MALAYSIA EXPEDITION, JULY 2009
Monday, 29 June 2009
These are the blog pages for the forthcoming Malaysia Expedition. From 7th July, this blog will carry live news and photographs from the trip.
Posted at 14:55:51 GMT
Wednesday, 08 July 2009
Arrived safely in Singapore at 4pm after a good flight. Hotel fine as always, with roof top swimming pool very popular. Walk into town at 7pm for a bite to eat in a self-service restaurant with a wide choice, then a short walk round the city to see Raffles and Chimes.
Fly out for Tioman island tomorrow at 11am.
All troops excited and happy it seems.
Fingers crossed I can get Internet access from Tioman.
Posted at 17:12:12 GMT
Friday, 10 July 2009
Delay on first day
Our first night was spent at the YMCA Hotel in Singapore. Most slept well enough I think, although it’s never all that easy with the clocks moving forward seven hours. Happily, breakfast had improved somewhat over previous years, so we all ate well.
We had hoped to fly out to Tioman at lunch time. The flight only takes 45 minutes from Seletar airport. However, thunder storms developed over Tioman and Singapore during the morning and the flight was delayed. Fortunately, we heard about the delay before leaving the hotel, so we arranged to have our rooms till noon, and this allowed everyone some time to shop or chill out by the swimming pool on the roof of the hotel. At noon, we had lunch in town. There are plenty of places to eat within easy walking distance, and everyone just did their own thing. With temperatures well over 30 degrees, some were feeling the heat.
We finally caught the bus for the airport at 1.30 and arrived to find more delays. Mind you, I don’t think anyone was too keen to fly, because we found ourselves in the middle of a tropical storm with heavy rain, thunder and lightning. The waiting room was pleasant enough with air con and TV, and all were patient and good humoured about the delay. Eventually, the weather cleared and we left at 5pm.
We are the only school to fly to Tioman. All the other schools take a bus up the east coast of Malaysia and then the fast ferry across to Tioman. However, this takes many hours, and although some £70 cheaper, is rather tedious. Much better fun to climb on board the old propeller-driven banger, with steam coming out of the ventilation system, and stagger off the runway for Tioman. The plane takes around 50 passengers, so Dollar Academy occupied a large proportion of the seats. We had been told that the luggage restriction would be 10kg. So there were feverish attempts at the Hotel to reduce ballast and leave non-essential items, to pick up on return. Most failed to reach the magic 10kg, and there was the possibility of a £10 surcharge per kilogram. Those with luggage weighing less than 10kg became very popular for a brief time. Happily, all got through without a problem. The weight restriction used to be 15kg. I wonder if this has been reduced because the passengers are getting heavier each year? It would not surprise me. No further comment.
The landing at Tioman is rather dramatic as the airstrip is surrounded by high hills and jungle. So it’s very much a swoop down, level out at the last minute and jam on the brakes as soon as the wheels touch the concrete. Great fun, so long as it works. The pilots have got it down to a fine art of course, which is just as well.
On arrival at Tioman airport, we passed through customs and health check fairly easily. At both Singapore, and Tioman we were met by health officers wearing masks, to check whether we were likely to be suffering from swine flu. In Singapore we were scanned by a sophisticated fever detector; on Tioman we were asked if we were keeping well! “Fine thanks, how are you?”
Once out of the airport, we walked just 200 metres to the quay where we boarded two local ferry boats for Paya Beach. There are very few roads on the island and many of the resorts can only be reached by footpath or by water. That’s one of the pleasures of Tioman – most of the transport is by boat. The trip along the coast only takes half an hour and is a delightful start to the holiday.
Once at Paya, we settled into our chalets, had self-service dinner of rice with beef or chicken, followed by fresh melon and pineapple, then the “education” started with an hour’s slide show on the animals we are likely to find snorkelling tomorrow. Most evenings are taken up with lectures of one kind or another on the flora and fauna we are likely to come across on our treks through the mangroves and jungle, and our exploration of the coral reefs. That’s one of the attractions of the expedition – it’s packed full of activities from morn till night.
Posted at 00:50:36 GMT
Friday, 10 July 2009
Snorkelling on Pulau Tulai
I should open first by apologising for the lack of pictures. I have taken lots of super shots, but cannot work out how to get them onto the system. The problem is with the size of the pictures which must be reduced for easy handling of the server. I will try to fix, but I am not optimistic.
Secondly, the diary will cease when we leave for Aur Island, because there is no Internet connection on the island, so far as I am aware. We have not been to Aur for a few years, and the last time we were there we had no mobile connection. However, I am told that some mobiles will now work on Aur. We will see.
