I love to spend Christmas with family and friends if possible. This year Lawrence, my younger brother and a novice diver, took the family to Mabul Island, Malaysia which is close to Sipadan. I have not dived for over 12 years and am surprised I have not forgotten the basic skills. I had six dives but was not impressed by the underwater scenery and marine life owing to poor visibility.December 22 Monday: Hong Kong – Kota Kinabalu, Sabah– Tawau – Semporna
Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost state located on the island of Borneo, boasts one of the world’s greatest marine diversity. With numerous idyllic tropical islands teeming coral reefs and atoll, warm water, sandy beaches and marine life, it has been a magnet for divers.During my first visit to Sabah in late 1990s, I travelled overland to Sandakan, stayed on an island with a turtle sanctuary, visited the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, climbed Mount Kinabalu (4095m) and had a fun white water rafting on Kiulu River.
Lawrence, Sally (my sister-in-law), Leuk (my nephew), Yan (my niece) and I flew on a budget airline, Air Asia. We left Hong Kong around 10am, arrived at Kota Kinabalu (KK) after midday and took a connecting flight to Tawau at 4pm. We spent another hour on a minibus and did not arrive in Semporna till 6pm. What a tiring day!
We were hungry and rushed to a seafood restaurant. We had grouper, geoduck, mantis shrimp, noodles, seafood congee and vegetables, all for 160 Malaysian Ringgit (RM).
December 23 Tuesday: Semporna – Mabul Island
Mabul Island located in the Celebes Sea off the mainland of Sabah, is small with an area of 20 hectare. According to the 1999 census, the island had 2,000 villagers, the majority being immigrants and islanders from southern Philippines. Today, it is a popular destination with over ten diving spots and half a dozen of resorts including one which has been built on an offshore ex-oil rig. The island is about 15km from the world-famous diving spot Sipadan.
At 8am, we took a boat to Mabul Island. Lawrence had tried to book a day diving at Sipadan. But as we booked fairly late, the 120-day quota was filled. Hence, we only dived around the island.
As I had not dived for over 10 years, I began with a refresher course with Valentina, a young Italian lady who ended up spending the whole day looking after me! I felt secured and safe under her guidance: I had no problem in putting on the gear and rediscovered the joy of diving. Owing to my back problem, I asked Valentina to help carry my tank and gear which I put on in the water. As a result, diving is no longer a pain!
The diving routine is simple: three dives a day at 10:30am, 12 noon and 2:30pm. Visibility was not good i.e. 10m. Fortunately, Valentina managed to find some interesting species at ‘Froggy’ including angel fish, clownfish cuttlefish, crocodile fish, goby, yellow boxfish, puffer fish, cornet fish, trumpet fish, raze fish, reef top pipefish, sweetlips and goatfish. In the afternoon at Panglima, I saw more cuttlefish, a school of big-eye barracuda, bubble shrimp, mackerel, baby batfish, goby etc. The seafloor is covered with sea stars and urchins.
Lawrence took an advanced course while Leuk a PADI open-water course. Yan and Sally signed up for a discovery course. Sally owing to her health condition was advised not to dive: she was content with snorkeling. Yan was so good in water moving like a mermaid that the instructor suggested her take an open-water course. As a result, we were all busy doing our own things.
We stayed at Mabul Beach Resort which has a relaxing and lushly green atmosphere. We paid about 180 RM a day pp for accommodation and three meals. The food is simple without fish. I shared an air-conditioned room with Leuk and Yan. We were all tired and had a good sleep.
December 24 Wednesday (Christmas Eve): Mabul Island
We had the noon dive at d’Wall with visibility at around 8m. This is the best dive I had for the whole trip. The water on one side is deep. There is plenty to see including beautiful and fairly colourful hard and soft coral, Anna’s and Twin Chromo Doris, nudibranch, turtle, blue stripe snappers, red tooth triggerfish, moray etc.
After lunch, we went to Ribbon Valley. I saw white-eye moray, sea dragon, ghost pipefish, shrimp, ray, frogfish, scorpion fish and cuttlefish. But visibility was poor i.e. less than 5m.
I walked to the other side of the island to watch sunset. Unfortunately, the colours were not vibrant. There was no Christmas atmosphere at the resort. The management did invite the staff to the bar and each came up to receive and open his/her gift. I hope the staff had a good time.
December 25 Thursday (Christmas Day): Mabul Island – Semporna
Merry Christmas! I had enough diving and spent the day resting and reading. I snorkeled with Sally close to the pier in the morning. We saw lots of fish, a turtle and coral.
We also walked around the island watching how the locals use simple methods to store rain water, construct wells and bring fresh water to their doorstep. There are many kids under the age of five and the living condition in some parts of the island is poor without sanitation or sewage system. I hate to find solid human waste from local huts and some local resorts on stilts goes into the open sea.
By 4pm, Lawrence, Yan and Leuk came back from diving. At 4:30pm, we were on our way back to Semporna. We had an excellent seafood dinner which cost less than RM150. We were all tired and went to bed early.
December 26 Friday (Boxing Day): Semporna
As usual I got up early and went to see the market place before breakfast. The busy port was teeming with fishermen and people coming in from the nearby islands. I watched people de-skinning octopus.
At 9am, Lawrence took us to eat in the old town. We had noodles (roughly 6RM a bowl). Then we walked through the fish market and brought a kilo of crabs (15RM). Sally had packed a shabu-shabu cooking pot and we had boiled crab which was most delicious and meaty. We enjoyed it so much that Sally went back to buy another kilo. We had an enjoyable ‘crabby’ morning.
At about 1pm, we took a taxi to the Skull Hill which had remains of natives in the area some 3,000 years ago. We also went to a nearby resort for a light lunch before returning to the hotel at 3pm.
