The Life Aquatic in Borneo
31.05.2013 - 03.06.2013 33 °C
On our way from the Kinabatangan River down to a coastal town called Semporna we had to pass through Lahad Datu. Lahad Datu is the kind of town that offers nothing to a traveler other than air-conditioned internet cafes and buses away from the place. Unfortunately we had to swing by this way on our way to Mabul Island, where we'd spend the next three days scuba diving, to organise a jungle trip for once we returned to dry land.
This done, we booked a bus onwards which was due to leave hourly from 3pm. So, at ten to three we turned up at the bus station and waited (bus station is a slight overstatement - it was a roadside with a few huts). And waited and waited. At half four a bus turned up (the three o'clock bus had turned up and left at half 2) and we delightedly got on board. Half an hour later we discovered the bus driver had a problem with his arm that he deemed deserving of a trip to the hospital so just left the bus and all its passengers at the side of the road and sneaked off. Another two and a half hours later a final bus turned up which finally took us to Semporna.
Semporna provided us with a bed and fried rice before taking a morning boat to Mabul Island. Mabul Island is a small, sandy atoll off the east coast of Borneo that has hosted a Malaysian fishing community for decades before, more recently, being rather consumed by dive resorts. The photo below shows Mabul from the air and the bungalows over the ocean are the reserve of the more luxury resorts (you can spend a hell of a lot of money to stay in an elaborate shed above the sea in this part of the world). We stayed at the more budget-friendly Uncle Chang's. Uncle Chang is something of a hero around these parts; as a local boy allegedly starting off in the tourism business with 100RM (about £20) he has built up a very successful dive resort. Alas, the only evidence of the legend on the island was the plethora of newspaper cuttings and certificates that were framed around the dining shack.
Getting involved straight away we dived three times on the first day, twice around Mabul Island and once at another nearby island named Kapalai. Seeing turtles, giant moray eels, 6ft groupers and even a fish that had had its face bitten off, the first set of dives were already pretty spectacular. But this was only the warm-up. On the second day we'd dive Sipadan - the real reason most people come here. Regularly voted one of, if not the, best dive site in the world, the amount of coral and the abundance and variety of fish is stunning. Imagine making your dream aquarium and throwing in hand-fulls of turtles, sharks and thousand-strong schools of jacks and barracuda for good measure and you're beginning to get close. Unfortunately all pictures were taken on a film camera and so these sights are currently locked away on rolls of plastic.
The evening after diving Sipadan we were to be treated to Uncle Chang's live band performing for the guests. Mike had discovered that members of the infamous four-piece had been living amongst us at the resort and sure enough, shortly after 8pm they kicked the evening off with a stirring rendition of Creep by Radiohead. Many other classics such as Summer of '69, Wonderwall and even (on request) Gangnam Style. Unfortunately, and after many a Tiger beer, me and Mike thought we'd get involved and give our rendition of Mr Brightside, we didn't know the words and even having them in front of us didn't help much. Were we not firmly inebriated it would have been quite embarrassing. That was the last piece of audience participation.
The next morning, diving again, I was feeling dog-rough. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes of being underwater, the nausea got the better of me. At this moment I had a flashback of my first dive instructor telling me that it's fine to vomit through the regulator; I duly obliged. Somehow Mike and Helen, who were swimming behind me, didn't notice and blindly swam through the remnants of my breakfast. In fairness, it did increase the abundance of fish in that area for a brief period. The following dives were at the same time beautiful yet painful. Later that afternoon we made our way back to the mainland for an extremely disappointing meal at KFC (I'd been saving myself for some time for this KFC you understand) and another night in the town of Semporna, before hitting the depths of the Bornean rainforest.
UPDATE: After finally getting my underwater photos developed, here are a few choice cuts.