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BROCHURE RACK

Finding fruit bats on a tropical island

world/Asia/Fruit_bat

Catching a sight of the famous bats that live on the island of Boracay in the Philippine archipelago is not as difficult as it first appears, discovers Sheena Harvey.

The potholes were bone-jarring, but predictable. Less easy to anticipate were the sudden swerves around invisible obstacles by our motorised tricycle driver as he navigated up the earth track. Only the thin metal bars holding the canopy over our heads stood between us and a painful spill.

I’d been persuaded this outing was a must on the island of Boracay in the southern Philippines. My driver and guide, George, was all of 12 years old, told me so when he offered to take me to The Bat Cave for a good price. Several miles up unmade roads and I wondered how many value-for-money arguments he got into with his customers, and how soon into the trip.

However, the discomfort was forgotten when we reached the end of the ride and George led the way down a narrow path. Another lad materialised from nowhere and joined our single file, then a tiny girl, and a teenager carrying a baby. The origin of our young followers was revealed when we came across a farmer tilling a tiny vegetable plot at the edge of the trees. His water buffalo, a massive beast with wide crescent horns and shiny black skin stretched over immense pelvic bones, was tethered nearby.

The vegetation of the rain forest closed in as we progressed, serenaded by twittering, shrieks and cat calls from the dense foliage. The moisture-laden air felt even more cloying than in the open. I missed the sea breeze that made the tropical heat more bearable.

The path ended in a deep, dark hole. A smell of wet vegetation and a pungent, acidic stench assaulted our noses. Our little party of raggedy kids peered into the hole and giggled, as if they hadn’t been there a hundred times before. George slithered over the damp, guano-covered boulders at the cave mouth and I followed.

The ground sloped steeply into the dark from whence random rustlings emanated. I could see multiple vague shapes standing out as even blacker lumps against the black ceiling of the cave. A late awareness that I was here at the wrong time came over me. It would be wrong to stress the bats by scrambling into their habitat as they roosted during the daylight hours. Even if disturbance wasn’t an issue, without adequate footwear, torches, even possibly ropes, it was a foolish proposition.

George was disappointed, perhaps fearing for his fee if our primary objective was unachieved. The sight of a wallet cheered him up and we retraced our steps to the farmer’s land where we parted with hard cash into four small hands. We took a few moments to admire the water buffalo close up, but George was anxious to be heading back – his mission, at least, accomplished.

Back on the beach we felt deflated. We had no idea, even, of what species of bat we hadn’t seen. We thought about going back at dusk to watch them emerge from the cave. Then we thought about the journey back in the dark.

As the sun went down we strolled along the street behind the beach. The little sari-sari grocery stores were beginning to open for the evening as visitors and locals alike emerged into the cooler air.

Tinny music played from a speaker lashed to an acacia tree, horns blared from jeeps weaving between pedestrians, dogs barked from the yards of village houses. George was suddenly at my elbow, pointing upwards. I followed his gesture and saw… fruit bats.

Hundreds, no thousands of them, streaming silently across the dimming sky. As big as the biggest gull, but black, with scalloped wings. Not their smaller, insect-eating cousins from the Bat Cave, but squadron upon squadron of near-prehistoric mammals as big as small dogs, making their nightly flight across the island and over the sea to feed on mangoes on the mainland.

Bats we had been promised and bats we now saw, wild and free, and seemingly invisible to most of the strollers and shoppers in the street.

George was grinning – he had truly earned his tip.