We boarded a bus from the river camp area to Kota which took about 8 hours. Nice scenery en-route. It passed ok considering this was a bus journey and not a day train or sleeper train but getting into Kota seemed a nightmare. Queues on every entry point to the city seemed either blocked or queued up to the hilt - not what you want after being on the road for so long. Eventually the driver turned around and tried another route, then another before eventually we got here. Floods apparantly!
We hooked up with another pair of travellers to share the taxi fee before checking in at our central hostel, Tropicana Lodge. Although the reviews were not great from the guidebook, there were brilliant online reviews of the owner Vincent.
We arrived and got chatting to Vincent very quickly. I found him quite a character - cheeky, witty with good English. He told us a lot about his country and business and various trips he can arrange. This is what he is known for! We discussed going up to the mountain, crocodile hunting, barbecues on the beach, trips out on his 4x4 the list goes on! but very soon after his hostel was alive with other travellers and which lead to an entire day of drinking tea and chatting to vincent and all these other backpackers. It really was quite a rare thing as everyone I liked and everyone had something interesting to say... The hostel is small and very quickly you get chatting through the entire day as people come and go. Before we knew it about 6 of us were out drinking and eating good food in the centre listening to a band outside. It was fantastic!
Everyone we met had just come from the Philippines where we would be heading and so it was an ample opportunity to memorise as many tips and info as we could.
The hostel stayed like that for a few days - this particular group we really got on with but as with these things, travellers come and go, and these 6 people (3 separate pairs (A couple from Alaska-v interesting!) all moved on after a few days. I enjoyed it whilst it lasted though. Despite new travellers arriving that were more annoying than entertaining, we still had Vincent who amused us beyond belief. Starting the day with a few cans of beer and a few bifters he would just sit in his chair entertaining us about his dive experiences, or trying to get us on some trip or other (but not in a pushy kind of way)!. We discussed the various options - especially the mountain but in the end we decided to slack this off. The mountain, the highest in south east asia is owned by the park authority which insist on every traveller to have a guide, permit, accommodation and meals all bought in a package which can cost well over a 100quid. It just didn't seem worth it - especially with my knees on the killer descent (a 10 hour day) and a 2am start to reach the summit by sunrise (if your lucky to get to the top without cloud cover).
Instead we decided to relax in Kota Kinabalu - the hostel itself was a very amusing place - Vincent, the travellers and the ease of its location - close to very western resturants and bars - the first we have seen since Australia. How nice to just stroll 10 minutes and sit at a clean table with a western menu (cheap pizza and pasta, salads and sarnies with no mutton curries, or rice laksas!)
Kota Kinabalu is quite a wealthy city, the capital of Sabah although nothing like as big as Kuala Lumpur. Its got a town feel and is quite compact to get around. Although nothing to see specifically within the town its a good base for exploring the surrounding areas (especially the mountain). It was good for us to eat some decent food and have a laugh with people. We also made the decision to attempt the PADI Open Water Course for Diver certification (qualifiying you to dive worldwide anywhere once you are qualified). As with the rest of Asia it is dirt cheap here - ranging between 150 and 200 quid for a 4 day Open Water course.
The PADI Open Water saga
Obviously deciding to enrol on a course over here requires a few more checks than in the UK. a) That it is a certified PADI training centre b) That the instructors are teaching you (not some unqualified guide) and c) that their English is sufficient to understand their instructions.
We completed all these checks and additional checks such as local reviews on the internet, chatting to above-mentioned travellers (one of which an instructor herself) who also recommended our particular choice. In addition the centre was a 5 star rated diving centre - which should re-assure anyone even more for certain minimum standards in their training.
We shopped around also comparing prices - although this place 'Borneo Divers' wasn't the cheapest they were mid-ranged and long established for 20 years.
We tried going via Vincent originally who recommended a couple of places (he too an experienced Dive master) but this didn't work out. He agreed that Borneo Divers was ok.
Anyway! We ended up starting the course and successfully completing the theory aspects. Unfortunately, and VERY unluckily, we encountered on a 'confined water' session (still in the sea - off a lovely Island near KK) the most deadly marine creature in existence.
We met our instructor on the island who showed us our gear and got us suited and booted in our diving gear. May, then guided us to the shallow waters off the island. Only B and me in the group this seemed too good to be true, and indeed it was. May was excellent in her tuition and clearly and slowly showed us the techniques. We would imitate hers and practise before having to repeat the skill underwater.
We completed the skills for 'confined waters dive 1 +2' practising skills such as mask flood (removing the mask and recovery), recovery of regulator etc). Other exercises included her turning off our oxygen supply and having to breath without mask for 1 minute. We both found this a challenge - especially the total mask removal as the salt water would rush up the nose canal and threaten to go down the throat. The art is to remember to breath through the regulator whilst breathing out through the nose (hence preventing the water to enter into your nose). It all feels strange and is disorientating as the whole thing has to happen with your eyes closed. We successfully completed this! She then got us to swim a little out to sea so the depth increased a little. May then pointed to a jelly fish on the floor bottom. I looked at it with intrigue thinking 'wow! look at that scribble! all those tenticles!'. We casually completed the brief swim and got back to shore to have dinner. I casually mentioned the jelly fish and she tensed her mouth and said 'oh yes!' (looking up to the sky) 'box jelly fish, boxjellyfish)
I gasped internally and with disbelief! How could this be! we avoid Australia like the plague so we don't swim with these things, and then blisfully unaware I swim right over one.
We observed a warning sign for jelly fish on the beach but little realising this was meant for the box jelly. We asked her if there were more in the area and she said there were (including telling us someone had got stung 2 days before and a boys death on the island!).
We immediately contacted PADI who told us that really we should be wearing long length stinger suits. We asked the dive centre the next day who said they couldn't provide them. In addition our instructor was so uneasy with their presence she did not want us to conduct our 300 metre swim test for the same reason (which remains a compulsory part of the course).
So! After all our checks we end up having to pull out as we both are too afraid of the sea! Even the divemaster a.k.a Vincent told us that the fish come to the shore to die and are present at this time of year - a danger to familes and snorkellers who we saw swimming blissfully unaware of the dangers.
I spoke to PADI twice. The second time was more successful as the lady actually listened to what I was saying and was concerned that they were not made aware of the 'events' on the island. The first guy I spoke to was a twat who kept insisting that Box jellyfish only exist in Australia. Its all over the net - they are on the move, and sitings have been seen in Thailand and elsewhere.
We therfore leave Kota kinabalu beered up, pizza'd up but unqualified as yet! We passed our exam which we completed on the beach yesterday (after lots of self quizes and tests). We have been signed off 2 of the 5 confined water sessions. We need to do the other 3 and all 4 Open water dives.
We have identified another 5 star dive centre in Philappines. I hope they say they have had no sitings of the Box Jelly..and /or have long suits...
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