Dive Malaysia ... The Big Blue!

The Islands of Labuan, Layang-Layang & Sipadan

LETTERS FROM MALAYSIA - The Country by Bruce Stewart

Malaysia is a nation of magnificent geographical and ethnic variety, offering a kaleidoscope of culture, cuisine's, handicrafts, lifestyles and landscapes. Often dubbed the "lucky country of Asia" because of its wealth a natural resources, it is also a land of opportunities.

Modern Malaysia is the result of the 1824 Anglo Dutch Treaty which partitioned Malaya into the Straits Settlements and Indonesia. Under British influence until 1957, the Straits Settlements declared independence on 31 August 1957, establishing the Federation of Malaya. Later, in 1963, Malaysia was formed with the admission of Sabah and Sarawak. (Singapore withdrew from the Federation in 1965 to become an independent city state.) Malaysia however still reflects a very strong and notable British influence. At Independence Square, the original "spotty-dog" club still exists - formerly the club-house at the cricket oval, visitors were required to leave their dogs outside, and the collection of Dalmatians which seemed quite popular at the time, lead the locals to nick-name the building.

Malaysia is divided into 2 regions by the South China Sea. Peninsula Malaysia is situated in the west at the tip of mainland South East Asia, and East Malaysia, comprising Sabah and Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The country consists of 13 states and 2 Federal Territories. The constitutional monarchy is headed by the Yang Dipertuan Agong (king) who is elected every 5 years. Malaysia practices parliamentary democracy which is governed by the cabinet, headed by the prime minister with general elections held every five years. Malaysia comprises 13 states - Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, (Central Region), Perak, Penang, Kedah, Perlis, (Northern Region), Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, (East Coast), Malacca, Johor, (Southern Region), Sarawak, Sabah (East Malaysia) and 2 Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan.

We are on an assignment for the South African division of the Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board, to study and evaluate tourist and dive resorts in Malaysia and to prepare promotional and publicity material for the South African diving and water-sports fraternity. Our group comprises 8 people : Lyn de Lacy Smith - doyenne of diving and diving tour operator for Seekers Travel, Geraldine Massyn - tour advisor from Seekers Travel, Gordon Hiles - commercial videographer, Peter Pinnock - one of South Africa's top underwater photographers, Athol Franz - photographer, Dyan Ennis - videographer and publicist, Paulo Benvenuto - photographer, and myself - writer, photographer, videographer & publicist.

From Johannesburg a 14h30 departure on Malaysia Airlines for Kuala Lumpur, initiates the first stage of that traveller's plague, "bio-clock disruption" - we are flying East and Malaysia is 6 hours ahead of South Africa. The 10-hour flight should mean an arrival at 00h30 but the 6-hour time change puts local time at 06h30. Added to this, the impeccable service from Malaysia Airlines, did much to actively discourage any attempt at sleep - gorgeous and ever-friendly hostesses, our first taste of a delightful array of Malaysian cuisine and an in-flight entertainment programme which offered some of the finest in-flight head-phone sound I have ever experienced. A combination of classical music and opera on the concert channel plus the highly entertaining movie "Entrapment" (filmed on location at the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur), effectively put paid to any attempts to sleep.
As the saying goes, "you only get one chance to make a good impression". Malaysia certainly does this with your arrival at the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) a Rm5-billion (8 billion Rand) architectural masterpiece, which has all the bells and whistles. (Even the toilets auto-flush and self-disinfect.) I have often used Singapore's Changi Airport as the benchmark. KLIA is easily its equal.

The 60km trip from KLIA to Kuala Lumpur along the North South Super Expressway, an 850km highway from Singapore in the south to the Thailand border in the north, brings us into Kuala Lumpur an hour later. A city that is quite beautiful - a combination of diverse architecture, lush vegetation, and city gardens that manifest a degree of attention and care that is very rarely seen even in private estates. The art of creating topiary layouts is seen on virtually even bush and shrub along city streets.

As we enter Kuala Lumpur, we pass the Palace of the Golden Horses, the inspiration behind the Palace of the Lost City at Sun City. Very similar architecture, but I rate Sol's efforts a bit higher, mainly because he has sited his Palace in the architecturally designed Valley of Desolation, while the Golden Horses architecture tends to stop at the front doors.

