Another half-hour flight takes us to Tawau and from there at 80 ringgits (€17) we move 100 kilometers east to the seaside town of Semporna. This is another unassuming, dirty city with no sightseeing. We rent a room in a hostel to leave our luggage and take with us just basic equipment, before heading to the pier to search for a boat. We already know that it is illegal to wander around the Tun Sakaran archipelago without an authorized boat and away from the permitted touristic islands. The reason for the ban is the action of the Islamist organization Abu Sayyaf, which is based in the nearby southern Philippines Islands and is now considered as the eastern branch of ISIS, launching bomb attacks, piracy and many kidnappings of westerners, many of them with a tragic end.
KOTA KINABALU: Security forces in Sabah?s east coast remain on high alert a week into intelligence information saying that Abu Sayyaf-linked gunmen were on their way to Sabah to kidnap high-value targets.
At the Semporna pier we are looking for a fisherman to take us to any remote settlement of the Bajaus, risking himself with severe penalties if the authorities find out and for us undertaking the danger of jihadist pirates. After several failed attempts without help of any locals, a boatman appeared to accept at an affordable price. We sail off the coast of Semporna, in a sea of rubbish. We stop at a nearby floating settlement where we pay half of the amount to buy fuel. The rest of the tour was joyful, viewing villages “standing” on wooden stilts in the middle of a shallow ocean, with the color of water alternating from deep blue to bright turquoise. Small islands, not pointed on the map, full of palm trees, are scattered in the sea, as we are approaching the largest of, GPS indicated as Bodgaya Island. There, a Bajau settlement began to populate above water. The boatman left us on a hut that seemed to be the most stable and well made of the village, and we agreed to pick us up on the following day to visit some nearby islands. We climbed to the “patio” of the hut, which had plenty of space as the building was in an expansion phase. A family with several relatives welcomed us, but they were relatively uninterested, as there was no common language of communication. Apart from the small fee for our stay, along the way they asked money for other reasons, such as going fishing or salt for cooking! Unfortunately, one little girl in the family was constantly asking for money as well.
The panoramic view of the village was exceptional, I was in one of the most beautiful, most breathtaking places I’ve come across. The shallow waters that surrounded the settlement had an extraordinarily dazzling brightness and intense turquoise color, while the clouds created variations of light. In the background, on the side of the nearby island stood a steep slope with dense impermeable vegetation, while on the other side an ocean of scattered small islands. The camera sensor could not capture this impressive bright effect. All around, there was a continuous choreography of Bajau’s daily routine, with adults and young children navigating their pirogues and climbing from house to house, doing their daily work or just socializing. I could not stop admiring this setting and absorbing those moments.
Many visitors and relatives came to the hut. Women taking care of young children and having a kind of improvised sunscreen, similar to other parts of the world, such as Madagascar or the “tanhaka” in Burma. The men were carveing wooden boards to create oars. We decided to go to the nearby island where happy children of all ages were playing. The waters were so shallow not exceeding waist height, but some caution was needed for sharp objects on seabed, of human or natural origin. Of course, while we were in the water we begged no one to use the toilet, which was nothing more than a hole on the floor of each hut. Children on the island were playing soccer or swinging from two long ropes between palm trees. Most of them were asking for money with annoying persistence. We continued along the coast barefoot around lots of rubbish and human waste, searching for a passage to the beach we spotted on the small islet joined by a thin strip of land. Unfortunately it was an optical illusion, the path was full of sharp rocks, small sharp shells and the white beach was not made of thin sand but dead sharp corals. The water was shallow and without much underwater life, moreover, those exotic places that look great in pictures, often do not meet expectations. Before we left the hut we had offered pens and balloons to the kids and upon return we saw the entire patio painted with imaginative illustrations of sharks, helicopters, rockets and more. After all, the house proved to be the only one in the village that had a TV and a generator. Before night time, the hut was full of visitors of all ages, arriving to watch the “magic box”. We enjoyed the enchanting colors of sunset, satisfying our thirst with tea and our hunger for white rice, some tiny fish with bad taste and canned tuna… to our great surprise from a tribe renowned for its fishing skills! We regretted not fishing with them, which didn’t happen the next day either because the chief had left. We laid our sleeping bags on the hard floor that made every position uncomfortable, while the TV sound, the loud discussions and the generator noise, disturbed all the tranquility, at least until the fuel ran out. The grandfather of the family, who could hardly walk around and preferred to move on four legs, made use of the “toilet” that was nearby and shared views, night and day. The sky shone from a thunderstorm on the horizon, but fortunately it offered only spectacle, despite my concern.
