overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

A Crown-of-Thorns hunting we shall go

Written by Maz Towns. Uploaded 13 September 2006.

Malaysia, Country 22, Diary entry 10th-21st July 2006, Total distance in Peninsular Malaysia: 3442 KM

Our peaceful nights camp After finding a nice camp by the beach, we had another rare moment of the trip and were not disturbed that evening nor the next morning. With the sun shining gloriously, we decided to try and dry out some of the sodden kit from yesterdays down pour and had a lazy morning watching the fishermen tend to their boats in the ocean. The beach was a yellow sun kissed colour, but the flotsam and jetsam unfortunately gave it a little less appeal that it could have had. Once again, as I walked along the beach, I found the odd flip flop lying there – why is it that you find them on every beach you pass? Surely the owners must miss them when they come off their feet?!?!?

Breakfast anyone? Eventually, our stomachs told us it was time to leave and head south down the east coast to find some food. We passed a Petronas stn, so as Tinfish was also hungry we filled her up, and found to our delight cereals being sold inside the shop. After having them at Jeff’s house, it brought back a taste of home which we’d not had for a long time, so decided to stock up for the road, especially as the milk over here actually tastes like milk. We decided to have breakfast on the forecourt, much to the amusement of the staff and I placed all the damp clothes out to continue drying. We are now well and truly used to living our lives outside the car, literally!

Alex acting as garage supervisor yet again All fuelled up and ready to go, at the next big town we lost the following 5 hours in cyber wonder world and then continued the journey south. After camping by a mosquito ridden mangrove swamp, we woke the next morning to a flat tyre, even worse, it was one of the new ones :o( After pumping it up and once again before we reached the next town to get it fixed, we hoped it was the rim. It was.

We found a garage which could help us, and they took the rim to get it re-welded. We also got the front diff oil checked and to our dismay found that it had water in it yet again. This must be the 4th time in as many weeks that we’ve had to get it changed and could only assume it must have been our Slim River adventures with Jeff which got us into this trouble. One thing we have found on this trip is that pretty much every time we get something fixed, something else seems to break as a consequence and as we’re on the move constantly, we end up incurring more costs to get the next thing fixed as we cannot take it back to the original garage. Saying that, this garage did a great job with putting us straight and we were able to carry on to Tanjung Gemok where we were hoping to catch the 2pm ferry to take us to Tioman Island.

Dive with CARE' days have been a great way of raising funds for the charity On arrival at Tanjung Gemok we were unfortunately told that they’d decided to only run one ferry today and that had already gone. Typical! So, we continued south to the main ferry terminal in Mersing. I went to park the car and managed to negotiate a third off the price of parking everybody else seemed to be paying, while Alex went to buy the ferry tickets and managed to wangle a deal there too. The ferry crossing was supposed to be an hour an a half, but as soon as we entered the cabin, I was hoping it would be less, it was freezing. The AC was broken and had one setting - ICE Having become accustomed to the warm temperatures over the last few months, we had no jumpers to put on and I soon took refuge outside to warm up and watch the beautiful sunset we were being treated to over the crossing. Alex needed to get on with his next diary entry, so I got him a towel out to wrap around him to try and keep a little warmer, but even he was defeated after an hour and half and had to venture outside to defrost. His fingers were so white from the blood draining from them, they were sore to touch, he could have just come from the Alps in the height of ski season! Eventually, after more than 2 hours we landed at ABC and it was past 9pm. A little later than expected and we wondered whether Eco-divers would still be open, as we had accommodation sorted through them. Thankfully, Christophe was just closing shop and so showed us to Mawar chalets which was home for the next 5 nights.

Alex ready to brave the colder temperatures of Tioman The next morning after brekkie, we walked to Eco-divers to find Jeffree, the owner who had kindly offered to help the team out. Unfortunately, we didn’t meet his partner Michelle as she was back in KL running their other business. You couldn’t meet a nicer, laid back, chilled guy and this personality was definitely reflected in the way the diving was run. None of this ‘7.30am sharp’ meet for an ‘8am prompt’ leave…..no…..we rocked up about 9am, ready for a coffee and chat with him, Christophe and Toni the dive guides and other divers around before leisurely kitting up and getting on the boat. The place had a relaxed vibe to it including a veranda with cushions to lounge on before, in between and after dives, made for a great few days of unwinding from the road.

The underwater world is beautiful The island itself was very different from Perhentaian. Much bigger, but felt much quieter and more relaxed. No hoards of backpackers dragging themselves round the beach in the burning sun with the hope of finding accommodation or little huts on the waters edge. Everything on ABC was set back from the beach, behind the tree line giving you a little more privacy. We already loved the place.

