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Adventure of a lifetime
Account of an unusual trip to Mabul Island and the memories it left behind
A lot of words come to mind as I sit down to describe my experience at Mabul. But where do I even begin? Do I talk about the beauty of this relatively unexplored island or do I talk about the inhabitants who are the very definition of Malaysian hospitality? The series of unusual events that came along with it or the odd bunch of people I was travelling with? Hopefully I’ll have settled that battle of choices by the time I’m done writing this piece.
Most travellers’ lists have Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca, but we all know the saying about the road not taken. In my case, my road not taken was Sabah, a Malaysian state that occupies the northern part of the island of Borneo. My experience in Sabah was what satiated my longing for a life-altering travel. I visited Kota Kinabalu, Tawau, Semporna, Sibuan Island and a few more places in Sabah, but one island in particular enchanted me the most. Mabul, or Pulau Mabul as the locals call it. It’s a small island off the south-eastern coast of Sabah, roughly 15km from Sipadan, an island that is famous for its marine life and underwater activities like snorkelling and scuba diving.
I landed at Tawau airport and was transferred to a bus that took me to Semporna, a town in Borneo. An hour long journey that I remember very little of, thanks to the super smooth roads that put me to sleep so fast, but definitely not sooner than the movie Isn't It Romantic that I was watching in the flight. I think I need a different story to rant about it and get it out of my system but for now I’ll just distract myself with happy thoughts. It was an hour long jetty ride from Semporna to Mabul throughout which I was wide-eyed, gazing at the crystal clear water and enjoying the gentle rocking of the boat as we sailed against the tide.
Arrival at Sipadan-Mabul Resort was almost dramatic. The group was exploring bits of the resort while the rooms were being allocated so I went down to the deck to have a look at the water, Red Red Wine playing in the background in a shack, crystal clear water with a bunch of starfish and other species of exotic fish right in front of me. The Sipadan-Mabul Resort is famous not only for its proximity to Sipadan Island but also because of the beauty and serenity of the island and the gorgeous water bungalows and standalone chalets that we were staying in. The chalet I was staying in had a ramp leading to the outside seating area that had two beach chairs and a wooden table, the room was decently sized and the bathroom area had an opening right under the roof from where you could see the coconut trees swaying in the morning and lizards at night, this space was covered by net of course, and the bathroom floors had panels of wood with a little bit of space in middle, just enough for water to flow through.
I spent the next morning snorkelling around Mabul with the group. I was also told about the practise of spitting on your glasses to keep them from fogging under water and a tube that you have to bite with your teeth through which you’re supposed to breathe, all this was (way) more than enough to trigger the germaphobe in me but once I got into the water, I couldn’t care less. The marine life at Mabul is pretty spectacular. You don’t have to drift far off just to get a glimpse of a zebra fish, instead stay in one place and you’ll see blue surgeonfish and cuttlefish, some particular areas will allow you to spot baby stingrays, mandarin fish, anglerfish, pipefish and snake eels. I even found Nemo and Marlin on my first day of snorkelling. Herpetophobes be warned, I spotted some adult monitor lizards freely walking around the chalets but they mind their own business as long as you don’t do things to irritate them.
Evenings were to explore the island where we walked around the resort to find a village where the locals reside and had small shops where they sold all kinds of shell jewellery, pearls, hats and dried fish skeletons. The children were far too busy playing and flying kites but every once in a while they stopped to smile and blow kisses at us. Most of the elderly women were frying their catch of the day on an open flame or handling tiny bakeries from where the sweet fragrance of fresh bread overpowered the aroma of roast fish and spices. Men mostly managed their coconut stalls or were pulling their boats in with a bunch of colourful crabs and fresh lobsters.
We got back to the resort just in time for dinner, which was at half past six, where they had a live barbecue with fresh prawns, fish, chicken and beef, all marinated with minimal but flavourful ingredients. For the lone vegetarian in the group there was bok choy salad and vegetable fried rice that the resort staff was always happy to whip up. And tofu, of course. Dessert mostly included fresh watermelon, muskmelon, pomelo and cakes and pastries. Post all of that, came a plate loaded with mangosteen, which is now the group’s favourite fruit. Try it once and you’ll know why.
It was a beautiful day that nobody wanted to end so we headed out to the bar to grab a beer and gaze over the endless view of moonlit waters and docked speedboats rocking gently with the swell. Our tour guide, Daisy Sharma, one of the sweetest persons you can come across, asked if we wanted to visit the oil rig and I didn’t even have to think twice. The oil rig is now converted into a modern getaway called Seaventures Dive Rig where residents have cabins to stay in that are fully air-conditioned, live band performances on certain days and a variety of delicious food are among other amenities. We caught up with Daisy’s brother who spoke to us about the rig over a chilled pint of ginger beer. Back at the resort, a quick shower, the usual lizard view (it’s an island, what do you expect?), I turned on the radio and grabbed my cup of instant coffee and sat on the beach chair outside and scribbled in my notebook, writing an account of my lovely day and how I hated the fact that I would have to leave the island. At some point realisation dawns under an inky black canvas dotted with a billion diamonds. I might have to leave Mabul behind. That is life. But Mabul will never leave me. That too is life!