What is Mabul’s biggest draw? I asked a friend who had been to the island a few years ago. “Oh, it’s simply one of the most beautiful islands in Sabah, perfect for snorkelling and diving,” she exclaimed. Sounds like a stereotypical answer you would get when asked about any island, doesn’t it? So what exactly sets Mabul apart from the rest?
Big John Scuba Lodge
The sun was already up at 5.30 am. It’s no surprise that it rises earlier here, given that we were at the farther east of the country. We headed to the terminal jetty in Semporna in search of our boat to Mabul island. Finding the perfect lodge at the eleventh hour was not an easy task considering the popularity of the island. Fortunately, lady luck was on our side and Big John Scuba lodge was our top pick.
A blue roofed wooden stilt house began to loom as our boat headed towards the pier. Throughout the whole journey I was unaware that the owner, Big John himself was overseeing the safety of his passengers. His countenance was that of a modest man with no hint of pomposity. No one would have guessed that he was the man behind this new establishment.
We hopped off the boat and climbed up the wooden staircase towards the main veranda. Although the room facilities were basic, there was no compromise in comfort. It is one of the few budget lodges with air-conditioning and comfortable rooms. Since water supply to the island is scarce, fresh water is only available from 6 pm to 7 pm. Throughout the rest of the day, sea water is pumped through the pipes.
We began our first leg of snorkelling at Kapalai which is roughly 15 minutes away from the lodge. I looked below and there it was, the bountiful corals that had kept the waters alive with discernible colours and character. Suddenly I caught sight of my guide waving incessantly at us. The hard shell encasing its four flippers and bobbing head was a dead giveaway. We finally caught sight of a sea turtle! It swam towards the sea bed and rested for a few minutes before disappearing again into the deep waters.
Spending an hour diving in the cold waters was more than enough for me. At 4 pm, it was time to head back. I sat at the main veranda observing the locals over a cup of warm coffee and biscuits. And then my gaze shifted towards a pink kayak at the open deck. The waters were calm and I thought what could be more perfect than kayaking into the sunset. It felt good detaching from the world as I know it whilst taking in the view of this beautiful island.
Of Cheerful Banters And Camaraderie
After dinner, I sat down with the staff of the lodge and surreptitiously observed the camaraderie between them. I listened to the stories that were to become the foundation of this establishment with reverence and pondered about the simplicity of life. The more I delved into them, the more I began to realise the influence Big John had on his staff. In my ten years of travel, I had never seen such a humanistic interaction between employer and employees, and that eventually translated to the joy and smile on their faces despite their hardships.
The Coral Triangle
The snorkelling on the second day wasn’t easy as the current was strong, but it was definitely worthwhile. Mabul, which sits in the coral triangle, is bordered by Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Consequently, it has one of the densest marine biodiversity. It is famous for ‘muck diving’ where marine creatures such as seahorses and the blue ring octopi can be seen in the sandy sea bottom. By noon, we headed back for lunch and this time we skipped the last leg of snorkelling to explore the rest of the island.
Mabul On Foot
About 50 metres from the lodge, we stumbled upon a school built by Big John himself to help educate the impoverished children on the island. It is a small, simple wooden house built amongst the cluttered homes of Mabul. Surprisingly, it only functions with basic facilities and runs completely on volunteer work. They accept no form of financial aid, and are highly appreciative of scholastic support.
We met a volunteer teacher from Taiwan who helps educate the children in English and Mandarin. The aim is to give them an opportunity in the field of tourism, which is their main source of income. As a guest, it was amazing to see the raptures of joy on their faces as they share their day to day stories with us.
There was an air of simplicity as the locals carried out their daily chores without much haste. They even took a moment to smile and greet us strangers. The scene was that of a typical village life tucked away from the luxurious vantage points of the island. Indeed, a stark reminder of the disparities of two opposing worlds.
Big John Speaks!
It took only 45 minutes to circumnavigate the whole island and before we knew it, we were back to our comfort zone. I seated myself close to the balustrade of the wooden veranda, watching the evening sunset and throngs of sea gypsies manoeuvring their rickety boats towards us in hopes of making some income from their catch of the day. These sea gypsies live most of their lives on water and, in contrast to most of us, get land sick when they are away from the waters. What may seem to be an appalling lifestyle, is actually a norm for these sea nomads.
“How was your stay so far?” My thoughts soon broke and I turned around to see Big John himself standing next to me.
Our conversation went back to his earlier days as a young boy to his heydays as a successful entrepreneur. His is a story of rags to riches; a young boy with almost no wealth who eventually built a passion-driven business through sweat and toil. It was through him that I learnt the irony of a confounding situation. Most of the island’s inhabitants are without identity. They are neither recognised by the Malaysian nor Philippine national registry, yet they make up almost 99% of the island’s population!
A Turtle Sanctuary In Mabul
On my final night, I was fortunate to see both sea turtles and a sea otter at the same time. One can truly appreciate the effort of this fledgling establishment in the conservation of Mabul’s sea turtles. Owing to growing tourism, the number of sea turtles has been dwindling, and this prompted several lodges around Mabul to take initiatives such as keeping retrieved eggs in a nursery until they have hatched, to safeguard them.
Final Thoughts On Mabul
Like many of my travels, I came thinking I knew all there is to know about my destination. But when I left, it is always with such humbling gratitude and respect. Although it is the destination that we chase after, it is eventually the people whom you meet that will define your adventures, be it good or bad. True, Mabul is a place of naturalistic beauty but in my eyes, it is superseded by the smiles and heart of its people behind closed doors.
Special credits to Sabah Tourism, and Hellosabahmy for their effort in boosting the beautiful travel destinations in Sabah. Visit Sabah Tourism FB or their official website for more information on hiking Mount Kinabalu and other places of interests in Sabah. Also, visit Hellosabahmy FB for more information about cultural events and travel destinations in Sabah.