Tioman Island: a dreamy, tiny spec off the east coast of Malaysia in the South China Sea, and the location depicted as Bali Hai in the film South Pacific. We booked a weekend getaway with friends and headed for the airport on Friday morning.
We boarded Berjaya Air’s prop plane and, in a brief instance of foreshadowing, I overheard a man seated nearby telling his fellow passenger that the runway at Tioman Island was one of the top ten most dangerous in the world. Having twice flown into the airport in Lukla, Nepal I didn’t think landing on a tropical island would be much to worry about. The Lukla runway awaits you at 8,000+ feet (the highest in the world), with a cliff at one end and a mountain at the other and a very short 12% incline in between. When I landed there the first time in 2000, the runway hadn’t even been paved. Landing is scary enough, but taking off is just as precarious as you hope to your God that your plane achieves lift before plunging over the cliff into the Himalayan crevasse below. So… Tioman? No problem.
Three of us were seated in rows 1 and 2 — at the front of the airplane in the only two rows on the plane that faced each other. I was seated in row 1 with my back to the cockpit looking toward the other people in the cabin. Halfway through the flight I realized that through the wall behind me I could hear much of the chatter in the cockpit. After an uneventful flight and lots of conversation amongst ourselves about the islands passing below us, we began our descent and approached Tioman. Seated backwards, I couldn’t see the airport or the landing strip but I did have a perfect view of the landing gear.
Take 1. Landing gear out, down we go, turn to the right, fishtail in the wind… abort! Landing gear up, nose up, turn to the right, flying over the ocean, silence. Glances to the left and right between passengers wondering what’s going on. Rise, rise, rise, loud engine, level out, quiet engine, gentle turn to the right, looks like we’re heading back toward Tioman.
Take 2. Landing gear out, down we go, turn to the right, fishtail in the wind… abort! Landing gear up, nose up, turn to the right, back out over the ocean, silence. Panicked glances to the left and right between passengers wondering what’s going on. Rise, rise, rise, loud engine, level out, quiet engine, landing gear down, landing gear back up. Are we crashing? Pilot on the intercom: mumbo jumbo blah blah something about strong winds but no further information. Looks like we’re heading back toward Tioman.
Take 3. Landing gear out, down we go, turn to the right, fishtail in the wind… abort! Landing gear up, nose up, turn to the right, back out over the ocean, silence. Lots of eye rolling, a few nervous laughs in the cabin, people sweating. Starting to feel sick and like I may never see land again. Is this normal? How many times before we give up and head back to Singapore? Looks like we’re heading back toward Tioman.
Take 4. Landing gear out, down we go, turn to the right, fishtail in the wind… abort! Landing gear up, nose up, turn to the right, back out over the ocean, silence. Frowning, going to my inner quiet place, beginning to recite the Tibetan prayer Om Mani Padme Hum. Are we going to die? Will we get our money back for this? Need to go back to the budget terminal and demand it. Never going to Tioman Island again. Looks like we’re heading back toward Tioman Island.
Take 5. Landing gear out, down we go, turn to the right, fishtail in the wind… abort! Landing gear up, nose up, turn to the right. Anger. How many people want to go back to Singapore? Can we take a poll and storm the cockpit? Is there a ferry we can take? Are we going to die? Do we have enough gas to make it back to Singapore? What else is there to do in Singapore this weekend? Maybe we should just go to the spa.
It’s interesting how fear of the unknown (and no further information from the pilot) causes one’s mind to flip back and forth between the ordinary and the worst case scenario. Part of the fun of travel is just that — the unknown. But occasionally the unknown becomes the seemingly dire, inevitable conclusion that your luck has finally run out, the odds are no longer in your favor and on this flight, on this journey there are bad consequences ahead. How quickly my mind had raced to that conclusion, ready to brace for impact, even while sitting upright amidst relative stability. But the pilot was obviously experienced — choosing NOT to land FIVE times rather than trying to land one time in the wrong conditions. Get a grip! You are going to live through this.
And then, through the cockpit wall just as we begin to head back out over the ocean for the fifth time, we hear… “OKEY! OKEY! OKEY!”
Take 6. Fast, hard right turn back around toward the mountain!! Landing gear out!! Descend!! Hard right turn to the runway!! Less wind!! Less fishtail!! Drop!! Land ho, wheeeeee, release the sphincter, wipe the brow, smile, GET ME A FUCKING COCKTAIL. And that’s how our vacation began.
As there are no roads on Tioman, we were picked up by speedboat and whisked off to Minang Cove Resort at the southern tip of the island where Tioman’s geology is ever-present. Legend has it that the rocky formations on Tioman Island are a sleeping dragon — a Chinese dragon princess, on the way to see her prince in Singapore, stopped here to rest and never left. We stopped here to rest in our beach-front rooms with adjoined balcony overlooking the ocean. Awesome!
Saturday we walked from Minang Cove to the village of Mukut and its refreshing waterfall. Although the path was concrete most of the way, it was a typical jungle hike — hot, sweaty, slightly uncomfortable (or maybe it was just me). We were caught briefly in a tropical torrential downpour but stripped down to our bathing suits, took cover under a tree, waited it out and kept going. This island is moody — continually changing weather, dark storms, aborted landings, bright sun and swirling mist around the mountains like a King Kong movie set. The rock climbing looks to be pretty epic — if you can get to it, that is. Myriad colorful trees, plants and flowers strangle the island in an impenetrable jungle. The waterfall was a welcome relief after a long walk — deep pools, cold water and even a couple of turtles.
It was low-tide when we returned to Mukut — a tiny fishing village with a seaside “cafe” and a few huts where you could stay the night. The nasi goreng and bee hoon were tasty — prepared in a rustic kitchen over the water.
At night we were treated to distant lightning storms, a full moon rising, beers on the jetty and a seafood barbecue as good as any in the world. Chicken, shrimp, squid, mackerel and whole crabs were masterfully grilled and perfectly spiced with red chili, tamarind, ginger and garlic. After five attempted landings and successfully touching down, it’s hard to say if we’ll go back to Tioman Island — but the Minang Cove barbecue might just be worth it.