The Kuala Lumpur skyline is highlighted by the Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower, a 421m telecommunication tower, opened in 1996 and the 4th tallest tower in the world, and by the Petronas Twin-tower complex. Built in stainless steel at a cost of Rm15-billion (25 billion Rand), and comprising 88 floors of offices, this space-age 'smart' construction soars a staggering 451.9m, making it the tallest office complex in the world. Although the film Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, thrills the viewer with nail-biting scenes of the twin towers and the skywalk, 750-feet above the ground, nothing can prepare you for the staggering impact of seeing this structure face to face.

While in Kuala Lumpur, we are checked into the Legend Hotel, a 5-Star, centrally situated hotel adjacent to one of the larger shopping malls. Again the British colonial influence is evident in the graciousness of the hotel, in the size of the guest rooms and suites and in the level of service which makes every visitor feel that much more special.

A short briefing session from our representative from the Malaysia Tourist Promotion Board, before we go and explore the shopping in Kuala Lumpur, which is reported to be some of the best in the world. The currency is the Ringgit of Malaysia (Rm) and the exchange rate is presently fixed at Rm3.8 to the US Dollar. Our South African Rand is not as fortunate and we are looking at R1.63 to the Ringgit.

One thing every visitor gets for free in Malaysia, is a free sauna / turkish bath. Lying between one and seven degrees north of the equator, it's hot and it's humid - temperatures of 22 degree C at night to 32 degree C during the day. High humidity of 90% plus and common rainfall, averaging 2500mm a year.

The 22 million population comprises 54% Malay (mostly Muslims), 34% Chinese (mostly Buddhists) and 10% Indian (mostly Hindu), with Malay and English being the 2 main languages. Society is run on Islamic principles. Drug trafficking is punished by a mandatory death penalty, and pornography and prostitution are out. Littering caries a Rm500 fine.

The country is run as a democracy but has a king, with an unforgettable but unrememberable name (the longest ever in Malaysia) - Duli Yang Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Salahudin Abdul Aziz Shah.

Shopping in Malaysia is a treat. Although Malaysian law requires that all merchandise displayed for sale be tagged with the price, bargaining is the order of the day. Good humour and graciousness are good bargaining tactics and as traditional Chinese and Indian shopkeepers consider it a bad omen if the first customer of the day walks in and leaves without buying anything, don't do your browsing first thing in the morning. Check your options and prices in the afternoon and evening, pick your store of choice and be the first customer the next day - knowing that a sale is a good omen, the storekeeper will be that much more amenable to closing a mutually satisfactory deal - especially after a respectable period of polite haggling.

Prices are considerably better than in South Africa on most items, but shopping without knowing prices at home is dangerous. I found a number of items, such as DVD zone 3 disks at Rm99 (R160) against the SA price of R115 - R150 for Zone 2 DVD disks.

At night, dinner in the Seri Angkasa Revolving Restaurant, 340m up the Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower, is an unforgettable experience as the scenery below the full-length glass walls is a spectacular ocean of lights. The restaurant makes a complete revolution in 90 minutes, offering diners an ever-changing panoramic view. Being somewhat cautious of any height above 1 floor, sitting 2 feet away from a 1000-foot drop is initially a bit disconcerting, notwithstanding the solid glass walls. The food is mouthwatering - a combination of classical and traditional dishes, reflecting the diverse cultures of the country, the parade of dishes never stops. I mean this quite literally as the seating area is on the revolving perimeter of the restaurant while the buffet displays are on the stationary core of the building - it's a bit like sitting on a very large "lazy susan".

This revolving restaurant can be a bit disorienting at times - after dinner, Lyn went to the cloakrooms and when she returned found her table and table guests missing. After a few minutes of panic and consternation about how many Tiger Beers she had consumed, was rescued by the maitre'd who pointed out that her table had merely rotated to the other side of the building!

All too soon and after only a day in Kuala Lumpur, we embark on our expedition to some of the best diving locations in Malaysia - Labuan, Layang Layang and Sipadan.

Best time to come : April to September. Climate is warm, sunny and humid all year. Temperature 25 - 32 degrees C, with humidity as high as 95%. Official language is Behasa Malay, although English is widely spoken throughout Malaysia. Electricity is 220 - 240v AC, 50 cycles, 3-pin square-pin plug.

