Posted in travel

2 Weeks in Koh Tao

I spent two weeks in Koh Tao in 2015 all by myself. I enjoyed it enough that this year, while looking for someplace to visit with my girlfriend, I decided to return. I didn’t initially intend to spend two weeks on the little island as it really is a small place, but we enjoyed it enough that we stayed the whole time. We’d planned on island hopping over to Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan but never got around to it. In the end, Koh Tao was more than enough.

Arriving and Finding a Hotel

After two days in Bangkok, we took a bus to Chumphon and then a Lomprayah catamaran over to Mae Haad Pier on Koh Tao. From there we got a taxi down to Chalok Baan Kao Bay in the south of the island, where we spent most of our fortnight. During the first night we stayed at Big Bubble, but we didn’t enjoy walking up hundreds of stairs to our room – although the room was admittedly nice. So the next morning we moved to OKII Bungalows, where I’d spent much of my time in 2015.

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The view of Shark Bay

OKII is located pretty much at the very bottom of Koh Tao, on a little peninsula jutting out to towards Koh Pha Ngan. It’s right on Shark Bay and has the most beautiful views imaginable. I made this gif with my GoPro of what I could see from my balcony:

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Exploring Koh Tao

From the very beginning, we were stunned by the wildlife. On the way up to OKII we were stopped by a huge lizard (most likely a water monitor) crossing the road immediately in front of our bike, and when we arrived we saw a large green snake on the rocks below the balcony. As the name suggests, Shark Bay is also home to a number of sharks. You have to know how to find them, though. I figured out in 2015 that your best chance is before 7am. I saw a few during my morning swims, including one occasion when several sharks gathered for a moment before going their separate ways. Sadly, though I got close to the sharks, I never managed to get a decent photo. The bay is also home to a number of turtles who feed on the coral – or rather, the remains of the coral, as most of it is now dead.

While staying at OKII we had to rent a motorbike to get around the island, as the hotel is quite isolated. The peace and quite is nice, but you’re limited in many ways. With a set of wheels, we managed to explore much of the island, getting to Sai Daeng Beach, Tanote Bay, and up to Mae Haad, Sairee, and Dusit Resort. We wanted to visit Hin Wong and Mango Bay, but the road was too badly damaged to get over the hills in the middle of the island on our little bike.

After a few days at OKII, we moved back to Chalok Baan Kao Bay and into the lovely Tropicana Resort, where we lacked a view but had a more comfortable room. We were also in walking distance of a few good restaurants, including one we can to eat at regularly, called Fishy’s.

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The view from Tropicana Resort

Although Vera couldn’t swim at the beginning of the holiday (and had indeed never been in the sea), by the end of our time she was swimming fearlessly with the sharks. We returned to a number of beaches, but Tanote Bay was definitely our favourite. This was unfortunate as it is rather a scary road that leads there. Certainly I have never seen a paved road more frightening to drive. Travel tip: check your bike is powerful enough to get up the hill, and the brakes are good enough to get you down safely!

Stranded on Koh Nang Yuan

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Two of Koh Nang Yuan’s three beaches

On our final day, we took a taxi boat to Koh Nang Yuan, a small island to the northwest of Koh Tao. The tiny little boat left Sairee Bay and bounced over big waves, soaking us completely as we made our way towards the smaller island. At times it felt like the boat would capsize, but finally we made it to land.

Koh Nang Yuan is famous for its “triple beach” – a stretch of white sand between three rocky islands that give this tiny place three connected beaches. One of these has a lovely coral reef that is known as the Japanese Garden and is where many people go to learn scuba diving. On Koh Nang Yuan we found ourselves laughing at a group of Chinese tourists waddling about in giant life jackets right by the water’s edge, shouting unnecessarily as the always do, and some even carrying umbrellas into the sea.

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One of the most hilarious sights in nature – Chinese people at the beach

When it came time to leave, we went to the little floating pier and waited for our taxi boat. One by one, all the other tourists left the island, but our boat never came back. We were stranded on Koh Nang Yuan. After a few hours, though, the taxi boat operator sent another boat to pick us up – a large vessel owned by a diving company. When we finally got back to Koh Tao, she was waiting on the pier and explained that the sea was simply too rough to risk picking us up. We weren’t angry – it had been an interesting adventure.

