Turtle Paradise!

Trip Start Oct 13, 2010
Trip End Feb 22, 2012

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Sunday, May 22, 2011

After the jungle adventure, my next destination was a bit of relaxing on Mabul Island and a trip to the much hyped Sipadan Island which I'd been looking forward to for ages. It came as a bit of a shock to find out that permits for snorkelling and diving on Sipadan were booked up weeks in advance, and it cost a whopping RM450 to even snorkel there! But this had been on my list since the start so I had to do it. Pretty much everyone I have met in Borneo has Mabul and Sipadan on their radar. I eventually found the Uncle Chang resort on Mabul Island, who did have a permit available. Sipadan Island is Malaysia’s only oceanic island and the fascination of snorkeling/diving here is owed to the fact that there is 600m drop off around the corel reef surrounding the island. This means that even snorkellers can swim around the 'edge’ of the island and are pretty much guaranteed to spot the huge turtles that live here. It did make me wish that I had got a diving certification as once you have PADI open water certification, it only costs an extra RM50 to dive, but that will have to wait for now!

The resorts on Sipadan were closed and now nobody can stay on the island, partly because of a bit to become a UNESCO world heritage sight, and partly because (I only found this out once I got there!) in 2000 some tourists were kidnapped by Phillipino pirates, who remain a threat to this day so now there is 24/7 military presence on the island!! So now everyone has to stay on the nearby island of Mabul but can visit Sipadan on dive boats with closely controlled permits.

So, I left the jungle homestay and got straight on the bus to the port town of Semporna along with a few other travellers going the same way. On arriving, unlike everyone else I had decided to go straight to the island rather than using up one of my last few nights in Borneo in the rather crap town of Semporna. This meant I only had about an hour to find the Uncle Chang office (turns out there are two of them) where the boat would be leaving from, get snacks (was told there were no shops on the island) and get cash from the ATM. Meanwhile the woman from Uncle Chang’s kept texting me irately asking where I was and if I was coming – I felt like a naughty child who was late for school! I made it with about 2 minutes to spare, and set off on the 45 minute speed boat trip to Mabul. On the way I met a girl from New Zealand and when we arrived we decided to upgrade to a nice twin room together instead of the rather manky dorm. The staff were quite amused watching us introduce ourselves to each other after we had moved in together – we decided a double bed was taking it a bit far before we knew each others names! Hannah and I soon messed up the room and were not happy although not entirely unsuprised to find it infested with cockroaches after a day or two :s

The accommodation is actually built around the island, rather than on it. So the Uncle Chang’s resort consists entirely of structures on rickety wooden stilts in the ocean which sway in the wind. The benefit is the rooms are directly over the ocean so when you wake up in the morning you can literally just jump off the balcony into the sea :) The price includes all meals, which at first sounds good until you try the meals. A vegetarian gets a separate lunch and dinner, of fried egg and cold baked beans, every meal and every day. Every breakfast no matter how early you are, the butter and jam is 'finished', so dry toast it is! At least there’s tea and coffee … there is a really nice decking area though with sunbeds for sunbathing and great for meeting people over meals. After a few hours everyone seemed to know each other.

Hannah and I were both booked for snorkelling on Sipadan in a few days time, so in the meantime we went snorkelling around Mabul itself which was brilliant. I saw the most colourful, alive looking corel I’ve ever seen and hundreds of weird and wonderful fish. We were warned to avoid the trigger fish, which apparently attacks if you get too close – I had a mild panic when I mistook one of Hannah’s flippers for the fish in question! I spent an entire day sunbathing on the deck, only getting to eat and drink which was nice. There were a few characters lurking around – a French couple with dreadlocks who live there for free in return for playing the sax (him) and juggling fire (her), neither of which were particulary exciting – they were still trying to save up for one trip to Sipadan and had already been there 3 months, surely something is going wrong then!? Then there was British Dan ... if you wander outside the resort you enter the village, a shanty town style collection of huts and little shops (so there was no need to stock up on supplies after all) and kids playing marbles in the streets – we ran into Dan when taking a stroll through the village looking for a beach. He was being shown around by a man who at first glance I thought was a woman, who had taken Dan into his home for free. Bit suspect I thought – sure enough the next day Dan turned up at Uncle Changs, after his host had lured him into the sea then proceeded to grope him! It is a bit disconcerting having the tourists in their nice resorts just feet away from the rubbish laden villages – the rubbish situation was shocking, it needs a big clean up but nobody seems to be doing this. In fact who ‘should’ do it? – the government, villagers, resorts, a charity? But everyone was friendly and we started eating at the little shacks as the food was better than the resort.

