SCHOOL’s back. Hols is over. The ferries to Samal are not so busy and the island itself less frantic with festivals and fire dancing. Time to go a-wandering once more and so the other Wednesday, a rather dull and overcast Wednesday, found me poking about Tagpopongan's RoRo wharf.
It stands out on the aerial photographs of Google Earth. There's the blur of Tagpopongan houses, dark green strips of vegetation where streams carve their way to the shore and, parked in the sea a few meters out, a white rectangle of something. I remember, a few years back, a newspaper feature describing a fastboat media jaunt from the newly inaugurated Tagpopongan wharf to its twin over on the Davao del Norte mainland at Matiao (Pantukan) and, after that, silence; as if the Ro-Ro ferry terminal had sank beneath the waves. I'd also travelled Samal Island's north-eastern coastline several times spotting, I'd thought, all I could spot. How could I miss a ferry terminal?
The idea of a RoRo wharf at Tagpopongan harks back to 2009 and then President Arroyo's vision of a nationwide RoRo ferry system complemented by 'lateral' connections off the main routes (Gloria's SRNH, the Strong Republic Nautical Highway). A sensible idea given that the Philippines is a nation of islands with, particularly in the south, a laughable infrastructure of highways and no railways at all.
Samal Island was already served by the short RoRo hop from Sasa to Kinawitnon just south of Babak. Why not add a ferry connection from Samal's eastern side to mainland Davao del Norte? Good for Samal, good for tourism, a splendid idea all round especially as the necessary island infrastructure was covered by the then 'ongoing project to build a road network across Samal'.
The contracts were given out, both for Tagpopongan and its twin across the water at Matiao. Then came the 2010 national elections and incoming President Aquino's temporary halt on all Department of Transport and Communication infrastructural projects. Still, by early 2011, the Philippines Port Authority could report that work at Tagpopongan was 50 percent complete; Matiao only 11 percent thanks to some right-of-way complications. Came 2012 and the Tagpopongan RoRo ferry wharf was inaugurated with the proper media coverage and, at the time, I thought this was a fine thing. It brought Compostela Valley within the two-day-away trip; a leisurely drive across Samal and ferry trip would certainly beat hacking around the mainland coastal road.
The required infrastructure, surprise, surprise, did not happen. The grandiose scheme for a cemented 'road network across Samal' was at first forgotten and then re-cast as an island 'circumferential road' and even that didn't get off the ground until last year, 2014, two years after the Tagpopongan RoRo wharf was in theory up and ready to run. And with no road, quite reasonably, no ferry materialized either, an expensive piece of kit to buy and maintain if it were to ply back and forth across the strait between Tagpopongan and Matiao.
Today the Philippine Ports Authority posts Tagpopongan port as 'not in operation' and Pantukan (Matiao) port as 'mooring and shelter for fishing boats'. The roads from the west side of Samal to the east remain little more than rocky tracks. Traffic, understandably, is scarce; only diving enthusiasts or those with a residence or business on the east side travel the road. The wharf - P40 million's worth - presents a sorry sight. The crushed rock causeway is invisible, camouflaged under Nature's invading greenery, while the 'reinforced concrete wharf' is already collapsing into the ocean.
There's a line of incongruous lampposts - I wonder if they come on at night? - a trio of massive cast-iron bollards and over there, plain as day, the mountains of mainland Davao del Norte but, alas, no boat to take us there.