Leaving Koh Tao

The next day we were on a ferry back to the mainland, then a bus to the capital, and finally a plane back to China. It was a long journey with little in the way of sleep, and lots of rude Chinese to deal with, but finally we made it back home in time for the new academic semester.

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Posted in essay

#SharkAwarenessDay

So apparently today is Shark Awareness Day. Or #SharkAwarenessDay. I don’t know. Perhaps one day all festivals will come with hashtags. How else would we know about them? #thanksinternet

Although admittedly I didn’t know today was Shark Awareness Day (I’ll drop the hastags now), or indeed that there even was such a thing, I thought I’d make a short post here because there may be a few people who read this blog that didn’t see the news on Twitter or Facebook or wherever else they go to be informed about what’s going on in the world.

I love sharks. They are, without question, my favourite animals. I even have one tattooed on my right arm:

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Photo taken last year in South Africa

I don’t know why I love sharks so much. Maybe it’s because they’re absolutely perfect – giant atavistic animals unchanged in tens of millions of years. Maybe it’s because they’re profoundly misunderstood beings. Maybe it’s because they’re just unbelievably cool in every way. Or maybe it’s because – as I rediscovered when I got back home to my parents’ house this summer – I had a ton of books about sharks when I was a kid.

In any case, I think sharks are amazing. I’ve spent my adult life travelling around in search of sharks, and have been lucky to have swum with them on a few different occasions. Unfortunately, I’ve never actually gotten a very good photo of a shark, but this one wasn’t too bad:

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Photo taken in Malaysia last summer.

In early 2016 I made it to Cape Town and finally saw a large Great White Shark. Again, getting a decent photo was a challenge and this was the best I could do:

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Every year, people kill tens of millions of sharks. Sometimes it’s for food, sometimes for sport, and sometimes just as a byproduct of other kinds of fishing. The image of sharks conjured up in popular culture is that of a mindless killing-machine and their plight elicits no sympathy. It is more important than ever that we learn to respect sharks and acknowledge their importance in the ocean ecosystem, as sharks are a sign of a healthy ocean.

Many people are afraid of sharks and that is understandable. However, only five people a year are killed by sharks. Statistically you are far more likely to be killed by bees or horses. Whenever I’ve swum with sharks, the sharks have been more afraid of me than I of they. We really ought to educate people better and remove this irrational fear before it is too late to save these amazing animals.

Posted in Photography, travel

Snorkelling in the Perhentians

The Perhentian Islands sit almost 20km off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, in a protected maritime area. As you get near them, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d died and gone to heaven. Or, perhaps, that you’d stumbled into some giant, elaborate Hollywood film set. It just doesn’t seem real; it’s too damned beautiful. The waters, the skies, the jungles… it’s all too perfect.

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The islands are surrounded by warm tropical waters which were, during my visit at least, perfectly calm. The only swells come from the little speed boats ferrying tourists from one beach to the next. From these boats, you can see right down to the bottom of the sea at any point between the islands. The Perhentians are perhaps even more impressive when viewed underwater than above. Underwater, visibility is almost always high, and nearly everyone who comes here ends up diving or snorkelling – cruising slowly over immensely colourful reefs, teeming with all sorts of life.

The Perhentians have famously great reefs for snorkelling, and that’s what brought me all the way here. In particular, I came to see sharks. I’ve swum with sharks before, but it’s a thrill that hasn’t yet worn thin. I have an obsession with these atavistic predators. On my right bicep I even have a tattoo of a shark. Moreover, I still hadn’t gotten a good photo of these elusive creatures from the deep… All I had were blurry, partial shots from various expeditions over the years.

As recounted at the end of my previous blog post, I found a shark quite literally within one minute of setting foot in the water, although it was just a baby. The next morning, I booked a snorkelling trip to five different locations around Perhentian Besar (the “big island”). At the first stop, we all jumped out of the boat and almost landed on a big hawksbill turtle. It just calmly fed from the coral at the bottom, completely uninterested in the cluster of Homo sapiens above it.

On the second dive, I asked our guide, “So where are we likely to see sharks?”

“You want to see sharks?” he asked, surprised.

I said, of course, that I did.

“Well, maybe here,” he said, waving at an area of water just behind the boat. He didn’t seem convinced.

