If someone told me at the beginning of this trip I would utter the sentence “Heading to Borneo to go Scuba Diving”, I would have thought them mad. Borneo is one of those near mythical places like Timbuktu and Zanzibar, you always want to go but never think you will get the chance.
It still seems a little ostentatious when I say it to myself. Add to that “will be living on a converted oil rig” and its downright pompous. I have been diving while traveling but I have never organised a trip or part there of directly committed to the act of diving, I am so glad I did!
After my fabulous friends dropped me off at the airport, I headed through security and hung out in the waiting area. Didn’t have long to wait before boarding. The fun part was that 2 flights were boarding from the same gate, one to the left and one to the right, so you had to be extra careful you went on the right flight.
Borneo is an island off the south of Malaysia and it is separated into Malaysian Borneo and Filipino Borneo. I was leaving mainland Malaysia and Flying into Tawau part of Malaysian Borneo. On the flight I had thought how unnecessary it was to bring my passport and risk losing it. But it turns out you have to go through immigration! What do you know!
I had planned to take the cheap route of local bus into town then bus to Semporna from where I would take a boat to the rig the following day. Exiting the airport into tropical island heat soon made that thought waver significantly. I asked a guard how to get into town and he directed me to a tourist shuttle, which while still 6times the price of the local bus was still cheaper than the taxi. Oh what the hell, its too hot to argue. The drive took around 1.5hrs and except for the fishtailing and hydroplaning during a sudden rain storm the drive was quite pleasant.
Arriving in Semporna the driver dropped me off at my backpackers and after relaxing for a bit I went out to explore. For being the entry way to some of the best diving in the world, Semporna is remarkably undeveloped and touristy. It reminded me a bit of Puno in Peru, gateway to Lake Titicaca, rather dirty and not very tourist friendly. However, the people were really friendly and their smiles blew you away. One little girl started following me trying to convince me her name was “Money”… When she realised my purse strings were shut tight she told me her real name, which I could barely pronounce.
Semporna is also a town of stark contrasts, the locals sell fruit and veggies on the side of the road along with clothes and fish, at hte same time there are 2 massive stores reminiscent of WalMart. In fact one is dubbed G-Mart. Here are some pics as it is the best way to explain:
But the people are wonderfully friendly and truly beautiful.
This old lady was selling sweets and juice on a street corner. She had such a beautiful face and acted all shy when, after buying a few sweets, I asked if I could take a photo indicating I thought she was beautiful. You wish you could sit down and hear all about their life.
I went back to the hostel and on the way saw something in the water. At first I thought it was a large snake, then a crocodile, then I was certain it was a crocodile. After taking a photo and zooming in I realised it was a huge, freaking monitor lizard. That would surely give you a heart attack if it came swimming towards you. It must have been almost 2m long.
After a nice afternoon nap while listening to the rain, I headed back to town for lunch at a place called Scuba Junkies. I wavered between the pizza and the steak but on my waiters encouragement I went with the steak. I truly hate sitting alone at a restaurant, unless I have a book or a computer, something to do. A lone guy sat across from me at the next table and after about 10min of trying to build my courage to talk to a stranger I blurted out “have you been diving Sipidan?”. His eyes lit up and he said yeah and it was amazing. I asked if I could join and soon we were deep in discussion about diving and what it was like. My steak arrived and it was heaven on a plate. Perfectly medium and with the nice little crunch on the skin….mmmmmmmm steak!!!!!
He was from Scotland but lived in Bangladesh where his family ran a clothing factory. How random is that?? I told him I had a 10hr layover in Dhaka and asked advice. What is the likelihood of meeting a Scotsman, living in Bangladesh, having dinner in Semporna. Unfortunately he wasn’t due back for another week otherwise he would have come to pick me up at the airport. What a bummer! But still, you kind of want to break out in song…It’s a small world afterall…..
New Friends and the… RIG!