The accommodation did not include breakfast and in addition, some mice ate the two croissants that my friend had with him and including some holes on his backpack. The boatman came to pick us up at some time, but despite the agreement he refused to take us to the islands we had asked for, because he said there was coast guard presence. Eventually we negotiated to take us to some other. Indeed, we arrive at the first of those, named Maiga islet, that had a small Bajau settlement and stunning beaches. We spent some time enjoying the scenery and taking photos. But before we take a swim, the boatman called us to leave. We were not at all happy about that, but in his poor English, he explained that the village chief was not there to give us the necessary approval, a tradition we know from others countries like the Solomon Islands. Fortunately on the next island we got approval, but the beach was modest. The children of the island were very kind and shy, we offered them markers and balloons and no one asked for money.
Returning to Semporna we booked regular rooms in a hostel, ate “regular” food and drank fresh juices in street restaurants. Some days before the celebrations of the Independence Day, local events were organized with night market and a band concert. Nightlife is virtually non-existent, so the best solution was to buy whiskey from the supermarket and spend the night on the patio of the hotel. Semporna is unimpressive in day time too. The main attraction is the central mosque with its glossy marble courtyard and another stilt-house quarter. The latter’s sightseeing consists of the shocking dirt from the immense rubbish dump in the mud beneath the houses and apparently no public sector was interested in cleaning it. The carcass of a large lizard was laying there and a young drug addict, after inhaling something from a nylon bag, went barefoot in the mud inspecting the carcass with his hands …
The islands of Tun Sakaran archipelago
For the following days’ schedule, we couldn’t between one more stay with the Sea Gypsies or some legal, organized day trips to the islands of the national park. The most reasonable choice prevailed, and despite my usual dislike of anything massive touristy, it was quite worth it. The first island is the famous Bohay Dulang, separated from Bodgaya by a shallow stream. The tour begins with a hiking trail through the jungle, to the top where a view reveals leaving your mouth open. “Laces” of coral in various shades of blue extend between the two islands and around them, with the view from this height giving a rare, idyllic picture of nature’s majesty. Unfortunately, the Chinese people were quite noisy in their selfie shots cravings and disrupted the magic, but luckily the surrounding went empty at some point. On that day we visited two more islands, the Mantabuan and Sibuan, both with stunning beaches, where you could find your private swimming place after small distance. Each island had a small settlement and army presence.
The folowing day’s trip was to the island of Kapalai and the famous Mabul. These islands attract scuba diving tourism, consisting the starting point for neighboring Sipadan, a world-class destination where rare species of marine life can be seen depending on the season, from microorganisms to large predators. Overnight in Sipadan is not permitted and diving packages are somewhat overpriced. I decide that a day of snorkeling is enough for me and my first stop for a dive is in Kapalai, where a luxury resort delimits its maritime ownership by banning access. Despite this frustrating prohibition, the coral reef was not restricted by the resort’s buoys and the seabed was full of life. Among other things, I saw flocks of barracuda, parrot fish and the famous Titan triggerfish with its imposing size, big teeth and well-known aggression defending its dominance. A warning attack was also fired at me who came close enough to take a photo.
The island of Mabul, though rich in sea life as well, aided by artificial reefs, presented the same frustrating setting as the resorts had occupied part of the island. Fortunately there was no restricted sea access here, and beyond the cluster of bungalows, there was a vast lagoon with amazing water color, where strangely, I was alone! In Mabul there is also a Bajau village on land, less picturesque, poor, with few shops selling tourist items. The social contrast was intense here, with the barbed wire separating the worlds of the privileged and the outcasts of this planet.
We leave toBorneo with mixed emotions. Personally, I was happy to meet and live for a while with the “sea gypsies” and I was frustrated with the ugly tourist development and the irrational exploitation of the natural environment. Maybe if I spent more time exploring Borneo’s deep dense jungles, I would feel more fulfilled.
©Alexandros Tsoutis. August 2019