To our surprise, we bumped into Corinne, who we had met at Coral Sky Divers on Perhentian. It’s a small world and as she’d been diving the day before had seen the ‘Dive with CARE’ posters up, knew to expect us! Corinne ended up doing a great job helping out the charity as she dived on all of the charity fundraising days we held on Perhentian and Tioman :) With 10% discount given to customers over three days we were diving with them and 10% of each days profits donated to CARE, everyone was a winner.

Pied Piper Jeffree's children It was a bit of shock the first time we jumped in the water. A couple of degrees cooler than Perhentian which makes a huge difference to comfort levels, and visibility with suspended particles comparable to that of the UK on a mediocre day, but for me the diving was infinitely better. The big difference I found from Perhentian was the abundance of colourful sponges and soft corals here. The days’ diving was excellent with lots of reef fish, colourful wrasse and a couple of big Trevally. Lots of bommies to hunt around and a multitude of macro life to be found. We’d left the camera back at the chalet, but there was definitely a lot to picture.

Che, Christophe and onen of the boat boys planning the COT clean up sites It was a friendly group diving together, and of course we used the opportunity to promote the live-aboard dive holiday in Thailand. After a great 2 dives, we headed back to the chalet to freshen up. We had loosely made plans to meet Corinne, Sandrine and Francoise for dinner – the French contingency. All that was scuppered as Jeffree walked passed us while we were having a drink to say that he was taking us out to a local Chinese restaurant in the next bay, Kampung Tekek, as one of his newly qualified dive masters was leaving the following day. This was also the only duty free bay on the island, so people were keen to stock up their supplies. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin leading the children out of the towns, Jeffree had already waltzed a few people out of their chairs down the path and we in a trance followed. I tried to find Corinne but she wasn’t in her room or the restaurant and I had no idea how to find Sandrine and Francoise. I felt more than a little guilty but Jeffree was not taking no for an answer.

Christophe, Che and Alex digging in to breakfast Tioman is a large island and there are 5 main bays down the west coast of it. We walked to the end ABC before reaching Kampung Tekek where we were then able to catch a cab as roads suddenly appeared! At the end of ABC we bumped into Sandrine and Francoise and they too were whistled into the trance of Pipe Piper Jeffree and we continued to the restaurant. In the end there were about 12 of us for dinner and it was superb. Sweet and sour fish, prawns scattered with bread crumbs, chicken curry, morning glory, omelette and sizzling tofu to name a few, all washed down with a couple of beers. It was a great evening.

The instruments of the day 9am sharp (Malay time) we all met at the Marine park for the beginning of the annual crown of thorns (COT) clean up. 14 of the dive shops operating in the different bays on Tioman take part in this annual event and by 9.30 everyone was assembled but the president of the committee had been unable to attend, so his deputy in command stood in. Expecting a grand presentation, description of the COT, how to collect them and what they would do with them after we had deposited them at the marine park each day, we were treated to a brief statement in Malaysian, then a few words in English to the lines of “thank you for turning up today. Enjoy your breakfast”! Breakfast had indeed been laid on and it didn’t take long before a few dozen hungry divers tucked in to omelette, fried rice, curry puffs, noodles and all the other great Malaysian foods one normally has for brekkie. It was also another captive audience for us to tell about the live-aboard dive holiday in Thailand.

Jeffree giving the team a dive brief We were given a leaflet about the spiky devils and so you are more aware of what I’m chuntering on about, I shall share a little of this information……..crown of thorns are a member of the starfish family, pretty obvious if you’ve ever seen one. It was described on the piece of paper we received as looking ‘somewhat sinister’, the name gives it away I guess, but was referring to the long, sharp, poisonous spines on the top of it, which can be extremely painful it you do happen to spike yourself. Thankfully I didn’t but we did meet someone who still didn’t have full feeling in the finger he managed to spike a year ago. They are a multitude of colours including purple, blue and green, with the tips of the spikes being red. Personally I think they are pretty, but unfortunately, they feed on the coral reefs, which is why outbreaks need to be kept under control.

Just in case we didn't understand, Jeffree gives a demo You always have to question if you begin to interfere with such a fragile eco-system, whether we are doing more harm than good, which is why it would have been interesting to have a proper introduction at the beginning of the clean up. However, as the snails and Napoleon wrasse, who are the main contributors to keeping the COT under control, are being over fished to keep the exotic dishes on the Chinese dinner tables, it seems the only way to prevent further damage to the coral.