I was awake early and had a 2hr wait till my pickup for the boat ride to the rig. I hung out at the hostel and had my free toast and coffee breakfast and finally the time came. I was sooooo excited. We drove to the office so I could sign my life away and pay the balance. As I walked in I saw a rather dashing young man, and we immediately started talking. Martin is a lawyer, 40 (although hard to believe) from the UK living in Australia, who has quit his job to travel for over a year and plans to study social work. He was super pumped about the rig as he had just walked in and asked about it and found himself set for 3 days 2 nights, same as me. We also met Dave and Urs who would be there the same time. Dave would be staying 5 days. It was then that the Fearsome Foursome was formed. We all got on ridiculously well. Martin from UK/AUS, Dave from USA, Urs from Austria (I think) now in Australia and me from SA/USA. What a mottled crew and perfect at the same time.
We loaded into the boat and headed out to sea. An hour long boat ride past villages and island and a community of sea gypsies. Sea Gypsies are people from the Philippines who left at some point to go fishing and the like. When they tried to return they had no documents and were refused entry. Now they live on the ocean or islands along the border of Malaysia and the Philippines.
Finally, the RIG appeared on the horizon, and what a sight it was. None of us could believe we would be staying on that beast. Technically it hadn’t been used for oil but rather as a repair station for ships at sea. When a partnership, to build a luxury resort on Mabul Island, between 2 millionaires broke up the one built the resort the other brought the rig to Mabul bay and placed it right in front of the resorts view.
We took the “sea-lavator” from the boat up to the rig platform and were greeted by the staff with juice.
Then we had our introduction, signed away our lives again and were introduced to the dive master, Jon. He gave us a run down of our check dive and then it was off to our rooms to get changed and ready for dive one. As it was low season we were lucky enough to have our own rooms.
One of my biggest fears, especially after a couple of years without diving, is putting my gear together wrong. I had hoped they would simply set it up and place it on your back. But no, Jon pointed at my gear and said we leave in 10min. Racking my brain I remembered which way to attach the regulator and such and finally had everything set, including trying to work out how much weight I needed.
This was tricky as I usually dive in cold water with a thick wet suit using pounds and now I was in warm tropical water, my first time, in a short thin suit using kilograms. But after some math, never a favorite task, we figured out about what I needed.
Eventually we were all loaded and on the sea-lavator heading straight down into the ocean and the house reef below the rig. I have to say its downright awesome to just say “going down” and next minute you are knee deep in the warm tropical ocean.
The dive was spectacular with tons of amazing fish and nudibranchs and such. Unfortunately it was the start of some serious mask issues. Due to the smallness of my face and the only style of mask I had serious leakage problems and spent most of the dive trying to clear my mask.
But on the upside the water was 28C, that’s 10 degrees warmer than my warmest dive so I was in heaven.
After an amazing dive, we headed up on the sea-lavator and had some lunch. Then after some mask discussions we tried a different one to see if we had luck there and headed down again to the boat for a dive near Mabul Island, just a 2min ride away.
Mabul Island House Reef
I had also requested a smaller tank and bcd as I kept nearly floating out of the bcd and the tank kept clonking me in the head. The dive was great but again I was miserable for the most part as this mask was even worse. But we saw amazing things, 2 broadclub cuttlefish and so many turtles that were gargantuan in size.
I sucked my air as the mask made life difficult and so had to surface early with Urs and Dave. We hung out at the surface until the boat picked us up. Or rather picked them up, the instructor told us to swim and then when I got there told the others to wait and picked them up.
One more for the heck of it
Dave chose beer-o-clock when we got back but Urs, Martin and I went for one more late dive. And this time one of the dive instructors offered me his mask to see if it worked better. It didn’t work perfectly but it was a little better. We had decided to leave too late so it got pretty dark down there at one point. But still a great day of diving.
That evening we eagerly awaited the list for who was going to Sipidan Island, the place to be when you are in the area.
Finally the list was revealed and everyone, except for Martin, had got a pass. He was rather unhappy about this but he was on the list for diving at some of the other islands.
So tomorrow morning at 5.30am the alarm will go off. Dave has an extra mask and so I will give that one a try and pray that I have better luck. Day 1 has been incredible, the food fantastic and the staff awesome. Can’t wait for day 2.