Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Island Life

on April 21, 2013

After spending about a week catching up with family in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, chilling out and eating lots more good food, I made my way to the Perhentians- a pair of islands off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. I had heard amazing things about the place, but had never made it as I always seemed to be in the country at the wrong time of year (the islands shut down completely during the wet season and you can’t get transport there). They just opened back up around March, so I was in luck!

perhentian-islands-map

I caught a night bus north-east from Ipoh with only about 8 other locals. It was very comfy- most of the night buses here are better than aeroplanes with nice wide seats that recline all the way back and a footrest. Compared to the last night bus I caught from Miri to Sibu, this was a dream. Last time I forgot to pack my hoodie, so was freezing cold despite my sarong ‘blanket’; the seats didn’t recline; the bus was full so I was sitting next to a big guy trying not to knock him as I struggled to find a position compatible with sleep; and the bus stopped what seemed like every hour, the driver would turn on all the lights and when he was ready to go again, gave the horn a good solid thumping to really make sure there was no way you could stay sleeping. This time I had come prepared for the chilly climate, and despite many sections of the road seeming to be made entirely of those corrugated bits that are usually only on the sides of freeways in Australia (with the accompanying jarring shudders and thunderous noise), I managed to get a few hours of sleep.

At about 5.30am I arrived in Kuala Besut- the small mainland town which is the jumping off point for boats to the Perhentians. There was a travel agent lady waiting at the bus stop, and me being the only traveller out of the 2 of us who remained on the bus til this final stop, she pounced on me and asked if I was going to the islands. I said ‘yes’, and she said ‘follow me’, and led me down a dark road to her shop and sold me my boat ticket for the standard price.  I had a bit of time to kill so went back to the one coffee shop which was open and had some kaya (a sweet coconut spread) on toast and a kopi (the local coffee made with sweetened condensed milk). Eventually I went down to wait at the jetty with a growing crowd of backpackers and holidaying locals and at 7am we got on the boats.

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The boats to the islands are medium sized motor boats- there were probably about 10 people on mine with the packs all piled at the front. The journey was bumpy as we went flying over the waves with occasional stomach-dropping lurches off the top of swells and you could see everyone’s luggage jumping around. It was a little nerve-wracking and thoughts of What would I do if this boat capsizes? Should I try to hang onto the boat or jump out of it? I wonder if I could save my handbag? did start to drift through my head as we went along… But I tried to put those thoughts out of my head, held on to the wooden bench I was sitting on with a vice-like grip, and leaned towards the middle of the boat hoping for the best. It was a relief to see the land approaching, and we made it with no problems.

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There are two Perhentian Islands, very inventively named Pulau Perhentian Besar (Big Perhentian Island) and Pulau Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian Island). I decided to stay on the small island, which is a bit cheaper- the big island apparently has more snazzy resorts than budget-friendly backpacker rooms. On the small island there are two main beaches- Coral Bay which is the smaller and quieter beach, and Long Beach, which is where most of the nightlife is. There are no roads on the island, but the two beaches are linked by a footpath- it only takes about 10 minutes to walk between the two sides, but the path goes over a hill which is a bit of a killer in the heat of the day or with a full pack on!

Coral Bay

I got off at the first stop, Coral Bay, as I had read good reviews for rooms within my price range at Ewan’s Place. I had emailed Ewan with no response about a week before I arrived trying to book, as I’d heard he was often full. Then I called about 3 days before I arrived and asked if he had availability, but he said he wasn’t sure yet! So I asked if he could write my name down just in case he had something available when I got in which he said he would. Anyway, I hiked up the start of the hill from the jetty, found Ewan’s place. Ewan wasn’t in but they said they had no rooms anyway. The next place I came across was Tropicana Inn which was also in my price range. As I came into reception asking if they had any rooms available, a girl was checking out and so he said, ‘ok, you can have this room’. How convenient! The girl recommended it, she told me the room was clean and had a double bed, fan, mozzie net and its own bathroom, so I said I’d take it. I wasn’t sure how much luck I’d have down on Long Beach or if there were cheaper options there either. Not to mention dragging the pack around is not so fun and it was already super-hot and I was tired, so I just wanted a shower and a nap ASAP!

