gate and the aqua sports centre.

From there I check out the perimeter expecting  a high fence with armed guards. There is the remains of a barbed wire fence that I could step over in one place. The remainder of the perimeter is just jungle with the odd path leading to our buildings and staff quarters. No sign of any soldiers or armed guards.

The resort has a beach front of about 400m plus an island about 500m away. The place with its beaches and pools is quite stunning and great for those who just like lying in the sun and doing nothing.

I stroll back to the north end and chat to the soldiers. There a Lt Col introduces himself and explains how it all works here. He has a force of 15 troops here as a reaction force; 4 on the island, the rest here at the aqua sports centre. Then the coast guard has two intercept boats some distance offshore plus other guys closer in. The police have armed police in and around the resort along with the local unarmed security guards to protect the guests. The Air Force is also on stand by. No one force seemed to be in charge. Could be rather interesting if the ASG desire to make an appearance.

All this is apparently normal practice when foreign guests are at any of the resorts in the area and what’s more it’s fully funded by the government in order to try and attract a few tourists.

The soldiers are a friendly bunch so I manage to fill in a bit of the day chatting to them. The guys with the M14 rifles tell me with pride that they are anti terrorist snipers. The other guys with the Philippino made M16 and small assault rifles are the rescue troops.

A two hour massage helped fill in the day plus a lot of walking up and down the resort to get some exercise. I could have hired a jet ski but was only allowed to run it up and down inside the nets – not a good look for the 180 people sitting paying attention to their conference speakers.

By the end of the day I found myself hatching an escape plan:

a) use my dry bag for camera and clothes, swim around the pier early in the morning to the local village and ask a local to boat me to the mainland 

b) sneak out through the jungle to the village and get a boat

Problem one: no local money. Problem two: Sylvia not too impressed with either of these plans!!

So as a last resort after dinner I went back to the reception to try the tour option again. Same story “we are not running the trips” but she did add “you need 8 people for the speed boat to make the trip”. I quickly turned myself into eight people by paying for eight. Trip booked and a driver at the other end to take me on a tour. Escape at last.

That night the cabin vibrated until 1am  as the conference attendees enjoyed a late night party.

Thursday 8 February 2018

After breakfast I jumped a boat across to the island for a look around. Another lovely spot where some of the attendees are staying in the Maulvi room villas with great views out to sea. One of the local leaf sweepers is proud to show off the new broom he has just made by taping the bristles to the shaft.

There are a couple or peacocks on the island keen to strut their stuff. Construction on a new building goes on behind woven walls. By the number of coconuts piled up around the island and the number still in the trees it’s probably wise to avoid the trees in a wind.

A bunch of armed police sit around a table under an umbrella not looking like they are expecting trouble. Two soldiers sit on a bench looking out to sea but keen to pose for a photo. These guys are not exactly alert so lets hope none of the ASG guys come racing ashore guns blazing.

10am and my boat is waiting so we speed of to Davao passing the many what-I-call spider boats with their long arms extended from which they drop nets to catch small fish. Many of the boats around here have out riggers made of bamboo.

We speed past many resorts making the trip to the mainland in under 15 minutes. There are also the villages with rusting iron roofs and often scruffy buildings where many of the always friendly and helpful staff from the resorts live.

Arriving at the pier I am escorted to the compound where a driver is waiting. We head out of the compound, this time incognito, just an ordinary bloke in the back of a car.

First stop was an ATM where two security guards with shiny stainless pump action shot guns made sure my withdrawal was a safe one. Next stop, hidden in the back of a scruffy gated area, was the museum. Although small with little in the way of artifacts it had the history of the area well laid-out.

Dating back to 2500 BC, the islands were ruled by both the Dutch and the Spanish from the 1500’s. In late 1896 the treaty of Paris ended the Spanish American war. After a period of turmoil the US arrived in 1899 and ruled the Philippines. In the 1900’s many Japanese labourers were brought here with some inter-marrying into the local population. As war broke out 16,000 of these people were interred and took their revenge on the locals when the Japs invaded.