Fly to Kuala Lumpur for a full day of shopping and visits to Petronas Twin Towers and an evening meal at Menara KL. Stay at Legend Hotel.
Transfer to Palau Sipadan for 4 days and include a day's diving excursion to Kapalai and Mabul.
Transfer to Kota Kinabalu and stay at Pan Pacific Sutera. 1 day of sight-seeing.
Transfer to Layang Layang Island Resort for 4 days.
Transfer to Labuan for 3 days and include a tour of the pubs and clubs. Stay at Sheraton Labuan or Waterfront Labuan.
Transfer to Kuala Lumpur for the final day of shopping before returning home. If time permits, a day at Port Dickson and a night at the Avillion Village Resort is recommended.

Grateful appreciation to the following organisations which made this trip possible :
* Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board
* Malaysia Airlines
* Borneo Divers
* Sheraton Labuan
* Waterfront Labuan
* Labuan Tourist Info Centre
* Kapalai Resort
* Pan Pacific Sutera
* Legend Group of Hotels
* Sarawak Tourism Board
* Palau Sipadan Resort
* Layang Layang Island Resort
* Sipadan-Mabul Resort
* Asian Overland Services
* Reliance Sightseeing
* Avillion Village Resort
* Palau Sipadan
* Dive Seekers : Seekers Travel


All too soon and after only a day in Kuala Lumpur, we are off to the island of Labuan, Borneo Divers and the Sheraton Hotel. A two and a half hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, across the South China Sea to the Bay of Brunei and the 62 sq km island of Labuan, 8km off the western coast of Borneo.

Ruled by the Sultan of Brunei until 1846, Labuan was ceded to the British, ruled by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945, and again ruled by the British after WW2. In 1963 Labuan was ceded to the State of Sabah and joined the Federation of Malaysia. The Federal Government of Malaysia took over Labuan in 1984, and in 1990 Labuan was declared an International Offshore Financial Centre, a duty-free island with a corporate tax rate for offshore companies set at 3 percent of net profit or Rm20000, whichever is the lower.

Our stay is at the Sheraton Labuan, a 5-star idyllic hotel setting with panoramic sea-views over the harbour and the Bay of Brunei. Our host is Hubert Wilfred, the sales director. The hotel is world class, with spacious rooms, comfortable beds and down pillows (my personal yardstick for hotel rating).

We immediately head for Borneo Divers, the local operation responsible for diving in Labuan and Sipadan. The director of operations, Randy Davis, is an American commercial diver from Tennessee, who moved to Texas and the oil industry and who has a passion for history and a list of stories, tales and anecdotes to burn the time between dives. We will be visiting 4 main wrecks in the area.

First on the list for a 2-tank dive is the "Cement Wreck", 21km from Labuan and lying in 30m of water. Named the "Tung Hwang", this 105m freighter hit the Samarang Bank while taking cement to Brunei for the construction of the Sultan's new palace and sank on 25 September 1980. The visibility is 15 meters plus, the water a lovely 29 degrees and the area teaming with fish-life. The wreck is still intact and offers good access for penetration at places.
The following morning we head for the "Australian Wreck" and the "American Wreck", both located some 24km from Labuan. Contrary to popular belief, the "Australian Wreck" was neither an Australian ship nor sunk by the Australian Airforce. She was the Dutch freighter SS De Klerk, built in 1900 in Amsterdam and put into service in the Dutch Indies (present day Indonesia). The Dutch Navy scuttled her in March 1942 in the face of advancing Japanese forces. The Japanese salvaged her in November 1942 and put her back into service, renaming her the Imabari Maru. At 09h45 on 16 September 1945, en route from Singapore to Manila, she struck a contact mine off Labuan and sank. Lying on her port side on a sand bottom in 33m of water, she hosts an abundance of marine life, especially very large lion fish, some of the biggest bat-fish I have ever seen and offers me my first sighting of the elusive frog fish. The surface current is unfortunately very strong and on this dive the visibility is under 10m.

