Paradise and Pirates

…..we drove right pass the connection point and moments later saw our coach hurtling past with no way to get on it!

With no connection we were left at the mercy of the bus stop and the rather vague “there may be a coach to Semporna in an hour or it may be four”, other options are two minibuses or a taxi. We decided to wait for the coach, Gav went for supplies. It got very hot very quickly and after an hour and a half of waiting, abandoning our bags at the side of the road so we could sit in the bus shelter we decided to ask about the other options. A taxi was out it was 450 RM ($105/£70), the coach would have been 50 RM ($11.65/7.85) and direct but since that was like a blue moon the only option left to us was the minibus. So we asked a guy there could we get a minibus to take us to Lahad Datu, moments later a minibus from that direction pulled up, emptied and we were ferried on to it and we were off! A few minutes later we were at back at our pick-up junction where two poor Dutch guys were slowly being cooked alive, with them on board it was a reasonably comfortable (if at times cramped) 2.5 hour drive down patched bumpy roads to Lahad Datu.

 Once we arrived at Lahad Datu bus station we were ushered onto another less comfortable and smaller bus. The floor was covered in sunflower seed shells, the aircon was the open window and the seats were more uncomfortable than an old tractor. To top it off our bags were too big to go in the wafer thin boot so were wedged in beside us pretty much trapping the two poor guys at the back of the bus. I should point out I have been carrying 2 travel hula hoops around with me which Gav has been wanting me to ditch as I rarely use them, mostly it’s just an extra 500 g but between them and the yoga mat attached to the side of my bag (this also gets used less than I’d like) it makes my poor bag quite wide and is a nightmare in scenarios like this. Anyway so we are on the bus on the way to Semporna…

….or not. Transport is a bit odd in Sabah in comparison to what we were used to in Western Malaysia and more like what we had in Indonesia in that the bus only ran when the bus was full or the driver had enough people on it. So we had to wait for ages, we waited so long that one of the guys behind us had enough and climbed out the back window of the bus, got his money back and walked off. In the end it was just over an hour (in sweltering heat) and it looked like we were about to go… Twenty minutes later we were on the road. Ten minutes in, he pulled over to the side of the road, five minutes later a guy emerged from the bushes and climbed onto the bus to take the seat behind us. We were worried this might have been a tout as almost immediately he started talking to Gav (not me of course, what with me being a woman and all). Nope not a tout just a guy off on holiday to the Philippines. We then stopped for fuel (1.9 RM/l $0.44/0.30), I was beginning to think we’d never get there! But get there we did, the guy drove like a maniac and we had what was possibly the most uncomfortable journey we have had since we started travelling (and yes it was more uncomfortable than the durian van in Cambodia). It was only three hours but I couldn’t wait to get out of it. We had to go through a police checkpoint also, they found my name amusing. They were quite friendly chaps but I didn’t like the small machine guns they were holding.

Anyway eventually we pulled into Semporna and on getting out were mobbed by taxi drivers wanting to charge us a small fortune to drive the 300 m to the dive centre for that was what we were here for –lovely diving at Sipadan Island. It was also the reason I did my Advanced OW as you cannot dive here unless you have your advanced or 20 dives. We were diving with a shop called Sipidan Scuba, they had a good package where you had 3 dives in Sipadan and 3 dives at Sibuan. Only catch was you had to stay at their hotel, which was a tad pricy but since the Sipadan permits are expensive it was actually really good value at 2493 RM ($581/£392.50) for the two of us, normally the rate just to dive is 900 RM per person for 3 dives. Damn diving is going to bankrupt us. For one of the top dive sites in the world- totally worth it.

If you are diving in Sipadan or any of the many dive sites off the coast of Semporna most places wanted you to go to their resort on Mabul Island. We couldn’t afford that this time but lads if you ever go here please stay on Mabul as Semporna is not the nicest of places.

It is a border town, very close to Indonesia and with a ferry to the south Philippines. I also should mention that the general travel advice for Semporna for all countries (including Malaysia) is to avoid all but essential travel to this region (UK.gov), when we mentioned we were going there to locals in KK, they warned us to be careful. Basically there has been a number of attacks by Sulu pirates they believe they own the land there and had taken hostages (we read about the beheading of one of the hostages when we were in Mulu), and although this is not really a positive thing, they did not seem to target westerners. We had met plenty of travellers who had visited the area and had got confirmation from Sabah tourism that the place was well protected- read armed to the teeth. Gav took great delight in telling his family this, I didn’t tell mine as they would be climbing the walls with worry!

So other than the pirates to worry about, Semporna was quite dirty and didn’t feel like the rest of Malaysia, gangs of street kids roamed the place begging and it was not very pleasant and rather sad. Anyway we didn’t see too much the first two days. Once we checked in and paid (our credit card got blocked so we had to fix that before we could check in). Again we had opted for the cheapest room with shared bathroom, it was ok but very hot even with the aircon on (I prefer fan when I’m diving too, aircon generally leads to sinus issues).

Once checked in we got our gear sorted and packed away for the following morning. All that was left was to freshen up and get dinner at one of the many seafood restaurants on the waterfront. We selected a restaurant and were looking at the menu when a young guy on his own asked if we’d like to join him. He was an interesting fellow……

Anyway, so after yet another crappy night’s sleep (not doing well on this in Sabah), we arrived at the shop at 8 am and grabbed our gear met the other guys on the boat, Mary and Luc a French Canadian couple and Ruy, a Chinese girl. Our divemasters for the day one were Jason and Roy and for day 2 it was Roy and Andy who were very good.

From Semporna to Sipadan was an hour and after obtaining our dive permits we were off!

On arrival in Sipadan we had to register at the island office. Remember I said the area was armed to the teeth? Well as you get off the boat onto the jetty you have an army base on one side and a group of guys in a hide with a machine gun turret at the other. These were no go areas, tourists were only permitted to use the toilets and showers and a picnic area. All very surreal. There was also a navy base on Mabul and on each day we saw some aerial activity in the form of a fly past by fighter jets and a helicopter.

Sipadan is very unusual in that it is on a different plate to the other islands and mainland Malaysia and is Malaysia’s only oceanic island, the rest are on a shallow continental shelf. It is a puff of sand on top of an extinct volcano covered in coral with insane sheer drops to the sea floor and the visibility is excellent- up to 30 m at times though it was about 20 m when we were there.

2015-12-06 14.12.22
Sadly we didn’t get to visit Bum Bum island, I wish I had now, bet they have a sign for photos…….

2015-12-06 14.12.282015-12-06 14.12.37

Due to the nature of the island all the dives here were wall dives, which we had never done before, I’ll tell you now, that first dive into a bottomless sea was terrifying, so we stuck close to the wall. After a few dives we got used to it. The first day we did South Point, Barracuda Point (this is the famous one, it was amazing, no barracuda though) and the Drop. This last one I didn’t like so much as we went into a cave, I stayed as close as possible to the entrance. It was black and ominous in there and I didn’t like it- but we ended the dive at Barracuda Point again. Hurrah.  It is so rich with life it blew my mind, so much fish, coral and big beasties! World class indeed!

We also had a great time with Luc and Mary and on both evenings joined them for dinner.

On the second day, as we had so much fun the first day, the crew suggested going to Sipadan again- we all jumped at the chance and hopped the fee wouldn’t be too much. We rocked up expecting to pay 50 RM each but no it was free! Yay! We were also being joined by a Swedish couple. So we were all ready to go at 8 am, then it was 8.30….eventually after numerous calls by the diveshop to the hotel they were on their way. They had slept in. In truth though they were given the wrong info from their pick up diver when they arrived late the previous evening. They were told it was 9 am they were leaving. Poor guys were very stressed out when they arrived and by 9 am, once they had got all their gear ready we were on the boat, permits obtained and on our way out to Sipadan.

On day two we did Turtle Point, Barracuda Point (again, still good) and Hanging Gardens. I had Luc’s Dive computer as Sipadan Scuba would not rent me one for some reason- you really need them for this type of dive and it is quite a comfort to have especially since Gav’s depth gauge didn’t work and with me having the computer he could see it easier than if he looked at my gauge. The water is so clear that you don’t realize the depth, especially with there being no visible bottom in some places, it made us really want a dive computer of our own.

On our first dive we were all happily going along looking for turtles, sharks and whatever else was about that day when there was a very loud BOOM, followed by a second one minutes later. Dynamite fishing is used here and in other parts of SE Asia, they get the fish but destroy the coral, which is really a long term loss for short term gain as without the coral there would be no fish. Madness. Occasionally divers have also been killed due to this type of fishing. It is banned near Sipadan.

So anyway not to bore you guys two much here is a condensed version of what we saw on our dives. It has footage from Dives 1,2,3 and 6 as Gav was trying to see what settings give better pictures and dives 4 and 5 look awful as a result. WARNING: it is over 10 minutes in length. Sorry! There is so much cool stuff! I’d go make a hot beverage, get the biscuits out, put on your favourite chill out music and relax…(my video editing skills have not improved though so it is a bit shaky in places and I’ve not put any audio on it as it would take too long to do!) Still enjoy!

(You’ll notice the date is off we actually dived on the 5th and 6th of December 2015, we have worked out how to turn it off now)

On our last evening when we joined the guys for dinner, we were chatting away and two guys nonchalantly walked by with machine guns. We loved the diving but were also looking forward to leaving. Scary stuff!

An aside on Sipadan Scuba: Their rates were good, the dive and boat crew reallly good and most of the equipment seemed brand new. Though Gav did end up with a faulty depth gauge and they didn’t seem to care about that. Also the lady who runs the shop doesn’t seem to like you to spend more money. I was all ready to buy a mask as the one I had in KK was awful and made the dives not the most pleasant but she didn’t seem to want me to buy one as I had to pay for mask rental and that was non refundable even if I spent significantly more on a mask she didn’t even direct me to the retail shop. So I didn’t end up with one. Also after the first day I wanted to rent a dive computer. This had been an option when we booked but we thought we could add it on later, but she said just to follow the dive master, which we do anyway but your depth and their depth might not always be the same. Bit annoying but thankfully Luc stepped in to help!

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