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

Making the right acquaintances!

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 14 October 2006.

Brunei, BONUS Country 23, Diary entry 8th-10th Aug 2006, Total distance in Brunei: 916 KM

After waving a final farewell to Paul and Alison we set off in search of Scuba-Tech International who were based at The Empire Hotel. Not being over familiar with the hotel establishments of Brunei when I’d enquired for directions I was told you can’t miss it… it’s the BIG 6* hotel resort of Brunei – oh! As last minute arrangements had been a little lacking due to our continued movements we hadn’t actually confirmed a time to meet, so we decided that we should make sure we’d arrive in plenty of time assuming something like a 9am departure. It wasn’t difficult to locate the Empire and parked up outside the immense hotel and wandered through the magnificent entrance hallway looking like a pair of tramps! Asking directions to the dive centre we were directed down the many escalators and outside to the Marine Centre.

It's the Empire Hotel don't you know!

Sat outside were a group of people obviously checking qualification cards and filling out the mandatory PADI disclaimer which you can’t dive without completing. We introduced ourselves wondering if one was Farid whom we’d been emailing. We were introduced to Ash and Helen two expat teachers (surprise surprise!) enjoying their last day in Brunei finally to dive one of the Labuan wrecks before heading back to England and the dive guides Eng and Takako. They knew to expect us but as we sat filling in our own disclaimers they were concerned that the wind had picked up and an angry looking storm could be seen approaching fast from the open sea. So fast in fact that we were soon all sat indoors as the rain lashed down.

The grand marble entrance

We busied ourselves drinking coffee and chatting about the fact that we had actually driven to Brunei from UK… why doesn’t everyone! Shortly Yusrin arrived who was the owner of the dive shop and had been using Farid’s email to converse with me about the trip and the days diving. He was really pleased to help us and insisted that tonight we should stay at the staff accommodation to rest as long as we liked and he wasn’t taking no for an answer. In truth it was just what we needed. Although we’d been loosely planning on doing a days diving then heading on towards Sarawak, Malaysia a break from the road seem like just what we were needing and gratefully accepted his kind offer.

Eng beckoned us over to the weather forecast and asked us what we thought. Maz & I would try anything, so said we were happy to give it a go. Ash and Helen were keen to do the wreck dive so readily agreed to go for it too. So the plan was formulated to drop Maz & I off at the Australian Wreck, which would have been too deep for Ash and Helen, then head on over to the Cement Wreck for their dive. Then the skipper came over to me with the GPS and asked if I knew how to use it. Paul had also kindly lent me one of his GPS with all the wreck marks in, just in case it might be useful, so between us I had both GPS system on and working guiding us the way to our first dive.

Angry looking skies as the weather closes in

The rain may have stopped, but a big swell was still running and the boat was being thrown about somewhat. Unfortunately Helen hadn’t found her sea legs and was going greener by the minute. Fortunately I don’t suffer so much from sea sickness but we all know that it is one of the worse experiences imaginable and we all felt very sorry for Helen as she saw her breakfast for the second time. She did sensibly decline lunch, which we unfortunately sampled, a selection of bizarre bread rolls, which even looked kinda odd before even the first bite… one was luminous green…! Each bag contained a different colour filling and flavour none of which are describable, although the common theme was intensely sweet. If you didn’t suffer from sea sickness before, these would have surely pushed you over the edge! At this stage Eng asked if we thought it was okay to continue as she didn’t like the look of the seas… yeah why not we’ll be fine. Even Helen waved her hand onwards although her head was lost over the side of the boat.

Plenty of water to wash lunch down and we were fast approaching our first divesite… well at least according to the multiple GPS. It was then that I noticed there was no echo sounder on the boat! Normally one uses the GPS to navigate to the wreck, then circles using an echo sounder to follow the contour of the seabed until an obvious shape on the bottom indicates the wreck and a suitable shot line is thrown over, to hopefully snag on the wreckage and be used as a reference line for the divers to follow from the surface to the wreck below. Having done many such wreck searches before myself, I know just how important both instruments are, as sometimes the GPS is slightly out depending on the error correction at the time.

A drawing of the Australian Wreck

Quizzing the captain as to what he planned to do, he looked at me puzzled, pulled the engines out of gear, picked up the shot weight and hurled it overboard just as the GPS signalled our arrival..! Well there you go. One would imagine that a wreck some 85m long and bristling with jagged snag points would easily ensnare any rope in the vicinity, but experience had shown on wrecks far larger it is a game of simple patience to get the line hooked successfully on the wreckage and that’s when you definitely know you’ve actually thrown it in over the top of the wreck itself. My eyes followed the buoy at the top of the line that merrily bobbed about, again experience told me that it was just dragging along the seabed. Then to my astonishment it ‘bit in’ and the buoy was pulled slightly underwater and appeared to hold. I made them go alongside first and gave it a tug, but sure enough it was definitely snagged on something below. Hats off to the skipper! Why all the worry, well it is a total waste of a dive if you go all the way down to 36m to HMS Seabed. There is absolutely no chance of relocating the wreck when underwater so the dive is abandoned and because of the depth you can’t just simply have another go and try all over again. The gods of decompression frown heavily on such techniques.

