Fascinating, affordable Mabul
The removal of all structures, including the dive resorts, on Sipadan Island has greatly benefited the nearby islands of Mabul and Kapalai.
These islands were not affected by the government order to completely move out all man-made structures from Sipadan by the end of 2004. It was a bold move aimed at conserving the fragile ecosystem on the tiny 12ha island which had become congested with tourists after consistently being voted one of the top five dive sites in the world.
I decided to make a brief visit to Mabul Island recently after reading that it had become a popular destination for both divers and photographers from around the world. A catchy slogan — “Now everyone can stay at Mabul Island” — by one locally run “backpacker resort” made me want to go there even more badly.
After two nights in Sandakan, I boarded a long-distance bus to Tawau. The 320km journey took a long and torturous six hours, with just one 20-minute stop in between at a roadside restaurant in Lahad Datu to stretch my legs and have some refreshment.
In Tawau, I made arrangements for accommodation in Semporna, the gateway to Mabul and all the other islands in the Sulawesi Sea. At noon the next day, I was in a rusty van jam-packed with 15 other passengers leaving for Semporna, 105km away. An hour and a half later, the van pulled up at an open space behind some pathetic-looking shophouses and the driver announced, “Semporna, Semporna . . . sudah sampai (we have reached Semporna).”
I asked the driver for directions to Dragon Inn, a hotel built on stilts in the clear and shallow waters of Semporna Bay. It turned out to be a short five-minute walk away at the end of Causeway Bridge. A helpful Filipino reception worker at Dragon Inn recommended Uncle Chang’s Lodge for my tour of Mabul Island next day.
According to her, Uncle Chang is a legendary personality on Semporna, especially among the tourism and diving communities. Having gained experience in his early days working for dive operators in the area, the man ventured out on his own more then 10 years ago and established Borneo Jungle River Island Tour Sdn Bhd, which owns Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge.
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