Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lauren Baillie: Let’s go, Borneo! Mabul and Sipadan

Door to paradise’s door took me 36 hours. Flying Auckland to Gold Coast then on to KL, to rush across the airport, parched grab a Starbucks and head to check in.

Despite not being allowed fluids through an airport the security guard looked at my cup and told me “water, OK!” I optimistically replied “coffee?” with a raised eyebrow, and he waved me through. Now I was back in Asia. 

My next flight from peninsula Malaysia, to Tawau, Sabah, I calculated myself to be the only tourist on the flight. I tried to bury my head further into my book whilst those around me coughed and spluttered into their bags, there is some things you will never get used to!

It was 10am in the morning by the time I arrived to Tawau and was greeted by a taxi driver holding my name. Feeling glamorous I hopped into his car where he assured me Semporna was a 20 minute drive, 20 minutes later he said, “just 20 minutes!” After an hour and twenty on dusty roads, passing plantations of coconuts, we arrived in the dirty port town of Semporna.

The boat to the island left in a few hours so I sought lunch. My few words of bahasa teamed with some pointing got me some vegetables and rice, a drink and a roti, lunch for all of about £1! The girl who served me giggled, again and again assessing my height as nearly double hers and embarrassed as she tested a few English words.

The dusty, dirty gateway camouflaged well the delights which were to be found one hour out to sea on a tiny sand bar island named Mabul

The long jetty led to a white sand beach, the wooden resort lined with palm trees. We were welcomed, shown to our rooms and then were served afternoon tea before making a beeline for the ocean. In the humidity, after a long journey the water was delightful, but at 31 degrees, more like a bath than a cool off.

The snorkelling was a glimpse of what was to come. Only metres from the shore the colourful coral was teeming with sea life.

From now on our every worry was taken care of. The dive schedules were written up for the following day, between every dive a buffet or snack and everyone was radiating positivity and paradise so the open plan dining hall became a place welcome to join anyone and discuss your latest underwater adventure.

It was also shark week so each night we were invited to watch a presentation about something topical, marine debris, sharks, rays and the importance of our oceans. 

For my second day of diving, my name was listed next to Sipadan, the world class site which had brought me to Borneo, the top spot of my diving bucket list since I first blew underwater bubbles. I stirred excitedly every hour before the 5:45 alarm where I took a few bites of breakfast and headed to the jetty. 

The ocean floor between Semporna and Mabul lies at some 60 metres below sea level, however between Mabul and Sipadan, it drops off into a channel of 2000 metres encouraging sharks, rays and unexpected delights to pass through. The current around the island also encourages these pelagic creatures, so there is plenty of reasons to be excited.

Sipadan used to be home to many dive schools, however in 1999 this was the reason for an international debate over who owned Sipadan; Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Shortly after it was deemed to be Malay in 2002, the schools were kicked off and it became a military base as well a sanctuary or both land and sea.

It’s white sands are thus patrolled by military, a short stretch of sand open to bikini clad divers between dives.