After an hour's break on the surface, we move the 1.5km to the "American Wreck" for our second dive of the day. Identified as the US Navy minesweeper USS Salute, the ship sank on 8 June 1945 after hitting a mine during the Allies pre-invasion sweep of Brunei Bay, Borneo. 9 lives were lost. In the explosion, the ship broke her back, with the bow portion folding back over the top of the stern section. Very cluttered with the mine-sweeping cables and the antimagnetic armature throughout the inside of the hull, this is a "hard-core" wreck diver's wreck, with penetration only for those with experience, caution and patience. In spite of poor visibility, it is still disturbing to dive on a wreck, where piles of military boots, mounds of ammunition and stacks of "hedgehog" anti-sub mines, depth-charges and bombs are still to be found.
In 1995, Borneo Divers held a memorial service for the 9 sailors who died. They managed to track down a number of survivors and their families (who had been led to believe that the wreck no longer existed), flew them to Labuan, and held a service at the wreck where they could view the wreck through monitors connected to ROV units on the wreck.

Evening dinner is a real treat. We meet a group of Chilean divers and tour operators, also guests of Borneo Divers. Randy Davis and his charming wife Stephanie host a dinner at the New Sung Hwa Seafood Restaurant, a favourite haunt of the locals. Litres of Tiger Beer, mountains of rice, platters of prawns grilled in coconut, fried stingray steaks, grilled grouper, and a green vegetable, something like very thin asparagus but tasting both unusual and quite delectable.

Our final dive at Labuan is a 2-tank dive on the "Blue Water" wreck, a stern trawler lying 34km from Labuan and at a depth of 35m. (Called "Blue Water" because it lies well out to sea and the depth and visibility are usually very good.) The trawler caught fire in 1988 and after the fire was extinguished, the trawler was on tow to Labuan for repairs when the fire flared up again. In fighting the new fire, they pumped so much additional water into the hull that the ship sank and now lies, fully intact, on its side. Visibility is excellent (25m plus) and soft coral and fish-life in abundance.
For divers visiting these wrecks, especially the deeper ones at 25 - 35m, dive computers are essential, particularly when doing a 2-tank dive with a sit-time of 60 minutes between dives. Very helpful, is the Borneo Divers concept of a hanging bar at 5m with a regulator connected to a tank on the boat. This makes the 5m safety stop and any deco-stops a lot more controlled. Most of our group were forced to do a deco stop of 5 - 15 minutes after this "Blue Water" wreck dive.

Labuan is an essential stopover for any diving holiday to Malaysia. The diving is excellent and the night-life not to be missed. However, because of the depth of the wrecks and the currents which can be strong, this is not for the diving novice - at least 20 to 30 logged dives with experience in diving to depths of 25m plus.

Randy Davis tells us tales of commercial divers who have 2 to 3 hours of oil-rig deco-stops, who, to kill the boredom, take paper-backs with them. Notwithstanding the water-logged nature of the book, as you finish a page, you 'float' it across to the next diver in the deco-cage, and so the book does the rounds, page by page. Although we never had to spend more than 15 minutes at the deco-stop, it is still a very long time to stay in one place doing absolutely nothing.
Our last night in Labuan. Due to the proliferation of oilrigs in the area, Laubuan enjoys a cosmopolitan night-life, quite unlike anywhere else in Malaysia. We are off to experience some of the bars, discos and clubs, reputedly in excess of 30 in Labuan Town. Our first stop is Kings Kareoke Bar, where you can book a private suite for your Kareoke Evening or risk performing in the open club. We decided that at the present time, none of us should give up our present occupations!!!

Next stop was the Zoom Music Club which had a great vibe, a really hot live band and a pair of female vocalists worth listening to as well as keeping an eye on. We next called on the Casanova Disco Club - something totally wild. Pumping music that rattled your fillings, flashing strobes and shoals of tidlers - all dancing by themselves in front of huge mirrors, shaking their heads side to side at incredible speeds, as if trying to dry their hair, and then just sitting on bar stools in front of the mirrors. Communication was simply non-existent - you could not hear yourself think let alone try to interpret what anyone was saying and the strobes gave everyone a disjointed robotic look. Even for the 40+'s, it was an experience.

