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By Irene Butler
(for Travel Writers' Tales)

Island hopping in the Philippines is a must with the country's many highlights-the difficulty is choosing when you have time only for one. From the country's chaotic capital of Manila on a north island, my husband Rick and I are drawn to Bohol in the central island group by a strange geographical phenomenon known as the Chocolate Hills and the hopes of seeing Tarsiers, the world's tiniest primates.

Photo 1: Chocolate Hills

Along with our driver/guide Lino, we leave Bohol's village-like capital of Tagbilaran, and breeze towards the 40-metre mounds. Arriving at Chocolate Hills National Monument Lino explains, "It's the dry season when the scrub vegetation on the hills is sun-scorched to a brownish colour, hence the name." A lofty viewing deck is accessed by 214 steps or by a winding path; we choose the latter. Gazing over the hills in every direction I am amazed at how their conical and symmetrical shapes really do resemble endless rows of chocolate drops (it is said there are 1268 if you care to count). Geologists believe they were formed by the uplift of coral deposits long ago that have since been sculptured by erosion. Legend has it that they are the calcified tears of a broken hearted giant, while another tale pegs them as the leavings of a giant carabao (water buffalo) with distressed bowels. Spunky young people leap in place while friends snap their picture at ground level, giving the appearance of bounding across the hilltops in the photo. We try, but a jump six inches off the ground is not enough to create this illusion.

Photo 2: Chocolate Hills - leaping girl

Backtracking to the town of Loboc, it is high-noon and high-time for lunch on the River Watch Floating Restaurant. Along with 30 other passengers, we savour a delicious spread of buffet items. A crooner serenades with heart-warming tunes such as "Over the Rainbow" and "Moon River" as our boat glides down the Loboc River. Small thatched roof houses line the shores. Children swing out on ropes tied to trees and gleefully drop into the water. Pulling up to a platform jutting from the shore we are entertained by a local folk band, singers and dancers, before returning to our starting dock.

Photo 3: Floating Restaurant

Photo 4: Village Entertainers

We next arrive at Tarsier Sanctuary Visitors Centre. Lino introduces us to Bernard, the Tarsier specialist, who leads us along a root-tangled path to where a few of the elusive creatures perch in the jungle foliage. "The tarsiers are nocturnal," Bernard whispers, "so each morning I go looking to find where a few have ended up for their day's sleep." We learn that although Philippine Tarsiers (Tarsius Syrichta) are often referred to as monkeys, they are more closely related to lemurs and tree shrews.

Photo 5: Tarsier

Bernard points to a leafy haven where huge fore and hind limbs in proportion to its 10cm body grip a branch with adhesive pads. Even more super-sized for this 120-gram brownish fur ball are its saucer eyes peering down at us. We silently walk up to another with its back to us; its ultra-keen hearing prompts a disconcerting 180 degree head twist to check us out with sleepy half-closed orbs. Its tail droops from the branch, twice its body length. I can imagine this appendage acting like a 5th limb while leaping up to 3-metres during the Tarsiers' nightly hunt to satiate their ferocious appetite, consuming about 8 crickets a night (or an equivalent of beetles, termites, or perhaps an available lizard or frog).

Photo 6: Author Irene, Tarsier Specialist Bernard, and Author's husband, Rick

This fascinating mammal has been around for a staggering 45 million years; since the early Eocene period! Encroaching humans thinking them to be pests that ate rice crops, along with no knowledge of their environmental needs brought them to near extinction. Solitary and territorial, each tarsier requires at least one hector of lush foliage to roam and hunt. Triggered by scent to breed once a year, females give birth to one baby after a six month gestation period. Since the establishment of the Tarsier Foundation in 1996 Tarsiers have been protected in this 167-hectare reserve. Armed with the study results of their behaviour and habitat needs, the slow reversal process is now in effect to protect these living treasures. What a gift to be able to see these little alien-like creatures in this environment under the strict guidance of a tarsier expert!

Getting back to Tagbilaran in the late afternoon we still have time to cross the nearby causeway to stretch out on the white sands of Panglao Island beach until sunset, and to ponder Bohol's natural wonders.


Philippines archipelago is comprised of 7,107 islands divided into three groups. The northern group called Luzon includes the largest Philippine Island on which Manila is located. Bohol is in the middle island group known as the Visayas. The bottom island group is the Mindanao.

The country's hot and humid tropical climate has a wet season (May to Oct) when temperatures may peak at 36șC - and a dry season (Nov to Apr) with temperatures in mid-to-high 20șC range.

Philippines Dept of Tourism

Bohol is easily reached from Manila or from Cebu (main Visayas Island) by Air and/or Ferry:

PHOTOS: Credit: Rick Butler

1. Chocolate Hills
2. Chocolate Hills - leaping girl
3. Floating Restaurant
4. Village Entertainers
5. Tarsier
6. Author Irene, Tarsier Specialist Bernard, and Author's husband, Rick

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