Door to paradise’s door took me 36 hours. Flying Auckland to Gold Coast then on to KL, to rush across the airport, parched grab a Starbucks and head to check in.
Despite not being allowed fluids through an airport the security guard looked at my cup and told me “water, OK!” I optimistically replied “coffee?” with a raised eyebrow, and he waved me through. Now I was back in Asia.
My next flight from peninsula Malaysia, to Tawau, Sabah, I calculated myself to be the only tourist on the flight. I tried to bury my head further into my book whilst those around me coughed and spluttered into their bags, there is some things you will never get used to!
It was 10am in the morning by the time I arrived to Tawau and was greeted by a taxi driver holding my name. Feeling glamorous I hopped into his car where he assured me Semporna was a 20 minute drive, 20 minutes later he said, “just 20 minutes!” After an hour and twenty on dusty roads, passing plantations of coconuts, we arrived in the dirty port town of Semporna. The boat to the island left in a few hours so I sought lunch. My few words of bahasa teamed with some pointing got me some vegetables and rice, a drink and a roti, lunch for all of about £1! The girl who served me giggled, again and again assessing my height as nearly double hers and embarrassed as she tested a few English words.
The dusty, dirty gateway camouflaged well the delights which were to be found one hour out to sea on a tiny sand bar island named Mabul.
The long jetty led to a white sand beach, the wooden resort lined with palm trees. We were welcomed, shown to our rooms and then were served afternoon tea before making a beeline for the ocean. In the humidity, after a long journey the water was delightful, but at 31 degrees, more like a bath than a cool off. The snorkelling was a glimpse of what was to come. Only metres from the shore the colourful coral was teeming with sea life.
From now on our every worry was taken care of. The dive schedules were written up for the following day, between every dive a buffet or snack and everyone was radiating positivity and paradise so the open plan dining hall became a place welcome to join anyone and discuss your latest underwater adventure. It was also shark week so each night we were invited to watch a presentation about something topical, marine debris, sharks, rays and the importance of our oceans.
For my second day of diving, my name was listed next to Sipadan, the world class site which had brought me to Borneo, the top spot of my diving bucket list since I first blew underwater bubbles. I stirred excitedly every hour before the 5:45 alarm where I took a few bites of breakfast and headed to the jetty.
The ocean floor between Semporna and Mabul lies at some 60 metres below sea level, however between Mabul and Sipadan, it drops off into a channel of 2000 metres encouraging sharks, rays and unexpected delights to pass through. The current around the island also encourages these pelagic creatures, so there is plenty of reasons to be excited. Sipadan used to be home to many dive schools, however in 1999 this was the reason for an international debate over who owned Sipadan; Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Shortly after it was deemed to be Malay in 2002, the schools were kicked off and it became a military base as well a sanctuary or both land and sea. It’s white sands are thus patrolled by military, a short stretch of sand open to bikini clad divers between dives.
There is a mere 120 permits available a day split between several dive schools, scuba Junkie could take an exclusive seven people per day only. As we were being briefed on the long jetty, a large school of giant jack fish were circling below us, enticing us to what lay underwater. We dives first at south point where just below the surface we were greeted with a wall of Big eye trevally. As one of the divers swam into their group he was absorbed completely, only visible by his fins. We then dropped over the coral ledge and swam along at 30metres below, the ocean floor indistinguishable below us, many hundreds of metres, but grey reef sharks swimming through, maybe another 30 metres beyond us.
Each dive was a moving picture of sea life, quick shark, turtle, school of barracuda, another shark. Look down, up, behind responding to every point and tank bang. Over the day I would estimate 70 sharks, both grey reef which measured up to a few metres, as well as many babies, and white tip reef sharks of all sizes, a slightly more slender build. On one dive we entered a small cave filled with several turtles and batfish following them close behind. Turning back to face out at the vast blue expanse of the ocean moving past was like a movie, but also the most surreal realisation of how small you are. From every dive our close knit group emerged grinning, bubbling over from what we had just seen.
At lunchtime I was taking a few photos, when I heard someone from another group call my name. It was Estelle and Paul, travellers I had met 18 months before in South Africa. The amazing surprised was added to by the coincidence, the exclusivity of this island and many days our paths could have crossed!
Among many friendly people, I became good friends with Colin and each evening we would wander down the beach westward to watch sunset from a simple bar named Uncle Chang. The rickety boardwalk led out to a platform on the ocean where locals played volleyball and children splashed around in the water acknowledging us with a “hello, what’s your name?” and a fit of giggles if we actually replied. Here as the sun dropped off into the ocean, it tinted the clouds pinkish.
Another highlight was the night dive off the jetty. Always an exciting experience as under the waves it can sometimes feel as through nothing exists above you, and orientation is strange, however they are hit and miss as to whether you find interesting macro life. This dive was an homage to crabs and shrimp, large sponge crabs of 20cm with fire coral attached to his head, to hermit crabs disguised as moving shells. In the weird and wonderful we saw large flatworms, sleeping turtles, hunting trumpetfish and the ever elusive but indescribably beautiful mandarin fish, a bite size 3cm long.
It wasn’t until the last day that we walked the full way around this small island. Passing first through the village, the simplicity of the daily lives of the people here was striking. The structures were simple, raised from the ground and life lived largely on the ocean. The plastic bottles that the children scouted were used as garden paths, plant pots, light shades and many other inventive things. The walk passed from village to resort, back to the village school and around past the boardwalk housing which expanded the island.
When the 5 days was up, it felt like a few weeks, so friendly were the staff, so cheerful were faces you encountered at breakfast, so many were those waving us off from the jetty on our final day.