Heading for the next club, we saw an entrance that looked interesting and asked our host for a look-see. When he tried to discourage us, we pushed the point. Finally he relented and allowed us to pop in to the Popin Club, but only on condition that our girls stayed outside. Yes, you guess it. Although the oldest profession does not officially exist in Malaysia, it has most definitely slipped into cosmopolitan Labuan. The 'hostess' Rose is a dish herself and the reef-fish are both colourful and playful, reminding one of clown-fish and angel-fish rather than titan trigger-fish or humpback parrot-fish. Unfortunately, a group of ladies waiting outside prevent any attempts at spear-fishing. But definitely worth including in any future trips to this island.

Labuan also offers the visitor some incredible beaches, jet-skis, water-skiing and river tours through the jungle to see the Probiscus Monkeys.

The Waterfront Hotel is an interesting alternative for visitors to Labuan. Located in the harbour, a stones throw from the Borneo Divers Dive Centre and a spit away from the Borneo Divers boats, the rates are good at approx Rm190 per couple per night including breakfast. If your budget will do the honours, the executive suite at Rm375 per night is well worth the bit of extra.

A 30-minute flight from Labuan brings us to Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah in Borneo, where we overnight at the new Pan Pacific Sutera Hotel, before our onward leg to the resort island of Layang-Layang. Kota Kinabalu, a city of 400 000 people, 60% of whom are Chinese, was formerly the city of Jesselton, which was totally destroyed by the Japanese during WW 2. Reconstruction of the city was started in the 1950's. The essential landmark is Mount Kinabalu, which stands guard majestically over the sprawling town below.
The 5-Star Pan Pacific Sutera Hotel was opened in early 1998 and is palatial in every respect - spectacular sea-views of the bay area and neighbouring islands, rolling tropical gardens that stretch to the ocean shoreline, superb views of Mount Kinabalu, and staff who make you feel as if it is really important to them, not just that you are a guest, but also that you enjoy being a guest. Adjacent to this hotel is the new Magellan Resort Hotel currently under construction and due for opening in 2000.

For visitors to KK (Kota Kinabalu) who are interested in the historical / cultural aspects of Borneo, an evening visit to the Kampung Monsopiad, site of the Monsopiad Cultural Village, offers traditional food, rice wines, traditional dancing, and a short presentation on the Borneo head-hunters of days gone bye. Looking at the skulls of 42 great chiefs who got the chop 300-odd years ago is a bit goulish before dinner, but a fun and interesting evening - you can try your hand at the Borneo head-hunter blow-pipe and use black balloons as a substitute for your friendly tribal adversary. Having enjoyed the luxury of a misspent youth, my dart-playing experience facilitated a quick acclimatisation to Borneo blow-pipe head-hunter status.

What makes this visit all the more interesting to our group is the fact that Steph, wife of Randy Davis at Labuan, is a descendent of the Borneo Monsopiad head-hunters, the fact of which she pointedly reminds Randy whenever a touch of wifely discipline is called for!

Unfortunately we are only in Kota Kinabalu for one day. A trip up Mount Kinabalu is something I would personally include on a future trip, as well as the water villages of Mengkabong and Penambawang. From our visit to Borneo Divers Head Office in Koto Kinabalu, I understand that KK is not a serious dive destination, although very busy with resort courses and training courses.


After a 04h30 wake-up call, we are off to the old KK air terminal for our flight to the atoll island of Palau Layang-Layang. We are flying in a Twin Otter turbo-prop aircraft, and within a few minutes we have left sight of land and are heading out into the South China Sea, on a one-hour flight en route to a piece of land less than a quarter of a square kilometre in size.
The South China Sea, covering 3.4-million sq km is the biggest body of water in the archipelagic region of Southeast Asia. The region is undoubtedly the epicentre of bio-diversity of the richest marine-life in the natural world. There are more species of fishes, corals, crustaceans and echinoderms here than elsewhere on our water planet. The South China Sea is sandwiched between the Malaysian Peninsula and Malaysia's largest states of Sabah and Sarawak which lie on the northern coast of Borneo, the world's third largest island.

Lying 300km off the northwest coast of Sabah, Layang-Layang island was created in 1979 from a sand key in the South China Sea. They literally piled up sand and coral rocks to form a 1.2km by 200m platform to accommodate an air-strip, a luxurious resort (in 1995) and a navy base. Frigates and sea-birds were the first to move in and it became a refuge - an oasis in the blue desert. There is a very large single reef encircling the inner lagoon, with Layang-Layang island jutting to the surface of the reef, almost floating in the azure sea, with 14 dive sites and knife-edge drop-offs of 2000m to the ocean depths below.

