Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, April 22nd

Paradise gained

The speedboat ride, after the usual paradoxical Asian muddle - "these people have tickets, so why on earth should they get on the boat?" - was fast and bumpy, but got us the 29 kilometres from the mainland in about an hour. The island loomed big and green in the distance, its volcanic-looking peaks shrouded in rain forest, leading down to palms, rocks, and sand at the water's edge. The boat hopped around the island from kampung to kampung, past an overdeveloped resort with a golf course, and eventually to our destination, the northernmost bay of Salang.

In Salang we managed to secure ourselves a chalet built on stilts over the water, and within half an hour of arriving were sitting on the balcony, looking at the view. It is a nice view. The bend of the bay is about a mile long, with beach running the entire length, and chalets all the way along behind the beach. The southern part of the beach is flanked by a small mangrove swamp, in which I was delighted to see huge monitor lizards swimming up and down, making the entire scene look absurdly primeval. They occasionally clamber out of the water to amble around amongst the chalets. These ones are much bigger than the one I saw on Penang - about two metres long - and are dinosaurs, no doubt about it.

Opposite the swamp, the beach is shallow and turquoise above the sand, with darker patches signifying rocks or coral beneath the surface. A big jetty sticks out from about the middle of the beach, and towards the northern edge the sand peters out into rocks. The land from the palm-fringed beach is very steep and covered with impenetrable jungle. There is only one road on the island, of two kilometres, and there are a couple of paths, but the rest of the interior is wild, and the only way in or out of Salang is by boat. It's hot here, but not stifling, thanks to the sea breeze. Nor have the advertised sand flies made an appearance. There are a few quiet bar/restaurants, a couple of mini-marts and dive huts, and that's about it.

We awoke to brilliant blue water slapping around under the chalet, and went down to the beach, where M donned sun cream, and I donned a rented set of snorkel, mask, and flippers. I too should have donned sun cream, because the bit of my back sticking out of the water got a little frazzled. But it was worth it for the sights under the water. Though the coral near the water's edge is for the most part dead and damaged, presumably due to human intervention, swim a few metres further out and suddenly there is a blaze of life.

Swimming over the coral close to the beach are thousands of curious fish I've never seen before, in a profusion of irridescent colours: neon purple, rainbow-coloured, one little guy who was black, with a long blue nose like an elephant, parrot fish with bright yellow maws, a shoal of thousands upon thousands of little silvery see-through fish that made me think I'd like anchovies on the next pizza I have, barracuda, gar, and out beyond the coral a big blue fish the same size as me, with a big lump on its forehead - possibly a garoupa?

On the sea bed there are dozens of different corals - brain coral, antler, some bright green thing I didn't know existed, and, er... some other coral varieties that I don't know the names of - and in between them are sea cucumbers, and giant clams, embedded in the coral, with huge blue mouths that chomp shut when you swim close. I've been snorkelling on two or three reefs before, but I've never seen anything like this. I wanted to take my basic PADI qualification here, but unfortunately time and financial constraints are against me, as well as the cold that I just know I got off the damn taxi driver in KL who could not stop coughing. Perhaps somewhere else on our trip will allow me to be a full participant in the riot of undersea life, rather than a mostly surface-based observer.

I think I could learn to like it here.

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