Thursday, 21 February 2013

(xx) winds of change.

A Westerly wind blows to take me home. 5 airports, 4 planes, one taxi, one coach and a bus. Reality sinking in with each transfer. Island life left behind. Friendships reduced to social networks and fading memories.

The happiness of children playing in Mabul's shantytown plays in my mind. Young girls set a tin can on the floor and retreat 10 yards. They each throw a flip flop. Closest to the can wins. Young boys craft boats from polystyrene, footballs from rolled socks, kites from driftwood and waste fabric. Who needs more when you have imagination, friendship and sunshine.

The flip flops have grown comfortable. White patches scar their imprint on my feet. Soon, thick socks and heavy workboots will hide them. Flip flops discarded to the junk room.

But maybe not. For on my return the room shall become my writing space. My place to dream, to hope, to imagine. A land where driftwood flies high and flip flops are key to every game.


The trip began with Whitesnake echoing in my ears. Each line holding meaning, resonance. As I board the plane, a different line plays in my heart;

'I don't know where I'm going...but I sure know where I've been'

I've been to Brunei, to Borneo, to Sipadan. Most importantly I've been to places of friendships, dreams and happiness. Once home, the Westerly wind must continue to blow. Change at work. Change in my social life. In every aspect, writing has a part to play.

Many people on this trip have traded successful yet unfulfilled existences at home for simpler lives of sunshine, enjoyment, and community. The essence of travelling is meeting others. I have met more likeminded Yorkshire folk on this trip than I ever would during a wet February back in Leeds.

My favourite evening was spent in the local shanty town, far away from tourist luxury. Rickety benches and tables. Travellers, locals, guitar, rum. A chef cooking for the selfless reward of pleasing others. Singing songs we thought we knew the words to. Loudly. Learning local songs. Badly.

Ex-pats and Malays readily sharing meals, drinks, stories. Trading hopes, dreams, ideas.

I met an English couple who married in Rome then drove to Asia. I was jealous. I am jealous. Mongolia sounds fun.

A Yorkshire lawyer with the guts to leave her successful law career to work in fields that motivate and enthuse her. A recognition that happiness is all that matters.

A Belgian architect who came to Sipadan for a fun dive in July. He stayed for August. In September, he went home and studied to be a Dive Master. He now dives Sipadan 12 times a week. I like his office.

A message from a friend back home reminds me life is often tragically short. My thoughts are with her. My thoughts are also with my Grandad who has spent the last month in hospital. He's 88; that's a damn fine innings and I hope he has loved every minute of those years.

I return to a sentiment I wrote on my way out here;

'Don't spend a lifetime plotting yearly escapes. Spend your holidays planning a life you seek no escape from.'

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

(xix) a book with a passport

I began the trip reading a book from a charity shop in Yeadon, England. Angela's Ashes, beautiful depiction of a difficult childhood in Ireland. I then bought 'Land below the wind' which tells of Sandakan, Borneo before the war, through the eyes of an intrepid American resident and her English husband.

Both books consume the reader directly in locality. The sights, smells, laughter and pungent air jumping from the page to embrace the audience.

As I type on my IPad, the irony of what I say is not lost. On trips I always seek to trade books, enjoying the roulette of inheriting another traveller's choice. Except, no one is willing to exchange 'Angela's Ashes' for their kindle / tablet / e-reader. And honestly, I do not wish to trade either.

The book swaps available in hostels were populated solely by German language books. No bookstores exist to buy new.

My joy on finding a dog-eared copy of 'The girl with the Dragon Tattoo' was tangible. The book has been well loved, passing through hands of many languages, and lands of many people. The cover is missing - I like to think she enjoyed one trip so much she stayed behind. A smile came to my lips as I remember seeking the Lembeh Sea Dragon in Mabul's waters.

I finally found my dragon.


Books have history. Scribbled notes important to a reader, highlighted text that hits the heart. Perhaps the name of a hostel, or contact details for a new acquaintance.

My fear is that in ten years, buying actual books will become a collector's niche such as record collecting is today. A chore of love; enjoyed by the few who value authenticity over convenience.

'Angela's Ashes' now has her own passport. A note from the reader. I record where she joined my trip and the point she departed. I document the book I trade her in for. I hope someone of similar sentiment will continue adding location stamps as she travels the world. I note the blog details alongside...who knows, one day I may get a message to tell me where she travels.

(xviii) diving Sipadan.

There are no words. Sipadan has been a dream since visiting the Philippines 2 years ago. The whispers of her underwater beauty grew as I travelled nearby islands. That holiday she remained a secret, a promise, a dream.

I am sceptical when I hear somewhere is THE Place to go. I tend to avoid such destinations for fear they are tourist traps. My expectation was that I would find nearby islands more satisfying. Less hype, greater delivery.

I was wrong. Entirely. Absolutely. Sipadan is incredible. A sheer wall that starts metres from it's uninhabited beach. Turtles, barracuda, white tip, black tip, leopard sharks. Some divers saw a whale shark the day before I dived. They had a 2 day dive permit. They saw another on the second day. Bastards.

