Pulau Perhentian Besar, Malaysia
Let’s not mess around here. The Perhentians are the real deal. Malaysia does tropical beaches in only the top categories. They’re still a poor cousin to the islands east of Sabah, like Sipadan, but our government doesn’t want us going there. Normally ‘Reconsider your need to travel’ doesn’t phase us that much.. but ‘Do Not Travel’ is pretty clear cut. There’s a whole bunch of pirating activity going on there a result of disputed territory with the Philippines. Sipadan is reknown for it’s diving and despite the warning’s, entices so many people every year. Every now and then someone gets kidnapped. Hence, we’re going to the Perhentians instead.
5:00am pick-up from the delectable Penaga Hotel in Penang. It’s bloody horrible getting up at that hour for any reason, this was a good one, and it was the last time we’d have to do it on this trip. Probably. The hotel had prepared us little paper bags filled with fruit, pastries and water. We bundled out to see the ‘Banana Tours’ van parked out the front with more than one filthy backpacker staring at us with a bewildered expression on their face.
‘Wow, such a nice hotel, why do they have backpacks?’ I’d imagine they’re thinking. Probably think we’re doing this whole backpacking thing the wrong way. Probably thinking they’re the only ones who are doing it right. Probably just because they’d spent 2 weeks in Burma at some hill-tribe and killed their own chicken for dinner that no-one else could possibly relate. Probably. Or more likely, despite my ridiculous delusion they’re probably just tired and wanting to get moving.
It was a flash old van but tight for space. Still the driver engaged the teleportation module and the scenery outside blurred at the intense motion of carving wormholes through the universe. Bit dramatic but it was bloody fast driving. But some 4 to 5 hours later we pull up out the front of a small travel agency, cash in our vouchers for boat tickets and make our way to the port. The Perhentians is made up of two islands, kecil (small) and besar (big). We’d arranged to stay on big simply because there’s more options, evidently, in terms of accommodation. Both islands are yet to be graced by ATM facilities though most businesses there accept credit cards as a consolation. Kecil, particularly ‘Long Beach’ is a renown backpacker hangout. And for our last few weeks before home, we weren’t going to brave the simple shacks and limited water and electricity. So we drop off the two Swedish girls who have yet to book anything at Long Beach, and like veterans of the game, we glance at each other nostalgically. Not this time. We have a reservation at Tuna Bay Resort.
The water goes bright blue and we pull into a make-shift jetty, grab our bags and remove our shoes. The resort is flush on the beach so we climb the wooden steps to a beautiful dark wood check-in area and restaurant. The rooms are simple but we have everything we need and are soon in our beach wear and checking everything out.
I’d signed up for the ‘Rescue Diver’ course offered by PADI at the dive shop next door. So I dropped past to make myself known. It really is a nice feeling walking in; like so many dive shops, they’re kind of thrown together, a two storey wooden building with a nice balcony and room out the back for classroom stuff. But it’s the sound of the compressor and the clang of tanks and the sound of the valves releasing air that just makes me excited. Not in a grubby way you perverts, but happy to be there. Dive communities in places like this are often some of the best people you’ll ever meet. Plenty are nomad types, having left everything back home and doing something completely different. Henning, my instructor, couldn’t have come from a more different country. Norway is the middle of winter at the moment. They have to worry about things like keeping their cars electrified so they can be started in minus 50 something weather. You can throw a glass of water in that kind of cold, and it will freeze before it hits the ground.
We get started on the coursework the next day and it’s just watching videos. I have to do an Emergency First Response course as part of the certification so it’s mainly a bunch of high tempo Americans re-enacting first aid scenarios. Then Henning brings out Annie; the CPR dummy, who I had no idea was based on an ill fated 12 year old girl, who died as a result of surrounding people being unable to assist. Her father modeled the resuscitation doll on his daughter. If I wasn’t already freaked out by the concept; I now had to stare into the rubber face of a dead girl. And then kiss it. :O
So we go through rescue breaths and CPR, even administering oxygen, and under what circumstances. The next day is more practical and we’re in the water with Martin, a friend of Hennings from Norway who is to be my Annie for the day. We flapped about in calm water out the front of the resort beach. There’s two pontoons out there that we use as ‘boats’. The Norwegians have a distinct advantage in their commonality in language so all the practice drills and unexpected scenarios I’m to solve are pre-determined in Norwegian. We cover stuff like surfacing an unresponsive diver, giving rescue breaths and towing them to a boat. And dealing with panicked divers at the surface. Oh this one was good. After having surfaced Martin, dragged him across the water while supporting his head and giving rescue breaths (across his face), I get him out of his gear and haul him onto the pontoon. CPR (simulated) and rescue breaths follow and he springs to life, dons his gear and jumps back in. I still have all my scuba gear off so when he starts splashing about on the surface unexpectedly like a panicked diver, I curse him silently and detach my BCD (inflatable scuba jacket) from the tank and jump in with, inflating it with my mouth. When I get to him I go through the typical coaching ‘You’ll be okay, just relax, reach for your BCD inflator’ type stuff but he’s ignoring everything. I pass him the inflated BCD which he suddenly pushes aside and makes a reach for me. He grabs ahold of me so I suddenly duck underwater and away, surfacing behind him, legs on his scuba tank. I can then reach for his BCD inflator, get him buoyancy and tell him to ******* stop it.
The day continues with that sort of intensity the whole time and is wrapped up by me having to pick him up off his feet and sling him over my shoulders and then drag his 95 kilos up off the beach, up the stairs of the dive shop in into relative safety.
The next day we do some actual diving. I’m on a boat with a Belgian couple doing their Advanced course, a Canadian couple doing their Open Water and a dad and little girl just going for a dive. She can’t have been more than 11 but had all her own gear. She was cool as. Just rolling off the boat, descending and heading off with her dad for a dive.