I swam around for ten or fifteen minutes (it’s always hard to keep track underwater) and then, when it was time to head back to the boat, I suddenly turned and found myself very close to a blacktip reef shark. I’m not good at estimating size or distance underwater, but it was definitely more than a meter and less than three. Possibly it was about the same size as me. In any case, in the crystal clear waters it made a tremendous sight. These creatures are so graceful, so impossibly perfect after hundreds of millions of years of fine-tuning evolutionary processes, that I am simply awe-struck each and every time I have the privilege of sharing the water with one of them. I snapped a few photos with my GoPro and tried to swim after it, but it was shy and far quicker than me, and in a few moments it was gone.

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Blacktip Reef Shark

Later, we saw more incredible reefs just swarming with staggering arrays of life, and yet that one shark sighting made it worthwhile for me. Later in the day I went snorkelling myself and saw yet more incredible sea life – a few big blue-spotted stingrays, some titan trigger fish, massive bumphead parrot fish, a medium-sized moray eel, a kaleidoscopic plethora of brightly coloured fish… But it was the shark that stuck in my mind.

As the red sun began to set over the horizon, over the faint spectre of peninsular Malaysia, I headed back through the jungle to Turtle Beach, looking to swim here in search of more life – specifically, more sharks. However, as I had half-expected, the tide was far out and swimming was nearly impossible. The sharp coral was only a few inches below the surface at some points, and it stayed this way for at least thirty meters. Any attempt to swim would’ve resulted in a severely scarred torso from the sharp coral. I persevered and walked as far as ten meters across jagged and sometimes slippery rocks in a vain search for some inlet, but there was nothing. As I stood looking out and resigned to a wait until the morning, a small shark shot frantically past my legs and out towards the sea. It was the second baby blacktip I’d seen at Turtle Beach. Indeed, perhaps it was the same one…

On day two, I went snorkelling early in the morning by myself, covering a large area of sea over perhaps two hours. It reaffirmed what I’d learned the day before – that the creatures in the water here are absolutely stunning. I saw many more stingrays (but never did manage to get a good shot – those slippery bastards are not only well-camouflaged, but move a lightning speed when they suspect a paparazzo is nearby), giant shoals of smaller fish, several colourful moray eels and one albino, some ludicrously big bumphead parrot fish, a big hawksbill turtle, and another baby blacktip reef shark, just off the beach at D’Lagoon. I chased the shark in circles for a few minutes before it swam off over coral that was too shallow for me, and said goodbye.

I was particularly happy to see several moray eels. All my life, I’ve had an irrational fear of these animals, and although I’ve seen them on several occasions, I’ve always panicked badly when confronted. This time, however, I first kept my distance and watched, and then later got in close for some photos. Hopefully I have now overcome my fear of these solitary animals who, like me, prefer to keep to themselves.

 

I’ve spent many, many hours in the water here on Perhentian Kecil (“the small island”). I try to fit in as much swimming time as possible, although I do trek around the island a little, or sit on the balcony of my obscenely expensive Rising Sun hillside bungalow overlooking the lagoon, reading Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson. This has been a sober section of my trip… With this part of Malaysia being deeply Muslim, there isn’t much in the way of alcohol nearby, and what there is is expensive. So it goes. I’m happy to spend a few days just drinking in the view, hiking through the jungle, and chasing sharks in circles around the nearest reef.

On the beach, there is also a fantastic array of life. At D’Lagoon this past weekend, all the rooms were filled, and some severely overfilled, with many daytrippers stopping by to spend time on the beach and in the water. There have been a lot of wealthy Malaysians – mostly families, but also one large group of young women, all clad in hijabs except for one, who was somewhat conservatively dressed, but nonetheless conspicuous for not wearing Muslim clothing. It is fascinating to me that these young women wear hijabs or burkhas even when snorkelling or scuba diving. Compare them to the countless French women on the beach here (I don’t know why, but more than half the tourists on the Perhentians are French) who wear skimpy bikinis, sometimes thongs, and often go topless. Yet, the wonderful thing about the Perhentians – and maybe this is proof that I have in fact died and gone to heaven, because I can hardly believe my eyes – is that here in paradise, even this epic clash of cultures means nothing. The Muslims girls don’t look at the French girls in disgust, and the French girls don’t look at the Muslims girls in pity. Everyone seems at ease here by the water, happy to show their true colours, whatever they may be.

