Sent: Monday, April 1, 2002 6:42 AM
The persistent beep-beep-beep of an alarm clock insists on fighting its' way through the thick fluffy clouds of sleep that surround my senses until my eyes open to find the bedroom at the Arung Hyatt Resort in Semporna filled with the scraggy half light of a day that is still sleepily getting its' act together. Is there anything worse than being woken at 6am by someone else's alarm? Our alarm is set for 6.15am so we can only direct the ire of 15 minutes lost sleep at our next door neighbours who we guess will be joining us on the dive boat out to Sipadan. We lie side by side listening to our neighbours getting up and for some reason Sausage, in reply to my question 'I wonder what they're like?' says 'He's tall with an athletic body.' A subject we shall return to later on.
The previous day we had visited lots of dive operators strung out along the wharf in Semporna to see what deals might be available for diviing at Sipadan. Several people had told us to go and see Uncle Chang at Borneo Divers, so we did, only to find a man so utterly wrapped up in his own self-promotion that we only just managed to get out of his office without chucking up. This guy has a handshake that is like having your hand stroked with a recently deceased squid and a patter that contains lots of promises about how special we are and how secret our superb deal must be from other visitors, all delivered in the flat, quick patter of a tour guide describing Buckingham Palace for the twelfth time that day. And his price isn't that competitive either. We eventually decide to go with the dive operation recommended by Chris Perez back in the jungle who will deliver 2 nights on Mabul, a neighbouring island to Sipadan, and 6 boat dives for me for 500MR (£92), while Sausage gets to snorkel off the boat for (£37).
From the description in our guidebook we had expected Semporna to be a sleepy one horse town with a jetty full of dive boats so we are taken aback to find a bustling market town, muslim in character and with a distinct aroma of fish. Maybe because people here are used to seeing their women swaddled in loose clothes Sausage faces the worst onslaught of men staring at her chest since we left home. The staring is neither subtle nor pleasant and is hard to fathom in a place that sees a lot of Westerners passing through.
Sipadan shares with Aceh in Sumatra the dubious privelege of being on the Foreign Office's list of places NOT to visit, though for a different reason. Borneo sits below the Southern end of the Phillipines and two years ago some visitors to Sipadan were kidnapped by Phillipino gangsters, something that caused the Malaysian govenrment to permanently station lots of additional security in the area and in the absence of any further problems we decide to risk to wrath of Jack Straw and go.
Over breakfast in the Arung Hyatt Resort (a rambling, run down old house for whom the word Resort could not be more inappropriate if it tried) we meet Teppo and Sirpa from Finland and then we set off to the dive boat, not in the minibus parked on the forecourt of the 'Resort,' which we have to walk past before cramming 5 of us (including our divemaster), plus all our diving kit, and luggage plus the driver into an old Nissan saloon. I am convinced that Norris McWhirter/Roy Castle/Cheryl from Bucks Fizz will appear at any second to film us for Recordbreakers.
Semporna looks like a town that has been pushed from behind so that a bit of it has edged out into the sea where it stands on stilts, smelling slightly fishy. But the smell soon disappears as we push out into the open water and the small diveboat climbs up and slams down on to successive waves. One reason for the cheap price of our trip is that instead of staying on Sipadan in 4* comfort we are staying on Mabul in a 'Homestay,' which turns out to have been built by the same team of plywood experts rersponsible for all the hotels in the mountains of Nepal. This time they have built us a shack on stilts above the water which is comfy enough but wobbles whenever anyone walks around. The toilet features the usual flushing sounds followed by a two second silence and then a loud SPLOSH! as the doo-doo hits the ocean below.
The diving at Sipadan is fantastic. For our first dive/snorkel we go into the water just 30 metres off the island where the reef ends in a 600m metre drop to the ocean bed. The waters are thronged with hundreds of fish, many types that we haven't seen before and I do my best to gasp into my regulator (not as easy as it sounds!) as the first of many turtles swim by. Ponderous but graceful, ranging in size up to 6 feet long and 4 feet wide, the turtles are beautiful to watch and a complete contrast to the sleek menace of the white tip reef sharks which are fairly small and not very dangerous but look like miniature replicas of their bigger, nastier first cousins.
On the first dive both Sausage and I start to have our doubts about the safety of what we are undertaking. It is usual at the end of a dive to swim up to a depth of 5m and to rest there for three minutes. I have been keeping an eye on my gauges and though my air is low, there is plenty left for the three minutes that remain. Then the air that I'm breathing starts to get thinner and thinner, something that at first I think I'm imagining, and then it stops completely. I signal to Ang the divemaster who immediately passes me his spare regulator and we both breathe his air for the remainder of the rest period before we rise slowly to the surface. It happened because the gauge has a false zero, so it looks like I have air left when in reality I don't. It is the poor state of the equipment combined with my inexperience that has caused the problem. The one good thing is that if you are going to have this type of problem then immediately after your training is probably not a bad time for it to happen, certainly I knew exactly what to do and didn't panic. Meanwhile Sausage has wrenched her arm getting into the water, because the people on the boat won't let her use the steps, but the steps do find a use, chucked overboard to scrape along the reef, acting as an anchor!
After Teppo, Ang and I had descended for our first dive Sausage and Sirpa were left on the boat. They donned their snorkels and fins and jumped in after us. No-one had asked whether they were strong swimmers, no-one had warned them it was 600m straight down. As soon as they were in the water the boat sailed away toward the diver's likely take out point leaving the two of them to their own devices in a swell of at least 1 metre. Fortunately the reprogrammed Sausage and Sirpa both coped ok, but their safe return owed precious little to the crew's actions. On the boat between dives safety is most noticeable by its' complete absence as heavy air tanks are left to roll around and all sorts of equipment lies scattered all over the small deck.
The rest of the diving and snorkeling follows a similar pattern, wonderful seascapes, fantastic sealife and dodgy safety. Teppo and Sirpa are two of the loveliest people we've met since we left home, both 23, sweethearts since they were 16 (aaaahhhhhhh!), about to set up home together for the first time, and two of the friendliest, most easy going people you could hope to meet. Oh, and did I mention, Teppo is 7feet 11inches tall. I'll just repeat that so you don't think it was a typo, Teppo is 7feet 11inches tall, a spookily accurate fulfillment of Sausage's early morning prediction. And the best thing I can say about Teppo is that his height seems unimportant when you are in his company. If you had tried to tell me that I would spend time with someone so tall and that I would hardly notice his height I'd have laughed at you, but because his physiotherapist mother has endowed him with perfect posture, and because his body is so well proportioned, and because it is such good fun to be in his company his height soon ceases to be an issue. I am proud of the fact that I restrict myself to asking only 3 of the top 10 most obvious questions to ask very tall people before we move to more interesting subjects. I may never ask for a seat with extra legroom on a plane ever again. On the morning of our third day we say good bye to Teppo and Sirpa who have another days snorkeling around Mabul and we sail back to Semporna. On the way a Coastguard plane passes overhead, a final, highly visible reminder of the prevailing security levels.
After another night at the Arung Hyatt Resort we climb onto the first of two coaches, the second of which disgorges us 12 hours later back in Kota Kinabalu, very tired and bloated from a day of snacking.
Sabah has been fantastic. In the Jungle Sanctuary and Sipadan we have found two places to which we would gladly return. Next on the cards is Sarawak, separated from Sabah by the super rich micro state of Brunei. We had planned to make the Kelabit Highlands our first stop, but we haven't worked out our timings very well and rather than rush up there and rush back we have decided to go straight to Niah National Park where huge caves await us.
Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages