One group of folks from Ipoh, Perak endure back-breaking boat trips in Terengganu’s islands to enjoy marine beauty.
When I was a kid I was hooked on the TV series Fantasy Island, where Mr Roarke (Ricaldo Montalban) the owner and his sidekick Tattoo (Herve Villachaize) would welcome people to live out their fantasies at his island somewhere in the Pacific.
The island usually attracted the rich and famous, people whose scandalous affairs could easily be overlooked for a price...
I have always dreamed about visiting such an island, but I never knew that there was one right here in my own country’s backyard.
The Perhentian Islands in Terengganu could easily be a Fantasy Island with its beautiful beaches, crystal aquamarine waters and pristine jungles.
One very early Friday morning, three cars sneaked quietly out of Ipoh and headed north towards the East-West highway. Our objective: two days of self-imposed “exile” with the sun, sea and sand.
The journey took about five and a half hours before we reached Kuala Besut for a late breakfast while our baggage was sorted out at the jetty.
Before long, we found ourselves enduring a truly spine-jarring experience on a rampaging speedboat. The boatman seemed to be out for a good time, at the expense of his passengers. The choppy seas kept the front of the speedboat in the air more than in the water as the pilot did bronco riding over the pounding surf before crashing down in huge sprays of water.
I had a tough time, digging my palms into the seat to buffet the impact of every crash, and I was kicking myself for sitting at the front where the boat bounced hardest. For a while, I thought I would have to be air-lifted back to the mainland with a broken spine...
Then I saw them, two bluish blobs in the distance. As the speed boat drew closer, the islands came into view. They were surrounded by aquamarine waters, gorgeously scenic and hypnotically beautiful, transporting me to a different world.
The white sands were dotted with sun-worshipping holiday makers. A group of scuba divers were boarding a boat to venture out into the underwater wonderland. It was paradise.
The boat stopped a little way from the beach and we had to clamber onto a pontoon jetty before stepping onto the beach. The first thing that struck me was that the bleached white sand was as fine as flour. My friend Thomas told me, “You aint seen nothing yet!” The chalet at Fauna Beach Resort on Perhentian Besar island had basic amenities, but most important of all, the room was air-conditioned.
After a simple lunch we headed towards one of the coves where we were given some pointers on the art of snorkelling by a Malay instructor who spoke excellent Mandarin.
Then we were off to another cove, this time to watch turtles. Thomas, who has been to the islands for the past 20 years, told me with a sigh that things have changed a lot, to the detriment of the coral reefs and its marine life. Due to constant human encroachment, destructive fishing methods and pollutants, this marine eco-system is under great stress.
However, we still managed to spend a wonderful and meaningful afternoon boating from cove to cove looking for good snorkelling sites. At our next destination, we perceived what appeared to be a solid bastion of rock. On entering the pristine clear water, we discovered that it was actually a living mass – a kaleidoscope of colour, shape and life that is a coral reef. Each reef was an abode to a wide spectrum of marine life. Each cove had its speciality, one for viewing sharks, another for turtles, yet another for coral fish like the colourful parrot fish and the ever delightful little clown fish, made famous by Disney’s Nemo.
Thomas was the perfect host, and he added that the best was yet to come because the next day we would move on to Redang island for more snorkelling. I rubbed my hands in anticipation.
The next morning, we were in the same speed boat and I was in the same seat. The waves were coming in fast and furious and water came spraying into the boat hitting the passengers. The roller-coaster ride could have been exhilarating had I been in my teens...
The ride was longer and rougher than yesterday and I swore the boat sometimes flew. Boy, did I heave a sigh of relief when I saw Pulau Redang after almost an hour of physical abuse and torture.
The fine weather, white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue seas at Redang assured us that we were in for a good time. Soon, we went into the brilliant underwater world with a colourful array of marine life. There were large shoals of marine fish, including barracuda and grouper, a turtle now and then and mature coral gardens that really took my breath away.
After a hearty lunch, we left by boat for the Redang Marine Park. This time I made sure I booked my place next to the boatman (further towards the back where it’s less bumpy). What a relief. No more trauma on my already sore back.
The boat moored at the little jetty to let the passengers alight. Some headed immediately to feed the fish while the braver ones swam out to snorkel at a sunken wreck. A wide variety of marine fish in hues of red, green, yellow and blue immediately appeared in shoals to feed off the hands of the many snorkellers who thronged the place. Children shrieked in sheer delight as the fish nibbled at the morsels of food offered to them.
(Editor’s note: this fish feeding is fun, but it may disrupt the natural diet of marine life.)
There were more coral at the deeper end, but near the beach, the sand was littered with pieces of dead coral, a sign that something was not right. Fifteen to 20 years ago, the corals would have been in better condition before the advent of mass tourism.
After the marine park, our guide took us to another island. Here the corals were thriving with formations in all shapes and sizes, which were really captivating. It was very encouraging to see more marine life too, with clown fish of different sizes and colours.
Soon, we returned to Perhentian Besar. There, our final destination was a visit to Lata Air Berani which had a fresh water pool where snorkellers came to bathe. It was really refreshing as we poured bucket after bucket of cold water over our bodies. After the cleansing ritual, we headed back to the resort.
That evening we had a barbecued dinner consisting of chicken, cuttlefish, fish and veggies. After that we had a tongue-loosening session with our favourite “beverage”. There was good camaraderie and fellowship. It had been a day well spent.
The next morning we left for Kuala Besut, but not without one last bum-rattling ride. Before the islands disappeared into the horizon, I turned and whispered: “Enchanting and alluring Pulau Perhentian, see you again next year!”
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