I can tell you now, there were actual tears when I left this place. Mabul
Island, off the coast of Sabah
, is a complete gem of a place. OK maybe a little bit rough round the edges, not perfect but so peaceful and atmospheric. I spent time getting to know some incredible people and laughed a lot. Add to this it is 30 minutes by boat to the famous diving mecca holy grail of Sipadan
island and we have a very special week in my life that I will never forget. I mean, I got to swim with sharks and turtles.
The house boat! A whole family lived in this boat
I got to sit on a beautiful beach at 2am watching lionfish by torchlight with shooting stars lighting the sky. Can it get much better?
This wasn’t the easiest of Islands to get to, no way.. After a one night pitstop and shopping for supplies in Kota Kinabalu
, embarrassed that the hotel staff, the taxi drivers and restaurant staff all know my name now, I took a flight one hour South to the town of Tawau
with good ‘ol Airasia £10 special! After a 2 hour transfer to the shithole that is Semporna town, it was necessary to stay there the night as there is only one boat a day at 8am to Mabul island. I didn’t like this place atall.
One of my special memories of this place!
The ‘tubing in Laos tshirt’ brigade were there en masse and everyone seemed pissed, silly and loud. I felt like I might have finally found the beaten track that I had more or less managed to avoid. Don’t get me wrong here, i will probably go tubing in laos with the rest of them, might as well experience these things right! Just not yet please...
Anyway, no need to worry though as arriving to Mabul island next morning on the rickety boat the karma was very different and I felt right back at home. I have been very impressed with Malaysia during my travels. Most of the places I have visited here are modern, clean and safe but generally retain the character or natural beauty. I couldn’t help contrasting this to Thailand where, as Jim from Georgetown
put it ‘the new religion in Thailand is bahtism’ ie.
Where there is money to be made, screw the environment lets develop the hell out of all these once paradise islands so they all look the same with their pancake sellers and massage on the beach. I do still love Thailand for the sights, food and warm people but it is really quite sad to see this happen. Malaysia has similarly beautiful natural assets (in my opinion more so) although the pace of development seems to be much more sensible with more emphasis on eco-tourism and a bit of a thought for retaining the environment. Sipadan Island is an excellent example of this to preserve the delicate coral reefs, although i believe even more can and should be done. Uneducated tourists are still handling the live coral and leaving rubbish behind, locals are still overfishing using destructive methods.
Sipadan island at first glance looks like your typical tropical island white sandy beached paradise but has some interesting things going on underneath the clear turquoise waters.
The island is on an ocean plateau that drops down sharply to 2km depth not too far from the beaches. The sea conditions here, including some scary ‘ol currents, are perfect for a diverse array of sharks, turtles, giant barracuda and reef fish. In a nutshell, if you are interested in underwater scenery, it is a place you have just got to see in your lifetime. About 10 years ago, Sipadan Island used to have a couple of luxury resorts where you could stay. A couple of things happened though. The islands in this area have previously been under territorial dispute with Indonesia and Philippines and in 2001, there was a highly publicised kidnapping of tourists by Filipino pirates. Malaysian military boats now patrol the area to protect against terrorist threats but this contributed, along with the need to protect the coral reefs from tourists, closing all resorts on the Sipadan.
Stupid o'clock sunrise to catch a boat to Sipadan!
Nowadays, to dive at Sipadan you need to stay on a nearby island such as Mabul and apply for a permit to dive there as only 120 divers allowed there per day. And what an unusual but fascinating place Mabul island is. Tiny, tiny paradise island, so tiny you can walk round the whole island in about 15 minutes. I stayed with Scuba Junkies who I would highly recommend. Smart wooden bungalows with a seaview and all meals included. I loved it here. It was so socialable as you would see the same people around, maybe start chatting at dinner or in the bar or on a boat. Special mention to the beautiful ladies Dora, from Hong Kong, and Grace from Tasmania. Both were also single travelling females and we all enjoyed a bit, well a lot, of banter. Oh and the two cheeky guys from Belgium who kept us entertained! People came and went with all kinds of stories and before we knew it we were old timers there and didn’t want to leave!
I couldn’t quite work out the local villagers of the island.
There are two small villages on Mabul made up mostly of Filipino immigrants as far as I could make out. One of the villages was right next to Scuba Junkies and the people there seemed very poor with the kids not wearing any clothes and taking shits on the beach euggghhh.. There was even a whole family living on what I thought was a tiny fishing boat. The other village, on the other side of the island, seemed a bit wealthier and the kids were clothed and went to school. Other than the two villages there were a few diving resorts, including Scuba junkies, one right next door and much more expensive and luxurious, then a couple of smaller cheaper ones. Other than a small mosque, this was pretty much all that was on the island. Quite a strange mix of people really, from your high-end luxury seekers to your backpacking divers to your naked village children crapping on the beach!! Oh and mustn’t forget the usual token stray dogs and many many noisy chickens!
I had some new experiences here, swimming with white tip reef sharks, diving with turtles and Pharoah cuttlefish that changed colour as they swam.
At Sipadan itself I was lucky to see the famous school of giant barracuda. The photo I took of these does not begin to describe how awesome and scary this was to see for real. I have always been a little freaked by barracuda, never liked the look of those teeth and they can move bloody quickly. At Sipadan they were huge things, about 1.5 metres in length and the sight of hundreds of the beasts swimming upwards in a kind of funnel was just breath taking. So after one of the most amazing weeks of my life, with a few bruises, sore ears, sleep deprivation and coral-related injuries, I was gutted to have to leave. Dora and myself had already squeezed in an extra night there by sharing a room and chartering our own private boat (with a couple from Kuala Lumpur) to get us to the airport in time for our flight. We were so happy to avoid staying the extra night in Semporna.
With Dora (Hong Kong) and Grace (Tasmania)
Grace came to the jetty to wave us off with a hanky, like we had joked about.
I was buzzing on a high all the way back to KK, where I spent my final night there in the same familiar hotel with the same people. I was greeted with ‘where have you been this week lady?’ as I arrived at the hotel seriously ready to crash. So this is a sad goodbye to Borneo, I have had many new experiences and gradually fell in love with the place. It is also goodbye to Malaysia for a month or so as I head to a new country and something a bit different, the intriguing Philippines..