We awoke to blue skies and calm seas, but as I write we are experiencing a serious tropical storm with flashing lightning and torrential rain. This is the dry season, but, as is happening all over the world, the Gods are angry at human interference with the world’s climate, and weather patterns are changing.
The day was spent on Pulau Tulai, a deserted island some 10 miles from our resort. We left on the bum-boats at 9am and we were snorkelling round the coral reefs by 11am. After two swims, we spent an hour on the sandy beach, then we moved a few hundred yards to a mangrove. Surprisingly, perhaps, the water in the mangrove is very clear, so the pupils were able to swim into the mangrove, and move in amongst the roots of the trees which are far enough apart to allow a degree of penetration. All day we had sun and calm conditions, ideal for snorkelling, but also ideal for burning skin. So there are a few brown bodies this evening and one or two lobsters, despite repeated warnings about covering all parts with sun-cream. In fairness no one is hurting, so all is well.
Tonight, a good meal, followed by a slide show to give everyone a taste of what's to come tomorrow, when we trek across the island in the rain forest from east to west coast. Let's hope the weather clears.
Posted at 14:59:01 GMT
Sunday, 12 July 2009
Another busy day, as always. We are never short of things to do. Up at 7am for breakfast; we eat in the open air, as it’s around 30 degrees all the time. Breakfast is self service, as are all the meals, and there’s fresh fruit, toast, coffee, tea and juice, as well as cooked food. You can even have an omelette made on the spot, with your own choice of filling. After breakfast we set off in the boats for the main town on the island – Teket, where we landed just two days ago. There we set off on a trek over the island. Normally we go right over to the other side, and are picked up by two boats to bring us home. However, today, the boatmen thought it was too windy, so we just walked up to the top of the pass and back. That was a little disappointing, as we missed the swim in the mountain pool, and the lovely boat trip back round the island. However, the jungle walk never fails to impress, as Raj our leader is a real expert and can spot a rattlesnake at a hundred yards. Well not quite, there are no rattlesnakes and you can’t see much further than 30 yards in the Malaysian forest. We usually spot around a dozen different species of reptile on this walk, and today we managed 10 on only one side of the island: crested dragons, skinks, angleheads, monitors and fresh water turtles in the mountain stream where we stopped for lunch. There’s much else of interest: many invertebrates, and many fascinating plants of all shapes, sizes and colours. Probably the most impressive being the strangler fig which grows down from the top of a tree, wrapping itself around the trunk over many decades, and finally preventing the tree from laying down a new ring of wood. At that point, the tree dies, leaving the fig, which is well able to support itself by this time, a very convenient clearing in the jungle. That must be one of the slowest deaths on the planet.
The weather was fine all day, bar one torrential downpour in the jungle which lasted for about 15 minutes. It’s good to experience the full weather pattern of these jungles where two metres of rain fall every year.
On return to Paya the pupils were allowed some spare time before dinner. After dinner, we set off at 8pm for a night walk, armed with torches. The walk is only a mile or two into the jungle behind the resort, but Raj, ever vigilant, picked up a number of interesting animals to see, including two dog-nosed water snakes, which were passed round to those brave enough to handle them – and most were. Pictures were taken, with some looking much more confident than others.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the cabins fell quiet rather quickly this evening.
Posted at 17:47:50 GMT
Sunday, 12 July 2009
Last day at Paya
Today, we had an even earlier start because the tide was well out at 6am and we wanted to survey the sea shore with its many coral pools, before the tide covered them all. Breakfast was served at 6.45am for those disciplined enough to get up on time, then onto the shore in two groups at 7.15 to find out as much as we could in an hour.
There was some rain in the air, which soon disappeared fortunately, but the sun never quite broke through today. This was a welcome relief because temperatures were over 30 degrees, with only a cool breeze from the sea to reduce the discomfort a little – gosh it is tough out here in Malaysia.
Once we had finished collecting and identifying the organisms, a second break was permitted for anyone wishing a first or second go at breakfast. Then an hour was spent in the large lecture room preparing presentations. Each group had studied a different aspect of the shore: one looked at the coral pools and the other at the estuarine mangrove which is just along the coast from the resort. We found many animals and plants of course, and each participant had to chose a creature and learn as much about it as they could, using a variety of resources which had been provided by Ecofieldtrips. So, you see it’s not one big holiday, and that’s why we call it an expedition rather than a holiday. Mind you, we do enjoy it a bit from time to time – not too much you understand.
The presentations were excellent, probably some of the best we have seen over the years. We then had lunch where chips were spotted for the first time since arrival – joy.
