Sipidan: The Majesty & The Tragedy (HKSAMH part 1)

“You’ve gotta dive Sipidan Island.” That’s what the experienced scuba divers on our Great Barrier Reef boat told me, and guidebooks likewise identify Sipidan as one of the great dive locations in the world.

After years of questionable conservation, the Malaysian government has gotten serious, removed the hotels from the island and started rationing permits. Through the magic of an email barrage to dive shops, I scored a permit for Sipidan for December 11th. I would stay at a lodge on nearby Mabul Island and dive some sites near there on the 10th and 12th, making it a Dream Diving Weekend.

My somewhat overpriced diving accommodation didn’t suit Karen, so she decided to stay at the Singamata Resort- a resort on stilts in the bay- on her own for those days. Like we said when we started this trip, we can’t spend every day together, or we’ll drive each other crazy!

Singamata Resort
Singamata sunset

On the morning of the 10th, we were picked up from our crummy hostel in Semporna and shuttled to Mabul Island to collect our dive gear.

Mabul Island locals living on the beach

Loaded up, we headed for a reef off of Mabul. I was skeptical, as Mabul is known as the home of “muck diving” or the more marketing-friendly “macro diving”. Both terms are an attempt to put a positive spin on the fact that the water is kind of murky, so you have to swim up to things and see your oceanic wonders close-up.

I needn’t have worried: the water was quite clear, and the crazy creatures we saw on the first two dives were enough to fill up the “comments” section in my log book. On the third dive, I stayed a little shallower and brought along my waterproof camera.

Horned sea star and guest
Hawksbill turtle on sand
Anemone fish
Disco cuttlefish
Turtle resting
Hawksbill turtle face

Amazing, especially the number of turtles and how close they got to us. I’d already seen more turtles here than at the Great Barrier Reef, and I hadn’t even gotten to the famed watery wonderland of Sipidan yet. What was THAT going to be like?!

Mabul sunrise

December 11th- time to find out. We met on the dock at a ridiculous 6:15am and started motoring for Sipidan Island. The waves were incredibly choppy, but our pilot didn’t mind. He plowed through them with gusto, giving us passengers good practice at white-knuckle-gripping our seats. It’s a half hour ride to the island- a long half hour in these waves.

Sipidan's front office

We checked in at the guardpost and headed back out to our first dive site. One thing that makes Sipidan so special is that the rock face underwater is almost vertical. The island is on top of an extinct volcano, and the walls around the island drop 600 meters to the ocean floor. You might think that the first 18 meters, where we do our diving, wouldn’t do it justice. But on our first dive, all I could think was: WOW.

It was like taking all the coolest stuff (coral and fish life) from the Great Barrier Reef and arranging it on a gently sloping display wall in a museum. Rather than swimming through caverns of coral like in Australia, we were swimming alongside a riot of sea life.

After a morning snack back on the island, we set out for dive number two. I really wanted to start recording this amazing tableau, so I decided to stay a little shallower and start shooting photos.

When I first hit the water, I felt a bit chilled. Didn’t think much of it, but should have. My ordeal was about to begin, and diving would soon be a distant memory.

Shark discovery
Sharks amid the moonscape
Coral colors
School of fish
Coral formations
Green turtle amid bubbles

The currents around Sipidan can make diving challenging. They weren’t too bad the day I was there, but in taking some of these photos, I did find myself at the back of the group, with my designated leader at the front. As I scrambled to catch up, I suddenly felt those chills again. That’s not good- one of the rules of diving is that if you start to shiver, you get out of the water. I needed to catch up to the leader and signal him with the bad news.

Struggling to take photos, struggling to catch up to the group… I was burning through air more quickly than anyone else in my group. I signaled my remaining air level to our leader and saw the surprise flicker across his face. I gave him the signs for “problem” and “shivering” and he understood. Without hesitation, we began our 5-minute safety stop, the last step before surfacing.

We emerged from the water with my fellow divers scratching their heads. They had plenty of air left. What had happened? I came clean and let them know that I had burned up way more air than I expected to on that last dive. They were cool about it, and when I mentioned that I thought I should sit out the next dive, they couldn’t believe it. Was I sure I wanted to miss seeing another slice of the famed Sipidan seascape?

If I had just gotten a little chilled, I might have rested in the sun for an hour and jumped back in. But this was starting to feel like something else.

Continues in: Seeking help in Sandakan



Toilets: New Zealand Edition

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Steampunk city

Oamaru, New Zealand is a curious town. As Karen noted, the locals have embraced their Victorian history. But they’ve also embraced the pseudo-Victorian, thoroughly modern art form of steampunk.