Posted in Photography, travel

Matopo National Park

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After leaving St. Lucia, I took a mini-bus to Durban in the hopes of doing some cage diving with the sharks at nearby Aliwal Shoal. While there I stayed at Banana Backpackers, which is hands-down the worst hostel I’ve ever encountered. If you’re a fan of rats and cockroaches, by all means check it out. Otherwise, stay clear. Unfortunately for me, the currents were strong and visibility was down to nil, so the diving was cancelled.

I was not wildly impressed by Durban, mostly because I’m not a city person, so, after only one night I took a Greyhound bus to Johannesburg, and on to Zimbabwe. Mercifully I was only in Jo’burg for a few hours as I waited for a bus transfer. It seemed like hell on earth. In the short journey through the city on the bus, I saw numerous people being arrested, and countless others should should’ve been arrested. At the station I was constantly being approached by scam-artists – many of them who actually worked for bus companies.

Needless to say, I was glad to be on my way to Zimbabwe. However, at the border we encountered a delay. We arrived at 5am and it took until 7am for me to get my passport stamped. What was the cause of the delay? Oh, nothing. There’s just no rush in Zimbabwe… I was furious and thought that I’d miss my bus, but when I returned it was still waiting. “That’s lucky,” I thought.

I took my seat and waited… and waited… and waited.

When eventually we took off from the border and headed towards Bulawayo it was almost three o’clock! That’s more than nine hours waiting at the border!

Although the scenery on the way to Bulawayo was quite pleasing, I was too annoyed to enjoy it. Yet as we pulled into Bulawayo I couldn’t help but feel my heart lighten a little. It really is a charming little town. Bizarrely, it is reminiscent of both old Britain and old America. Trees everywhere, wide boulevards, old manor houses… It is an odd place, but very pleasant.

When we stopped, I got out and followed my iPhone’s directions to the nearest hostel. It was about two kilometers. A few taxi drivers tried to get me to ride with them but I said no. Amazingly, they politely accepted my refusal. What a nice change.

I walked to the hostel and got a reasonably priced bed for the night. The hostel had obviously fallen on hard times, and had a sign outside reassuring me that it was, in fact, open. I went in and the nice lady in charge seemed desperate, offering me a rate that was much cheaper than advertised, as well as an instant room upgrade. I went outside to find food and got a steak in an American steakhouse for $18. Given that my daily food budget had been about $3 until this point, it was quite a splurge.

The next day I book a daytrip to Matopo National Park, famous for its balancing boulders. Whereas in South Africa the parks had all been surprisingly cheap, here it seemed things would be much more expensive. My daytrip ended up costing $100 and didn’t even include a guide – just a driver.

My driver soon showed up and took me to Matopo. On the way, we were repeatedly stopped by police. It seemed that they were stopping everyone, hoping for some excuse to impose a fine. In his case, the driver was simply unlicensed to be taking people to the park. He managed to talk his way through each stop, though.

At the park, we drove around, seeing the main attractions. My driver spoke good English and obviously remembered much of what the guide had said, so he acted as a guide for me. However, he had no idea what any of the animals were, and so when it came to wildlife, I was the guide. He was also super-Christian (like most Zimbabweans seemed to be) and didn’t really understand much about world history. So he’d ask me things like, “Why did God make those rocks like that?” and I’d have to gently explain the finer points of our planet’s history.

We first visited the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, who is now a very controversial figure, with his statues being removed in the West due to rejection of our colonial past. In Zimbabwe, however, he seems more fondly remembered. Politics aside, his gravesite was well-chosen. While there, my guide and I saw a leopard fighting a pack of baboons down below.

After that we continued to a number of caves, where we saw ancient cave paintings. These really impressed me. I’ve attached some photos below, but due to Chinese internet problems I can’t attach as many as I’d like.

After the park, my driver took me to the train station and I got the train back north to Victoria Falls. I shared a cabin with some railway staff who were travelling for free on their work pass. One of them told me that they hadn’t been paid since December, 2014! He cursed the Mugabe government for its corruption and failure to lead the country. They continue to go to work each day, hoping to get paid, while receiving food from their families to keep them alive.