After lunch we set off south along the shore for a couple of miles to Melina. The walk is on a coastal path along the edge of the jungle, and we usually see monkeys en route - we were not disappointed. Actually, we see monkeys at Paya, near the cabins, sometimes rather too close for comfort. Ask some of the boys...
Melina is a tiny resort which we have used for the past two years, but were not able to go this year, because the Academy summer holiday was so late we overlapped with another school. However, the visit to Melina was essential, because we wanted to see the turtle hatchery. Here, turtle eggs are bought from the locals for around 20p an egg, buried in the sand, protected from predators and allowed to hatch after a few weeks. It’s a time consuming business but well worth it, as hundreds of baby turtles are hatched each year and allowed to escape to the sea. Last year we were enormously lucky and witnessed a hatching. Each pupil was given a turtle to release at the top of the beach and follow down to the sea - a moving sight, as these ‘clockwork toys’ raced down to the relative safety of sea, overcoming almost every obstacle en route. In truth, most will be eaten by predators, but it is hoped some survive long enough to return to the same beach many years on and perpetuate the natural cycle.
On return to Paya we had a short walk to see the mangrove behind the resort. We had planned to do this on the day we arrived, but you will remember, our plane was delayed. In the mangrove we saw a variety of trees, all with wonderful adaptations to life in the shifting mud and the salty water – every niche on this planet is exploited, that’s for sure.
At dinner we had a small party for Mrs McDonald, whose birthday it was. It was rather a special birthday, I can say no more, but there was a lovely cake and many super presents.
Was that all we did today you ask? Certainly not. On either side of dinner there was an hour’s lecture on the theory of diving from our diving instructor who arrived this afternoon from the mainland. Tomorrow we set off at 8.30 for Aur Island and four full days of diving. The boat journey takes about 5 hours across the South China sea, to our tropical paradise.
Sadly, there is no internet connection on the island – but all the technology would spoil it, don’t you think?
It’s 1am in the morning and I haven’t packed yet. So, good night and goodbye. Next news will be from Singapore.
Posted at 18:12:45 GMT
Friday, 17 July 2009
(We have returned safely to Singapore, and all is well. Here below, and to follow, a diary of our stay at Aur)
Monday 13th We awoke to a strong wind from the south, which was a little worrying because we were scheduled to leave Tioman and head south in the open sea for thirty or so nautical miles to Aur Island. All were up on the dot – well, almost all; breakfast was consumed and then a hectic pack before saying goodbye to Tioman and heading south on the dive boat. We had said goodbye to Raj the day before, and were joined now by Karen, from Ecofieldtrips, and Alex, the owner of the dive resort to which we were heading. Karen is Singaporean and Alex is a young ex-pat who has lived and worked abroad all his life.
The dive boat was big enough to take us all, with two decks: the lower one had forward facing seats and was covered; the top deck with side seats, room to sunbathe and an awning for those wishing protection from the sun.
The trip took three hours, and the wind did not abate. So we headed into a Force 4/5 breeze with fairly substantial waves which resulted in a touch of seasickness among some of the ‘crew’. Wrist bands became very popular and seemed to work, but I suspect it’s ‘all in the mind’. Certainly, sitting outside near the stern of the boat, (where’s the stern, sir?) and facing forward is probably the best place to be. I went for’ard and fell asleep on the seats for a while; Roderick, across the passage, broke all the rules – facing aft, in the bow of the boat, reading a book – and was perfectly happy as we crashed up and down in the waves.
But the sun shone and the waves sparkled, and the girls and boys on the top deck burst into song, in full voice, with hints of “Will your anchor hold”. The sickness is forgotten and it’s party time. We are soon to be on our very own tropical island in the South China Sea, and we are going to spend four days relaxing in the sun, diving on coral reefs, and swimming with fish of every size and colour you could possible imagine.
Mrs McD and I were also rather thrilled to sail back to Aur Island, for the first time in three years. We had never expected to return, so this was a special surprise. The pupils were impressed as the beautiful tropical island hove into view, covered in palm trees and small, sheltered, deserted, pristine, white, sandy beaches. There are only one or two small Malay settlements on the two islands; the locals making a living from fishing and from the three or four dive centres. No other holiday makers were here, because the dive centres normally shut down during the week. To all intents and purposes, we had the islands entirely to ourselves – quite astonishing.
Atlantic Bay, as our centre is called, is tucked away at one end of the channel between the two main islands of the archipelago. So, it’s beautifully sheltered from the wind and the waves, and we can snorkel and dive under most weather conditions. Most days the sun shines, and even on cloudy days, the temperatures never drop below 27ºC. The water is not much different, so swimming, snorkelling and showering is always a pleasure – there’s no need for hot showers here, because the cold water is warm enough.