Crown of Thorns After filling ourselves up for the days diving, we were given the instruments needed for the task in hand, string bag and long hook, and walked back to Eco-divers to begin the days diving. Jeffree gave us a brief on using the hook to lift up the body and pick the COT off the reef. You have to be careful to lift the whole starfish and not to break it up, as COT can re-grow any lost appendages after a few months. The plan was to do a fun dive first and then on the second dive hunt for COT, but eager beavers that we were, we took the bag and hook down just in case we came across any. We dived a wreck first which lies at 21m just off Pilate reef. Jeffree lead the way and after a bit of tooing and froing, we found it in no time at all. Impressive as viz wasn’t great and we were on a sandy bottom. A small fishing boat, nice to have a nosy around before coming up to the reef, which is a fish breeding ground, teeming with fish of all colours, shapes and sizes. We only managed to find 3 COT which I guess is a good thing and were having a such a difficult time trying to retrieve one from the stag horn coral without breaking either it or the coral that 75 minutes passed us by before we really had to come up so as not to be below our recommended reserve limit, :) having to leave the little sucker for another time.

A COT hunting we shall go Lunch had also been provided, so we all met back at the dive veranda to catch up and have our rice, fish and chilli chicken before heading out for our second dive of the day. I didn’t really see much of the reef as I was concentrating on finding COTs. Che, another dive guide who was only around for a few days before he was swanning off to the paradise Sipidan to instruct there instead (lucky thing), came in with us this dive and was bag man as Alex and I hooked out the COT. We lost Alex at one point as he’d keenly swum off in search of a COT but we managed to eventually find him again, after Che and I had had a quick trip to the surface to see if he’d come up – nope, he’d just kept swimming around for more COTs. We managed to retrieve about 30. Back to the marine park to add to the masses caught that day, they were all to be counted before being buried. Having eaten such a nice meal the first evening we arrived, fresh Trevally with a garlic sauce, we opted to return and took Nick, Kwan, Corrine, Tim and Jeffree with us. We had a great night swapping stories before it was time to retire.

A quick lunch break before heading back to sea Our final days diving took us to Pulau Labas, famous for its caves and swim-throughs. An underwater labyrinth, we followed Che on the first dive, who showed us the passages, looking at the beautiful corals and sponges as we passed them by. Our last dive was at the same site and this time Corinne, Alex and I dived together to look for COT. Corinne acting as photographer, videographer and ‘spotter’ of the COT, myself and Alex being the retriever and bagger of COT. With a bit of a current flowing and every time we tried to get the COT in the bag the thorns got stuck made it a little harder, but we still did a sterling job and between us found over 30. Our bag filled to the brim, we couldn’t have collected any more if we’d wanted to.

A colourful starfish Getting back to the boat was quite an effort. It had just picked up the other divers and sort of floating over to us. Corinne and I swan towards it, but Alex decided he’d exerted enough energy darting around for COT so waited for the boat to pick him up. The problem being that the engine had packed up. Alex was floating further and further away…bye! Thankfully they got it working once again and Alex was retrieved from the water.

The spikey devil close up Unfortunately, it was only a 1minute fix and as Alex was climbing into the boat, the engine gave up the ghost for good. No one could work out what the problem was. The engine would start, but as soon as you engaged gear, it would cut out. During the many years of his degree, Alex had spent a number of hours down the dive locker, mending the uni dive boats. He thought he knew what the problem was (a wiring one), but without the proper tools, was unable to help. So we began to drift. Thankfully, it was in at least the right direction to where we wanted to end up; Tioman! We’d phoned the shop and told them to send another boat out to pick us up, hopefully it wouldn’t be too long.

Kwan flagging down rescue As we drifted, we noticed another boat coming towards us, so got our flags out to try and wave them down. It worked. They chugged over and it was B&J diving just returning from their last COT clean up dive too. We all transferred to their boat, thankfully it was big enough for them and the 10 of us, just as our own rescue boat turned up. Typically, our broken boat, was obviously a little embarrassed at all the fuss it has caused. The boat boy managed to start the engine and miraculously engage gear and was able to speed off before having to be towed back to shore!