The work of nature's finest architects and designers has, over the millennia, created a single, unbroken coral reef around this once volcanic island. Layang-Layang atoll rises from the oceanic depths of 2000m and is part of the drowned continent of Sundaland, comprising the Malaysian territories, Sumatra, Java and the island of Borneo.

British naturalist Charles Darwin concluded that an oceanic atoll was originally formed as a fringing reef that encircled the shallow margin of a volcanic island. As the island gradually sinks through the years (a few millimeters per year), the living coral grows upward in successive layers to maintain contact with optimum sunlight conditions. Eventually the formal island disappears beneath the tides, but the fringing reef continues to grow as a ring, and in the case of Layang-Layang, encloses a beautiful emerald green lagoon.
Layang-Layang resort is one of the most luxurious scuba-diving dedicated resorts in the world. A fleet of 10 purpose-built dive catamarans with twin outboard engines ferry teams of divers to the reef and the 14 dive sites, three times a day - guest are free to join the 8am dive, the 11am dive and the 3pm dive each day, with unlimited shore-entry dives. If you have the energy (and your computer still allows it), there are optional sunset and night dives. The dive centre is totally geared to functionality and turn-around time - large diagrams of each of the dive sites for quick and comprehensive pre-dive briefing, basket racks for storage of dive gear, drying racks for wetsuits - in fact, apart from stepping off the boat for each dive, the only thing for you to do is to get in and out of your wetsuit.

Between dives, lazy days in your exquisitely furnished woodpanelled room, two oversized beds, air-conditioned, hot shower, TV, bar fridge and balcony with a view or enjoy the fresh-water swimming pool (at 34 degrees Celsius). The 200-seater restaurant serves an international cuisine and after three or more dives each days, the buffet is like the proverbial bottomless cup of coffee. Five meals a day are served in order to accommodate the diving schedules - an automatic wake-up call at 07h00 and a light breakfast before the 8am dive. Then a full breakfast at 9.30 provides the energy for the 11am dive. Lunch at 1pm, a "power-nap" to recharge body and camera batteries for the 3pm dive, high tea at 5pm and dinner at 7.30.

The Layang-Layang atoll, with its peaceful isolation, unspoilt environment and waters teeming with life, also makes an ideal habitat for a variety of seabirds to nest. Tens of thousands of Brown Booby, Crested Tern and Black & White Noddies use the atoll as their giant pantry and the man-made island as a convenient predator-free nesting site to procreate close to the food supply.

Layang-Layang is for the diving enthusiast - it offers only 2 types of diving, good diving and great diving. A definite destination for the diver who is looking for a 10/10 dive resort. And when one talks about getting away from the rat-race, this is the place to go to - being 300km from the mainland, the only transport is the Twin Otter. Telephone contact with the rest of the world is via satellite-phone only (the GSM Gauteng-earing doesn't have a chance here) and at Rm22 (R36.00) per minute, you need a Gold Card or an Access Bond if you are prone to long conversations.


500km away in the Celebes Sea, lies the diving mecca of Asia - Sipadan - a tiny island sitting on the border of Malaysia's Sabah and Indonesia's Kalimantan.
The bio-geographical structure of Sipadan dates back to the Piliocene and Quarternary Periods of shuddering volcanic activity which forced the formation of an oceanic mountain - an almost vertical limestone column rising 600m to the surface. Frequent upwellings of nutrients from the deep convened an incredible diversity and density of fishes to its environment, which has made Sipadan unique. It is the only location in Asia that can guarantee sightings of hundreds of turtles and schoolings of barracuda by the thousands.

Getting to Sipadan is a journey in itself. From Layang Layang we fly back to Kota Kinabalu for our 40-minute connecting flight to the town of Tawau, then a 100km, 90-minute bus journey to the port of Semporna, then a 1-hour 40-minute speedboat journey to Palau Sipadan.
Sipadan is impressive in every sense of the world. An island of deep jungle, narrow sand fringes separating the sea from the jungle, heat and humidity. The Borneo Divers Resort nestles into the deep foliage and has the choice location - the dive centre is no more than 25 metres from the sea and no more than 10 meters into the sea the land simply disappears into the 600m drop-off. In half an hour or snorkelling we see turtle, barracuda, bat-fish, thousands of shoaling fusilliers, giant wras, hump-back parrot-fish, white-tipped reef sharks and just about everything the sea has to offer.

