Pioneer Traveller

Travel has always been a great passion for Mandy; along with scuba diving.

So it is always a pleasure to combine the two and go off to some exotic destination to dive.

In August I went with a party of friends to the remote island archipelago of Mabul, Sipidan and Kapalai off the coast of Northern Borneo to dive. Being the seasoned travel organiser that I am, I e-mailed the resort to let them know that I was in a wheelchair.

After nearly 24 hours of travel, we arrived at our tropical paradise. With much fanfare the manager came up to me and informed me that I had been assigned an “assistant” for the duration of my stay. Even though I was travelling with six other mates – and after assuring them that I was fine, I still had to have this gent who was stationed outside my chalet from sunrise and was happy to be there until I went to bed.

Extra Dive Master
I was also assigned an extra Dive Master to assist me underwater, even though I have 35 years diving experience! The assistants were initially difficult to accept as I live alone and have NO assistance whatsoever back home. It was also very disconcerting as I was with friends who PARTY hard, and I felt very uncomfortable having a couple of strangers hovering, waiting on my every whim, from assisting me up and down the stairs, helping me with my wetsuit, on and off the dive boats, and even to getting into the Jacuzzi with my mates!

The mates were sympathetic, as they know how fiercely I protect my independence, but they had to make me see that these men had been chosen to assist me, and that they probably felt special because of this. For half the trip we stayed in beach chalets with steps (no ramps), and the rest of the time in over-water bungalows (completely accessible). Yet my assistant was available for the entire stay!

Asia is a continent which is generally very shy about their own people with disabilities, and even though the resort had a 5-STAR rating, apparently I was their first guest to visit in a wheelchair! With reluctance I accepted my new above-water assistant, and instructed him that the last “end of the day” assist would be to my room for a shower before dinner. Then I settled into a routine.

Different creatures
Although the weather wasn’t as great as it’s supposed to be, the diving was fantastic as there were no high waves. Also, my usual one or two dives a day regimen went completely out of the window. We started with two morning dives back-to-back with a short break in between, then shot back to the resort for lunch. After that we were back in the water for dive three in the afternoon. Thankfully, with all the “assistance” hauling my wet wet-suit on and off, I was not as exhausted as I usually am! The stunning reefs teemed with so many different creatures that I didn’t want to miss out on a dive.

While diving around the island of Sipidan, we spent the compulsory between-dive sit times on the island having tea and snacks. Sipidan has been closed to tourists for stay-overs to preserve the rainforest, and the army now occupies the island and dive lodge. They have taped off a small portion of the beach including a wooden jetty which affords wonderful views of tropical fish in the clear shallows, just in case you haven’t had enough of the reefs!

The oil rig hotel off Mabul island was a terrible eyesore for us, but this was offset by the absolute delight of finding some pygmy sea horses in gorgonian fans on the reef beneath.The dive resort has an underwater cameraman who accompanies each dive boat out for a day, and films two of your dives. He then edits the footage to music, which is shown in the lounge that evening. If you like it you can order a DVD copy. This is really great for divers who don’t have underwater housings for their video cameras. I must say it’s funny to see yourself floating on a big screen, and as a disabled diver, I am instantly recognisable as I don’t wear fins!

My last dive was exceptional. My dive buddy and I were doing our 5-metre decompression stop, floating just off the reef watching the turtles take off and land on the coral wall. I felt a bump on my head. I thought it was my trusty Assistant Dive Master (who just tagged along behind me the entire ten days). But it was a large Orange Titan Trigger fish guarding his eggs! He felt threatened by us hanging around! As I watched, he came back for a second attack. I turned my back so that he didn’t go for my face - they have strong jaws. He latched onto the back of my arm and it felt like a terrier shaking me – Whew! My buddy grabbed me and towed me away. I didn’t want to swim using my arms in case the fish thought I was attacking him! We had a good laugh back on the boat, and I had a big black bruise for weeks!

All too soon it was time to come home, and I must say that I was quite sad to say goodbye to my “right-hand-men”. It took quite a bit of adjustment to do everything for myself again once I got back home. Even with all my experience travelling the world, I realise I will always be a bit of a pioneer when travelling with a disability.

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