Off to the party we shall go We all got back to shore safely and began preparing for the evenings entertainment. It was Che’s leaving party, as he was off to Sipidan the following Monday. Che was the entertainment! He was hyperactive, nothing abnormal there then, had already cycled over to Kampung Tekek to pick up a few bottles of duty free rum but I couldn’t tell if he’d already drunk at least one of those bottles on the way home, or just incredibly excited. The gang who had dived together over the last few days, all went out for dinner - delicious sate and fresh BBQ platter of meat and fish. For days I’d been trying to think of who Che reminded me of. You know when you get that feeling that someone’s so familiar but you can’t put your finger on it. Tonight the mystery was solved. I’m not sure what finally gave it away, maybe the clapping of his hands together in excitement, or the hysterical laughter and incessant chattering, but it suddenly came to us: Donkey from Shrek! HE WAS DONKEY. No doubt and when we announced it to the whole table, they all burst out laughing and agreed. This just fuelled Che to show off more and he did the best impression of donkey by quoting lines from the movie, having us all in hysterics. It was brilliant.

Christophe, Corinne, Maz & Alex Donkey went off to the bar where the party was first while we opted for a drink in the local bar to where we’d eaten. Time had run away with us and before we knew it, Donkey had returned telling us we’d been ages and it was time to party……. We walked to the other side of the bay where the party was in full swing. Lots of people were there and we had a great, if not a little too drunken, time.

The following morning, we didn’t get out of bed until late and then met up for the closing ceremony for the COT clean up. Unfortunately, we arrived just as they’d finished the speeches, but were just in time for the lunch :o) That afternoon we spent walking about 15kms to the end of the next bay and back, putting up posters for the live-aboard dive holiday in Thailand. We always have some work to do between all the fun we have.

Che aka 'Donkey' a little further into the night! The time had come for us to leave this paradise and head back to KL to prepare Tinfish for her first bit water crossing without us. We had a fantastic time on Tioman and it was definitely helped by the relaxed vibe and welcoming of Jeffree and his crew of Eco-divers. We also managed to raise another fantastic 60 pounds with the Dive with CARE days, so a MASSIVE thanks Jeffree and Michelle for helping us out and for organising the fundraising days for us. We really do appreciate all the help you gave us over the 5 days we were on the island.

Bracing ourselves for the ice box, we were pleasantly surprised that the AC was set on ‘cool and comfortable’ and had a more pleasurable sail back to the main land. The drive back to KL was straight forward but on reaching the outskirts of Port Klang, had to be rescued by one dollar as we got lost trying to follow directions. One dollar kindly put us up for our last few days on the peninsular, as well as sorting out our shipping.

OK, this is my plate, what are you having? The next 4 days were spent either preparing Tinfish for the sailing or catching up with website admin. While we had been in KL before, I had spent hours on the Australian immigration website, completing the online forms for the visa we needed. Because we had applied for the 1 year tourist visa, we knew there was a chance we’d need to have chest x-rays to make sure we’d not got TB as we’d passed through some high risk countries on our travels. There are strict rules on who you can and can’t use and I made a few phone calls as to where people were in the city and how quickly they could fit us in. Chest x-rays here are a quick and simple procedure and cheap as chips, slightly different to the time consuming process of the UK which is 10 times more expensive. Hats off to the Aussie’s, they’re bloody efficient in their paperwork and within two days of them receiving the clear x-rays, we got the e-visa.

Assir (one dollar) and us gorging on the best sate in Malaysia The first couple of days, Alex had to go and prepare paperwork for the car with one dollar while I stayed at the house with the laptop. Once the days work was completed, we went out with one dollar, who took us to his local restaurant for some great sate and limon ice, our new favourite drink of this country. One night, we made a special trip to a sate restaurant which did excellent peanut sauce. Unfortunately the first restaurant we went to was closed so we ended up making over a one hour journey to the next to satisfy our tastebuds! Once we’d decided on which island of Indonesia we would be shipping Tinfish to, we needed to make plans on how we were going to get there to meet her. By pure coincidence, Asia Air (Malaysia’s answer to Easy Jet) flies to Tawau, and just near there is Sipidan. One of the top ten dive destination of the world, (and I think we’ve been lucky enough to visit at least 20 of them!) we thought we’re so close, it would be rude not to! We’d heard so many nice stories about Sipidan, we needed to know if they were true. We’d also noticed on Eco-divers website that they could arrange trips there too, so Jeffree and Michelle were already preparing the way for us.

We packed all the dive kit and a few items of clothes into our bags which left holes in a few places for us to cram all the other bits from the back seat of the car to be locked away safely before her crossing. We were using a RO-RO ferry (roll on – roll off) which meant we had to leave the keys with the car as they drive the vehicle on for ship to store it and then drive it off the other side for us to pick up (hopefully still all in one piece).

The day had come for us to say ‘bon voyage’ to Tinfish as she went off for her cruise on the South China Sea, while we were driven to the airport to head for paradise……

Thanks to Corinne for the underwater pictures and a couple of the overland ones too!

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