On arrival we are ferried ashore on a small boat. The dive centre is right beside the sea, with its own sandy beach; we eat and sleep just 20 metres from the sea. Food is self service, with rice, beef, fish and chicken being the staple diet, although chips are served from time to time. Doughnuts are baked every afternoon, and they are most popular, eaten with chocolate sauce made by mixing sweetened condensed milk and Milo chocolate powder – a Mr M recipe, invented on the spot. The chocolate powder, tea, coffee and boiling water are available 24/7, which is much appreciated by all. There’s a fridge too, filled with Coke and 100 Plus, a local drink which is very popular – a bit like lemonade, but less sweet and full of minerals to properly replace fluids lost in sweat. You can take a drink from the fridge any time you like and the drinks cost just under 50p. Drinking water is available too of course, because the water in the huts is straight from the hills and not guaranteed suitable for drinking.
The introductions are made, and after lunch the advanced divers set off for their first dive, and the beginners are introduced to diving in shallow water just in front of the dive centre. The introductory course run by Forth Valley SCUBA Club, has once again proved to be of great value, to the extent that half the pupils passed their written test with very little revision beforehand. The others passed shortly afterwards, so all were set for their first real dives in the open water.
Let the diving begin.
Posted at 16:55:20 GMT
Sunday, 19 July 2009
The days at Aur sped by and we are now in Singapore on our last day, flying out this evening at 4pm your time.
The diving was a great success of course. One or two found it not to their liking, as do I, but the great majority loved the experience. Most managed seven or eight dives and almost all completed sufficient dives to gain their PADI Open Water certificate. However, there is a health warning which came from Alex, our highly qualified chief diving instructor, which Mrs McD and I endorse. The PADI OW certificate lasts for life, but there’s little doubt that within a few months it’s very easy to forget some of the key aspects of how to scuba dive. So, if any pupil wishes to dive this year, fine, but if there is a gap of over a year between dives, they should ensure they ask for some refresher tuition before they do so again. Some say PADI stands for Pay And Dive Instantly, and there’s an element of truth in that. Even so called Advanced Divers may have only a total of 10 open water dives under their belt, as it were, and in the great scheme of things, that’s not a great deal of diving experience. I’m not a diver, but I think the term “Advanced Diver” is a misnomer, and I am sure many would agree. For those interested, the Advanced Diver course requires divers to do just five different specialised dives. e.g.a night dive, navigation dive, drift dive, deep dive and ID dive.
Apart from diving we had great fun at Aur. There was sunbathing, snorkelling and a variety of party games, one of which I will draw a veil over, but which Mums and Dads will get a glimpse of shortly I am sure, as many photos were taken. We ate durians, or tried to in some cases. In contrast to awarding prizes for the volley ball competition, the losing team had to eat a durian each. Think how SQA results might have been improved if this had been threatened in the weeks leading up to the exams.
The divers who looked after us were very popular and we became one big happy family living simply, by the sea, in our very own tropical paradise.
The pupils saw all kinds of fascinating and beautiful vertebrates and invertebrates, including many turtles, although no sharks were seen on this occasion. We had our first jelly fish stings which resulted in red weals on the skin - we’ve never had this in the past. The stings were quite painful, but the marks disappeared quickly. We also had our first bedroom snake! Karen removed it dextrously, but we have yet to identify it. Cockroaches too are found in the rooms from time to time. We do really live close to nature, and it’s not for the squeamish this trip. There is a weak electricity supply on the island, and the dive centre supplements this overnight with enough power to run air-con in all the bedrooms. However, there is no hot water, just rather basic en suite toilets and cold showers for each room. To be honest, the AC is hardly needed, as it’s such a pleasure sleeping in the balmy tropical air.
This part of the trip is probably the most popular with the pupils. The diving is such a super experience and we really are isolated on Aur Island – it’s the most remote of all the islands: no roads, no cars, no TV, no post and intermittent mobile signal at best. There’s no one there apart from the Malays who look after us, and the diving instructors. The beaches and the dive sites are all ours with no one else to share. At the weekend, the place is much busier, because hundreds of divers come out from Malaysia and Singapore to fill the three dive centres, but all is quiet during the week. The contrast with Singapore could not be greater, and that is all part of the experience of course.
On the last morning most of the pupils were up at 6 and off to dive at 7. Then breakfast, pack and board the dive boat for our cruise back to mainland Malaysia. We left at ten, after fond goodbyes, and within fifteen minutes, many were fast asleep in all kinds of nooks and crannies on the boat. No singing this time; all was very quiet. Happily, although the crossing was not particularly smooth, no one was sick.