I had to go through a bunch of search patterns under water. A U shaped one that I set off to practice and on the return leg come across Henning, face down on the sand about 10 meters down. I run through the unresponsive diver drill, hauling him back to the boat, unclipping him from his gear all the way. When we get there he says.
‘Good. Do you have my mask?’
‘****. No?.. Where is it?’
‘You must have dropped it. Can you go and look for it?’ I’m suspicious but I descend and put some of the search patterns into practice. The U shape, the circle, the expanding square but it’s nowhere to be seen. Henning drops down some 20 minutes later to join me, having secured a mask from a neighboring boat. He signals to not worry about it and we take off for a bit of a dive. We find it some 10 minutes later up near the start of the rock wall. We s
pend probably another 30 minutes admiring the underwater landscape. We practice surfacing a marker buoy and surface briefly ourselves to scope out for the boat. Henning excuses himself to have a ****. The water here is so warm, like 31 degrees, so even though I’m wearing a 3mm wetsuit, Henning isn’t. He aborts though, laughing, and tells me once, while at the surface waiting to get on the boat, he relieved himself, only to find a group of divers directly below, on their safety stop. It nearly happened again.
The boat’s nowhere to be seen so we descend again and meet the other group going the other direction. Another 10 minutes and we’re heading back to the boat. It’s not overly deep but all the exertion looking for the mask has resulted in my chewing through a bit of air. I’m at 50 bar which is the point at which you should end the dive. We’re not far from the boat and assume the others are close to surfacing. When we get up I have maybe 30 bar in my tank, which is well into the red. As I get in the boat and get my gear off; Bobbie, one of the Divemaster starts screaming and thrashing about on the surface. Then she disappears. I run through the ‘contact EMS’ spiel with the guys on the boat, don my gear again and jump in to go fetch. I descend to about 10 meters and find her face down. We ascend and I tow her back to the boat, unclipping both our gear. I haul her in and almost as soon as I do, Henning screams ‘Where is my friend? We’re missing Antonio! Has anyone seen him?! There! Bubbles! Someone help!’ EMS spiel, assign spotters and then I jump in, put my gear on in the water and look under.. he’s down about 8 meters staring back at me kicking along slowly. Passive Panic I think. That moment when the diver just goes into a nothing state, staring blankly. I descend and only about 2 meters down find it very hard to breathe. I look at my SPG and find I have 10 bar left. Nothing, vapors basically. As I reach down to assist Antonio he bursts to life, ripping out his mouthpiece and grabbing for mine. I kick him away, put some distance between us, breathing hard at the little air in the tank. He grab my secondary regulator and almost jam it into his mouth and signal for him to relax. There’s bubbles everywhere. We then head for the surface. I throw both our regulators out and gasp in the cool fresh air of the earth. I try and get us both some buoyancy by inflating his BCD but he’s disconnected the valve. Leaning back into mine, I grab his tank valve and tell him to lean back so I can tow us back to the boat. I’m absolutely exhausted but buzzing from adrenaline.
‘Great rescue’ says Henning. I wonder if he knew. Sadist.
Back at the shop I do the exam and pass. Rescue Diver. Rewarding but tough.
The next few days are spent, on the beach front, on deck chairs, punctuated by swims in the warm water, surrounded by plenty of curious fish. Or dining in the beautiful open-air, teak restaurant that looks out over the water. There’s a bar for some great sunset drinks and though I don’t do anymore diving I hire a snorkel from Nia, a jolly local woman who runs a beach-shack restaurant where we spend most lunchtimes. There’s plenty to see just out from the beach where beautiful natural corals blend in with artificial reefs made with A-frame PVC piping. I find a resident sand ray that I say a daily hello to as well as some giant cowfish and plenty of little ‘Nemos’. It’s a great way to practice a bit of free-diving too.
Boat taxi’s are the mode of transport on the island. We take one over to Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil, the backpacker island. It’s a choppy ride over with the boatmen gliding their crafts between the waves, though often unsuccessfully, resulting in slamming and spraying but we arrive at Long Beach none-the-less safe and sound. There’s plenty of backpackers around, long termers and the fresh out of schoolers and all around are those slammed together shacks with nary a glimpse of electricity. You can hear the generators churning away. There’s a bunch of outdoor restaurants like Nias, with simply plastic chairs and dog-eared menus, but the food is reliably good. Roti Canai and a good plate of Fried Kway Teow. We then pick a spot on the beach to sit and soak it in for a bit. There’s plenty of dive shops here as well so people are regularly jumping into boats and heading out through the mild surf.
Back on the big island, we take a walk along the beach, around the rocky out-crops and along as far as we can until we reach a rocky peninsula that hides a nice shallow cove and beautiful beach that we feel is hidden from the masses. There’s a small camping ground behind the trees and every now and then boats with Chinese snorkeling groups come past. Doesn’t sound that serene but it is. It’s lovely.
We leave the island with the full realisation that the end is nigh. The end of diving for a while, the end of beaches, the end of summer for a bit. It’s sobering coming to terms with the finer points of a different sort of responsibility again.
We have a really early flight the next morning out of Kota Bharu so we jump in a taxi, it’s stinking hot, the temperature and humidity outside is intense and the cab driver smells. His cab is an old merc so we’re left to the peril of open windows which is fine until we get into the city traffic. All around us are the flags and banners from the countries political parties, who in the few days past had fought a vicious election. The ruling party maintained power to sustain their already prominent 57 year rule. The opposition calls for protest.
We get to the Tune hotel and wander around Kota Bharu with not a lot much else to do. It’s a typical S.E Asian city with a few malls and nice shops. It’s an early night and an early departure tomorrow back to Kuala Lumpur, our last port of call on this entire, epic trip.