by B. N. Sullivan
This is Part 2 of a story I began to tell yesterday -- the story of our first journey to Pulau Sipadan, a tiny island off the coast of Borneo. The story so far: we flew first to Kuala Lumpur, then to Kota Kinabalu, and then to Tawau. From Tawau we traveled by car up the coast to Semporna. This episode picks up at Semporna, where we began the final leg of our very long journey.
By prearrangement with the folks who managed the place where we would stay on Sipadan, a smallish motorboat was dispatched to ferry us to the little island. Since our flight to Tawau had arrived late, we had missed the mini-bus to Semporna. We traveled to Semporna by taxi instead, and we were running a bit late, so we were relieved to find the boat waiting for us at the fishing pier in Semporna when we arrived there.
Our friends who had preceded us on this journey had warned us about this final stage. They told us that the trip would be made in an open boat that went very fast and created a lot of spray. They said we should be prepared to get wet during the boat ride, and advised us to dress accordingly. They were not kidding!
Our boatman loaded all of our things into the stern of the little vessel, and indicated that we should sit on some bench seats beneath a tarpaulin sunshade. We cast off from the pier, and gently motored through the harbor. Near the outer edge of the harbor, we passed by numerous clusters of houses built on stilts over the water, and then by a few tiny islets. As soon as we got to the open water, the boatman increased speed. A lot!
Once we left Semporna and the islets behind, there were no more landmarks at all -- nothing but the glistening surface of the Celebes Sea in every direction. Later we discussed how we both felt a bit leery at that point, heading straight out to sea at a high rate of speed in a small open boat, hoping against hope that the boat driver actually knew how to find Sipadan. At the time, though, it was impossible to discuss this or anything else. The noise from the boat's motors was very loud, and we were traveling so fast across the water that we couldn't even turn toward each other for fear of having our sunglasses blown right off our faces. All we could do was hold on tightly to the edge of our seats, and, squinting against the bright sunlight reflected from the sea surface, pray that we would eventually make it to Sipadan.
About an hour after we left Semporna, the boat driver slowed a smidgen, and pointed toward the horizon. A tiny tropical island appeared before us. From a distance, it looked just like Gilligan's Island. As we glided up to a sandy beach, the boat's engines were cut and a few men ran down to the shoreline to catch the mooring line. We were instructed to hop out -- which we did, into thigh-deep water -- and several staff from Pulau Sipadan Resort, where we were staying, waded out to fetch our belongings.
Once ashore we glanced around quickly and noticed a number of people sitting on a sort of deck, chuckling and grinning at us. It turned out that the arrival of new guests was one of the most amusing events of the day at Sipadan.
On each of the following ten days that we spent on the little island, we would join the group on the deck to watch the latest arrivals to Sipadan. They all looked like we did when we arrived: disoriented, wilted from the heat, totally drenched, wearing sunglasses nearly opaque with sea spray, hair frozen by salt in whatever way the wind had blown it during the boat ride. Everyone, it seemed, arrived at Sipadan somewhat dazed and looking a wreck.
Here's a link to a map of Sabah state on Borneo. If you like, you can use it to retrace our journey from Kota Kinabalu, to Tawau, to Semporna, to Pulau Sipadan.
Next (after Wordless Wednesday) - what it was like to stay on Sipadan Island in 1993.