Saturday, August 12, 2006


After having a quick look around a market, and getting laughed at with some incredulityby the traders, we collected our laundry and walked back to the bus area. We were quickly on a minibus headed to Semporna along with a full compliment of fellow passengers and a vast amount of luggage stacked everywhere. Unfortunately, I have to repeat myself and say again; more Oil Palm plantations along the road. Semporna is only 2 hours away from Tawau which was a blessing as the bus was not the most comfortable I've ever been on. We arrived and checked in to the nearest place we saw for a couple of nights, Lee's Rest House, because it looked clean. We were very pleasantly surprised to find the cheapest room rate we'd had so far in Sabah.

The reason we, and everyone else, had come to Sabah is for one of the worlds top diving/snorkelling spots, Pulau Sipidan. Our guidebook, despite being published only 2 years ago was proving itself to be quite out of date in regard to Sabah. Not only for costs which you expect to go up slightly, although some things have quadrupled in cost since it was written. You used to be able to stay on Sipidan, booking a package with one of several dive operators. In a laudible attempt to preserve the environment of the island, the government ordered the dive shops off the island and restrict visits. Each of the dive operators has a set allocation of permits per day to visit the island. Unfortunately in building some facilities on the island a barge carrying construction materials crashed into and destroyed a large section of the island's fringing reef. Everything we'd read said that Sipidan is the place to go, even for snorkellers who are likely to see sharks, turtles, amazing coral and much more. Unfortunately for us, as seems to be the case in Sabah, you can't just turn up and expect to do stuff. We have learned that preplanning is key to fitting everything in in Sabah. Because of the permit limit we weren't able to book to go to Sipidan without a wait in Semporna, something we didn't really want to do.

Instead we booked on a snorkelling tour with Scuba Junkies to one of the other islands nearby. We chose Scuba Junkies as they were a lot cheaper than the outfit next door and we had a good long chat with a guy doing his Dive Master qualification there. He assured us that the snorkelling on some of the other islands was great. In the morning we turned up at the dive shop, collected our gear and joined the boat. At this point we didn't have a clue what the itinerary was, how many islands we might visit or anything. After an enjoyable ride past a couple of different islands the boat drove up onto the beach of a small island (Mantabuan I believe) and we were told, 'Snorkellers, out you get.' We did, as did a French couple, at which point the boat slammed into reverse and rushed off toward the reef. On the island a little way down the beach we could see a small Sea Gypsy village and their boats, as well as some structures set back off the beach and shored up with sandbags and barbed wire. We worked out where the nearest reef was and, following the French couple, swam out to it. I was enjoying skirting the sides of the reef as the water above it looked to be quite shallow, there were many starfish in the sand leading up to the reef as well as a hole where loads of tiny Anenomefish (Nemos) were clustered around a Coke can. At the reef itself I saw a small Octopus and was trying to get a photo when Gemma pushed and prodded me to look at a starfish. I was a bit grumpy because when I pushed myself back into position against the current the Octopus had gone. We didn't stay in very long and had the sense that the tide was retreating. Ever since an incident in Mauritius when Gemma managed to get stuck on a rock ledge covered in spiny black Urchins she has been a bit scared of getting too close to the reef. The French couple didn't stay in too much longer than us.

We spent the next few hours alternately sitting on the beach near where we'd been dropped off and walking round the island. The tide retreated quite far and in the shallows we watched tiny crabs running around when our shadow dropped over them. Our periods of sitting on the beach were punctuated by visits from soldiers from the small military post behind us. This explained the sandbags and barbed wire. Many said, 'Hello!' and I think most had their pictures taken with us. I have a feeling it was Gemma's photo they wanted most. It didn't, to me, seem to be the worlds worst military posting, a small tropical island where as far as I could see their main duty was singing really bad Karaoke. We chatted to one of the soldiers quite a lot and he explained that they are stationed their for 3 months at a time and he really enjoys it. We were very grateful when he pointed out a shade structure round the corner. We were watching the dive boat all of this time wondering exactly what was going on. There was no way they could land again with the tide being so far out and I was becoming concerned, primarily because our lunches were onboard.

The boat did manage to come through a very small channel and land on the other side of the island. They had also had difficulties with the low tide in the area that they had been diving. As I ravaged my noodles one of the dive masters mentioned that we should've gone snorkelling on this side of the island and said they'd been waving at us from the boat. I sat slightly fuming and wondering why they didn't just point that out when they'd dropped us off. He said that the boat would take us to a good snorkelling point while the last dive was going on. After lunch and once the divers were in position we were dropped off by the boats driver at the spot. Gemma was much happier here because of the depth of the water, she was well out of touching distance of the coral. I enjoyed a slow float over corals looking at the fish. The visibility was good but the water quite cold and I began to get a little cramp in my foot and so swam back to the boat. We were jealous when the French couple came back aboard later saying that they had seen a really big Turtle.

After showering we went back down to the waterfront area for food. Gemma tried to cancel what she had ordered and get something else saying, 'Sorry to be a pain, but I think, can I get the Peppered Fish'. The waitress understood, 'Peppered Fish', which led to 3 meals being brought to us. I couldn't be bothered to try and explain the error so we ate all 3 meals. And didn't bother with the cakes that we'd picked up in a local cake house earlier. One thing you can say about the residents of Sabah is that they like a good cake. Each town we've been to has several cake shops.

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