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Jan 09

It was a dark and stormy night…

I wrote this last year and forgot about it until I just turned up the draft of it on my hard drive.

Pulau Redang is a tropical island off the east coast of Malaysia. The Berjaya conglomerate owns two resorts on the island: the beautiful Beach Resort and its demented step-child (what Berjaya calls the Spa Resort, except that the spas are actually all at the beach resort). Dave and I happened to be staying at the spa-less spa resort. When we stepped off the ferry, a courtesy bus was there to greet us. The bus was filled mostly with European couples with young kids in tow, young Malaysian couples… and us. We were not a couple. (If you must know, Dave had attempted to arrange for some female company but when he failed to deliver we decided to go anyway since the accommodation was, through some family connections, free.)

The bus’ first drop off point was the Spa Resort and we realized with dismay that we were the only people to get off. There was almost no one around the Spa Resort and it was virtually a wasteland. After we had dumped our stuff into our room, we made a beeline for the much more active Beach Resort, passing by a group of bewildered Singaporeans who also had the misfortune of booking themselves into the Spa Resort. “Wah lau, where are the bloody spas, wei?”

Redang is a segregated island. On the east coast there are a cluster of beachside resorts, restaurants and miscellaneous stalls and stores. At nighttime, things were much more active on the east coast. However, as there are no roads connecting the Berjaya properties to the east coast, the only way to move between the two is to take a boat ride, or a two hour trek through the jungle.

We weren’t about to go wading through the undergrowth in the pitch darkness, so the only real option was to take a boat. We ended up finding an old boatman by the wharf – weathered face, toothy grin and all – and chartered his boat. The boat was little more than a tin can with an outboard motor and tarp suspended over it by a few rusty metal poles, but it would do the trick.

There are no lights on Redang. There were no lights on boat either. After clambering onto the boat, the boatman apologized, saying he needed to procure a light for “safety reasons”. He steered the boat into the neighboring marina and plucked a light from a miscellaneous dinghy which may or may not have been his. Once the feebly blinking red light was affixed to the stern, we set off. The light wasn’t for navigation, it was to warn other boats cruising in the area not to run us over. It was dark and overcast – the sea, land and sky merged into one inky blob, but with practiced experience, our boatman steered us through the shallow waters and we arrived twenty minutes later.

We ate dinner and spent a few hours on the east coast and decided to return when we realized a storm was brewing. By the time we reached the dock the raindrops were the size of dollar coins and we found our boatman huddled under a makeshift corrugated iron shack. We didn’t even know if it was now possible to make it back in this weather, but obviously it wasn’t a problem as the boatman quickly bundled us onto the boat. I was seated at the front, looking towards the back. Dave was on the middle seat, facing me. The boatman was at the rear, manning the motor. We set off.

And it was terrible.

The sea had become incredibly choppy. It was pitch black, so we couldn’t see it, but we sure could feel it. Because the boatman seemed to be gunning the engine in an effort to get back as quickly as possible, he was taking each wave at speed. The boat would catch the crest of the wave, become airborne for a split second, plunge over the top and back into the water with a spine-shattering crunch. Every three seconds.

If visibility was bad before, it was non-existent in the driving rain and spray, which was now entering the boat horizontally, smashing like needles into my back and into Dave’s face. Lightning would occasionally flash, momentarily revealing the tumultuous ocean, the rocky shoreline and Dave’s visage, with was transfixed with a confused mixture of abject terror, pain and a look which said, “Hey this would actually be quite cool if we weren’t about to die.”

It was freezing and we were soon shivering uncontrollably. Meanwhile, our boatman was resolutely manning the till as if it were a cheery Sunday morning. In naught but a t-shirt and shorts, he was standing, one foot perched up on the side wall, one hand on his hip and the other loosely holding the till. He seemed to know where he was going even though we couldn’t see anything. But we needed only to run into some rocks and we’d be instantly stuffed.

Then out of the gloom, about ten metres away, the dim spectre of another boat just like ours emerged, travelling parallel and in the same direction as us. It was not carrying a safety light, not that it would have helped. I could barely see ours and I was only a couple of metres away from it. The lightning flashed once more and I could see four passengers cowering inside the boat, their positions identical to ours.

The boats sped alongside each other for a few seconds and I could hear some shouting over the whine of the engine and crashing of the waves.

And then we sped up. Dave and I exchanged horrified squints of “What the fuck?” and soon realized that the two boatmen had decided to race each other. It was a tough few minutes to endure.

By the time we arrived back on shore, we looked like a couple of drowned rats. I can’t say that I would do it again, but it was quite an experience.

  12:20pm (GMT -8.00)  •  Travel  •   •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment