Mabul Island

Fellow travellers, vicarious eavesdroppers and others foolhardy enough to give me their email address, here comes another prolix postcard to warm the cockles and stroke your id. Once more, the winter that blights Melbourne has sent me scurrying for warmer climes and the chance to tiptoe through the excrement of other backpackers.

Why Borneo? Well, it’s the mystique innit — the jungles, the headhunters, the orangutans. But there’s also the fact that Sabah, which means “land below the wind”, and Sarawak, which are both part of Malaysia, don’t suffer the same monsoonal tempests that beset most of South East Asia in these months. I have just under 4 weeks to traverse the northern coast of the island, the last three of which will be shared wth that Dutch delight, Sander Fleuren. My first couple of days were spent at the orangutan rehabilitation sanctuary at Sepilok. Dumped my bags in the dorm and headed into the jungle via a boardwalk. The public area of the sanctuary is really just a freerange zoo (the nursery, where all the adorable orphan babies hang out is strictly quarantined) and there is no guarantee of a sighting but, as i wandered under the canopy and around a bend, there right in front of me was a young male gracefully meandering along the balustrade. I followed slowly, at a respectful distance but he slowed too, letting me approach nearer until side-by-side we walked like a Darwinian diagram (though the drection of evolution is debatable in this instance). Following his lustrous gaze upwards, i noticed another orangutan perched within the leafy camouflage. These moments of quiet intimacy, of spatial union, were apparently a rare exceptionto the rule and on the next two visits, the only things i could get intimate with was Japanese telephoto lenses and some rutting macaques that turned every tourist into a casual pornographer as flashes and videophones caught the female as she used the rhythm method of contraception — Catholic onlookers nodded with approval.

Leaving my hairy friends behind, i boarded a bus headed to Semporna, the gateway to some of the world’s top diving spots. The 6 hour journey was made even longer by the in-bus-video showing concert clips by Air Supply and Westlife along with local Sabah ballads — the equivalent of being stabbed repeatedly in the ears with knitting needles. But the realtragedy was not the foppish boy band pouts and poses, it was the view outside. We passed not a trace of natural vegetation but rather grid after grid of palm plantations with sinisterly auspicious names like “Prolific Yield Palm Oil”. At least i had Joseph Conrad to get me through it.

Getting off in Semporna i finally made contact with the only two other backpackers on the bus, Hannah and Madeleine, who were travelling together and also in town for the diving. We all jumped into the tray of a waiting ute and sped to the local office of Uncle Chang’s dive shop. I’d had Chang’s recommended to me by Avyi back in December because, unlike the other options, Chang’s allowed you to stay on one of the nearby islands, Mabul, without paying through the nose. I think the tag “Uncle” derives from the fact that, if Chang has had any kids, they aren’t legitimate enough to call him anything but “uncle”. His perennially bloodshot eyes, greasy long hair and brown teeth bespeak a life lived according the hours that booze and cigarettes dictate. Nevertheless, we signed up — me for my first ever scuba experience. We hopped into a skinny little speed boat for the hour-long trip to Mabul and made our way past the stilt villages that ring Semporna’s bay and paddle canoes replete with kids ecstatically waving at us, the passing whiteys.

The sun was beginning its lazy climb down the ladder of the sky as Pulau Mabul grew over the horizon from a tiny green clump into a not much bigger green clump. Fringed with blond beaches on all sides and stilt villages of vastly varying luxury, it looks back on the mountains of Sabah on one side and on the other, in the distance, lies the Phillipine archipelago, with its promise of contraband smugglers and the odd pirate party. Our arrival at Uncle Chang’s coincided with Uncle Chang himself and a case of Filipino rum that, unbeknownst to us, had been occupying the seat next to the pilot. So, while i’d like to think otherwise, i concede it was our boat companions and not ourselves that warranted the heraldry and alarums that sang over the water as we skimmed above the shallow reef waters. When i say heraldry, i mean a three-piece rock outfit spewing their amplified guitars and homemade drum kit straight out over the ocean. To a rock-out version of “Kingston Town” they substituted in the Chang theme song — a paean to Mabul, scuba and all who sail aboard. The band continued to play all night, with a rotating line-up of fashion-tousle-haired Phillipino grommets in vintage shirts and thongs. And, fuck, some of them could really play guitar — the Strokes, Killers, Guns n Roses, Rolling Stones, Oasis — if it held the chance for a quick-fingered solo, all the better.