The path to Tropicana

The room was fine, it was nice to have my own space and a fan all to myself- I don’t think I’d have slept well in a dorm, it would’ve been hot, stinky and stuffy! The only thing that worried me was the sign on the back of the door declaring that the hostel “shall not be liable in any way for any losses injuries or death howsoever caused in the event of my stay”, but I didn’t dwell on how one could die in this room… I ended up going back to Ewan’s café for lunch after freshening up, and Ewan was in. He said ‘Are you Amanda? They told me you came looking for a room earlier…’ and then when I replied yes, he told all the staff ‘That’s Amanda! She called the other day!’ and from then on, all the kitchen and wait staff in the restaurant greeted me by name, they would write ‘Table 14 (Amanda)’ on my bills and always waved a big goodbye and shouted to come again, so friendly! Ewan treated all the customers so well, his place was always packed. The food was good too, and he also had pretty much the only working wifi on the island!

Approaching Long Beach

I spent the rest of my first day lazing on the beach with a book in coral bay, trying to get over a cold I’d picked up so I could go diving. There is not a lot of action on the island during the day, it’s the kind of place where you can have one thing on your ‘to do’ list for the day and not get around to it.

Chillaxin Boats in Coral Bay

My most pressing decisions were whether to lie on my front or my back, whether I should go for a dip in the water or if I should get up and go buy a fruit shake.  Ahhhh, it’s a tough life… I stayed and watched the stunning sun set and then had a romantical dinner for one on the beach- BBQ Kingfish, yum!

Sunset at Coral Bay BBQ Kingfish Set... Just $5!

I woke up early the next morning (this tended to coincide with when the electricity shut off around 6-7am) and I tried to doze for a while longer, but it got too hot without the fan! I had planned to go to the big island that morning and hike a trail that a family from Vancouver who I met in Mulu recommended I do before sorting out my diving in the afternoon but I ran into a girl I’d met in Kuching at breakfast and got chatting, and by the time I left it was already midday and roasting, so I thought I’d enquire about the dives first. I was thinking I’d just do some fun dives, but I got convinced to do my Advanced Open Water since I had a few days. It turned out I could join another guy, Dan, doing his Navigation dive that afternoon and complete my course with him and our instructor Harun. For the advanced course you have to do a deep dive (to 30m) and a navigation dive, then choose 3 other elective adventure dives from a whole range. Dan had already done his deep dive and I had done mine a while back in Thailand- they said it was still valid so I ran with that!

I had about an hour and half to read my nav chapter before the dive, so got some lunch and read at the café (the rooms are too dark and stuffy to read without electricity during the day!). We had to learn some compass skills to do some pretty simple out-and-back and square dive patterns, so looking like knobs practiced them on the beach first with steps instead of fin kicks, then got out to do them on the sandy floor of the bay. After we’d both completed our skills, we got to swim over a beautiful reef on the way back to the boat. We saw a massive crown-of-thorns starfish, found nemo (western clownfish) and my fave little longfin bannerfish (I’m going to use the help of google images to show you all these fish as it was too deep to take my camera!).

CrownThorns  Longfin-Bannerfish

After the dive, I went to freshen up and then met Dan and a group of his friends back at this giant flagpole on the beach- their 7pm meeting spot for dinner each night. We had some dinner and a couple of beers then headed down to the main bar on Long Beach, Blacktip, for a couple more beers… Blacktip is your typical island beach bar with tables less than a foot high, mats on the sand, free shots, candles, tiki torches and fire-twirling. Drinking with my dive buddy Dan (who is a well-trained Pom) was tricky. He would say ‘One more and then we’ll call it a night’ and I’d say ‘But that’s what you said after the last one!’ and he’d be like ‘Buddyyyyyyy!’ with a disappointed look and I’d get another drink. Simple as that, I’m very susceptible to peer pressure (as most of you probably know)! Anyway, we had a good night and I managed to get myself home at a reasonable hour in a reasonable state to finish reading my chapter for our wreck dive the following morning!