Barracuda circle above my head. Hundreds, thousands, parading in a tornado of beauty. Mesmerising. We drop deeper. In every direction there are sharks. Above, below, left, right, in front, behind. If I were to signal each sighting to my dive buddies I would invent scuba-karate. Turtles in abundance, fish and reef of every colour, shape, variety. On any other dive they would be the star, here they form a wonderful backdrop, a technicolor of dance, colour and emotion.

Sometimes when you meet your dream you are disappointed.

Then there is Sipadan.

Kapalai House Reef

As we enter the water I hear a tank banger drum roll.


Either someone is in trouble or something very special had been sighted. We swim full pelt towards the noise. The excitement in the water confirms the rarity. I control my air intake and manoeuvre so I see the prize.

A beautiful blue ringed octopus, 4 inches long, scuttling around on the sea bed.

Naturally, we do the 'I just saw a blue ringed octopus' underwater dance.
It's really quite a thing to see.

Yesterday I dived Sipadan. Today I met a friend and asked how her day was. The beautiful smile on her face told me everything. She dived Sipadan. Her smile is uncontrollable, my own also. It lights my face as I write these words.

Sipadan. Sipadan. Some day soon we shall dance again. Sipadan.

(xvii) My ocean valentine

My Valentine is late, but I forgive. I fear she sought love much longer than just one day.

Her beauty calls out; poised vulnerable and innocent on the bed before me. I draw close, tracing her body, echoing her gentle curves. Abandoned, forlorn; savaged by recent tides and reckless lovers.

I learn her name; Sipadan Mermaid. Tattooed to her side like a branding, an ownership. She rests helpless, unable to raise herself and seek pastures new. Nestled amongst creatures she once viewed from above, becoming one with her sea bed.

She takes my breath. Marked by time and wrecked of former elegance, the ravaging scars are beauty marks of a lifetime.

It is only ever sweet dalliance, a holiday romance. She drifts away through the waters like a whispered memory. The Bornean Aphrodite. My ocean valentine.

I shall write my Mermaid, always I shall write.


The Sipadan Mermaid began life as a Norwegian fishing boat, but was later used for diving and transport between islands in Malaysian Borneo. She was sunk on 19th May 2006 and has become an artificial reef with one particular claim to fame. Positioned close to Palau Mataking, the Mermaid boasts Borneo's only underwater post box. Divers can post letters and cards which are later collected stamped with the island's post mark and delivered worldwide.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

(xvi) chasing the dragon

Semporna. A city whose sole purpose is access to world class dive sites. But really, it could make some effort. Dirty streets, market stalls and shops stack every inch of the harbour. There is no beach, no seafront nor destination to speak of. Finally though, a traveller vibe, and divers flush with natural wonder.

Peanut allergy strikes. The 'restaurant' has no toilet. I withdraw to pungent back alley to revisit my dinner in peace. Mid-chunder an alley-cat approaches. He eats my puke as I continue to offer seconds and thirds. Nature's feeding cycle at work.

I secure my golden ticket. A pass to dive Sipadan. Only a few granted daily to preserve reef integrity. A system I agree with in entirety. My six day dive itinerary is now complete.

Diving Sibuan
Underwater beauty. Frog fish, peacock mantis shrimp, giant barracuda, nudibranch, eagle ray, juvenile sweetlips. Turtles. Always turtles.

The most shocking aspect of diving Borneo are the explosions. Violent, sudden, unexpected. I initially thought two tanks had clashed during scuba-acrobatics. I was wrong. Metres from divers exploring protected coral, local fishermen use dynamite filled glass bottles to 'fish'. The explosions are heartbreaking, the damaged coral irreparable. The fish, dead.

Malay fishermen blame Phillipinos, ditto the reverse. I blame the local authorities. A daily reef protection charge is levied on all divers, yet the jetty is decrepit and dynamite fishing abundant with no apparent deterrent.

The explosions are frequent. In future years the diving may not be.

Diving Mabul.
I think each turtle ate an elephant for breakfast, or a rhino. With a great grizzly for desert. They are the largest I have seen. The shells could house a small family. One turtle sits astride a wrecked diveboat. It is clear he is the Boss. The biggest, coolest ninja I have seen. And then his big brother arrived. Donatello released his post to Leonardo. A small cleaner fish nestled into Leo's neck to embrace.

Stories from a diving instructor...

The Shrimp and the Gobi

The shrimp and the gobi live in perfect romantic harmony in sand pockets on the ocean floor. The shrimp is blind and hugs tight to her gobi friend for protection. The gobi bobs in and out of their home, checking for predators and seeking food. The shrimp earns her keep cleaning sand from the hole, sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. Gobi spots something and they both dive for safety. Perfect harmony


Nemo fish live in pairs of alternate sex. When they have children, they chase away or eat all but 2 for fear of being ousted. Every so often, the Queen destroys the King, then changes sex to assume the mantle. The next biggest fish becomes Queen, usually a child of the previous royal regime.

Nowt stranger than fish.