It’s delightful to see cultured, costumed townspeople against a backdrop of clunky, fantastical machinery. I love a town that doesn’t take itself too seriously.


Return of the Ken

The final chapter in Ken’s epic Lord of the Rings quest takes him back where it all began.

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Life on a Kiwi Farm

My love of animals, meeting new people and wanting a different place to sleep than a hostel drove me to check out WWOOFing. Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (or sometimes Willing Workers On Organic Farms) is a worldwide concept, with organizations in many countries matching people like Ken and me to farmers in need of extra hands. In exchange for 3 to 5 hours of work a day, a farmer will provide room and meals. WWOOFing is very popular in New Zealand. No better place to try it out, so we dove into looking for a farm.

Similar to Facebook or CouchSurfing, we created a profile on the NZ website, donated a small fee and searched through the database of willing farmers. The farms come in all styles and sizes. Ideally, the hosts are people who are farming in sustainable ways and willing to share their knowledge of good Earth stewardship with others.

We found the perfect farming family in Oamaru, a small city on the east coast of the South Island.  Zim, Gail and son Levi have a lifestyle farm on 20 gorgeous acres of rolling hill, gully and limestone bluff land. Besides tending to their animals and garden full time, they also run a business designing computer chips. This family gets little sleep with all these projects, so WWOOFers are a huge asset for them. We were delighted when they agreed to let Ken and me join them for 5 days.

Victorian Oamaru building
Gail and Zim, looking productive in their farm wear.
Does Levi get all the pancakes?

Their 20 acres of land hosts 2 dogs, 1 cat, 5 dairy cows, 2 horses, 15+ chickens, 8 turkeys, 12+ ducks, a beehive, fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and lots of grass. Depending on the willing hands, there could be anywhere from 3-8 people tending to all this, with many supporters coming and going throughout a day. This farm had two other willing workers the same time we were there, Germans Martin and Franzi. It really takes a village to keep a farm going in the right direction. Especially with many forces conspiring against a thriving farm: choking hemlock, prickly gorst, disappearing pond water, rabbits, hawks and many more.

Blaze herding ducks.

So Ken and I helped in any way we could. We chopped down evil hemlock, cut sweet grass for the cows to eat, washed root beer bottles, replanted chamomile, washed out the cheese cave, bagged fresh herbs for drying, helped cook, and cleaned a heap of dishes meal after meal. We watched the German couple build a chicken tractor for the farm.  In return for our work, we slept in our own cabin, ate delicious, home-cooked food and had enlightening conversations. We even had a little extra fun.

Getting rid of that nasty Hemlock
Germans Martin and Franzi, building a chicken house/tractor.
Karen chops out!
Ken cleaning the root beer bottles.

The timing of our visit coincided with Oamaru’s annual Victorian Festival. Oamaru is a unique city in New Zealand, one of the few towns with buildings from the 19th century. Unlike most towns, whose buildings were made of wood, Oamaru’s were created with Whitestone, now called Oamaru stone. This stone was plentiful and easy to cut, so was used to create the town. While towns built with wood were torn down and built again, Oamaru’s buildings remained. So did some Victorian sensibility (with a dose of steampunk thrown in).  During the fest, we enjoyed people decked out in costume, Penny Farthing races, blacksmith demonstrations, a pipe smoking contest and a Oamaru stone carving competition. We all left the chores on the farm to enjoy this fest. The hemlock could wait until another day.

Victorian Fete fun.
Lovely ladies at the Fete.
Penny farthing race.
Jim, a man we met in the Catlins, as the Blacksmith.

Our first WWOOFing experience was made delightful by our hosts. We had inspiring conversations with Zim, Gail and Levi. They left the US over 4 years ago to live the lifestyle they truly desire, one with very little reliance on fossil fuels, creating a sustainable farm and home for themselves and their children (Gail has an older daughter, living in Dunedin). They want to build an Earth Ship house on their land, grow all their own food and live a slower-paced lifestyle. It was inspiring to watch people living their dream.

Goldie, the lovable pooch.
The lovely bluffs on the farm.



Peter Jackson strikes back

So far, Ken has been trailing the famed director around New Zealand. Now, Peter Jackson unleashes his formidable powers on the unsuspecting traveler.

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Beached As, Part Two

For weeks, we’ve been getting laughs from watching Beached As. But when we went for a walk at Gemstone Beach, we had no idea how serious things were going to get.

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Swing, baby!

For an adrenalin rush, hop on a… swing?

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One tour to rule them all

Beyond the mythical land of Wellington, Ken’s epic quest continues…

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