Up early this morning, we’re off to a properly remote island.
Desert? Tropical? Am imagining white sand, coconut trees and wild blue ocean. It’ll be fascinating to match the mental image to the reality.
So a few nights in the bargain-lower-ground-floor Tune Hotel in Kota Kinabalu (KK) are our investment for this jaunt. (Bargain basement? Backpacker lodges. She said “No.”) Tune are the Easyjet of this neck of the woods: everything is optional. Want web, more towels, air-con? Of course sir, how will you be paying? Still, comfy beds, clean rooms… just don’t mention the cockroaches. (Oops.) Still, a la Ryanair, we booked waaaay in advance and got the best deal.
The tendrils of rampant consumerism have a strong hold on Malaysian Borneo as the smartly presented KK airport illustrates. The very first outlet you set eyes upon after trudging up the jetway (tunnel) from the aircraft? Starbucks. Makes you want to weep doesn’t it? Yet here we are, touristing away, a short hop from Singapore, in many ways encouraging this kind of thing by our mere presence.They are also busy extending the runway so bigger jets can land to carry fatter tourists to drink more lattes to buy more at the mall…
Things you don’t know about Kota Kinabalu #7.
According to our Friends at Lonely Planet, there’s nowhere that gets more consistently jaw dropping sunsets. All to do with facing west over the south China Sea where the clouds glow with all those lovely colours.
However, today – not long after sunrise – we’re on the bus to a jetty and an early rendezvous with a boat. We remark on how bumpy a bus ride it is. Little do we know our calibration for bumpiness is about to be rudely reset.
Soon, we are aboard our craft. A pretty simple affair with open deck, sunshade and two testicular, butch Yamaha outboard motors hung off the stern. We’re given life jackets and with an utter lack of emergency drill briefing we’re off. (It’s like being a grown up: you make your own mind up about safety. Very refreshing.) We were told to rid our personage of anything that we could not afford to get wet. All luggage was stored in a large, fully sealed soft stowage bag near the bow. The weather was steamy hot, the sky clear: why the precaution?
As we emerge from the safety of the river mouth, the skipper guns it. Within seconds the outboards’ are running at full chat with J&M whooping with delight: they clearly think this is the DBs. (Gilly’s reaction is less positive.) We’re planing nicely when encounter a chop on the (South China) sea that sees the boat launch and SLAP alarmingly. The rhythm of the boat is given multiple accents: shrieks from Gilly, “Yee-Has” from the kids and an internal percussion of crunching vertibrae. For good measure serious spray starts peeling over the bow. The waterproofing obsession becomes drenchingly obvious. Minutes later we have the look of drowning rats, chiropractor appointments mentally booked.
[If you’d like to follow along and simulate this ride at home, grab a laundry basket, an outdoor floodlight, a bucket and some tepid water. Set the light to shine in your face, go to the top of the stairs, sit in the ‘basket fully clothed and push-off downwards. Have some friends round armed with the buckets and slosh copious water over you as you pass. Repeat for an hour.]
As we approach the island, it takes mere seconds to realise that the ordeal was worth it. Retina burning white sands? Check. Absurdly blue waters? Check. Palm fringed shore? Check. But wait… where are all the people?
My word it’s peaceful.
It’s wonderfully basic too. In the same way that a bicycle is wonderfully basic transport. Perfect when you’re in the mood. Our accommodation? A one room hut on stilts. So, unless you swim, snorkel, snooze or s**g, there’s not much to do. (We only manage three of these, unlike the young Kiwi couple next door Gilly later notes as sound travels. Grrr.) It’s too hot even to walk around.
The kids are beside themselves with the prospect of snorkeling. Mum wisely slops on the sunblock to the wriggling Beers. The reality is even better than the anticipation: within minutes we’ve found Nemo! IE: Little and large Clown Fish hiding in an anemone. I note much of the coral is bleached, but it’s still spectacular.
We’re in rash vests and sun-creamed-up but still we burn. Tsk, pesky tropical sun. D’oh: pale Welsh skin. As the day wanes we rent a kayak and go on a mission. It’s an important day in the calendar for us Welsh: 1st March, Saint David’s Day. I brief the children militarily. They stand like a crack squad from the SBS. [Adopts Sgt Major bark: “Offshore is a sand island and we must claim it for Wales!”]
We paddle off. Soon I am cursing inappropriate footwear. (No not slingbacks with a cocktail dress; no footwear at all.) The island is not sand, it’s (painfully sharp) coral. Undaunted the brave semi-Welsh offspring claim Beer Island for the principality. [The video makes it look cold. It was a stiff breeze, yes. But man was it HOT.] Oggi-oggi-oggi? Oi-oi-OI! We have a momentary flag ceremony along with fleeting megalomania. I shed a patriotic/parental tear.
Our reward is a quick snorkel with legions of brightly coloured fish. To “awwws” from enthusiastic little divers we head back. This proves tricky as the headwind is stiff and the current insistent. It’s like kayaking uphill. Clocking up the most exertion of the trip so far I paddle us back to camp. Whilst I’m bushed, J&M are elated.
So we’ve bagged Beer Island. With delightful symmetry we also note that one of the dive sites a little further offshore is already known as Gilly Reef.
That evening the sunset is a peach. A purple, a pink, an orange… Then after a simple grilled fish, rice and – ahem – tuna sarnie & fries, we go for a moonlit stroll along the sands. Your typical St David’s Day? Not really. Being strict parents there’s no way we’d let the kids go skinny dipping, even in the dark. Yeah, right. Giggling, they charge into the crystal waters whilst we sit marvelling at the view from the shore. No aircraft con-trails above, no cars, just the occasional local boat and the sound of nocturnal insects. The island population is – we are told – around a thousand. Well, they’re a quiet bunch. Maybe it’s their day off? Maybe they’re all in Marlborough?
Next morning it’s more snorkeling
Your money goes far here. It’s a simple offering and they are not greedy with their pricing (even though we’re a captive audience). The (all in) price of our 2 days, 1 night on a – no exaggeration – tropical paradise? £1.91 per hour per person.
Did it match the pre-conception? Live up to the hype? If anything, it outstripped pretty much every aspect of what I could’ve hoped for. (Legions of photos/videos, you’ll noted we have pared down to a few for this post!)
A difficult place to get to is Mantanani. Even more difficult to leave in another sense. But leave we must as a) the boat is ticking over, ready to push off before the wind picks up and b) we’ve an all mod-cons apartment in downtown KK awaiting us.