Lawrence and I were tired and had a lap. Though we had not done much, we were hungry and had another seafood dinner in early evening.
December 27 Saturday: Semporna – Kota Kinabalu
We had to leave the hotel at 7am. We waited for two hours at the Tawau airport, had a short flight and landed at KK airport before noon. KK is a small city but a taxi for 5 persons to the city centre cost 42RM (though a taxi for 4 cost only 30RM).
KK is full of food courts and eateries. We had a simple lunch in a food court and paid about 10RM pp for a simple meal with drink. Then we walked to the central market where we found plenty of large prawns (50-80RM a kilo) and octopus (10RM a kilo). We were tempted and brought 20RM of prawns and 3RM of octopus. Then we met Dint, a local by the pier. He persuaded us to take a 3-island hopping trip with him the following day for 50RM pp. He promised to take care of our fresh prawns and octopus so that we could stroll along the waterfront and visit the newest and largest shopping centre.
At 5pm, we found Dint by the pier. By then, the carpark next to the pier had been turned into an open air cooked food centre. Dint arranged us to eat in one of the biggest and best stall. The food was good and we only paid 65RM for a fish, vegetables, drinks and fried noodles and the preparation of our prawns and octopus. Not bad!
December 28 Sunday: Kota Kinabalu
We had an eventful and tiring day. Lawrence booked us on a rafting trip on Padas River for 190RM each. A minibus picked us up shortly after 6:30am. The journey to Beaufort took an hour and a half. We boarded a slow colonial-style diesel train at 8:50am.
We arrived at the starting point of the rafting around 10:30am. After briefing, we made our way to the river. My family and a tourist from Mainland China were put in one raft with two local instructors. There were five other rafts with some 30 rafters.
The course covers a distance of 9km with a dozen rapids of class 3-4. I thought we would arrive at the destination without problem. It went well till we arrived at a series of rapids at the ‘curve’. Suddenly, the raft after passing through one of the rapids had its bow turned side way. Strong waves hit the raft from the side and we were all thrown off! It’s a frantic moment and we forgot what we were supposed to do. I still had the paddle in hand and tried to keep myself afloat. I saw rocks and was afraid I might hit my head on the rocks. Other people shouted at us and pulled Leuk, Lawrence and I up. Sally and Yan were rescued by another raft. But the Mainland tourist on our raft was carried off by the rapid and was rescued some 300m downstream. He drank plenty of water!
The rafting only lasted an hour. We had a good lunch and were supposed to get on a train at 1:30pm. As the engine of the 1:30-pm train was out of order, we had to wait for the next train. As there were many people waiting for the train, we decided to hop on the train heading upstream first. In this way, we would could have a seat. It rained heavily while we were waiting for the train.
We boarded the train at 3pm. I noted the river running next to the railway line moved very fast after the rain. The water level was much higher too. I waved at children from villages and took a quick glimpse of life in this part of Malaysia. Around 4:30pm, the train came to a stop because part of the track was buried in mud brought by torrential rain a few hours ago. The train driver and a couple of locals spent almost half an hour shoveling the mud. The train moved only for a short distance before halting again.
This time, a landslide had had so much mud and stones down that it would be impossible to clear quickly. Another train had been sent from Beaufort to take us back to the terminal. At 6pm, we finally got back to Beaufort Railway Station.
We were exhausted. After a quick dinner in a night food market, we returned to the hotel. As Dint would pick us up at 7am the following day for a 3-island hopping trip, we packed and retired early.
December 29 Monday: Kota Kinabalu – Hong Kong
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park consists of five islands namely Gaya, Mamutik, Sapi, Manukan and Sulug. I remember snorkeling here on my first visit to KK.
We got up shortly after 6am and checked out before 7am. We left our luggage in the hotel as we would be leaving for Hong Kong at 4pm. Originally we planned to walk to the pier and set off at 8am. Dint insisted that we should have an early start and he would pick us up at the hotel at 7am. But he did not turn up and told us to take a taxi. I hate people wasting my time like this.
We met four Malaysian tourists from Kuala Lumpur on the boat. First we spent two hours snorkeling in Sapi before hundreds of day-trippers arrived. It is so crowded and noisy that I no longer find it attractive. The corals however still look respectably healthy and well-preserved. But the water was murky. Leuk and Yan had their first parasailing for RM130. I am glad they had a thrilling experience!
Then we had a short ride to Mamutik which has several resorts. I walked around the small island for half an hour. Dint then took us snorkeling off Manukan. The water is clear with good visibility. The sea here is covered with corals in all shapes (but not all colours). It’s nice to end our holiday with an enjoyable snorkel here!
We had a quick lunch before departing for the airport. As an aircraft of Air Asia disappeared after leaving Suraya the day before, all passengers on our flight seemed a bit anxious. We were relieved when the plane touched down safely at the Hong Kong airport!
I had a most relaxing holiday with my family. I am glad that Leuk and Yan are able to dive. There may be more opportunities to go diving and snorkelling together in future.
December might not be the season to dive in Mabul/Sipadan as visibility is poor. As I have not gone to Sipadan this time, I hope to return one day with my family to dive and snorkel in this world famous site to see whether it lives up to its reputation. Also, I would like to go to visit the Tun Sakaran Marine Park close to Semporna.
Rafting is fun. It can also be dangerous as what we have experience on this trip. We have been lucky. To spend nine hours on the road in order to do an hour’s rafting is not worthwhile. Nonetheless, we had such an eventful train ride that it turned into an unforgettable experience! The 6-hour ride on the slow train through equatorial forest scattered with villages is nostalgic. It is definitely more authentic and interesting than the touristic ride to Manchu-Picchu Peru!