BlackTip

When I woke it was raining, I was feeling pretty good though. I headed down to Turtle Bay Divers and we completed our knowledge review and dive briefing for Sugar Wreck. It was a cargo boat carrying sugar (in case you hadn’t figured that) which sank in December, 2000. It sounded really awesome, there are cargo rooms big enough to swim around in and it’s had time for the reef to develop and become home to many fish. We had another guy Steve join us for a fun dive. Harun said we’d try to go to Sugar Wreck as planned, but this site is one of the furthest away-  between the islands and the mainland (still relatively close at only 20 minutes on the boat) and if the boat driver didn’t have good enough visibility because of the weather it would be unsafe.

Long Beach in the rain The jungle trail in the rain

We headed out on the boat in the rain, which spiked our faces and hurt our eyes so we all put on our masks, which made us look dicky but worked really well. Unfortunately you couldn’t see anything once we got out of the bay, so we had to go to another wreck nearby called Police Wreck, which was 3 police boats deliberately sunk in 2012, so not as old or exciting. The visibility for this dive was the worst of any dive I’ve ever done! Ranging from 3 metres at best with an average of 1-2 metres, when Harun was right in front of me, I could only see the tip of his fins, no legs or anything! We did see a couple of cool things- a Bat fish, a porcupine fish and lots of baby barracuda.

batfish  Fish-Porcupine

Afterwards I signed up for a fun dive at Sugar Wreck the following afternoon (I had gotten really excited about it with the briefing and was still keen to see it!), grabbed some brekky, but didn’t do much that afternoon, just sat at Ewan’s and caught up on some emails- there is actually very little to do on the island when it’s raining! We were meant to do our night dive that evening, but when I showed up at 6.30 it had been cancelled because the surge and current was too strong… I had really been looking forward to it, but safety first I guess. Dan changed to do his last dive as a drift dive with me the next morning, and I still had one more dive to make up, so Harun said we could use Sugar Wreck as my Fish Identification dive, so I had my fingers crossed the weather would pick up and I could finish my course before Friday- I couldn’t dive on my last day because I would be flying that night.

As usual, we met at the flag at 7pm and then went for dinner and to Blacktip again. This time Dan and I decided to drink spirits as it was cheaper than beer, so thought we would share a small bottle of the local rum ‘Monkey Juice’. It was quite sweet and tasted quite good mixed… which was not a good thing as we got through the bottle quite quickly and had no hesitation going for a second! Excitingly around this time, we heard news of a sea turtle laying eggs down the beach, and got to see her burying them before shuffling back out to sea- awesome!

Mummy sea turtle!

Anyway, after the second bottle of monkey juice, I wasn’t feeling any effects, and Dan suggested we get a third… ‘I will if you will buddy!’ so we went for number 3… after this, I’m not quite sure how we ended up getting a fourth bottle (I blame Dan) but everyone was getting loose on the d-floor and it was a lot of fun! All of a sudden I felt pretty drunk and decided I’d better head home before the morning dive. This time it was not such a reasonable hour!

Monkey Juice (before)  Monkey juice...

I woke up in a world of pain, but finished my drift dive chapter and made my way down to the dive school eating an orange for breakfast. Dan looked remarkably spritely and laughed when he saw me. It was raining again, but we could still go out to our site, Seahorse Drift. The idea of drift diving is that in an area with a strong current, instead of swimming against it, you can just drift along with it in one direction. The boat then follows you so you can just come up when you’re low on air or your no-decompression limit is up.

