When deciding on where to stay on Mabul island we were between two places. Scuba junkies which is quite an expensive resort with top class diving, inclusive buffet and luxury lodges. Or Scuba Jeff’s, a very cheap authentic hostel on wooden stilts on the ocean, freshly caught bbq supper, no aircon or hot water, or flush on the toilet for that matter, the most basic accommodation ever but with a view. We decided to dive with the first choice as it was more legit with professional divers, however we stayed at the latter option…
We arrived by boat and on the way we went past a black speed boat, filled with men in balaclavas holding machine guns. These were the police apparently, NOT the kidnapping pirates, could have fooled me! They were there to make police presence after what had happened previously. Seeing them made it very real then, that maybe this place was highly dangerous and would we be safe coming here?
We arrived at the hostel which I can only describe really as a wooden shack on water. It was surrounded by other wooden water shacks that you could tell were being lived in by locals as they had their washing out on lines and there were local children in sight. The owner of Scuba Jeff’s wasn’t there the day we arrived, so his cousin welcomed us and she showed us to our room. There was no ceiling in the rooms, it had a roof but everyone’s ceilings were all open so you could hear everything going on. This was not good when the Malaysian teenagers living at the hostel played their guitars til 4am every night on the veranda and singing at the tops of their voice…it was quite amusing though and to be fair they were really good.
The next day we went to Scuba junkies to book our diving course, it was the complete opposite to where we were staying! It was like being in a luxury hotel resort, whilst we were there we helped ourselves to the lovely pancakes for breakfast that were going on the buffet. No one ever found out as there was so many people going up to get them. To get there from our hostel you had to walk through the local village, which was basically wooden huts on sand and hundreds of local children running around with no clothes on. It was an amazing experience, I really felt like I was in the real Borneo, this is what it was supposed to be like – not the fancy diving resort. I’m so glad we stayed where we did, we would not of had the same experience if we stayed at Scuba junkies. There was nothing in the village apart from huts where the locals lived, a couple of local food stalls, selling sweetcorn and fish. And a LOT of sweet huts! Huts which looked liked old sweet shops, selling everything from fizzy pop to lollipops. Most evenings we would see the children running around with handfuls of sweets, it was lovely to see but also slightly strange as they had no other regular shops there. A lot of the children would beg on the beach outside the resorts, they did it to us one day and I gave them my can of lemonade. They wanted money though, they weren’t silly! I saw them do it to another man and he stopped and took off his backpack, the two little girls were getting excited, until he whipped out a banana to give them. They shook their heads and stormed off, they are funny!
To get to our ‘floating’ hostel you had to walk across this very old and broken wooden pier. It took me ages every time, especially when it was dark as I thought I was going to fall through a gap. The hostel had an outside decking area where you could just chill or jump off into the beautiful clear ocean, we spent the day napping and floating around on plastic rings. Scuba Jeff came back the next day and he was a big character. You could tell the whole family who had been running the place while he was away were scared of him and wanted to make a good impression. He was a good guy though and introduced himself to us and invited us for a drink that night on the decking. Dinner was great, a freshly caught Tuna that he has caught that day on the bbq! So tasty! And for dessert it was rum…or rum. A group of us stayed up all night drinking ‘pirate’ rum under the stars and listening to the Malay boys (and Jeff) play acoustic on their guitars. It was a lovely evening, one I won’t forget. I remember thinking how peaceful this place was and all the rumours and worry about being kidnapped seemed ridiculous and had disappeared.
The next day was the best day! As it was coming to the end of our trip we didn’t have a lot of money left so decided to not do the full PADI course but just do an introductory dive. I was gutted as I had already done two of these dives in Thailand and in the Great barrier reef, I was ready to do it. But as we were going home soon, there was no real point. It was just as amazing anyway, we were lucky it was just me and Tom in the group with two instructors, basically a one on one lesson. Normally they don’t allow you to take cameras with you on introductory dives but he saw we were confident so let us take them. We did 3 dives that day and each one was incredible. I was gutted though that during the last dive when descending deeper below the surface my ear was in so much pain, I had to go back up. The first two dives were amazing though – the instructor had warned us already that we may see turtles and did the international sign for turtle with his hands. When diving he faced me and did the sign, in my head I though it would be a little turtle just swimming by, I could not believe what I was about to see. On the ocean’s floor was a sunken ship wreck we slowly swam up to it and there laying on top were TWO GIANT TURTLES! Just chilling casually watching us, I got so excited I started to breathe really heavy which made me start to float upwards. The instructor grabbed my foot and got me calm again and I held onto the old ship wreck bars. Because of me panicking, one of the turtles started to swim off, I felt bad as everyone else wanted a glimpse of him. But he swam over my head and back round and was starting to fight with the other turtle as he wanted his spot! I couldn’t believe the sheer size of them! We were so lucky to see the turtle’s, the instructor said afterwards that it was the first time he’d seen them behave like that. During the dive we saw another three turtles swimming by, all massive and there was one baby one. We also saw lots of other types of weird and wonderful fish, the coral was beautiful too. I would say that the diving in Mabul island was a lot better than the
Great barrier reef, so much more to see and a lot less crowded. I wish we could have stayed longer and done the PADI course but I will definitely be back. There is an even smaller island near Mabul called Sipidan which is in the top 10 best dive sites in the world, you have to apply months in advance to get a permit to dive there. We met some people who had and they said it was the best, so I would love to do that one day.
We only stayed in Mabul island for three nights, but it was the most wonderful 3 nights ever. The last night we walked to the beach onto the long jetty to watch the amazing sunset. There was a mix of locals and tourists there all watching, that’s why I loved Borneo so much, it was just so real and raw and the people were just so friendly. We got the boat the next morning and as we were leaving the whole family at Scuba Jeff’s came out to sing us farewell, they did their own unique version of John Denver’s “Leaving on a jet plane” but changed the words to “I’m leaving Mabul island…” it was such a nice gesture and I will always treasure that memory of us drifting away on the little boat and them singing to us with their guitars. We arrived back in Semporna, which again was a whole different experience. A big town full of hustle and bustle, but nothing like what I was used to. The rawness of Borneo just stood out everywhere you went. We then got a coach to Kota Kinabalu and stayed there the night as we were flying the next morning. We hadn’t planned our next move from there, we didn’t know where we were flying to. That night we searched online where the next cheapest flight was going to and that’s exactly where we went, we might have gone backwards on ourselves a little bit but it was a whole new spontaneous adventure….BALI!