Eng and Takako had obviously picked up on our concern and Takako was frantically getting her equipment on as we leisurely assembled our kit. Not quite sure what was happening, Takako jumped in and disappeared down the shot line, she was obviously checking that it was secure. 5 or 10 minutes later she’d not reappeared, so Maz & I jumped into the water assuming all was in order. The water here was far murkier, so it wasn’t until we were almost on the wreck that we saw Takako patiently waiting for us. As if she were showing us to our table in a restaurant, she motioned with her arm as if to say and here fellow divers is the wreck. The shot had caught on the last foot of the stern, but it had held and we were on the wreck so that was fine by us. With a slight current flowing we immediately disappeared below deck to the sound of Takako’s warning rattle as she wasn’t so convinced on this practice. We signalled that we were fine and left her to follow the trail of our bubbles escaping through the gaps and breaks in the decking.

The skeletal remains of the upper deck

Built in Britain around 1890, this was a typical Far East passenger cargo ship operated by the Dutch as the 'SS De Klerk'. She was taken over by the Dutch Indies Government at the end of January 1942 for conversion to a troop carrier for the Royal Dutch Navy at Tjilatjap. The conversion was cancelled due to shortage of personnel, and the Navy scuttled her at Tandjong Priok on 2nd March 1942. The Japanese Navy salvaged her on 28th November that year, renovated her, and she entered Japanese service as the 'Imaji Maru'. Fleeing Borneo, she was sunk by a bomb from the Australian air force on 16th September 1944 hence the inherited name of the Australian Wreck. Many female prisoners ('comfort ladies') were drowned as the Japanese took to the life boats.

The light casts an eerie glow

Most of the decking has now disappeared leaving the skeletal remains of cross beams giving the wreck an eerie presence as the light filters down from above and several local divers believe the wreck to be haunted. Lying in her final resting place at a depth of 36m she has started to settle on her port side and has a slight list putting the highest point of her starboard side at about 26m. With visibility often less than 10m, the tragic end to her life all combine with a touch of narcosis at this depth to produce a haunting, memorable dive. Moving slowly between decks past the rows of many portholes we came to the exposed engine room, but with time running short we could only afford a quick look before heading back towards the stern.

The top of the triple expansion steam engine

Apparently two divers from Bandar Dive Club, whilst attempting to remove a huge brass porthole, saw a lady in flowing white passing through the ship. So shocked were they that they vowed never to dive the wreck again! On a return visit another diver was swimming through the stern decks when he was startled by a white ethereal object floating across the interior of the ship. It was a marbled ray! So perhaps the ghost of the wreck is nothing more than a resident ray? Who knows?

We met up with Takako who was again waiting by the shot line this time ready to go up. With the current now racing the thought of a static ascent up a shot line seemed like far too much of an effort, so we got out our Delay Deco Buoys which you can inflate and send up to the surface then drift beneath with the current, whilst showing the surface support exactly where the divers are going to surface. Takako didn’t seem to notice what we were doing so continued up the shot line. As is good protocol, to ease the job of recovering the shot line by the boat crew, I freed the shot weight from the inch of metal which held it fast and would have given us an inproportional fight had we tried pulling on it from the surface. By this stage we’d racked up a bit of deco and did a gradual slow ascent with normal deep stops, waiting for our deco computers to clear and adding some J factors (Jesus factors = extra safety)

The stern appears hauntingly through the gloom

On surfacing we were surprised to see that Takako was already onboard and de-kitted. Maz a little confused, burst out whilst we bobbed on the surface enquiring if I’d noticed that she hadn’t been wearing a dive computer! Given that she’d been down at least 10 minutes before us and we had enough stops to perform ourselves on the ascent, logic would dictate that she would have more decompression obligation than ourselves, however there she was back on the boat, when in our opinion she should have been still in the water! Once back onboard Maz asked if she had been using a computer, which she hadn’t as she didn’t know she’d be diving until we arrived, but she had done her 3min safety stop a 5m! What about the other minutes we wondered!

Scuba-Tech and the team pose for photos

Back onboard the pitching rolling boat Helen was still feeding the fish but good for her she was determined to get wet, after all she’d braved it this far and everyone knows you feel better once under the water. Fortunately the Cement Wreck was nearby, but the guys still had to struggle into some brand new 5mm wetsuits in the steaming heat and when not feeling well is a feat in itself. Two ready and the boat came alongside the permanent buoy (which was a substantial 2L coke bottle) whilst Ash finished getting his gear on. We’d already warned that there had been quite a surface current the day before, but once in the lee of the wreck it was fine. Normal protocol would be to come directly up current and once past the shot buoy allow a sufficient distance before telling all the divers to go which would give them time to hit the water, come back up, get their bearings, see the buoy and drift down towards it and grab it without any effort or fining/fighting against a current.