And if that is not enough, the boat-dives to any one of the wall-dive locations offer an abundance of sea-life. A backward-roll boat-dive at Baracuda Point dumped is into a shoal of hundreds of humpback parrot-fish, looking like American Bison. These made way for a spiralling shoal of thousands of Jack-Fish - so many and so dense that as you swim into the shoal you lose sight of the other divers and the world becomes noticeably darker. And when you think the shoal will never end, you suddenly find yourself face to face with another shoal of thousands of barracuda and again you swim into the shoal until you reach the core of the tunnel and you look upwards towards the sky and all you see around you is this solid wall of fish. No sooner have you become sated with barracuda, when you enter an equally large shoal of yellow and blue fusiliers. These shoals are so large that the presence of divers fails to disturb them and you can swim right into the shoal which barely parts to give you passage and then closes up behind you until you become one with the shoal.
Sipadan is famous for its turtles than have become so acclimatised to the presence of divers that they pay absolutely no attention to our cameras and close proximity. On virtually every ledge along the wall, you find these turtles sleeping, feeding, coming and going. In fact, while videoing one turtle, the kind fellow was decent enough to pose for us, giving us a good front view, side profile, close-up of his watchful eye, and then he slowly started swimming away from the wall, but slow enough for us to keep the cameras rolling and then he started swimming around us so that we could capture views of him from just about every angle.
However, Sipadan is a disturbed island. Most of us notice this after our first night here. We describe it as spirits not being at rest, of bad fung shei, of restless Karma. While our hosts are slightly evasive at first, perseverance works and we are permitted an insight into the dichotomy of Palau Sipadan. Legend has it that the island was occupied by a giant squid which killed all who dared to step ashore. Possibly the legend was started by the turtle-egg collectors who, for many years, plundered the turtle-nestings on the island, to such an extent that the turtle nests were reduced from some 500 per night to as few as 3 per night. This practise has been halted by the Malaysian Government with viewing visits to turtle nests being heavily restricted and only under supervision. However, it will still take 15 to 20 years for the hatchlings to mature and return to Sipadan. For the past 5 years, Borneo Divers and 2 of the other resorts have voluntarily contributed Rm50 000 (R81500) a year to the turtle-egg collectors to compensate them for loss of income resulting from the ban on egg-collecting on Palau Sipadan.

At the same time the illegal fish-bombing continues and large tracts of the wall reef have been destroyed. Again, the Malaysian authorities impose severe penalties for fish-bombing and the Sipadan resorts refuse to buy 'bombed fish' and report all instances of bombing. However, it's a big sea and unfortunately the fish-bombers may only be arrested by the Malaysian Fisheries Inspectors - the police and military have no jurisdiction here.
For divers who have cave-diving experience, a supervised dive into the Turtle-Tomb is an experience. Some 15m down the wall at the Borneo Divers Resort, lies the entrance to a string of underwater caves that stretch some 70m under the island. Because of the convoluted entry into the caves, numerous turtles have lost their way and have drowned in an area known as Turtle-Tomb, where all that remains are the bones and shells of those who perished. As the caves are in total darkness, this is a dive only for the experienced diver and only under careful guidance, already having claimed the lives of 2 divers, exactly one year apart.
Since Borneo Divers opened the first resort on Sipadan in 1985, the number of resorts has grown to a total of 6, with a capacity of 360 guests per day. The island is clearly not capable of supporting this volume of people as well as the resort staff, and environmental impact is becoming a real problem. Borneo Divers is accordingly spearheading the formation of a consortium to manage the island and to restrict the number of guests to 80 per day, a level which environmental impact assessment studies appear to support. However, while the government supports the 80-guest restriction, it has tried to impose a 23-staff limit, a figure which the resorts believe to be inadequate (they are arguing for a 64-staff limit). In the interim, neither of the restrictions apply.

