PASTOR HERMI MET us at Culion port. He was tall, tan and wore wraparound sunglasses. He looked more like a beach volleyball player than a man of the cloth and tour guide, but he was passionate about unearthing and sharing Culion’s surprisingly rich history. We piled into a motorized trike and zipped uphill towards the old Spanish fort. The beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception had been built on and amongst the defensive walls. Inside, two women were dusting the pews and arranging flowers for a wedding later that day. Exiting through a side door, we climbed up to a battlement with a commanding view over the island-studded sea.
CORON ISLAND was a fortress of jagged, Jurassic limestone. From a distance, it looked impregnable. As our bangka motored closer, however, emerald coves and concealed passages hoved into view. We are karst connoisseurs – having climbed, sailed and spelunked these fantastical formations from China’s Yangshuo and Vietnam’s Ha Long to Thailand’s Phang Nga. Coron Island exceeded them all: bigger, sharper, clearer, cleaner – and more threatened.
“Big one coming!” the guide shouted.
Seconds later, a scaly monster came speed-waddling down the trail. We all assumed that he would go straight for the deer carcass. Instead, he veered uphill, toward us. The guide had advised us not to run if a dragon approached. Yeah, right! We all panicked, bashing into each other and tripping over brush as we fled. Nori was behind me, but the boys had scattered into the forest, screaming. 1,2,3…4! Thank God, no children eaten.