The sea was rough; the ride, rougher. As the motored boat rode the rolling waves of Sulawesi Sea like a man possessed, strong winds blew my scarf askew, revealing once neatly tied hair in a dishevelled tangle.
I am no novice to the wiles of the sea, having lived by the South China Sea throughout my childhood. My derrière may be accustomed to the comfort of padded chairs in air-conditioned rooms, but all things considered, I'm still a Dungun girl at heart and the sea, my master.
If there is anything to be said about this old gal’s seaworthiness, it’s that her stomach content held admirably. I wasn't even queasy, just occasionally nervous at the vast expanse of the undulating deep blue rising and falling around me.
I was on my way to the island of Mabul, a sea-diving haven off the coast of Samporna, Sabah. It sure was a long way from home; a three-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau, followed by an hour-long drive to the coastal town of Samporna and a further one-hour journey by boat to Mabul.
It was not, by any yardstick, a journey of leisure. The four of us – two young men hanging on tight to a precious, 12-foot solar panel, my lady boss and I – were on a mission to help make life a little easier to the islanders, courtesy of a generous corporate donor.
The donor was financing a couple of projects under their community service programme; solar-powered water pumps for fresh water supply and electricity supply to the islanders, their mosque, religious school and a school for refugee children, as well as new latrines for the latter. Our role was to facilitate the projects.
I am ashamed to admit I had never been to East Malaysia before the Mabul trip. God knows the plans the family had made over the years insofar as Borneo was concerned; to trek up Mount Kinabalu, visit Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, walk across the famous 'jambatan' in Tamparuli, traipse around Kuching, explore Niah Caves, spend time in an Iban longhouse and a Bidayuh village, check out all the bazaars and tamus and pasars..
Nothing ever came to fruition, however. Too many things got in the way, chief amongst them my work, unfortunately. As a single mother raising 4 kids, I could afford neither time nor money for such frivolity. And then the kids grew up and left home to live their own lives. Family holidays remained a distant dream. It still does.
That trip to Mabul (July 2012) was a break of sort. I was determined to make full use of the opportunity to do a bit of exploring. And I did. I never thought I would find another 'place by the sea' as beautiful as my hometown, Dungun, but in Mabul I did.
The admiration, whilst grudging, was genuine. Oval-shaped Mabul was simply enchanting. Fine white sand, flat and shallow seabed that seemed to go on forever (you can walk far out to sea when the tide goes out), swaying palms, pleasant inhabitants...
According to kampung chief and community leader Hj Yusuf, there were some 3000 people living on the island, mostly Bajau Laut and Suluk Muslims, immigrants from nearby islands of the southern Philippines.
Mabul found fame due to its close proximity to Sipadan, one of the world's best dive spots. Because the government disallows construction of any kind on Sipadan, visitors have to stay on Mabul, which boasts of a few resorts of international standard and numerous water-cottage homestays.
A diving haven itself, Mabul is recognised as one of the best muck-diving sites in the world. A couple of diving enthusiasts i know swear by Mabul; they can never get enough of diving and underwater-photographing there.
Our motley gang of four spent four days in Mabul checking and identifying sites, having discussions with local leaders, making friends and eating fresh seafood, fish hauled up daily just by sitting on the jetty and throwing one's line into the water. I devoured juicy crabs - boiled, fried, curried - like there was no tomorrow.
Leaving Mabul was hard. It felt like leaving good old Dungun all over again. Here I am in KL, but deep inside, Mabul still reigns..