The day started as usual – I woke up, always a good sign. Today, I said, I am going to check out Ace Durano’s concept, that birdwatching offers a good option for Philippine holiday destination activities.
How many times I have passed the sign on the North Luzon Expressway (NLEx), near Pulilan, that says: Candaba Swamp, Wildlife Reserve; complete with iconic image of an Egret, or something similar.
Taking my copy of Birds of the Philippines in hand, a pair binoculars, Canon Digital EOS300D and sturdy Manfrotto tripod, and donning some suitably drab coloured clothing, we set out from Manila for the Pulilan exit on NLEx.
We stopped for a quick bite to eat at Burger King, at the Shell Bacaue service station; two exits later, I asked the tollbooth attendant for directions to the Candaba Swamp Wildlife Reserve. Her hesitation in saying, “er . . . go . . . right” did not add any confidence to my otherwise enthusiastic approach to the unfolding adventure but turn right we did.
Three kilometers from the NLEx exit I saw an intriguing sign: Butterfly Haven, Turn Right 100 meters. Logic was that at the Butterfly Haven I would find directions to the Candaba Swamp Wildlife Reserve from a kindred naturalistic spirit.
Butterflies they had in some abundance although the variety was somewhat limited. What impressed was the lack of expense spared in creating an interesting environment for butterflies and humans alike: grottos, tunnels and collections of lush flowering plants and orchids beneath a twenty foot high tunnel of fine mesh, that ensured predators were kept at bay and that butterflies could do what butterflies do, without fear . . . even of humans – it was very easy to encourage the butterflies to transfer from plant to hand and back again, empowering photography and the enjoyment of youth. However, despite a birthday party in full swing in the adjacent River Pool resort, and a number of sleepy individuals enjoying the shade along the leafy pathways, the owner of the Butterfly Haven was not to be found and nobody there actually knew where the Candaba Swamp was located.
File comment: Pulilan - Butterfly Haven - Easy to transfer from plant to hand; copyright 2009 John Smart
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Approaching Pulilan town proper it was a toss-up between asking at the local salon or the gasoline station to find a knowledgeable person with onward directions. The gasoline station came first and the attendant, after conferring with the cashier, beamed and directed: straight ahead, left at Jollibee, onto the Baliwag Highway then turn left before the flyover. Sure enough, a significant junction appeared a kilometer down the road, complete with imposing Jollibee; a left turn was negotiated with some difficulty (nobody seemed to know who had priority) and off we went down the Baliwag Highway, heading for the town of Baliwag (or “Baliuag” . . . the words seemed interchangeable on signage).
The Baliwag Highway continues North all the way to Tuguegarao City, in the province of Cagayan Valley, following the line of the Sierra Madre Mountain range, but we would leave that for another day.
A short distance after passing the all new SM Baliwag Mall the stated flyover appeared; to “turn left” as instructed actually meant, go down the slip road at the right side of the flyover and turn left beneath it. Was this one of Cory Aquino’s 1980’s flyover inspirations? Whatever; I could imagine the congestion here had it not been constructed.
The road sign comfortingly stated “Candaba 11km”, almost immediately followed by an arch spanning the road, welcoming everyone to Candaba. Strangely though, still not a single Candaba Swamp Wildlife Reserve sign since leaving the NLEx, now more than fifteen kilometers and two significant route directives behind us.
Pressing on, the new concrete was straight and long ahead, covered from time to time with layers of harvested, but as yet un-milled, rice being dried in the midday sun . . . there was no option but to drive straight over the rice and I was happy the car had no oil leaks that would otherwise have tainted the results of the farmers’ toil and nature’s bounty.
Soon enough the concrete finished (although work was in progress extending the concrete toward Candaba town) and continued as dirt road, winding its way along levees and around the paddy fields, with the dormant volcano of Mount Arayat growing ever larger in the windscreen – we had left Bulacan province and were now in Pampanga.
File comment: Dormant volcano Mount Arayat – we had left Bulacan province and we're now in Pampanga; copyright 2009 John Smart
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On and on the dirt road wound and a town appeared occasionally through the grasses and tress ahead; Candaba? Stopping to immortalize an idyllic rural, but unusually marshy, scene in the camera lens, I enquired of a couple of fishermen, trapping and netting catfish (dalag), the exact whereabouts of the Candaba Swamp Wildlife Reserve. “Too far” was the reply, “you have gone too far . . . go back to Bangkal . . . and you should be there early in the morning for the most birds”. A few more pictures then a retreat back along the dirt road topped levees to the barangay of Bangkal - much closer to the flyover than expected.
In barangay Bangkal another road junction, offering a single track road leading to the East, still did not tell us exactly that we were on the right road but a confident nod and pointed finger from two well fed Pampanga ladies empowered our progress once more. “Along that that road and then turn left” was the authoritative command.
Somewhere after turning left the road eventually finds a new concrete structure beside a grove of trees. A bamboo fence stretches along a marshy embankment to the West. We stop once more, this time interrupting three men replacing a water pump, in the grounds of the new concrete structure, and discover we have arrived. This is it! Still no signs.
We spent a couple of hours along the bamboo fence, which reveals a vista that far more closely matches the contents of “Birds of the Philippines” than our garden in Metro Manila. Where our garden has bul-bul, fantails and the occasional common shrike. Candaba, on an early afternoon in January, has at least three types of white egret, many different kingfishers, mountain shrikes, white breasted waterhens, yellow bitterns, purple herons and grey herons by the score, zebra doves to distraction, white-browed crakes and a whole host of other birds that we struggle to identify because only fleeting glimpses are offered between the rushes & grasses, and because the Birds of the Philippines book is not quite comprehensive. With the satisfaction of having seen a hundred herons land to feed and apparently nest, we unwind our route, without so many detours, back to the NLEx. Our plan is to arrive on EDSA before 5.30pm to avoid the worst of the rush hour, we succeed.
File comment: Candaba Swamp Wildlife Resort - Yellow Bittern; copyright 2009 John Smart
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Conclusion: an excellent destination for a day trip out of Manila, leaving us with some beautiful images of butterflies, birds and rural Philippines, ingrained in our memory and (hopefully) pixilated for future recall. The Candaba Swamp Wildlife Reserve is a day trip from Manila of 190km round trip, including mistakes, that requires private transport, but nevertheless confirms that Ace Durano makes a good point as he promotes the Philippines as a bird watching paradise, for vacations with a difference. Convenient, safe and, despite the lack of direction signage, easily navigable, even for a foreigner. Be there early in the Morning though for the best selection of birds.
Additional notes: the development of facilities at the Candaba Swamp Wildlife Reserve is a project of Candaba Mayor, Jerry L. Pelayo; at the Candaba Swamp Wildlife Reserve there are no tourist facilities apart from a toilet, so bring your own food and drink; buy your bird watching book before you leave Manila because you will not find one within twenty kilometers of the wildlife reserve; the bamboo fence is designed to act as a hide for the most interesting part of the marsh area and the viewing slots cut into it also double as a very effective camera stand (I did not need the tripod once here); there is no charge for entry at the moment so enjoy the freedom while it lasts.
Directions From Metro Manila: take EDSA to Balintawak and the NLEx; exit at Pulilan (Php 81, toll) and turn right towards Pulilan town; after three kilometers check out the Butterfly Haven or continue on and turn left at the Jollibee, onto Baliwag Highway; go right at the flyover after SM Baliwag and turn left beneath it; continue to barangay Bangkal and turn right at Luis S. Marino Street; follow the road to the T-junction and then go left; continue until you see the new concrete structure in the grove of trees beside the bamboo fence.