The night before the big Sipadan trip, Hannah and I had vowed to get an early night. However, it was Saturday night, which means Party Night at Uncle Changs! Now so far we had not seen Uncle Chang himself – only his face on the mug-shot style posters plastered on the walls. We were finishing dinner when the whisper went around ‘Uncle Chang is here!!’ and immediately he achieved celebrity like status, all of us desperate for a photo with him. The man himself appeared, with waist length hair, and took to a stage which had been erected. The staff had formed a band, with the rest of them lined up  around the stage. All the staff wear t-shirts emblazoned with the words 'The Dream Of Uncle Chang Come True'. The music started and Uncle Chang started singing (kareoking!) some cheesy song like ‘I did it my way’ while running around manically handing out a very small sum of money to each staff member. He then did another loop handing out cans of coke, then another loop handing out cans of lemonade. By now we’re looking at each other like what the hell is this?? The staff were all swaying and looking like they were thoroughly excited – we later found out this actually happens every Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes Friday too!! Uncle Chang then threw himself into the crowd (in the absence of lighters, we were all waving toilet paper in the air although I can’t remember why) and handed every guest a free bottle of rum. We called him over to say thanks and he replied with a second bottle each. Then he launched into a ten minute speech about the charities he supports, and all the work he does, one by one … apparently all of the staff are orphans and over 50% of the profits goes back into charity. This shut Hannah and I up – we were all set to complain about the lack of jam. I just hope that this is all true and Uncle Chang is genuinely the local hero that he was portrayed to be ... It was a very bizarre evening.

The final day was the day of our much anticipated trip to Sipadan and everyone was genuinely excited like little kids. It was just Hannah and I snorkelling, and three people diving. The dive staff are extremely laid  back here and it's a great atmosphere. It takes about half an hour to get to Sipadan, and it was rough. I mean rough – the speed boat was smacking down hard on the waves and several times I thought we were going to capsize and I might not even get to see the snorkel, luckily I don’t get sea sick. We had to sign in on the island with our passport numbers, and spotted the military hanging out in their little hut. There were three dive/snorkelling sites, the first seeming to be quite far from the island. I have never in my whole life seen water as crystal clear as this – it looked like a swimming pool, with distinct areas of torquiose changing to dark blue in the deeper areas. Given the ledge drop off, we had to get in the water at 600m which was a bit scary, but good scary. I confess I did wear a life jacket as it was SO choppy – the waves were just slapping us down and engulfing the snorkel so you get a mouthful of sea water. The boat was apparently watching us and meeting us and the divers after 45 minutes but I have my doubts as sometimes I’d look up and not even see the boat. The first site we saw some absolutely huge fish, almost as big as me. Couldn’t really get into it as the current was so strong and dragging us away from the island and the boat and it took all of my energy to swim into the waves and keep getting slapped under trying to return to the boat. The guys thought it was funny to move the boat away just as I was reaching for it, which I did not find in the slightest bit funny  and soon wiped the smile off their faces. The second and third sites were pretty damn amazing – we could clearly swim around the edge of the island and watch all the big fish and turtles hanging out in the ledges around the edge. Then we could move into the shallower corel and amaze at the colours – red, green and blue. We spotted a shark swimming away from us – just knowing there were sharks around was exciting enough. And the turtles – we spotted loads of them and as they aren’t afraid of people we could follow them and try to catch them up. At one point a turtle was looking at me and swimming right towards me, then I followed him into the deep blue – the boat was gone, I couldn’t see Hannah and it was just me and the turtle in 600m of ocean. One of the most amazing moments of my entire life. It’s amazing how close you can get to these wonderful creatures and they are so graceful when they swim. Some of them were literally bigger than me. And the fish! So I'm swimming around by myself in the deep blue water and suddenly a huge fish almost as big as me just appear ... again when I was alone, I saw three absolutely huge fish with menacing eyes and open mouths with teeth just circling around in the deep water. I decided to keep out of their way ...

There was one scene when neither of us had any photos left on our disposable underwater cameras, but it will stay in my mind. There was blue and red moving corel, and about 30 different types of fish just hanging out. There were leopard spotted fish, zebra stripey fish, angel fish with huge funnel noses, electric blue fish, box fish, loads of small fish … just breathtaking. It has made me really want to dive – all the divers came up totally ecstatic, raving about the twenty shark they had just seen. There were grown men practically in tears, pouring over the fish spotting sheets, excitedly logging what they had just seen.

Back at Uncle Chang’s, I found out that in fact there was no boat going back to the mainland tomorrow in time for my afternoon flight to Kota Kinabalu (it worked out incredibly cheap to fly instead of taking an overnight bus as for once I booked in advance). The woman at the desk informed me my only option was to leave in half an hours time – she obviously didn’t realise that for me to shower and pack in this time was physically impossible. Luckily Uncle Chang was still in the house and he came to my rescue, saying ‘no problem, when do you want to leave?’. So the next day Uncle Chang and I went in our own boat to the mainland, then they even transported me in a pick up truck to the bus station and helped me buy a ticket – how’s that for customer service!! One person I will not miss was the most unhelpful person in a customer facing job that I have ever met – Mr Smiley who works behind the shop desk. Every time we asked him anything, he just smirked at us with an incredulous look of ‘what do you actually think I work here or something?’. This man may has well have had the words F*CK YOU tattooed on his forehead for all the help he was. The best was when I asked him for some toilet paper and he just smirked 'toilet paper finished'. We took a sneaky photo of him as we pretended to be taking one of me, childish I know but looking at the photo still makes me laugh hysterically :)

So my trip to Mabul was a great success, and I had such a laugh at Uncle Chang's. Despite the inflated price tag, it was money incredibly well spent as this underwater adventure was seriously one of the best experiences of my entire life :)
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