Of course us used to diving around England are very familiar with this procedure, the guys out here not so. I could only stand and watch as the boat about run into the shot buoy before telling the two ready to go. By the time they could look around after hitting the water, only Eng managed a frantic grab at the coke bottle which immediately went down as she struggled to unsuccessfully catch Helen who shot past downstream. It was all too much and sensibly Eng decided to can the dive to the great disappointment of Helen and Ash. We tried to console them that sometimes sh!t happens and a dive just isn’t going to work, but it will always be there for another day, so no point injuring oneself or exposing yourself to danger for the sake of getting wet – god knows we’ve all been there and done that!

The USS Salute in her prime

We didn’t even asked if we’d be able to squeeze in our second dive, which would have been on the 4th and final of the Labuan wrecks the USS Salute - the American Wreck named unsurprisingly since she was an American minesweeper before being sunk by a mine a fate all to familiar with the occupational hazard of minesweeping! I’m not sure but I think Helen might have kissed the sand when we eventually got back onto dry land and opted to spend the rest of the day recuperating and relaxing back at their hotel room at the Empire. Next time guys, if not here then there will be other wrecks and believe us it’s worth all the fuss. Thanks also for your entry into the live-aboard raffle and we hope you had a pleasant trip back to the UK.

The USS Salute now lies twisted and torn after her contact with a magnetic mine

With our kit all washed down and hung up to dry we were introduced to Farid who had come down to see what was going on. It took a few moments for him to grasp who we were, then it twigged that we were those nutters that had driven here from the UK. He was glad to meet us and amazed at what we’d managed to achieve. Excitedly he asked if we’d been shown around the hotel yet and jumped into a golf buggy saying that it was pretty much his second home. We tore around the ground as he waved to many of the people we passed, Farid was obviously well know in these parts. We talked as we were shown the different wings of the hotel, the cinema and theatre, the country club, golf course and ten-pin bowling. It transpired that Yusrin was a cousin of Farid’s and we were desperately trying to work out the connection in the back of the buggy when Farid mentioned it was a shame he couldn’t show us his actual home as that had a zoo.

Yum yum pool burger

Sorry a ZOO in your garden??? Expecting it to contain maybe a monkey and a cat, I asked what sort of animals he had in his zoo…”Oh, giraffes, elephants and a lion” – sorry who did you say your father was… “The Sultan of Brunei”. Yikkees, talk about coincidence as the smile on Maz’s face spread from ear to ear… talk about the charity, the charity. Stopping for a late lunch beside the pool, we told Farid all about our adventure, the charity and what we hoped to achieve. He was really impressed with our expedition and stopped everyone who walked by to tell them what we’d achieved as we both tucked in to a Pool Burger, done medium rare – possibly the best whole beef burger we’ve had since leaving.

Our home in the staff accommodation

We were escorted by Yusrin and Farid to the staff accommodation which was clean and tidy and were left to freshen up before Farid arrived again to take us out to meet one of his brothers who was also a keen 4x4 enthusiast and his group were in the final stages of preparation for a 2 week trip of their own into China. They went over the car with a fine tooth comb as they all had 80 series Land Cruisers too and wanted to study every modification we’d made and as always were particularly impressed by the rooftop tent, the like of which they’d never seen before. Of course as we’d already seen with Asian overlanders they rarely actually camp, but prefer to travel from one hotel to another, so although the tent seemed a nice gimmick, I doubt it’ll ever make it as a fitment on one of their cars. Although the adjustable suspension, bling under body neon lighting and flashing multi coloured disco lights in the headlights all took pride of place!

Some of the Brunei offorad team preparing for China

Onwards and for coffee. Farid took us for a late night coffee in one of the modern coffee bars before then taking us on a quick night time tour of Bandar Seri. With the sultan just having celebrated his 60th birthday the streets were still heavily decorated with lights hanging up everywhere. We did a slow drive past of the palace entrance which looked splendid. Farid although only 19 seemed a very switch on and down to earth character and enjoyed the diving which he’d only recently found which he felt gave him direction and something that he could concentrate his efforts on. It was great to hear just how excited he was about the underwater realm and the unusual creatures that call it home. He was also keen to show us pictures of an amazing sight when they dived the Cement Wreck one day and found a massive whale shark slowly circling the masts.. indeed the pictures looked fantastic!

After a long day we were glad to finally say goodnight. A nice long lie in the next day, we turned on our phone to find a message from Farid inviting us down to the Marine Centre for a BBQ. We got down just before lunch and made use of the wireless internet as we frantically continued our search for shipping around Indonesia and onwards to Australia all to pretty much no avail. We arranged to meet Paul as we still had his GPS and told him of our new fortunes and that we’d probably be hanging around a bit longer, although with the weather still blowing and preventing any further diving, we could only look forward to some intense relaxing by the splendid Empire pool, or so we thought…!

A BIG thanks to Yusrin & Farid and all at Scuba-Tech International for looking after us so well during our visit

Thanks also to Panaga Divers for the underwater pictures and sketches of the wrecks

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