Because of this uncertainty about the consolidation of the resorts, and the uncertainty as to which of the 6 resorts will be maintained and which will be dismantled, there is no permanency and very little investment in infrastructure. This is also compounded by a territorial dispute with Indonesia as to who owns Palau Sipadan. It can only be hoped that the problems are resolved timeously, for Sipadan must surely be one of the most treasured dive-spots in the world.
Accommodation on Sipadan is rustic. Our first night with soaring humidity, high temperatures, hard beds, harder pillows and no air-conditioning, make us wonder whether it is worth it all. However, after 3 incredible boat-dives and an evening meal 'to die for doll', life is not so bad. Where else in the world can you sit on the sea shore eating a mouth-watering array of dishes including sushimi, grilled prawns, boiled lobster, mutton and chicken kebabs with peanut sauce, buffalo-wings chinese-style, washed down with teeth-achingly cold Tiger beer and followed by coffee and a cigar. Eddie the chef is also an accomplished dive-master and an incredibly good magician, in the kitchen, the sea and with an array of sleight-of-hand illusions that defy even the keenest eyes. While the spartan accommodation takes getting used to, it is a small sacrifice to pay for the experience of being part of this magic.
20 minutes by boat from Sipadan lies the island of Mabul, the location for the new Borneo Divers Resort. Here luxury is the name of the game and the strategy is for Mabul to start taking the load off Sipadan, with guests staying at Mabul and doing boat-excursions to Sipadan. The seas around Madul are murky, offering, what they refer to as 'muck-diving' - keeping close to the reef and concentrating on the little things - the crocodile fish, nudibranchs, cleaner-shrimp, morays and the coral life. Just off the coast of Mabul lies Sea Ventures Resort - a disused oil-rig stuck out in the ocean and converted into a resort. While the drop-off is quite spectacular, getting back to 'shore' is somewhat of a problem - hence all diving, swimming and snorkelling is by boat.
On our way back to Sipadan from Mabul, we stop off at Kapalai Resort - an entire resort built on stilts in the ocean, all interconnected by jetties and walkways on pylons. The only dry land is a small spit of beach which surfaces at low tide. For the rest it's Waterworld! But wow, a Waterworld that certainly doesn't need 'dry land'! The rooms are plush and luxurious with panoramic views, polished wood floors, air-conditioning, sun-decks and it's all on stilts above the ocean. Roll out of bed, walk to the sun-deck, down the ladder and you are in the sea, a visitor to some of the most colourful array of hard and soft corals imaginable and a diversity of unusual sea-life rarely found anywhere else.

All too soon, we embark on the homeward leg of this incredible journey. An 8am departure from Sipadan by boat and we head into the residue of a passing typhoon. A pitching boat, deluges of water and a sea littered with logs, tree-trunks and debris from the storm make to 2-hour trip to Semporna somewhat invigorating. Then the bus-trip to Tawau and the flight to Kota Kinabalu leave us exhausted and eagerly awaiting the luncheon hospitality of the Pan Pacific Sutera before our onward flight to Kuala Lumpur.

Back on mainland Malaysia, we are accommodated at the Avillion Village Resort in Port Dickson, the coastal seaside town in the state of Negiri Sembilan and the coastal playground for residents of Kuala Lumpur. The Avillion water chalets are a must for vacationers - huge, comfortable four-poster beds, draped with snowy-white draping to keep any stray 'mozzies' away and an open-air bathroom - combining total luxury with a touch of rustic and some spectacular sea-views while lying in bed.

Forsaking urgently needed sleep, some of us head into the village and discover the Seaview Seafood Village, a Chinese Restaurant overlooking the sea, and offering a kaleidoscope of dishes at exceptionally reasonable prices.

After a sound sleep, we are back to Kuala Lumpur for a final day's shopping. We have only a day and the shopping frenzy begins - BB Plaza, Sungei Wang Plaza, Lot 10 and KLCC Complex are my personal favourites. Unfortunately time does not permit a visit to China Town, a definite for any future trips to this incredible city.

Our last evening in Malaysia and we are treated to a spectacular 8-course dinner at the Museum Chinese Restaurant at the Legend Hotel - not your usual eatery, but a journey into traditional Chinese cuisine in an ambience of historical museum pieces, with an array of dishes and legends that keep us enraptured until we run the risk of missing our Malaysia Airlines flight back to South Africa.