Road to Sipadan

“I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now, no more. Now, we have found again an untouched piece of art…”
Jaques Cousteau

So I wanted to dive Sipadan Island in Borneo. Why? Well, it is home to some of the top rated dive sites in the world. Plus, I’m a big Cousteau fan. If he vouched for it, that’s good enough for me, so I’m in. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple. You see, dive outfits and resorts used to be on Sipadan, but it was having a big impact on the reef and the ecosystem of the island so, in 2004, the government kicked everybody off. They all had to move their operations to Mabul, an island a few kilometers away. In addition, the government imposed a limit of 120 on the total number of people that can dive Sipadan per day, so a lot of dive outfits are now competing for slices of a very small pie. Before I could dive Sipadan, I had to find a dive shop that had permits. That wasn’t so easy since I was doing all of this at the last minute, but I eventually got word from a place called Billabong’s. They had come up with a permit for me. Was I interested in flying all the way there just to dive Sipadan for one day? Yuuuup! They also had home-stay accommodations on Mabul, so I would be hanging out with the locals, the dive shop staff and the other divers. Nothing fancy, just room, board and diving. Perfect.

So to get to Sipidan, I had to get to Mabul. To get to Mabul, I had to fly from Kuala Lumpur into Tuawau. From there, a driver took me on an 80 minute drive to a place on the coast called Semporna, where I had to stay overnight before catching a boat to Mabul in the morning. Semporna…is a shithole. There is just no way around it. It is dirty, nasty and awash in foul odors and sketchy characters. Obi Wan’s description of the cantina in Star Wars (“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”) floated through my mind. OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but if you do find yourself there for any length of time, you have to seriously question the choices you have made in your life. I checked into my hotel and truthfully, the room was ok. Simple, but it had HBO, so I watched an episode of “True Blood” to see what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t impressed. Back in my day, we had cheerleaders that cleaned up messes like that. Ahh, those were the days. Life just made more sense back then. But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah, Semporna. Shithole. So, about 1 AM, I was pulled back from the brink of sleep by a disturbance outside. I tried to ignore it, but it kept getting louder and eventually I just had to look. I opened the curtains and, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a full-scale brawl on a street corner so near. There were two young men with a car being attacked by four others who seemed to alternately be beating both them and their vehicle. I couldn’t tell what was going on (maybe a failed carjacking?) but it looked serious, with a lot of punches were being thrown, as well as large pieces of wood. Then, abruptly, the four took off up the road. They must have heard something I didn’t because, within a minute, two cops showed up on motorcycles, talked to the guys who had been getting beat down, then took off in hot pursuit. The two guys circled around for a while, checking out the damage that had been done to their car and each other, then they headed off rather shakily in the opposite direction. Untouched piece of art, huh? Jaques Cousteau would not be pleased. Well, I’m sure Mabul is better, right?…

The photo above was taken in the morning, from that same hotel window. The guys were all fighting down on the corner and you can still see one of the pieces of wood that was being thrown around, by the side of the road near the backpacker.

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