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Saturday 3 Aug 2013
Mabul, Malaysia

Under the sea again

I chose to cut out two local buses by catching a taxi to the main bus terminal in the morning, where I was just in time to buy a coach ticket and line up to stick my backpack under the bus.  I chatted to a couple of American girls, Dani and Na, while we queued, but they were sitting further back on the coach.  I was glad to be near the front, given how bumpy the roads were, but I ended up seated next to a huge guy who kept squashing me with his arm whenever he fell asleep.  Luckily, I had my audiobooks to keep me going through the 9-hour journey, although I fell asleep and had to rewind chapters a few times. 

We finally reached Semporna and were dropped off in a gravel car park on the edge of town.  I accompanied Dani and Na as I had nothing else booked, but was beginning to regret it after half an hour carrying my backpack.  After a long walk, we finally found the hostel they had booked in to, then went out for a curry.  We picked up a stray German and an Australian on the way and played cards for a couple of hours after dinner.  Dani and Na are both teachers in Korea.  It’s not somewhere I’d planned to visit, but the more time I spent with them, the more intriguing it sounded.  Na’s family is Vietnamese Chinese (though she was born in America) and we had a good chat about Vietnam and especially the food, as her Mum runs a Vietnamese restaurant in Reno.

Uncle Chang’s office was just around the corner from Global Backpackers, so I asked if they had room for me for three days of diving, as Dani and Na had already booked with them – they even had Sipadan passes, lucky things! 

The boat ride out to Mabul the next morning took about 45 minutes.  Mabul is a small island, extended to at least twice its size by an elaborate system of boardwalks and houses on stilts, which includes Uncle Chang’s dive resort.  The central building is a huge covered dining area with a deck out the front.  Off one side, there is a line of individual huts connected by a long thin boardwalk, while the other side leads to the 4-bed dorm rooms.  I was in the end dorm, with an outside balcony to reach the bathroom.

We arrived in time for breakfast, then got kitted out with dive gear and went off for the first dive.  Na was here to do her PADI Open Water certificate, having never dived before, while Dani was an experienced diver but wanted to get her Advanced certificate signed off.  As a result, we all dived separately on the first day.  I was diving with a DM named Santi, who knew one of the instructors at Lutwala.

My first dive was underneath Seaventure, a former oil rig converted to a dive resort.  Guests staying there got free diving below the rig but paid to dive any other sites.  It was a bit darker below the rig, but the visibility was still clear.  An assortment of things had been positioned on the sand to create an artificial reef, including rope cages, small boats and even a porcelain toilet.  There was a surprising amount of marine life around the sandy bed, including a few new creatures I’d never seen before, like the crocodile fish (which looks exactly like the name suggests).

The second dive was at Kapalai, a luxury resort of wooden cabins linked along boardwalks.  This was another artificial reef, this time created to look like a submerged village.  There were around 20 house frames with ropes woven loosely around them, positioned far enough apart to allow divers to swim along the ‘streets’ or glide over the rooftops.  The frames have been there long enough for coral, shellfish and plantlife to begin growing on the ropes.  Brilliant!

There was also a shipwreck nearby, but we didn’t get to see much of it as it was being defended by a rather territorial barracuda, who had far too many teeth for me to argue with.

The last dive was a drift dive at Paradise 2, following a wall of coral reef and spotting moray eels, bright blue nudibranches, tiny cleaner shrimp and even a brightly coloured mantis shrimp.  An excellent first day under the water – this really helped me shift the lethargy of Kota Kinabalu and convince me that leaving Vietnam had been the right decision after all.

I spent the evening sitting out on the deck, first with Dani and swapping photos with Hendrik, a German guy in my dive group today, then joined by an assorted group of Malaysians, Brits and Americans.  The sun went down in a beautiful display (I’m still not bored of watching the sun set over foreign seas) while Boy Jay, one of the DMs, played his guitar.  He was joined by another DM playing the bongos and before we realised it, we’d been sitting there for almost five hours, singing every song we could think of and many more that Boy Jay just started playing until someone caught on.  Anything he didn’t know, he could pick up by just listening to a few bars on someone’s phone.  We got through an unconfirmed number of bottles of local rum (paint-stripper strength, I avoid it after the first tentative sip) and Sprite, which only seemed to help the musicality of the evening!  I must apologise to everyone else being tortured by our impromptu jamming session, especially for the awful top-of-our-lungs rendition of Areosmith’s ‘I don’t wanna miss a thing’, complete with Steven Tyler-esque screeches in the right places, but this evening definitely ranks in the Top 10 of my trip.

I woke up in the night to find a storm battering the island.  As I was in the end dorm, there was nothing but a thin wooden wall between me and the fierce winds that were threatening to rip the roof off.  Worse still, the wind raced underneath the building too, so it felt like being shaken from all sides.  I’ve never experienced anything quite like it – I can only imagine what a hurricane or tornado must be like!  The thunder crashed overhead and the rain hammered on the roof, but somehow the building stayed standing and, amazingly, didn’t leak.  I usually love storms, but this one actually made me a bit nervous.  

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