After dinner, Hannah, Madeleine and I ventured out into the stilt village beyond Chang’s, wanting to see what the rest of the island held in store. No sooner had we exited the gate than we were joined with eccentric elan by a Canadian girl whose name eludes me but who became known as Cinderella thanks to her many lost slippers, her parasol and certain salacious rumours involving a jacuzzi and a man named Jeff. She seemed to know quite a few men on the island and she led us to where one of them was showing a video of underwater footage. Through the moonlit sand and plank walkways and alleys, past a small stall where the attendant had beautiful long hair and dwarfism, through a fence into the police compound, onto a beach, past a resort’s swimming pool, past a sub-machine gun toting sentry, through another set of makeshift wooden huts housing Filipino refugees, past mange-ridden dogs and onto a boardwalk that led to the salubrious Sipadan Water Village replete with obese Americans admiring their latest photos while resting their laptops on their swollen thighs. All within a 10 minute stroll.

In the resort, after meeting the “friend” and watching the video, we found ourselves involved in an unexpected “Baby Guiness train” at the behest of a pair of late-20s British merchant bankers who were hoping to enliven the staid lounge with some alcohol-derived bonhomie. Looking like a likely lad, i was asked to to lead the way as a giggly gaggle of Taiwanese and Japanese tourists were inculcated into the finer points of British drinking games.

No matter how nice iced Baileys and Tia Maria is on a tropical night, it was the other side of the island that drew me back on future nights. The Filipinos who have taken up their modest residency on Mabul are fleeing the fighting between their government and the Abu Sayyaf Islamist separatist group. Abu Sayyaf are best known in the West for kidnapping 21 divers and locals from the island of Sipadan 7 years ago … a 30 minute boat ride from Mabul and the location of my final three dives … no fear though, the Malaysian military patrol the waters these days. Anyway, the refugees are on Mabul without official legitimacy, so while they are allowed to reside there without the imminent risk of deportation, they are certainly not assisted either. Some of the huts are only tall enough to be sat in, others offer trinkets and lollies for sale. In the day time, i could turn my head towards open doors and be met by the haunting sight of several wizened, glistening eyes in the inky shadows. But out in the streets the kids would play, dance to Chuck Berry and (if they could affor it) go to school. At night, the alleys turned pitch dark and only a few lights twinkled behind loose planks thanks to the pop and throb of diesel generators. Most of the time, i wouldn’t take my camera … it seemed too complacent to take away only a digital image … so my presence was innocuous and fleeting but always met with nods or hellos from young and old.

Day one of my PADI open water scuba course and i’m up with the birds at 6.30am after a monsoon night. I was woken at 4am wth rain lashing across the dorm. My only roommate, a South African, had been on Chang’s paintstripper rum that evening and slept unstirred in that chalkline figur that best becomes the smashed. I could hear the splashes and calls of our neighbours as they lashed down their possessions and i too sprang into groggy action, jamming the window tight and dragging an empty bed across to prop the flapping door shut. With dawn, i noticed the mirror pond that had developed in the centre of the room like a poorly considered flurry of feng shui. Somehow every bag in the room was dry, so i grabbed my scuba books and went out into the slate-coloured dawn to cram.

I had two instructors, Chris and Joel. Chris, my theory instructor, looked like Smeagol with a tan (and did i mean impersonation too). A Filipino in his 40s, he once trained as an actor (to the dismay of his lawyer father), made his way in music and drug-addiction before becoming a diver. A man with impeccable English, a voracious intellect and enough dirty jokes and cynicism to balance the ascetic life of a vegetarian tee-totaller yogi. And in the great Filipino tradition, he’s worked throughout Asia for years without ever having a work permit. Joel, who took me out for the in-water training, was a no-nonsense Brit of grand proportions, who, did he not have a penchant for scuba, would be swilling lager and peanuts as some barfly on The Bill.

My first dive went like a dream. After 20 minutes of exercises at the sea floor, i still had plenty of air in the tank and so we went for a swim around one of Mabul’s reef. Frog fish, full grown cuttlefish showing its colours, crocodile fish, pipe fish, a ray … it was wonderful, amazing and so easy. Joel was impressed, and on our return to Chang’s proudly declared me a quote unquote natural which, for a geek who was scared of water most of his prepubescence, is like winning a fucking Oscar.

To someone new to diving there remains something fabulously unreal about the sensation. The technical aspects that absorb one’s attention, particularly the regularity of breath, make it a form of physical meditation but, every now and then, i’d pinch myself into consciousness and marvel at it all. Looking around at my fellow divers weightlessly drifting and twisting in the current, i was reminded of Werner Herzog’s fantasia Deep Blue Yonder that parallels divers with astronauts — both otherworldly, defying the limitations of humanity and exploring regions of infinite mystery … though Herzog would spew at such sentiments.

The crown jewel of islands here is Sipadan. The tiny island is the tip of a limestone pinnacle that rises 600m off the ocean floor, so that you swim above a rich and distant blue with a world of coral and sealife swarming along the walls at your side — yellow and red fish like a vortex of autumn leaves suspended. Across a day of dives you lose count of the turtles and sharks you glide beside and under and over, but when you spot a hammerhead, as we did, there are underwater high fives all round. I’m hooked, it’s clear.

Click here for the photos.