Blessed to be a witness

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Sunday, April 24th

I don't do beaches

"I know, let's go and have dinner by the beach and watch the sun go down," I suggested.

"What a novel idea," said M, and so we set off to do exactly what we've done every evening since we arrived, and on the way back looked up the hills to where the full moon silhouetted tall palm trees and the outlines of huge fruitbats circling them.

I don't really do beaches, to be honest. If I'm not in the water, then I'm usually bored out of my skull. A book can only entertain you for so long, and in a little place like this, where one is held captive by the landscape, there really is nothing else to do. Having said that, I'm not going as ballistic with ennui as in my past - getting a little more patient, or complacent, in my old age perhaps.

However, to inject a little variety into our stay, we signed up for a trip to 'Coral Island', a small uninhabited islet a few kilometres offshore from Tioman. The speedboat picked us up direct from the beach near our chalet, and we headed off on a fifteen-minute jaunt across the channel, first to a rocky outcrop off the tip of Coral Island, which was the best snorkelling I've done yet - the rocks descended about twenty metres to the sea floor, and even more magnificent coral adhered to them all the way down, and even more magnificent fish, in even more varieties, and long-spined sea urchins with day-glo orange mouths surrounded by day-glo blue dots, and then a cuttlefish, hovering along over it all. I tried to chase the cuttlefish and make it change colour, but those rippling fins were just too fast for me.

Then we retired to Coral Island, to the first truly white-sand beach that I can recall being on. Walking on the sand was like walking in a bed of warm flour. The island itself is a true Robinson Crusoe cliché, with cool dark caves beneath the lush profusion of vegetation. Again I snorkelled out over the beach to the coral. As one might imagine by now, I saw some coral and fish (at this point I'm wishing I bought one of those disposable underwater cameras, as my powers of describing fish and coral are starting to get used up). We hopped back on the boat and headed back to Tioman to our final destination, 'Monkey Bay', which is just a few hundred metres round the headland from Salang by boat, but a good hour's uphill struggle up and over a jungled hill by foot.

We were about three quarters of the way back when the skipper suddenly left his post and ran to the back of the boat, grabbing at the outboard motor. He was pushing and pulling the fuel line, and there was a strong smell of petrol. He appeared to be holding two ends of the line together, and as he pushed, the boat accelerated to full throttle, and when he let go it slowed down again. He then motioned to the passengers that he needed someone to steer, so I heroically stepped forward and took the helm. And it was quite a cool feeling, to be piloting a small passenger speedboat at full throttle in the South China Sea. I believe I did a pretty good job of it. I was just preparing to round the headland and bring us safely into the bay when he let go of the fuel line altogether and the engine stalled. We drifted around for a bit as he cut the end off a bag of bread he'd been using to attract fish while we'd been snorkelling, and skifully effected a repair to the line. The boat restarted on the second try, and we went into the bay, where there were no monkeys, but there was a large amount of a different kind of coral and lots more fish, etc. (Where's that underwater camera?)

Later that evening, sitting in a bar, M noticed a small black object crawling along the ground in the dark. I investigated with a cigarette lighter and found that, rather than the expected cockroach, it was a hermit crab inside a large cockle shell. I picked him up to show M how he occupies someone else's shell, neglecting to remember that due to his peripatetic nature, he could also climb out of the thing. Which he did, annoyed and scared at being lifted off the ground, and he emerged enough to grab hold of the edge of my thumb with one of his pincers. Very hard. Then retreated back inside, still holding my thumb. I tried shaking my hand to get rid of him, but that only made him squeeze harder. I tried pulling at the shell, but that had the same effect. It was getting a little worrying, as I didn't want to have to kill the little fella, and it was also getting a little painful. So I then had the ignominy of getting on my hands and knees in front of the bar's patrons, and holding my hand down on the ground as still as possible for about 10 minutes until eventually the crab felt safe enough to walk away. D'oh.

Unfortunately several days of biting down on the snorkel seems to be exacerbating the toothache that I have been slowly cultivating ever since the cold went away, and now I'm back in the chalet feeling sorry for myself. I suspect a trip to the dentist might become a necessity, which will require us to leave here. However, Singapore's only two hours from Mersing, and they have good dentists there, so that might be our next destination.

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