Unfortunately at Seahorse drift that day, we saw no seahorses and there was very little drift, so we just basically swam over the sandy bottom and didn’t get to the coral garden quick enough without the current- apparently we just hit the start of it when our no-deco time was up so had to ascend. My log book entry was short and sweet- “Saw: flounder, cleaner shrimp, tube worm”.

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Back up on the surface I sadly could feel my hangover again. I think you are immune underwater; too bad I couldn’t spend more time down there! Dan and I grabbed a quick brekky before he had to get the boat, but I could only manage half a slice of roti (if you know my appetite, that will tell you how off I was feeling!). I said goodbye to my buddy Dan, and went for a quick powernap and finished my reading for my last dive, fish ID.

That afternoon we got to Sugar Wreck despite a bit of rain and choppy sea. I got off the boat ASAP as the chop was making me feel ill and down we went to the hangover free underwater world! The wreck was awesome, vis wasn’t amazing because of the conditions, but we saw loads of cool fish- lionfish, scorpionfish, box fish, porcupine fish, puffer fish, a little bamboo shark, it was great! Unfortunately I had to go back to the choppy surface eventually and got quite seasick, having to visit the edge of the boat whilst waiting for some other divers to surface :-/ quite the classy lady…

bamboo-shark lionfish

Well with those two dives finished I was qualified! Hooray! I went to have a siesta in my dark room to celebrate. By the time I woke I was feeling kind of hungry (sign of the road out of hangoverville!) and it was almost time to meet at the flagpole with the other two of us who were left, Mathias from Finland and Markus from Germany. We got dinner at Ewan’s, and chatting about plans I decided I’d catch the boat back at 12pm with the guys rather than catch the 4pm by myself. The weather was still showing little sign of improvement so instead of sit on my own inside in the rain on the island all day, I might as well make a move and have some company on the way to Kota Bharu.

We had an early, monkey-juice-free night and in the morning I headed to Long Beach to meet them again. The sea was more choppy than it had been the whole week, and the locals on the beach said I had to walk all the way to the jetty at the end of the beach as the taxi boats couldn’t get to the shore because of the waves. I hauled my pack over there, and saw Matti and Markus waving jovially then  miming to me to swim over to the boat which bobbing up and down a little way out! I waited for the taxi boat, which even though it is smaller than the boats that go to Kuala Besut, still struggled to pull in to the jetty with the incessant waves.

Taxi boat at the jetty

When it finally got in and unloaded its passengers, I stepped in tentatively with my pack, willing my balance to hold up for me on this occasion otherwise seeing myself sinking like a stone, a big turtle on its back dragged under the waves by its heavy shell! Other passengers followed suit, with the boat teetering ominously side to side, and the driver at times screaming frantically in malay as an occasional wave spilled or threatened to spill into the boat. I was quite concerned about the amount of people and bags that were loaded in, but suddenly we were on the move and I watched my glorious big boat loom closer and closer. Finally we pulled up alongside it, I passed my luggage over and then climbed in, breathing a small sigh of relief that the first terrifying part of the journey back to the mainland was complete!

Mandy Mathias and Markus

On the big boat it was a waiting game as 12pm passed and still we waited for the taxi boats to ferry more and more passengers onto our boat meant for “12 passenger only”…

12 passengers...

By the time we got moving and had picked up passengers at 2 more spots it was almost 1pm and our numbers had grown to 20 passengers! From there it was another nail-biting half hour (well it would have been if I had the courage to release my grip from the seat) tearing over the surge in the rain to Kuala Besut.

Full house!

I tell you I have never been so happy to set foot on land in my life! My whole body was sore from being tensed for impending doom the entire trip, but once more my worrying was unnecessary as we safely grabbed our packs at the jetty and waltzed into the throng of taxi drivers to battle the next leg of the journey to Kota Bharu, and on to the airport.

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One response to “Island Life

  1. Keith Hill says:

    The exciting adventures continue, Mandy! Great that you got the diving you wanted in, eventually. Hope the next leg is a bit quieter and better weather. Love, dad and mum

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