We arrived at Mersing at 2pm and set off in the bus for a couple of miles to a very good Chinese restaurant for lunch. There was much to choose from, and a shop too, with soft drinks and sweets. The bus journey took another 4 hours. The journey was not a high spot of the trip as the AC made it far too cold and the driver seemed reluctant or unable to switch it off. On arrival in Singapore there was the mandatory customs check, and we finally made it to the hotel by 7pm, weary, but many quite pleased to get back to hot showers, clean clothes and the warm, clean beds of civilisation!
Posted at 05:07:01 GMT
Sunday, 19 July 2009
Our last day
We were all up fairly smartly, and met at 9.30 after breakfast to arrange our trip to Sentosa Island. This is a large island to the south of the main island, given over to tourism, with all kinds of attractions. In fairness there is still a large area of jungle on the island and much effort is made to being seen to be eco-friendly. But, sad to relate, we discovered a massive development taking place on the island, which we are told is going to include casinos and hotels to attract Japanese tourists and tempt them to part with large sums of money. More of that later.
We set off at ten for Sentosa. The aim is to give the pupils as wide a range of experiences as possible on the trip. So, we started today with a lesson on how to use the Singapore Underground! It’s really quite simple as the whole operation is incredibly slick and efficient. The Underground itself is scrupulously clean, and odourless. The contrast with our own versions at home could not be greater.
We took the cable car across to Sentosa, passing over the extensive harbour, with wonderful views of the island and the city in the distance. The building site, mentioned earlier, was enormous. As we glided over, I thought how wonderfully ingenious we humans are, able to design and construct such enormous complexity on such a grand scale. Each individual, so far below, scurrying about on a mission, obeying written and verbal instructions and following a giant plan worked out over many hours by other workers with different skills. We are incredibly good at cooperation in such ventures, yet at the same time, we can be so aggressive and destructive in other situations. And the whole operation is running on a free source of energy, which is soon to run out. What then?
If you compress the life of this planet to one year, then humans appeared on the scene just four minutes before midnight on the 31st December. Your life is a mere half second. On the same time scale, it took around two weeks of the year for Mother Nature to manufacture all the fossil fuels; we will use them up in only two seconds. Most don’t appreciate the rate at which we are destroying this planet, because they think in terms of the duration of their own lives, and not in Geological time, or “Deep time” as it’s sometimes called. As we build and burn our way to the future, the planet we live in is being devastated at an alarming rate. Ecofieldtrips in their own modest way, is trying to reverse the trend, and I know that the pupils were moved by the lecture given by Matt on the subject just a few days before. We are destroying the oceans and the life therein at present - can the destruction be brought to a halt? I wonder.
On arrival on the island the pupils soon dispersed. We had paid for entry to the Dolphin Lagoon and Underwater World, so that they were not discouraged from seeing the latter. The reaction from some was most interesting: here in captivity, the lovely fish we had just seen in the wild - was their imprisonment justified? Perhaps it was, if it made the general public more aware of the diversity and beauty of the oceans, and the importance of preserving this unique and important ecosystem for future generations. But most just take snaps and move on, with, it appeared, little thought for the future. Except, perhaps, to wonder where the next ice cream might be bought.
All had fun on Sentosa, but special mention must be made of Jamie, one of our real diving enthusiasts. He was enterprising enough to pay (expensive) for a dive with the sharks and rays and all the other fish which swim in the large aquarium that surrounds the plastic observation tunnel. He had a whale of a time, if you excuse the pun, with a professional diver who showed him how to handle the fish and feed them. I have some super video clips of this which you will see eventually I am sure. Jamie has been so taken with the trip that he wants to come back in a Gap Year and work either with the dive-company or Ecofieldtrips. This is not as fanciful as it sounds; already we have had pupils returning to work in Malaysia as a result of their visit with us. That is one of the many aspects that make the whole exercise so worthwhile.
After Sentosa, we returned to the hotel for a couple of hours to shower and dress for a night out on the town. We all walked down to Clarke Quay for the evening and most headed for Hooters to grab a bite beside the river.
Some braved the reverse bunjy and giant swing, and Holly entertained us loyally with loud screams throughout three rides, one of which was given to her free. I’m not surprised really, the spectators loved her antics. I hope we get to see the video.
Sunday: A free day for shopping and relaxing by the hotel pool. All are packing and tidying now, ready to leave the hotel at 7.30pm.
We’ve had a wonderful time, as always.
See you tomorrow at 10.30am in Edinburgh airport. (Health Warning - your offspring will be tired!!)
Posted at 10:40:10 GMT
Wednesday, 22 July 2009
Click an image to see a larger version
more images to follow...
Posted at 13:44:30 GMT