Chasing the Dragon.
The hunt for the Lembeh Sea Dragon began;

'She is the size and shape of hair, but with a small head and eyes. She lives on a reef that also looks like hair.'
'Do we know where she is?'

Instructor points to the ocean. 'She lives in paradise'.
It was the name of the dive site.

'Oh; if you have never seen one, they are hard to spot.'
'Have you seen one?'
'No, they're reeeaaallyy rare, so I am super excited to find one.'

The giddy anticipation was hugely endearing. I love a mission, it keeps things fresh.
From what I could understand, we were looking for a hair with a nit attached...

...In the Ocean.

Oh, and the nithair was ever so slightly self important.
Sea Dragon? Really?

Disappointingly, we drew a blank. My instructor showed me the tiniest nudi branches and taught me the sex life of Nemo. She ensured every dive had a mission, a purpose, an intention. I would have loved her to find her Sea Dragon. Mind you, if you find everything you desire in paradise, what dreams do you hold for tomorrow?

The chase for the Dragon goes on.


*dive photography credits go to Joachim Ardelt.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

(xv) jungle wildlife

The Rain Forest. It's aptly named.

I see little wildlife as I head towards Uncle Tan's campsite. Lone passenger on motor boat, torrential rain pounding into my face. I arrive at camp feeling like the new Castaway in an ill-thought Mancunian version of the show. Only wetter.

Accommodation comprises wooden open fronted huts, no doors, 3 double mattresses separated by mosquito nets. I am unsure where the hat is to throw my keys into. Irrelevant, as tonight my only nighttime companion is a rat. Indigenous creature - tick.

Night walking tour.
I don wellies and join other tourists for a jungle walk. Feet squelch in ponded mud. The air hangs heavy with humidity. Torchlight my only guide.

A kingfisher perches on thin branch, 5 feet from the mud. Camouflaged by beauty, no predator could stoop to kill such rainbow delight. Blind by night, her only defence her frail perch; alerting the kingfisher if predator creeps close. Perhaps blinded by her own daytime reflection, stationed always at water's edge, staring dutifully at her own resplendence.

I tear my eyes from kingfisher techicolour, and readjust to murky khaki of jungle delight. A turtle swims by, spiders linger on rocks, deadly caterpillars lurk on tree trunk, beady frog's eyes shine out from moist leaves.

Night Boat
Crocodile eyes glow with orange menace in reedy recesses. Brighter than cat's eyes, but too transfixing for road application. Hallucinogenic, hypnotising - each driver would be drawn towards central reservation. Towards death.

Monitor lizard lazes in evening light, hugging tree branch close; river viewpoint. Limbs relaxed into body, snakelike, latent power. Hybrid of land and water; all the skill but little venom of close relatives.

Early Morning Boat
'MORNING. GOOD MORNING.' Teo, our guide, holds less subtlety that countryside cockerel welcoming imminent sunrise.

I wake, resident of a new water village. Stilted houses keep risen river levels at bay. Wooden walkways perch above campsite lake. As I head for coffee, a turtle swims past my raised path.

The reward for early rise is Kinabatangan's river glistening beneath misted vista. Tree lines fading in the distance like accomplished oil painting. Soft morning light glittering with the mystique of nature. Sapling trees overtaken by river's rapacious waistline, banks widening by the hour. The thin strip of indigenous forest shrinks still further, squeezed by both expanded water and irrepressible palm oil plantation.

Macaque monkeys squabble over breakfast provisions. Later they fight for tree branches, barney over playmates and scrap for dominance. A fun, lively life. The shriek and howl a constant presence through daylight hours. If I were a monkey I would love to be...

The Proboscis Monkey. Rounded belly from tasty but poisonous leaf, Emperor's nose, steady manner. Relaxed, calm, pensive. If I were a monkey I would probably be...

Last night's monitor lizard, still prostate on nighttime perch, slinks into waters beneath as we approach.

Fishing Trip

3 Western Tourists. Ampong our guide. Dilla his 13 year old nephew. School break, beautiful smile and replete demeanour - so pleased to be allowed to holiday with the grown-ups.

Worms scavenged from bankside, hooks baited and lines cast into murky river.

And wwwaaaaiiiittt.

Still waiting.

Still waiting

Line pulls.
Slllooowwllly reel in.

A little more.

A little more.

I caught.
I caught....
Yeah, I caught Dave's line.

Strictly that's a 13 stone catch.
He wins. He caught 15.

Maybe I'll have a beer.

We count our haul.
We count again.
It doesn't take long.

I feel the scornful gaze and graceful ease of eagle above. The Fish Eagle, white bellied, surveys the waters. Waiting it's moment. I'm certain he feeds better than I.
I still had a lovely day. Dilla's aptitude with the reel ensured a good barbecue too.

I stayed 3 nights and four days. Many night tours, and morning rises. The only certainty the endless cycle of weather. I learned eventually to need only 2 sets of clothes. A wet set. A dry one. Just don't confuse them. Nothing dries in the rainforest, least of all the bar.