Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sepilok to Semporna and Mabul

In which a living room is mistaken for a café and Jo’s flipflops go for a walk
Starring Jon, the only Malaysian who can speak Afrikaans and Cody the mask(ed) hero

Despite the fact that we had reserved seats on the bus from Sepilok to Semporna it was full when it arrived and a few local guys had to be turfed out of their seats to give us a spot.  We would have protested but it was a five hour journey and, well, the floor looked really uncomfortable.  We stopped once in a little town called Lahad Datu – apparently for no other reason than to let a small troop of children on board who aggressively plied their fruity wares upon us using an unusual sales technique that involved throwing packets of dried goods into our laps and demanding payment. 
We spent the afternoon wandering around Semporna which has little to recommend it bar a beautiful mosque and some interesting markets including at least about 70sq meters of dried fish products of every description.  Jo got into a long discussion with a very friendly woman who gave very precise instructions on how to dry your own fish (should you desire to do so on return to your London flat). 

Cafe/Lounge Friends (photo by Jo Binding)
There’s also a water village in Semporna and we were wandering through that when waylaid by a cabinet full of delectable looking cakes under the banner of ‘Sunshine Bakery and Café’.  “Could we eat the cakes in there?” I said to the owner, pointing at a table in the neighbouring room.  “Of course, of course,” he replied, rushing next door to clear the table of the remains of lunch.  It was only as we sat down that we realised it was actually his living room.  The three month old baby was asleep in a hammock in a corner, his young daughter was doing a colouring project at another table and the friends he had been having lunch with hovering nervously.  Awkward.  We were offered coffee which we delightedly accepted apologising profusely.  Thankfully the conversation turned to football (there was a brand new widescreen TV mounted on the wall with an Arsenal game on repeat) - a conversational topic that Jo was able to cover off while Cath and I grinned and nodded.  By the time we’d worked our way through the plate of cakes we had been presented with more friends had turned up to discuss the premiership.  We eventually asked for the bill and were told we could pay next time.  “No, no,” we insisted, “we can’t come back.”  “Yes,” they said, “next time.”  In the end, mortified by the moral dilemma of it all I stuff some notes under a mug in an insistent manner and we waved a cheery goodbye. 

On the far side of the village the water is full of boats who’ve brought shoppers over from the much larger settlement on the island across the bay or fisherman pedalling their wares.  We were mystified by what appeared to be a strip of pink beach – on closer inspection it turned out to be a huge pile of smashed shells.  The fishermen were turning out sacks of them onto the shore, picking out the sea urchins and discarding the rest.

The real reason we were in Semporna was to get out to some over the world’s best diving at Palau Sipidan.  To dive out there you have stay on an island called Mabul or, as we did, on an oil rig just off its coast.  Mabul is a little pip of paradise and it would have wonderful unbroken views of glassy seas if were not for the presence of the brightly coloured oil rig. The story goes that the owner of the rig tried to buy one of the resorts on the island and when the hotelier refused to sell, he bought an oil rig in Panama and had it floated all the way here and moored right in front of the resort. 

We LOVED this oil rig.  For a start it was enormous – the helipad has been converted into the world’s largest sun deck and there’s a huge open air dining and bar area.  Secondly you can only get up and down on a fantastic lift that clanks as it goes and when you’re diving drops beneath the surface so it’s not too much effort to swim on and off. Thirdly, right underneath the rig is an artificial reef full of incredible fish (lion fish, stone fish, dragon fish, crocodile fish) and a resident giant moray called Elvis.  Until this point I hated artificial reefs – dumping stuff in the sea just seems wrong – but once you’ve found a frog fish clinging to the cross bars of a climbing frame and seen two eels hiding in a toilet, you sort of get converted.

We were in the water for the first dive about twenty minutes after arriving which is pretty good going and then after lunch went out to dive off the coast of Mabul at the aptly named Paradise II where you turn your head and see a turtle and then turn you head the other way and see another turtle. The only down side of diving off the island was the amount of rubbish.  I got back on board with a wetsuit stuffed with plastic wrappers and a tin can in hand.  A nappy floated past while we waiting to get back on the boat. 

The next morning we were up at 5ish for a day of diving at Sipidan.  You do three dives in total at various sites and surface intervals are on the pristine island.  Everything here is very tightly controlled – from the number of divers (no more than 150 per day) to where you can wander along the beach.   The diving was incredible.  And I do literally mean: so good as to beggar belief.  The sheer number of white tipped reef sharks and enormous turtles was astounding enough but throw in huge swirling schools of barracuda and a giant group of bump-headed parrot fish and you can fill a boat with awestruck divers.  I’m not even going to go on about the sheer variety of aquarium fish and the endless walls of coral disappearing off into the deep.  That stuff is like, you know, a given.

One the last day we were out at another small island called Kapali – not so much an island as a shallow sand spit that’s had yet another resort plonked on top of it.  The artificial reef here was bristling with weird stuff including tiny little luminous worms with skirts called Nudibranches.  Then on to Paradise I which proved the old point about sequels never being as good as the originals.  The highlight here was a depression with some huge nets in the bottom that for some reason the turtles love lying on.  We were just admiring one giant (they were mostly around 6ft) when another beast came crashing over the rise and thumped down at our feet.  No sooner had the sand settled from that landing than I had get out the way as another turtle jetted in from behind me.  Oh and some of the less notable sightings included a SEAHORSE!  We were literally shaking with undersea delight as we got back to the rig. 

Instead of heading back to the mainland we had booked a night at the Backpackers on Mabul Island with intention of doing a bit more diving.  There’s a quite large Filipino community right next to the post hotel jetty’s on Mabul with lots of people living in very basic housing who are clearly extremely poor.  The kids are generally not in school as without paperwork they’re not entitled to Malaysian schooling, and most look malnourished with distended bellies and open sores on their mouths.  It’s a rather sobering contrast seeing these families on one side of the jetty and being one of the cocktail sipping westerners on the other.  No surprise then that during a snooze beneath the woven wicker parasols of our resort, Jo’s Havianas disappeared.  We had also realised by this point that her very expensive mask had been left on the rig.  There was upset.  Luckily the village had three shops:  two selling biscuits, sweets and snacks, and one selling, who would have guessed it, flip flops.  

And luckily, some of the crew from the rig came over to the island for drinks in the evening and were immediately tasked with mask recovery.  We had been planning on possibly doing some diving the next day but all hopes of that were scuppered as we found ourselves at some random beach bar on the other side of the island drinking Filipino rum (later discovered to be 80% proof) with Miji, Jon who spent time in South Africa and is probably the only Malaysian who can speak Afrikaans, and Cody who, the next day, arrived on the beach like a knight in shining swimwear, bearing Jo’s mask.  

More pictures: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150414483246058.360287.532581057&type=1&l=4616981e20
and http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150414489266058.360288.532581057&type=1&l=b2bb668da0

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