Borneo

Posted on May 1, 2019

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I’ve taken ten days off work. Suicide for freelancers some might say. But I need a break. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from three years of living in different countries, is you have to have a change of scenery to survive Island living. I love what I do, and I want to keep it that way. The Thai rock of Koh Tao is a special place and it’s only with distance that I’m able to fully appreciate it.

After an epic two days of travelling I finally touched down on Tawau, in Borneo. One ferry, two buses, two shuttles, two airplanes and then a very long taxi ride. Even for me that’s long haul. But if it were easy, “where would the adventure be?”, I tell myself.

Two hour’s drive away lies the jump-off point to some of the region’s best diving. The national parks of Sipadan and Mabul. Pelagics and macro in close proximity all in the Celebes Sea.

A Belgian dive photographer I met in Sulawesi in January told me about this area and now just shy of three months I’m here, itching to take the plunge. On my wish list Hammerheads and frog fish. All creatures large and small.

Tawau is an island that has sadly been flattened by tarmac and deforested for palm oil plantations. The virgin forest can only be seen on the fringes and I wonder for how much longer? Any primates will struggle in a habitat that’s been fragmented. Even the local population has been driven out, with the odd shack standing isolated in row after row of this fast growing crop.

The answer, as we are now learning, isn’t boycotting the palm oil industry, it’s too late for that. A lucrative and versatile plant that’s used in everything from chocolate to toothpaste to cosmetics is big money and it’s not going away. It’s now about managing how it’s grown and which forests need to be left as buffer zones and reusing the areas already deforested.

The human population is expanding fast and continues grow and to put a huge strain on the planet. Educated and informed decision-making by us is now biodiversity’s only hope. Can we be trusted to at least try to find a compromise how and which natural resources we use? A hard-line approach is frankly unrealistic.

An email arrived in my inbox the day I was leaving Thailand. Semporna, the town I’m overnighting in to catch the dive boat the next morning, is in throws of setting up for the Regatta Lepa festival. An annual state event which celebrates the Lepa – the traditional sail boat. A competition is held where floatillas are paraded on the water. This tiny town is transformed overnight into a maze of stalls and chaos. If you’re over five foot tall and arrive at night, good luck trying to find your digs, because everything in under rows of tarpaulin.

Last night for twenty minutes I was dragging a heavy dive bag in one hand, fins slung over my shoulder and packing a heavy rucksack; craning my neck through the tiny gaps in the tents trying to see shop and guest house signs. The taxi stopped at the start of the Semporna harbour and the driver motioned to the tiny makeshift alleyways of people shuffling three across, when there’s space for just single file. Needless to say I didn’t find my place without help. I walked into a shop and begged the security guard to deliver me to the door.

After briefly unpacking I stepped out to feed coins into the 24hour laundromat and set off to explore. Everyone is selling the same thing: second hand clothes, plastic shoes and flip flops, fake bags and jeans, deep fried street foods, fruit in styrofoam and juices so brightly coloured I wonder how many E numbers are in them. Rubbish is everywhere. It’s heartbreaking to see the plastic and waste. Straws, bags, and litter lie in rotting heaps which will no doubt grow over the next few days. As will the stretch. Much of it will be burnt, some buried in landfill elsewhere or end up in the ocean.

Semporna is an odd outpost. The squat buildings are all two storeys high and from the sky it must look like a toy town. The Chinese market for tourism is huge here. Bigger than in Thailand. And so are their numbers. They dominate everything. It’s a cacophony of squawking and shouting, pushing ahead in queues with no regard for anyone else or personal space. High maintenance and demanding. The Malaysians roll their eyes when a large group enters any establishment. That’s when I get up and leave.

I’m excited about the next four days. Can’t wait to see what lies beneath! Boat leaves for Mabul at 8am the next day. An hour skimming the waves and as soon as we dock, I dive!!

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