Next stop was a crocodile park/zoo.  Like most I have seen not the nicest place to visit with many crocodiles lying around in stagnant water. A poor snake sat outside in a plastic bin and a tiger in a small cage. There was also a Binturong, which looked like a ready made rug, and a Palawan Bearcat in cages.

Next we headed west on a one hour drive to see the Philippines moneky-eating eagles, apparently the largest eagle in the world. There is a huge amount of roading infrastructure work going on in the area. I was really taken aback by the large yards full of trucks, bulldozers and diggers on the side of the roads.

We pushed on through the outskirts of the town, roadsides in a lot of places full of dilapidated dwellings.

We stopped to check out a tunnel dug by forced labour by the Japs during WWII. Originally seven kms long it is now a tourist attraction complete with shrine, but only 150m is open to the paying tourists.

As we headed further west I was amused at a variation of a tuk-tuk – well decorated side cars complete with roof attached to a motorcycle.

Arriving at the eagle park I had been anticipating standing on a cliff and watching eagles sore above like I have previously seen throughout the Americas. After paying the entry fee a security guard in his pristine white shirt, (in spite of the dirt and dust in this part of the world they all have whiter than white shirts) got me to step on a wet mat to decontaminate my shoes. Heading up the jungle path, past a crocodile enclosure, I came to the eagles. These huge poor bastards were in cages about 4m high and the same wide and deep where they could spread their wings but never fly. They were however doing their best to help with the survival of these great birds. People and company names were etched into the footpaths to recognise those that had contributed to the building and maintaining of this park.

Next stop was a place supposedly famous for its dark chocolate, gardens and caged birds. I had lunch at the restaurant, bought some dark chocolate for Sylvia and skipped the gardens and birds. The driver was waiting when I exited and asked if I wanted to go to the famous sweet factory. I skipped that one and we headed to a lookout above the city. With good views east over the city I took some pics before we moved on. One large building looked like it had had a fire.

Arriving back at the car the driver asked if I would like to take a drive through down town to which I replied yes. As we headed through down town he pointed out the mall I had photographed explaining how there had been a large fire there last December where 35 call-centre operators had perished last December.

Jam packed with traffic there were lots of side-cars and bicycle tuk-tuks with an umbrella for shade. We could do with a few thousand of these in Auckland to use the millions of dollars worth of cycle ways Auckland transport has built in the past few years.

Arriving back at the marina the speed boat was waiting to whisk me back to Pearl Farm. Sylvia was hard at work when I arrived back catching up on emails and reading work stuff.

Friday 9 February 2017

After breakfast we boarded the catamaran, armed police and coast guard boats standing off, for the journey back to Davao and then with armed escort to the airport.

On the boat I had a bit of a yarn to Jeremy, the manager for Indonesia,  Malaysia and the Philippines. He explains how he had asked his Philippine team to recommend a good safe place to have a conference. They had come up with the Pearl Farm, which to them was quite safe as this level of security is just normal because that is the way it is here to them. After the deposit had been paid the Mars security people started asking questions and you could say the brown stuff hit the fan blades. I felt a bit sorry for Jeremy.

In the end we all caught our flights, not a shot fired and no one kidnapped. I don’t think there will probably be a conference run in the Philippines again for some time. In spite of that all the attendees had a great time and most were oblivious to what went on in the back ground.

3 thoughts on “Escape from Pearl Farm in the Philippines

  1. Molly and Murray says:

    As ever the indomitable spirit soars in Roger. Even when he was little when he saw a sign with skull and crossbones saying KEEP OUT, Rog karate chopped it and went into to explore!

  2. Rosie and Lardy says:

    Great blog again Roger. Love that you made the most of your ability to escape, and very glad you both stayed safe. Xx

  3. Jo-Anne Hitchcock says:

    the poor animals in the zoo. They looked so sad.

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