The ride from Tawau was only a few hours long. The whole way, the roadside scenery featured oil palms after oil palms. Quite a sad realization, but the whole of Borneo has proven to be similar thus far. People are making millions with the plantations, regardless of the loss of animal natural habitat and the environmental consequences of fertilizer abuse and monoculture.
As the bus pulled into Semporna, I again felt like this was a different world. This sea side town, famous for being the port to Sipadan that holds one of the best dive spots in the world, was filthy, with begging children and old ladies all around. We held our packs close and started walking towards Scuba Junkie, who have a dive company, lodge and restaurant, and had been recommended as one of the best operators in town. We had not bothered checking where it actually was though, so we followed locals’ directions, until we spotted a white person and started following him: Indeed he took us where we needed to go. We signed up for a dive trip for the following day, and crossed the street to get settled at the hostel. We took two spots in a 10 bed dorm room, only 3 beds apart from ours in use. The room had AC, so it was really nice to lay down for a while and cool down. Once the sun came down, we set out to explore the town and find some food. Soon we discovered that although the pub next door looked cosy and had some wonderful sounding western food on the menu, it was well beyond our price range. We instead opted for a place that looked very popular among the locals, and had some fried noodles, soup and roti. Roti means bread, but the way they make it in restaurants is very thin and with your chosen filling. Similar to an Indian naan bread, yet thinner. It mostly comes with daal to dip it in. The food was great and we happily strolled back to our bunk beds and called it a day.
The alarm on my phone went off at 7am the next morning, disturbing sweet, cold dreams. The whole dorm room was also getting up and ready for going out into the ocean, most of them packing all their stuff as they would spend that night at Mabul, the island we had chosen to dive around. We walked back to the same place we had eaten at the night before, to enjoy Roti Telur for breakfast. We then reported to the Scuba Junkie HQ, grabbed our gear and hopped into the boat. The sun was getting stronger but it was not unbearable, specially with the gentle sea breeze. From the water, Semporna looked like a very picturesque sea side town, with all the colourful houses built over the water, and the fishing boats buzzing in and out. We passed a few green islands on the way out, big and small. The lucky ones still had some of the original rain forest, while others had succumbed to the palm oil reign.
When Mabul came in sight, we realized this was what paradise must look like. White sand beaches crowned with forest, and fancy accommodation built right on top of the water, mostly out of wood. We were guided to Scuba Junkie’s lodge there, where tea and coffee where waiting. Again, the eating/pub area was beautifully constructed out of dark wood, and stood proud and tall among the matching cabins for the guests. We soon understood why so many people stay here and why it was so expensive to begin with. We promised to ourselves, that next time we come this way, it would be on a proper holiday and we would make it further to Sipadan and stay in this heavenly place. I also thought of my friend Shalsee, how she would absolutely love this place, and lay like a lizard in the sun the whole day, moving only to play some volleyball and go in the water to cool down (the sun was ridiculously hot!)
For our first dive, we were taken a short way away from Mabul, to a place called Eel Garden. The coral was quite marvelous, and a wide variety of fish received us. Faithful to its name, we saw a bunch of eels of all sizes and colours, including one swimming (which is normally hard to spot). The startling discoveries for me were: a rather curious fish with a blue tale that resembled a magnet, a half friendly, half frightened looking puffer fish, some underwater trees, a camouflaged poisonous fish (whose species I can’t recall), a spotted eagle ray (that did not like me getting close to get a good picture at all and showed me its dangerous tail) and of course, Nemo (no matter how many times I see clown fish, I always get super excited). We even found a big turtle, that seemed quite happy to stay still until we could get a good picture of it.
We then returned to the Lodge for some cake and a cup of tea (Tim must have had at least 8 portions of this spongy chocolate cake), after which we went to the beach to try out the comfy chairs. Being out in the sun was painful, but I endured it long enough for Tim to take some pictures so our friends suffering from winter could get a taste of this tropical paradise. After about an hour all up, we headed back onto the boat towards Lobster Wall. I had not had a chance to dive next to an underwater coral wall before, and I realised it is hard to gauge how deep you are, as it all looks similar, specially when your depth meter is broken… The dive was also pretty cool. The highlights were a giant morray eel, a fish with a almost perfect blue square on its side, more Nemos hiding in anemone’s as soon as we approached, something like a stone fish (man, I really need to learn the name of these guys), a small shark and a yellow fish that got VERY personal :$
Lunch was ready when we returned. All food server was excellent, and there was plenty for us to have seconds. Unfortunately, my right ear started hurting quite badly sometime after coming out of the water and even though I tried my best to equalize so I could enjoy the third dive, I could not do it without the pain being almost unbearable, so I decided to call it quits before causing some permanent damage to my ear. Instead I stayed on the boat while Tim explored the artificial coral close to Mabel, snapping pictures of the luxurious accommodation around me.
That night we bought some hamburgers from a street cart and walked around as the sun was coming down. We snapped some pictures of a blue mosque that features Christmas lights, and returned to the hostel the long way around. We enquired about bus tickets, getting ready for our trip to Sepilok – Mile 14.