Great-grandmas, grandads, mothers, fathers, children … they all flocked to the beach to watch the westerners wade ashore from zodiacs.
Kids were even given time off school to witness what to them was a remarkable spectacle.
We were on an exciting 15-day cruise from the Philippines capital of Manila to Darwin with pioneering New Zealand-based adventure firm Heritage Expeditions.
Our beautiful little ship, Heritage Adventurer, stopped off at islands that few people know exist – Sibuyan, Sahu, Taliabu, Banda Neir, Buru and Tanimbar.
Villagers told us that we were the first visitors in many years; some even said that we were the first visitors ever.
It was clear that many of the villagers living on the remote islands had never seen a whitefella in the flesh, especially not a chunky specimen such as myself.
This was truly a meeting of two worlds – a joyous meeting of song, dance and those smiles.
And the meeting was mutually beneficial – the islanders not only had the excitement of welcoming visitors but also got the chance to earn money in largely cashless societies, and we enjoyed the enormous privilege of getting to know people from a culture a world away from our own.
It reminded us that westerners, especially Australians and Kiwis, are massively privileged and that we have a moral obligation to help our not-sowell- off neighbours.
Heritage Expeditions is an admirable business in many ways – it gives back to the communities that welcome it with such enthusiasm and blazes cruise routes in a braver, more environmentally friendly and educational way than anyone else.
As they say, it boldly goes where few others have gone before.
We cruised through an archipelago of beautiful Filipino and Indonesian islands, enjoying views of perfectly formed volcanoes, dolphins, whales and flying fish. Our ship stopped at a few places on the tourist circuit.
For instance, we visited Bucas Grande in the Philippines where we were transferred to small outriggers to duck under a near-invisible limestone overhang to enter an extraordinary secret world of towering hills, thick woodland and crystal clear waters.
We berthed in the north of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, and drove to Tangkoko, a lovely national park where we got up close and personal with the Gollum lookalike – the Spectral Tarsier, the smallest primate in the world.
And we popped into Ternate, the Indonesian spice island sultanate where British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace spent his time while recovering from malaria writing his easy-to-read, world-shattering, 20- page summary of evolutionary science and sent it to Charles Darwin.
But it was the lesser-known islands that most captivated the few dozen passengers lucky enough to be onboard the Heritage Adventurer.
This was when we basked in the knowledge that we were somewhere different; no cocktails with the captain, no bingo nights, no “it’s Tuesday, this must be Tahiti”.
A voyage with Heritage Expeditions is one of the greatest of soft adventures – you go to some of the most mysterious and wonderful of places on earth. And in comfort.
The cabins were terrific and the food gourmet. World-class naturalists delivered lectures. And the crew, a combination of New Zealanders, Filipinos and East Europeans, were friendly, helpful and professional.
The ship even had internet, gym and small swimming pool.
Passengers were ferried from the ship to shore in zodiacs nearly every day to snorkel on some of the world’s finest coral reefs – we swam with giant marine turtles untroubled by our presence.
There were also nature walks and plenty of opportunities to browse street markets and spend time with villagers.
A mayor was so delighted that we were visiting his little town that he called in schoolkids to perform a traditional welcome dance – a ferocious, Haka-like affair – and laid on a sumptuous lunch.
The opportunities for photographers and videographers were stunning; not surprisingly, onboard lectures by professionals were hugely popular.
And then there were the fellow travellers.
The Manila-Darwin expedition cruise attracted a cast of characters worthy of a Dostoevsky novel.
There was the successful businesswoman with a glorious Barry Humpries wit who admitted she had never heard of Charles Darwin.
The Scottish-Australian who began a story by saying: “When I was Britain’s acting administrator on Tristan da Cunha…”
The retired doctor who is campaigning for health authorities to allow an euthanasia points system, so that people can choose between one and 10 – one being “fully able to care for yourself” and 10 being “non-compos mentis and/or suffering terribly” – to trigger assisted death with dignity.
A banker who had 2000 orchids in her garden and knew people who had more than 20,000.
A pediatrician who was told he was a social climber because he migrated from South Africa to New Zealand and, finally, Australia.
The vineyard owner whose wines sell for $400 a bottle.
And a psychiatrist who proudly proclaimed: “My pet Sugar Glider pees in my right ear every night.”
Yes, it was a great voyage – interesting, safe and adventurous. And a good laugh.
WORLD’S BEST-KEPT SECRETS
Heritage Expeditions is a leader in expedition travel. Journeys include:
Antarctica: 28 days in the footsteps of explorer Ernest Shackleton. New Zealand to the Ross Sea, stopping at sub-Antarctic islands, including Australia’s Macquarie.
Sub-Antarctic: several itineraries to islands that have received fewer visitors in modern times than astronauts who have gone into space.
Australia: 10 days Darwin to Broome, including the Lacepede Islands and Horizontal Falls, which David Attenborough described as “one of the greatest wonders of the natural world”.
Japan: several itineraries around one of the most unusual – and certainly the most polite – countries in the world.
New Zealand: several itineraries, including sailing through Fiordland.
South Pacific: several itineraries around New Guinea, Micronesia, the Solomons, New Caledonia and Micronesia, including a 30-day birding expedition from New Zealand to Japan.
Siberia: marvellous voyages to far eastern Russia are on hold because of the Ukraine war.
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